Alvise Zambon: The Shape of New York

An emerging young photographer who studied the History of Photography from the University of Padua, Italy, Alvise Zambon assigned himself the formidable task of capturing the heart of New York City in a portfolio of images that combine the genres of photojournalism and fine art photography. “For this reportage I worked with my Leica M6 to catch the real essence of New York,“ he explains. “I’m not sure that the real essence of a great city can be really touched, but that’s what I tried to achieve. New York is a multi-faceted city, and its cosmopolitism has been the central focus of this project.” Here’s the story of his excellent adventure and his thoughtful views on the creative process of photography.

Q: You mentioned that you used your Leica M6 during your recent New York City project. What lenses did you use?

A: The basic ones, a 50mm f/2 Summicron, 90mm Elmar-C, and the 28mm f/2.8 Elmarit. I decided not to buy wider lenses because these were the focal lengths traditionally used in photojournalism and I wanted to be in touch with this kind of historical perspective. Moreover, Leica M cameras have some limitations that are, in fact, points of strength (the rangefinder, the difficulty of focusing close). As a result the photographer has the opportunity to think more deeply, to compose elegant shots without the obtrusiveness of a telephoto lens or the often-abused distortion of wide-angles. These days when anybody can shoot (with mobile phones or tablets), a photo must be spectacular and extraordinary to be appealing. It’s therefore quite hard for me to make a good shot that also has a classic character.

Q: What advantages and/or challenges did you encounter using a film camera, namely the M6, while shooting in New York?

A: I learned to shoot on film — that’s the short answer. And I can’t see any other way to make photographs without silver nitrate. However, philosophically speaking, if you shoot film you’ve got the opportunity to develop a better “forma mentis” because you have to preconceive the photo you’re going to take in your mind. It’s like studying Ancient Greek — it simply opens your mind.

Digital photography gives you countless opportunities to make better shots and it offers greater advantages — that’s simply an empirical fact. You shoot interiors without pulling the film during processing, you can retouch your images as you wish without chemicals, you can shoot a picture and send it via e-mail to the opposite side of the world in seconds. Those opportunities sometimes cause you to drift you away from that “forma mentis”. What’s simpler is not always better.

Q: Several of your shots from New York were taken at varied angles (looking down onto the street corner, looking up at the Guggenheim). Was this something you set out to do? Also, how did you accomplish those shots?

A: Nothing was planned in advance. I tried several times, long before traveling, to imagine in which way I would be able to handle New York from the point of view of my camera. I didn’t find any solutions because New York was too new for me to deal with. Once I arrived in town, it took me about four or five days to start shooting. I needed to find some rules, some common ideas to structure my reportage. New York is both enormous and human friendly, full of geometrical skyscrapers and people walking fast through the streets. “That’s the way I should work”, I told myself, and that’s what I’ve done.

Looking back at those pictures, there’s also a historical perspective that you should consider. In Italy, photography as an art exploded after World War II. The greatest Italian photographers during ‘40s, ‘50s and mid-‘60s used to shoot from unusual points of view to enhance geometrical forms they saw in the ordinary life. Their idea of photography was to capture the natural geometry of a building, of a street, of a city. Ordinary life is not only geometry, but also humanity. That’s the reason they typically included people inside this geometry. In a certain sense I rediscovered these old models and I applied them to a completely different background, namely modern day New York City. The most curious fact is that I didn’t plan it. It came about naturally, by itself.

You’re asking me how I accomplished those shots. Well, a high vantage point certainly helped. One of the pictures was shot from the interior of the Leica Gallery building, on Broadway, another one from the top floor of the Time- Warner Center at Columbus Circle.

Q: We noticed that most of your shots do not show the subjects’ faces clearly; they are in some way obscured, blurry or taken from the back. Was this intentional?

A: In a certain way it was. When you’re shooting a portrait you must create a good relationship with the person in front of your camera, but you can’t shoot portraits of people from the crosswalk at 108th street and Central Park West very effectively. It will always just be a person crossing a street.

Q: Your picture of two tilting skyscrapers with a band of blue sky in between is fascinating. Can you tell us something about why you shot this picture and what it means to you?

A: It represents a man and his sensations while looking up to the NYC sky. Recalling what that sensation was for me, I really don’t believe I felt anything in particular: no sense of sublime nor the common sense of astonishment a man feels in front of such unbelievable product of engineering. I felt normal, being interested only in the geometry created by that particular point of view.

Q: There is a strong abstract design element in many of your pictures such as your high-angle image of a street crosswalk and your picture of crossing trolley tracks, and several others shot from high above. Can you tell us something about this and do you think it is an important part of your photographic technique?

A: The abstract element is a crucial point for me while I’m shooting. The camera helps me to capture that part of our rational world that’s full of geometrical designs which are often hardly noticed, but paradoxically help me to link my images with the inner essence of humanity.

Q: You said, “I’m not sure that the real essence of a city can be really touched.” What do you think the essence of New York is and do you think you managed to capture it?

A: I don’t know exactly. I mean, I tried to and I shot from different points of view (in every sense, especially geographical and philosophical), but probably what’s in my picture only captures the surface reality. From my point of view, this reportage is still incomplete, and it can probably never be as complete as I want it to be.

Q: How was shooting in New York different from your photographic work when you’re home in Italy?

A: Actually, shooting my hometown is the hardest experience one could imagine. I live in Venice and that’s the reason why. I’ve shot tons of pictures in Venice, but it’s too complicated to collect them into an organic reportage. It’s a city that’s been over-photographed since the invention of photography. Both common people and professionals are still shooting the same pictures every day and that’s frustrating. I need to find a key to capture it, a different way that’s beyond rhetoric or banality. Unfortunately, I haven’t found that key yet.

A few weeks ago I saw an exhibition linked to the Biennale, in which six or seven very famous photographers shot a numerous pictures using different sensibilities and techniques. It was entitled “the Real Venice”, but not one of those famous professionals were able to capture the city in the right way; they shot only pictures appropriate for postcards. So, I’ll have a long way to go until my pictures of Venice coincide with my idea of Venice.

Q: When did you first become interested in photography as a mode of expression, an art form, or as a profession?

A: I was quite young, probably no more than six or seven. My grandpa was an amateur photographer with an interesting collection of old cameras. My favorite toy was a 9x12cm view-camera called “Contessa” from the early 20th century. Then, during high school, I concentrated on music and literature. During my first year at the University, I rediscovered photography. I think I inherited the historical perspective from my grandpa and I do have a collection of historical cameras.

Q: Do you think your interest in classic cameras helped to spark your interest in the Leica or was it primarily the work of the great Leica photojournalists?

A: Both. The Leica M was an avant-garde camera, when it was designed in ‘50s, and even in the 21st century it maintains a  high standard. A photographer needs certainty while shooting because a camera is the extension of his eye and therefore of his own intimacy and soul. I think that was exactly what the great photographers thought while choosing a Leica for their work — that feeling of certainty it gives you.

Q: Is there a photographer or type of photography that influenced your work or inspired you?

A: First, I must say it was my grandpa’s shots. He did some good pictures during the ‘60s, but no one besides my relatives and I have seen them. That’s a problem with of a lot of good pictures by amateur photographers. I also have a passion for the ‘50s Italian shooters: Gianni Berengo-Gardin, for example, and the early Fulvio Roiter. Those pictures are so poetic; you can see the enthusiasm they had while shooting. They were idealistic and thought the world could have been a better place. They were stimulated by an intellectual curiosity that gave them the opportunity to be true masters without even having any specific knowledge on what photography was.

Q: How did you first become interested in the Leica?

A: I own a number of different cameras, both single-lens-reflex and twin-lens-reflex and I wanted a third point of view. I do also own a Leica R4 with a 50mm f/2 Summicron-R lens; it was a gift I received for graduation. Once I tried the M6 I fell in love with it and I bought it. My M6 has a very distinctive olive-green leather finish, so it’s my special camera. Nobody else has one just like it.

-Leica Internet Team

You can see more of Alvise’s photos on Flickr, www.flickr.com/photos/47652366@N06.