Antonella Monzoni: An Intimate Portrait of Madame

Antonella Monzoni began to take pictures in 2000 at the age of 40. She has spent the past decade teaching herself photography by studying the books of photographers and teachers. Antonella has been concentrating on reportage photography and photojournalism or, as she describes them, meeting pictures. Her openness, fearlessness and sense of urgency to connect with her subjects has helped Antonella build an award-winning body of work. After some convincing and several meetings, Antonella and her camera were finally granted access to the home of the reclusive Madame Henriette Niecpe. Her images of Henriette Niepce in “Madame” earned her the Mario Giacomelli Award in 2007 and her work was subsequently published in PHotoEspaña 2008 in the Descubrimientos section. Here, Antonella shares the story of how she learned photography and how photography taught her understand herself.

Q: What camera and equipment do you use?

A: For film I use a Leica M7 with a 35mm f/2 Summicron lens. For digital photos, I used an Olympus E-520 DSLR until last December, but have since switched to an Olympus Pen E-P2 with 17mm and 25mm lenses.

Q: Can you tell us a little bit about your recent projects using Leica cameras?

A: I have used my Leica camera for “Madame.” Madame was Henriette Niepce, the great-granddaughter of Nicephore Niepce who is generally recognized as the inventor of photography, the first wife of the film director Gillo Pontecorvo and the sister of the famous Janine who was a photo reporter for the Rapho agency. She allowed very few people to visit her. She had trouble walking and suffered from a weak heart. She preferred to live alone in the old family home, surrounded by vineyards, in Rully, in Burgundy, where time seems to have stood still. She never goes out, the windows were always closed and the rooms were dark and poorly illuminated by lamps. She didn’t want any people in the house, not even a femme de ménage. I was able to meet her thanks to the good offices of her personal doctor, François, her guardian angel, but I wasn’t allowed to photograph her until we had met several times. Madame Henriette was a painter who hasn’t painted anything for years. She attended the École Nationale supérieure des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, but her abstract paintings were exhibited only one time, in 1995 in Chalon-sur-Saône. She was a very beautiful woman, as attested by the portraits done by her sister. She was an inspired freedom fighter, combating side-by-side with her husband, Gillo Pontecorvo, participating in the anti-fascist resistance struggle in Milan. Madame died last September at the age of 94.

Q: How did you first become interested in Leica?

A: I became interested in Leica thanks to Gianni Berengo Gardin, the great Italian photographer, who told me about Leica and his love for it.

Q: How would you describe your photography?

A: As simple, sensitive and true photography characterized by a total respect for others, that is the people I meet.

Q: Were you a serious enthusiast before going pro? What made you decide to go pro?

A: I don’t feel that I am a pro because always approach every picture I take as though it was my first, with total emotional openness and fearlessness.

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

A: Photography came to me relatively late in life, ten years ago when I was 40 years old. At 40 a woman changes and many important things in life are open for discussion and in a state of flux. At that point I decided dedicate my free time to photography. I’m totally self-taught and photography helped me very much to know myself and to really understand human relationships for the first time.

Q: Did you have any formal education in photography or with a mentor? Was there a photographer or type of photography that influenced your work or inspired you?

A: As I said, I’m self-taught. I studied photography from some of the world’s greatest photographers and teachers through their books — people like Henri Cartier-Bresson, Mario Giacomelli, William Klein and so on. I also learned a lot by visiting photo exhibitions in Italy, France and Spain. I have loved reportage and photojournalism from the very beginning.

Q: What genre are your photos? Would you describe them as fine art, photojournalism, portraiture, street photography, etc.?

A: I would call them humanist photojournalism. I work in black-and-white and in color and I prefer strong contrasts and saturated colors. In my recent photographic work, I’ve been very interested in cultural production about memory. I’m constantly in search of symbols, stories and signs that reveal these things.

Q: What approach do you take with your photography or what does photography mean to you?

A: Photography means everything. It’s not just technique; my purpose is to understand myself, to understand the direction in which I am going and I’m sure that photography has helped me and is still helping me to do so. A basic aspect that I invariably find particulary striking is the mutual confidence that is engendered during photographic act. My reportage pictures are just meeting pictures, images of mutual acceptance, very simple acts produced, above all, out of a sense of urgency to comunicate and connect.

-Leica Internet Team

You can see more of Antonella’s work on her website http://www.antonellamonzoni.it/.