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On Photography: Ferdinando Scianna, 1943-present

“A photograph is not created by a photographer. What they do is just to open a little window and capture it. The world then writes itself on the film. The act of the photographer is closer to reading than it is to writing. They are the readers of the world” -Ferdinando Scianna

Ferninando Scianna is a bressoniano — Italian for fan of Henri Cartier-Bresson. He was the first Italian to become a Magnum Agency photographer.

“As a photographer, I consider myself a reporter. And my fundamental reference is that of my master par excellence, Henri Cartier Bresson, for whom the photographer must aspire to be an invisible witness, who never intervenes to modify the world.”


On Photography: Ferdinando Scianna, 1943-present
Ferdinando Scianna

Ferninando Scianna’s father wanted him to be a doctor or maybe an engineer.

“Honestly, I do not think I have ever had the vocation of a photographer, I just wanted to leave Sicily and back in those days, I assumed photography was a passport,” Ferdinando Scianna told The Guardian’s, Maurizio Fiorino. “In all of my generation, there was an unstoppable desire to fix the fragments of our world.”

Through school, he pursued a variety of subjects. He struggled with all of them. He never graduated. IN 1963, He had a chance meeting with Leonardo Sciascia. The renowned poet was at Ferdinando Scianna’s first photography exhibit. The two became lifelong friends. The relationship was a remarkable positive influence on his career. The show became Ferdinando Scianna’s first book titled “Religious Festivals in Sicily.” It won the Nadar prize in 1966. Sciascia wrote the text for it.

Being Sicilian

Ferninando Scianna was born near Palermo, Sicily in Italy. People born in Sicily consider themselves Sicilian rather than Italians.

As a Sicilian photographer, Ferdinando Scianna always carried the aesthetic of his home. “Even if I left Sicily, I photographed Sicily wherever I went,” he says. “A few years ago, I made a book about a mining village in the Andes, and someone said it is my most Sicilian book. At the end of the day, a photographer always takes the same photos. I do not know if that is a style or just a repetition. Well, maybe it’s just boredom.”

That boredom brought him fame in fashion.

Fashion photographer

Dolce and Gabanna have never done fashion in the “normal” way. One of their breaks was to move their fashion photography out of the studio and onto the street. They decided to exemplify the Sicilian lifestyle in the pictures of their clothing. They turned first to Ferdinando Scianna for his style of street photography (opening photo, top row, all images.)

Ferdinando Scianna had been a photographer since the 1960s when he rose to worldwide attention shooting for Dolce and Gabbana in the mid-1980s. He fashioned his work in his style of religious symbolism and the matriarch as the family leader. “What an unexpected adventure, that one,” Scianna says. “I do not disown it, of course not. It allowed me the economic freedom to go and photograph just for myself.”

“I have always made a clear distinction between the images found and those constructed.”

Opening photo, bottom row, clockwise from left: Martin Scorsese holds a baby photo of his mother, 1990, Manhattan Bridge and Brooklyn Bridge in the fog, New York, 1986, A feral dog chases its tail, Varanasi, India, 1972, Leonardo Sciascia, Racalmuto, Sicily, 1964, Guardian Angels in the subway, New York, 1985.

This video showcases Ferdinando Scianna’s work for the fashion house.

Street vs. selfie

He thinks that photography went into an irreparable crisis a couple of decades ago when we stopped building family photo albums. “Today we all take photos with our phones, but they are background images. Even a selfie is not a self-portrait but a kind of neurosis about a moment of existence that must immediately supplant another, and so on. And we all know what happens when something loses the identity that has determined its success and cultural function. It dies.”


Ferdinando Scianna, when asked by younger photographers for his advice, asks them what is theirs for him. “I tell them the most obvious thing: photograph what you love and what you hate,” he says. “But they should tell me how to sneak around in this weird era that I do not really know.”

Sources: The Guardian, The Guardian 2, Anatomy Films

More stories about inspiration photographers are in On Photography.

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Rafael Jones

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