Born in Italy in 1977, Pietro Baroni studied natural science at university before discovering his passion for photography. Now a Leica Camera Ambassador, the Milan-based photographer is devoted to exploring social and gender-related issues through photography. Spoken like a scientist at heart, he states that his artistic “research” investigates the concept of the self, exploring the relationship between people and the world around them. His primary medium is photography but he also works with video, installations and mixed media to question and reveal the notion of identity and its inseparable ties to the body and the depths of human emotion. In addition to his artistic work, Pietro also works on editorial assignments and has contributed to various publications. If he could live a different life, he would chose to be an extreme mountain climber, pushing his mental and physical limits in the pursuit of discovery. The following series of monochrome portraits, shot with the Leica S, is titled “J’ai plus de souvenirs que si J’avais mille ans” or “I Have More Memories Than If I Were a Thousand Years Old” and is a reference to the French author Charles Baudelaire. The portraits themselves are intimate attempts to capture the unspeakable thoughts and feelings, which all humans have, yet which, for one reason or another, we refuse to share with the world around us. The series won an honorable mention at the International Photographer of the Year Awards in the People Portrait Category 2017 and the project led to Pietro being selected as one of 50 emerging photographers of the year by LensCulture. We spoke with the amiable, young photographer to find out how he created the unique aesthetic of these black and white portraits and how he went about attempting to bring out the unspeakable in his subjects.
How did you first get into photography? And who or what has influenced you the most?
I got interested in photography for the first time when I was 15 years old, as soon as my grandfather gave me his old camera. I immediately became so fascinated by the concept, that as you change the time of exposure and aperture, the camera is exposed to light in a different way, and so is the film. It’s pure magic, to me.
I was influenced by great reportage photographers like Steve McCurry and Sabastião Salgado. They taught me to see the world differently, inspiring me to explore the great outdoors and nature’s beauty.
Having studied Natural Sciences, the humanistic and sociological focus of your photography seems like a move in a rather different direction. How did this come about?
I’m always eager to learn and discover new things. When I discovered the power of contemporary art, and its role in interpreting the world, I realized that my career would never be confined to a university. I soon started considering photography as a tool to depict humanity, as well as express personal sentiments and our relationship to our selves and to others. I constantly draw inspiration from my journeys, books and personal encounters. I believe, as a photographer, I need to keep my mind open and affect society without reflecting a political opinion. I aim to describe our communities, encouraging people to reflect on my work and yet preserve my artistic identity.
This award-winning series is titled “I Have More Memories Than If I Were a Thousand Years Old”. Where does this title come from? And how does it relate to the series of portraits?
The title comes from Baudelaire’s “Les Fleurs du mal/Spleen”. It’s a collection of poems, that I think better describes what we all have in common: many emotions that are so intense, primitive and challenging, that you feel you have lived more than your chronological age. Sometimes we don’t accept our inner self-image, we are scared of it, we are afraid of looking at it. We feel like some emotions are part of someone else, but it’s not so. We are simply terrified of something that seems to be part of a distant past and maybe it even is.
What were you trying to show with these portraits?
I tried to show that, which usually we are not able to see. The unspeakable thoughts that we are afraid of, the ones that we don’t want the world to see, the kind of things that Lars Von Trier shows us in his movies. As human being, these thoughts are also part of us. Yet when these emotions disturb us, they shake us, or they destroy the social mask that we usually wear and we try to suppress them.
Who are the people you photographed? And how did you go about finding them?
As I usually do for my projects, I posted a request via my social media accounts and I asked my followers to take part in a new project that involved a portrait. I received replies from friends, friends of friends and complete strangers.
The highly intimate nature of these images, suggests that you had to overcome the challenge of building trust between you and your protagonists. How did you manage to achieve this? What kind of direction did you give?
It was undoubtedly a great challenge to create a situation of trust during the shootings. That is why I ended up carrying out the shoots in a private house, instead of a photography studio, in order to create an intimate environment. I also made sure that there was a comfortable room temperature of about 23 °C, to make anyone feel comfortable when not wearing a shirt. Then it was just me and my lights/flashes, no assistant. A final crucial component was time. I took a lot of time to shoot and work towards a genuine feeling of empathy, in some cases up to one hour if needed. I asked the participants to try to access and get in touch with their inner emotions, their unspeakable thoughts and try to show me. It was also very hard for me too, as in some ways I started to feel that, which they were feeling. A kind of strong psychoanalytic experience, even though my subjects were never asked to reveal their unspeakable thoughts, nor was I ever told what it was that they were thinking during the shoot. The unspeakable thoughts remained unspoken.
How did you go about creating the unique look of this series, bringing out the detailed skin textures?
I chose to use a green filter, which once combined with the white and black ones, highlights the skin’s blemishes. The visual metaphor I wanted to achieve is that our unspeakable thoughts are with us every day, even if no one else is able to see or perceive them. Hidden within our soul, we carry them with us. I tried to make them visible.
How did the visual aesthetic relate to the theme of the series?
I believe that the intimacy of a work can be perceived by a glance, a widened or closed nostril, some wrinkles of the skin or from isolation – a kind of meditative state – that I chose for this project. You feel that the protagonists are here, right now, with their thoughts.
Which camera did you shoot the series with? And can you tell us about the set up you used?
I used a Leica S with Summarit-S 70mm f/2.5 ASPH. A superb camera to capture the skin’s details, thanks to its medium-format sensor. I used two frontal flashlights and banks, to achieve smooth light.
When did you first start shooting with Leica cameras? And what was it that made you choose Leica?
I started shooting with Leica a few years ago, when I realized that the quality of the files, the simplicity of the camera and the speed of use, cannot be compared to other brands. The tri-dimensionality of Leica’s files is sublime, and essential for a photographer working on portraits and landscape.
Apart from your successful commercial projects, do you have any personal projects you are working on currently or that we can look forward to seeing from you in the future?
I’m now working on a project related to fatherhood, that will be exhibited in Milan next June, as well a portrait project that could become part of a wider campaign to end violence against women, an issue that I have been passionate about for several years now.
What advice would you offer to anyone looking to improve their portrait photography?
The most important thing is to be curious and try to use photography as an instrument to describe both the inner and external world. The most important components of any story are your own intuitions and convictions. Then comes the technique. If you cannot find what it is you want to say, you have to stop and listen to yourself.