Luciano Checco: Ars Gratia Artis

Born in Aosta, a small town in northern Italy about 40km from Mont Blanc, Luciano Checco is currently Vice President of a German company that supplies equipment to the oil and gas industry. He studied medicine at university, and while attending college he also did some wedding photography and worked as part-time TV cameraman, experiences that have helped kindle his passion for photography. “You cannot afford to make mistakes when shooting a wedding; expectations are high, and understanding the taste of the client is crucial,” recalls Checco. “Nevertheless, I have always mixed the official photos with images of a more photojournalistic style.”

“Anyway, after working in TV I started making my own furniture as a hobby, but friends who saw my work liked it so much they began asking me to make pieces for them. That’s how I became a full-time furniture maker, leaving my parents astonished. A year of university studies to end up being a carpenter! Ten years later I received a proposal from the largest Italian company producing woodworking machines to work for them as their sales representative in Asia. I took up the challenge and a few years later moved to Singapore where I still live. Going forward, the countries I plan to visit with my cameras include Bangladesh, Afghanistan, and Mongolia. Finally I must offer my heartfelt thanks to Mathias Heng, the Leica Academy Director in Singapore, who has encouraged me to make my first exhibition. Without him my photos would still be in the box!”

Here is the story of a brilliant and unpretentious photographer that pursues the fine art of photojournalism not for fame or glory, but for its own sake.

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

A: It’s a way of fixing the time that passes by, capturing moments that are easily forgotten, recording the mix of the emotions of the subject and mine at the moment I press the shutter release. Moving around taking pictures brings me into a different dimension of concentration and attention in looking at the things that surround me.

I would say that for me a camera is a notepad. I register moments, emotions and reminiscences. It’s a way of talking about myself through the images that I am taking, a way of leaving memories about my life and me.

Q: You are having an exhibition at Leica Store in Singapore starting August 16, can you tell us a bit about the show?

A: The title is “fotografare” or “Photographing” in English. The title is the name of the magazine that I began reading 45 years ago and is still published in Italy.

All photos are in black-and-white taken with the variety of Leica cameras I have: M6, M7, M9, and M Monochrom. All images are printed personally on fiber-base silver coated paper. All photos are glazed (ferrotyped glossy prints) to render a wider tone range. The exhibition will run for two months.

Q: You mention that your “vision of the world in black-and-white” has not changed over the years. What are some of the technical and aesthetic characteristics of the black-and-white medium that you find compelling and how do they influence your creative process?

A: I started shooting film when I was young, living in a small town close to the Mont Blanc. There was no photo shop there that developed color film, so shooting black- and-white was the fastest way to see the results. At that that time I joined a photography club so I could use the available darkroom.

I believe that black-and-white photos are abstracts of reality that transport the focus of the viewer toward the essential elements of the subject and the overall graphic composition of the image itself. To me colors are distracting and clearly define the age of the photo whereas black-and-white photos are timeless. In my portfolio there are photos taken over a period of 13 years starting with pictures taken with a Leica M6 on Kodak Tri-X to the latest ones made using the Leica Monochrom. I can display those photos next to each other, film and digital, without any major visible differences between them. This would be virtually impossible if the photos were in color. Another issue with the color film is that the colors shift and fade over time.

Q: You shoot with both 35 mm film and digital Leica M cameras and output your work as fiber-based prints that are “glazed”. Is there any difference in your experience between shooting film and digital, and with the M Monochrom as opposed to the M9? How do you decide which Leica M to use for a specific subject or is the choice purely subjective?

A: I ferrotype the prints after washing them, and in this way I get an extended grey tone range with deep blacks and whites that pop, a kind of 3-dimensional effect that gives added depth to the picture.

I still prefer the results that film can produce. I’m not sure why, but with film even in the areas that might be overexposed, when I’m printing I can still find some information that with digital would be totally blown out. Another difference that I have noticed is that if a photo taken with film is slightly out of focus, the result is still acceptable. If you look at some of the photos by Robert Capa, such as those of the Normandy Invasion the photos are surely technically far from perfect but still able to convey even more forcefully the feelings of that moment. If you look at a digital photo you immediately enlarge it at 100% and if it’s not sharp you reject it.

To be honest I now use digital cameras more often than film cameras, and convenience is the key word. While the M9, with its known limitations due to the CCD sensor, did not give any great advantage to my photography compared with film when pushing the sensitivity above ISO 800 (despite producing great B&W files in RAW), the Monochrom with the amazing low noise at high ISOs has opened up new possibilities that had never been viable with films pushed at ISO 6400. Today I use the Monochrom most of the time.

Q: There is indeed a photojournalistic quality to many of the images in your portfolio, but also a level of heightened reality with many curious, unexpected, and amusing juxtapositions. Do you specifically look for such things and what do you think this says about the texture of the reality you are presenting to the viewer?

A: When I take photos of people, before taking the shot I do a quick and intense analysis of the subject and the background. In those seconds I try to understand if the subject is friendly and willing to be photographed. After this I make eye contact with the subject to confirm whether he or she agrees to be my subject or not. It’s an intense level of communication and information sharing that might be measured in just a few seconds. I do not want the subject to change expression and pose, so it’s a kind of magnetic field between the two of us.

Q: There is a strong emotional component to these images that generate feelings from amusement and joy to desperation and despair. Do you yourself experience these emotions while you press the shutter release, and is it your intention that those viewing these images do likewise?

A: Yes, I am very much affected by what I am shooting, I do respect the people I am photographing, and the moment they show any uneasiness I move the camera down from my eye and give them a friendly smile. I am not really thinking of the viewers, since for me photography is more within myself.

Q: This image with a flock of pigeons and young women with umbrellas certainly has an antic and surreal quality. What does this picture say to you and what were you thinking when you took the shot?

A: The girls are sex workers in Geylang, the red light district in Singapore, who were smiling at me. The lens I used is an old 35 mm Summicron with seven elements that was not able to handle the strong backlight, and that’s what creates the rays moving across the girls. The pigeons were eating on the ground and to create some movement I stomped my foot loudly to make them fly off.

Q: The above image certainly captures the essence of rejection of the social order, especially with what look like a Gothic church in the background, which is gorgeously out of focus. Where did you take this shot, and which lens and aperture did you use to achieve this effect?

A: The photo was taken in Cologne during photokina. It was the first time I visited the city and the show, so once I arrived I walked around in front of the Dom, the great cathedral, there was a group of guys and girls drinking beers on the stairs. I told the guy “you are a great subject” and he posed for me quite naturally, the whole thing lasting maybe five seconds I was one step below him, and when I pointed the camera at him he raised his middle finger. I used my Summilux 35 mm f/1.4 at maximum aperture with the focus set at about 70 cm.

Q: This image is certainly engaging and enigmatic. It looks like an entrance booth at an amusement park or theater and the reflections in the glass seem to be composed with amazing precision if this is a random scene. Can you tell us how and where you shot it and also why you called it King Kong?

A: The photo is of the ticket counter of a theater in Melbourne that was showing “King Kong.” The first thing to capture my attention was the reflections of the brass and the patterns in the marble. Later, while inside the counter I noticed that a TV was running a presentation of the movie King Kong. I waited for the short video to restart, moved the camera into place so the face of the presenter appeared in the round opening of the glass, and shot. I waited for more than half an hour for a human subject to be in the background until finally the girl appeared.

Q: Your three pictures taken at the Yangon train station are deeply disturbing images of what look like homeless street people in desperate circumstances. All these photographs are beautiful as images, but what motivated you to take them and are they simply personal statements or do they have a larger social purpose?

A: I went to Yangon for business and, as always, I carried my camera along. I usually wake up very early and talk a walk around the streets near my hotel. Myanmar is slowly opening to democracy after many years of military government and a lot of foreign investments are in the works. I was impressed by the fact that none of the usual large American food and drinks companies were present. McDonald’s, KFC, Starbucks or Pizza Hut and all the others have not been allowed to open their business due to the embargo that lasted till last year.

Walking in the streets has been like living in a surreal world. All the construction is done using bare hands, and even simple tools are not used. Years of dictatorship has created such a social disaster. This emotional situation is evident in the photos I have taken. Sleeping in a $300 per night hotel room and looking at workers on the streets who are earning perhaps an income of $70-$80 per month is indeed very disturbing.

Q: Your image of the young nude woman with a tiger tattooed on her back is almost a metaphor for the sexual exploitation of women. The spare setting, the pose and the telephone suggest that she is a sex worker. Am I reading too much into this, and what’s going on here?

A: You are right! She is a young Chinese girl (PiaoPiao is her name) that came to Singapore to work as sex worker to support her family and her brother’s studies. The red light district of Singapore will be disappearing in the next few years due to the government development policy for that zone.

I have been regularly taking photos there to witness the changes that will happen along the next few years. In one of my visits I noticed this beautiful young girl with the tattoo that was visible due to her deeply V-cut dress. I tried to speak to her, but she was unable to understand English. She keyed in on her phone that $100 was the rate for her services. I showed her my camera and I pointed at her tattoo; she understood. With the art of talking with hands she agreed to be my model for half an hour. Amazingly despite being used to removing her clothes in front of her clients she was very shy with me in her new role as a model.

Q: How do you see your photography evolving over, say, the next three years or so? Do you plan to explore any other genres, and do you plan to publish a collection of your work as a book, or perhaps as gallery exhibitions?

A: I am actually planning to retire in the next three years and this will give me more time and peace of mind to cultivate my photography hobby. I am very reserved with my photos and I am not interested in becoming famous or making money from them. I believe that great respect has to be given to those who pursue photography as a profession. I just hope that photography will be elevated to a higher level of artistic expression. With the advanced technical development of digital cameras and built-in cameras in smart phones and with the increasing number of software programs for editing, everybody is able to shoot a decent photo. But the overall quality of photography has dropped, in my opinion, and the culture of photography is disappearing. The value of a photo is volatile, being determined by the amount of the time an image will be displayed on some website of newspapers or magazine.

In the past, magazines remained in the house for weeks or months and were always available to be read again and again. Today we read something once and few hours later we discard it for the latest one. Photos and music are affected in the same way. Today songs last a few weeks and soon replaced by newer ones. When we were young we were all waiting frantically for months for the new Bob Dylan LP to appear, and when it did we played that album for weeks endlessly then the album was always there in the shelf to be placed on the turntable at any time. Ultimately, photography might be a way for me to leave something of myself behind when I have to move on to a different plane.

Thank you for your time, Luciano!

- Leica Internet Team