Mario Giacomelli


Born in Senigallia (Italy), August 1st,1925.
At the age of thirteen, apprentice in a small printers' firm in Senigallia,
which he later owned.
Began as a painter and amateur poet.
Photographer (self-taught) from 1954.
Died in Senigallia in 2000.

“I don’t know about other people’s cameras. Mine is a thing I had cobbled up, it holds together with tape and is always losing parts. All I need to set is the distance and that other thing – what do you call that other thing ?”

Frank Horvat : I wonder if your eyes are like your mother’s.

Mario Giacomelli : I don’t really know what my mother’s eyes were like. Sometimes I feel there was no difference between us, except that she was dressed as a woman and I as a man. When thinking back, the thing that now seems the most important – and also the most beautiful – is that never, at any time of her life, I found a way of telling her how much I loved her. Maybe because of my bad character, or out of shyness. I never kissed her and probably never even asked how she was. She died a few months ago, and when she was dead I kissed her lips. For me it was a beautiful moment. From then on I started living with her, asking her from time to time if she was alright, if she was pleased with me. But these things are far greater than photography, and I probably shouldn’t be speaking about them.

Frank Horvat : But do you sometimes look at your own eyes in a mirror? Do you wonder about them?

Mario Giacomelli : No. I never look at them and I’m not even very aware of their existence – or only as a doorway. When you take photos, you put yourself in front of some object, which then comes through that little hole at the front of your camera and lands at the back. So you get a copy of it – or rather an extract. My eyes are the same: an instrument for catching things mid-flight, putting some of them in a box, kneading and mixing them within me and then putting them out again, for other people’s eyes.

Frank Horvat : What about the camera? It seems that you don’t have the same camera as everyone else, a Leica, a Nikon or a Kodak.

Mario Giacomelli : I don’t know about other people’s cameras. Mine is a thing I had cobbled up, it holds together with tape and is always losing parts. All I need to set is the distance and that other thing – what do you call that other thing? I’m not a fan of mechanics. I have had this camera, still the same one, since I started taking photos. It has lived with me, shared many moments of my existence, both good and bad. If I ever lost it… well, the very idea of having to live without it pulls at my heart.

Frank Horvat : But where does it come from?

Mario Giacomelli : I had it made. By dismantling a camera given to me by a friend and removing whatever seemed useless. I only need distance and that other thing – what’s that other thing called again? I don’t know how these machines work, what counts is that light shouldn’t get in. It’s just a box.

Frank Horvat : And what film do you use?

Mario Giacomelli : Whatever I get.

Frank Horvat : 24 by 36 millimeters?

Mario Giacomelli : Don’t ask me about millimeters ! I use the larger film, not the smaller one. I’ve never used the smaller one.

Frank Horvat : So, six by six centimeters?

Mario Giacomelli : Don’t talk to me about figures! I only know that six by nine becomes six by eight and a half.

Frank Horvat : So you get12 photos per roll?

Mario Giacomelli : I can’t remember, but I think it’s more like ten. Ten, not twelve. What’s important is that there shouldn’t be too many. Once I won a competition and was given a small size camera as a prize. But I didn’t know how to use it, it was too fast for me, it didn’t participate as my own camera does, it left me no time to think, made me press the shutter for nothing. I felt deprived of what makes my greatest joy, which is the waiting, the preparing of the image, the winding of the film, the replacing of the roll. My own camera is exactly what I need, it suits my character.

Frank Horvat : At what speed does it work? a thirtieth, a hundredth of a second?

Mario Giacomelli : I don’t know any more. It doesn’t go over two hundred. To photograph from a plane I have to borrow a friend’s camera, I’m a little ashamed to admit it, but I don’t care. It doesn’t matter to me, I would take photos without a camera if I could. I’ve no great passion for mechanics.

Frank Horvat : And what’s the lens aperture?

Mario Giacomelli : It depends. At Scanno, I did nearly everything at a 25th. For landscapes I use 2 and 22.

Frank Horvat : Half a second at aperture 22?

Mario Giacomelli : I know there is a 2 and a 22, that’s the aperture of the lens, I learnt it by heart.

Frank Horvat : So you close the aperture all the way.

Mario Giacomelli : All the way, always the same. Because it’s for landscapes. When it’s for people, and there is not much light, I do the opposite : I open the lens.

Frank Horvat : Is that what you do when photographing the old people in the hospice?

Mario Giacomelli : In the hospice it’s a different matter, I use flash. On purpose. Just to add my own meanness to the meanness of the person who created the universe and makes us grow old. It isn’t so much to show their skin texture, but to add contrast, to achieve a more brutal effect. The flash alters reality and makes it more my own.

Frank Horvat : But doesn’t the flash produce something different from what you see?

Mario Giacomelli : If I couldn’t see it I wouldn’t shoot. When you are used to the flash, you don’t worry about the existing light, but only about what happens in front of your lens, for instance the expressions on people’s faces. I would even say that I know very exactly what I’ll get.

Frank Horvat : And probably all the better as the hospice hasn’t been a one-day or one-week project. You returned there for years, often enough to know by experience.

Mario Giacomelli : What’s important for me is to become part of that atmosphere. To shut myself up in that kind of box, be in touch with that small world, live what they live, be perceived as one of their lot. For a whole year, I visited them without a camera, so they would get used to my presence, without that instrument pointed at them. In the end I felt just like another old person.

Photo Mario Giacomelli

Frank Horvat : How old were you at the time?

Mario Giacomelli : It was my first project. I was about 30.

Frank Horvat : Did you think about it for a long time, before starting it?

Mario Giacomelli : : Not at all. The first people I photographed were my wife and my mother. I told them ‘don’t move’, but then I realised that I was unable to press the shutter when a person was smiling, or even looking friendly. I wanted them to appear to me just as I felt inside. So I became agressive and nasty with them – until I understood that what I needed was to photograph some harsher reality. That’s why I thought of the hospice.

Frank Horvat : Which was your first big project.

Mario Giacomelli : It still is my major project. If I had to choose amongst all the photos I’ve done, to just keep one body of work, it would most certainly be the hospice. Not for the hospice itself, I couldn’t care less about it. My concerns are time and old age. There is an ongoing conflict between me and time, a permanent war, and the hospice is one of my enemy’s faces. Before becoming a photographer I used to paint, you may think that painting has nothing to do with time, but yet it was against time I was fighting. I would start a painting in the evening and force myself to finish it that same night, even if it meant giving up sleep. Because my work had to be completed with the same tension I had felt at the beginning: the following day I may become a different person, feeling things in a different way.

Frank Horvat : What kind of painting did you do?

Mario Giacomelli : I started with earth, which I mixed with other materials, such as leaves, I’m not even sure I should call it painting. After that I tried canvas and real colours. Then I destroyed everything. Later on I wrote poetry, which I also destroyed. Finally I discovered photography and realized that it allowed me to produce something more powerful. Of course it cannot create, nor express all we want to express. But it can be a witness of our passage on earth, like a notebook. I also found out that this mechanical instrument, that to some people seems cold, can convey a truth that other techniques can’t convey. My first camera was a Comet. I bought it on a 24th of December and took to it the seaside on the 25th. I tried some long exposures, though I didn’t really understand how it worked. The waves were coming towards me and I tried to move the camera the opposite way. Three or four shots turned out as I had imagined, the rest was useless. But it was the first contact between the three of us – me, nature and the camera – and it made me realise that this supposedly cold device, which at first had seemed so terrifying, could eventually become an extension of myself.

Frank Horvat : Do you do your own developing?

Mario Giacomelli : Both my developing and my printing. The trays are over there, on that table, you can see how worn it is by the chemicals.

Frank Horvat : And do your photos always turn out as you expect? Or do you get surprises?

Mario Giacomelli : If there were too many surprises I wouldn’t print them. Most of the time they are fairly close to my expectations, and in some instances match them exactly. Though it’s true that some good photos are due to chance. In fact I believe in lucky accidents: there may have been a detail I didn’t foresee, or another one I sensed without realising it. Or I might have missed what I aimed at – and instead got something even better.

Frank Horvat : But when you take a photo you know what you aim at.

Mario Giacomelli : And if I print it it’s because, in one way or the other, it’s what I wanted.

Frank Horvat :Especially as you give yourself time to think about what you want, and to come as close as possible to that result…

Mario Giacomelli : I try to go right into things. I believe in abstraction, but only when it allows me to move even closer to reality. I don’t want to just describe an event from the outside, I want to become part of it. Sometimes I think that my most important photographs are the moments I lived without recording them. Like that old toothless woman, who chews uselessly, is unable to swallow her mouthful and ends up spitting it onto the table. They can’t see anymore, poor old things. The one next to her – for a while the memory of this stopped me from eating – picks up the half-chewed mouthful, puts it in her own mouth and continues chewing, as if it had been hers. These images are the truest, I know them and you never will, because I didn’t record them.

Frank Horvat : But they are contained, in some way, in the photos you took.

Mario Giacomelli : : It may be that by living constantly with this sort of reality, you end up photographing it without even realising.

Frank Horvat : Did you visit them every day?

Mario Giacomelli : Whenever I was free. At Christmas and Easter, on Saturday afternoon, on Sundays as soon as I was up and had taken my breakfast.

Frank Horvat : So you are a Sunday photographer, in some way.

Mario Giacomelli : : I photograph when I find the time. I’m not a photographer by trade, I don’t get assignments, no-one can order me about, no-one can tell me “go and photograph”. Not even hunger could tell me. I photograph when I want to, when I feel ready. If I can’t concentrate I don’t photograph, it wouldn’t even occur to me.

Frank Horvat : But you returned to the hospice every week.

Mario Giacomelli : Whenever I didn’t have to work at the press. I would spend the whole day with them, holding one of the women by the hand, bringing sweets to that other one who was always waiting for a son who never showed up – which didn’t stop him from taking me to court for photographing his mother.

Frank Horvat : And how many photos would you take during one of those days? One roll, two, more than two?

Mario Giacomelli :Some days I didn’t take any. Being in the hospice is like facing yourself in a mirror, there are days when you don’t have the courage to look, when you wish mirrors had never been invented, because what you see is an image of yourself, of your mother, of your children. Every one of those photos is like a self-portrait. I don’t have any grudge against old people, nor against hospices. My enemy is time. Even our present doesn’t really exist: this very moment, while we are talking, is made up of a bit of before and a bit of after, a composite of past and future. At the hospice this feeling becomes even sharper, like a blade against my heart, everything I see refers to me and hurts me. Some days I’m brave enough to take photos, other days I’m not. It was the same in Lourdes, I don’t even know how I managed to shoot at all. I was watching a little girl, I don’t know what her illness was, four or five people were restraining her, she kept biting them, at times they would let go and she ran off and they would run after her to catch her again. I put my camera on the balustrade and I could feel the tears pouring down my cheeks, usually I’m unable to cry but that day I was crying like a tap. I still have that image in front of my eyes, these eyes that were able to cry, but unable to look through the viewfinder. My camera was honest enough not to force me. That’s why I’m fond of it, why I couldn’t live without it: it has the same sensitivity that I have, it doesn’t go against my character, it doesn’t expect me to do anything complicated, because it knows I couldn’t. I can leave it lying about anywhere, even abandon it in a field. This has happened, people saw it as a thrown-away object, which they had no reason to pick up. But these things are better left unexplained…

Frank Horvat : So there are situations when you say to yourself : “I can’t photograph this”.

Mario Giacomelli : : It’s not that I say it to myself. I just suddenly realise that I’m not taking photos. It happens when I see things I can’t accept as real: how is it possible that a human being, after a lifetime of work and struggle, should be condemned to exist in this manner? There are situations that refuse to be photographed. But at other times nothing will stop me, because I know my pictures will not shout against anyone – only against time.

Frank Horvat : And what happens afterwards, when you look at your photos? Do you decide, for example, “this one is OK, this one isn’t, this other one isn’t exactly what I wanted, but it’s a step in the right direction”?

Mario Giacomelli : I don’t know what you’re trying to make me say. I think you’re asking me a question that I don’t know how to answer. I’m not someone who decides “now I’m going to press the shutter, now I’m not”. Sometimes I look at something and my hands are stuck, while at other times what happens in front of me seems natural enough to be frozen in an image – because it shows nothing worse than what I have to expect for myself, because it doesn’t shout against anyone.

Frank Horvat : I was refering to the following step, when you look at your contact sheets.

Mario Giacomelli : When I look at my contact sheets, it’s as if I lived again through the shooting, except that certain things come to the foreground. The images I choose are the ones that seem closest to how I felt at the time, that best recreate the moments I want to preserve and to share, so that other people may learn to think a little better and to enjoy life a little more.

Frank Horvat : My question was about your method. Suppose you have been photographing on Sunday, you developed your film on Monday and you printed the contacts on Tuesday. What goes on in your mind between Wednesday and following week-end? Do you say to yourself: “in this case I have shown what I wanted, in this other case I may do better next Sunday”? Until, after three years or five years, you feel that you have presented what you wanted to present?

Mario Giacomelli : This is in fact what happens with other subjects, but not with the hospice. With the hospice, each photo is the souvenir of a day spent with these old people. I don’t set programs, I just know that each Sunday will be different. For other subjects, yes, I make preparations. In the case of some landscapes I practically set them up, I ask the farmer to bring his tractor and I say to him: “I want you to make a furrow from this point to that”. I almost build my photos, like paintings. While in the hospice I live them, as life itself, from one day to the next and with each experience teaching me something I didn’t know before.

Frank Horvat : Speaking of the landscapes, you told me you had moved more and more towards abstraction, until you got to a point where you felt the subject was exhausted.

Mario Giacomelli : The hospice is like my own life, that goes on and on. While in the case of the landscapes, unfortunately, I came to a dead end. At one stage I decided to view them from a different perspective: not any more from the ground, as they are seen by the farmer who works on them, but from above. It was a different way of getting close to the subject, the land from above wasn’t land anymore, but patterns, like the wrinkles of a hand or an old person’s face. The farmer has his feet on the ground and plants his potatoes, ignoring that for me, up there, his toil has a different meaning and produces different emotions. The wrinkles of the land, as those of the skin, teach me things that I didn’t know, that he cannot imagine, of which even the pilot of my plane doesn’t have an idea. As if someone, by magic, was lighting them with a different light. Some shapes are hidden in the shadows, others are enhanced by the sun, what appears on film is a different world, where landscape may become embroidery. If the farmer, who has abandoned that house, could see it from this height and realise how beautiful it can be, he may not have left it. Sometimes I wonder about the relation between the reality I photograph and the sign it becomes on my print. Are the old people’s wrinkles still part of them, do they still contain their suffering?

Photo Mario Giacomelli

Frank Horvat : What you just said, about wrinkles on the land and on the skin, reminds me of the fact that you always go straight to some essential reality: the land, time, old age, suffering, love. That’s why my first questions were about your essential tools, the eye and the camera. My next question will be about a third essential tool: words. In many cases you start from words – for instance from some poem that has touched you. I imagine that in such cases your reason for pressing the shutter – or for making your final choice from the contact sheets – is some equivalence between those words and your image.

Mario Giacomelli : Yes, an equivalence to what the word evoked for me. “Luna vedova per strade di mare” (widowed moon over sea roads) – isn’t it a beautiful image? – “Io non ho piu sogni da dormire – nel bianco mattatoio di casa mia” (I have no more dreams to sleep with – in the white slaughterhouse which is my home). But my purpose is to re-tell, not to illustrate. I see the images suggested by the poet, but from there on I search for new emotions, as if somebody took me by the hand and led me along a path that looks familiar, but where in fact I have never been. At that point, images that seemed meaningless suddenly start breathing and talking to me. It’s my emotion that tells me to press the shutter, because I know that there is something behind them, even tough the beauty of the image may not be obvious, or if the subject matter may seem poor, or even ludicrous. Like this other line: “Un muro vecchio e un cane solo” (an old wall and a lonely dog'). It is an almost silly image, anyone could invent it. But in me it brings out a particular emotion, as if everything was brought back to zero, as if I had to start from nothing. I don’t see a dog or a wall any more, just myself, tiny and scared, very close to the end of my life – this life in which I thought I had so many more things to do. But it’s hard to talk about all that, if I were really honest with myself, this kind of discussion should drive me stark mad. These are feelings one cannot explain, things that are beautiful – but that one should be ashamed to express. Would you explain an orgasm with your wife?

Frank Horvat : There is something else I must ask you: here is this life passing by, with all those precious moments and those ten or twenty thousand photos that you took, each important for some reason. But amongst these photos, there are ten, twenty or maybe forty that have something special – let’s call it grace. Like this one, that you took in the hospice, and that was published many times….

Photo Mario Giacomelli

Mario Giacomelli : Do you know why I find it beautiful? At first glance you see an old woman in the hospice. But if you look a little longer, what’s left is neither the woman nor the hospice, only a white sea, with a boat floating on the waves. This photo couldn’t exist if I hadn’t cried so many times within myself, while looking at other events. But I wouldn’t say it is more important than others. For me each photo represents a moment, like breathing, who can say the breath before is more important than the one after, they are continuous and follow each other until everything stops. How many times did we breath tonight? Could you say one breath was more beautiful than the rest? But their sum makes up an existence. Another image I like is this one: in one area it still conveys the taste of life, while in the other everything is deformed and decomposed. From here to there time has passed, here the shapes can still be made out, there only stains and dust remain. But from behind, in spite of everything, comes a light. I can feel all that, at least for a moment, even though this photo isn’t really a good one. It contains all the anger of my questions: “why live, if death is so near?” I’m past sixty, which means that I bear sixty years of death on my shoulders, more death than life. Such ideas blend in with the shapes and the figures in my photos. Or look at that one, of the two old people kissing : like lovers, she takes his hands and strokes them. No tenderness could be greater than what is happening between this woman and this man. If I take such photos, it’s because I would like people to look at them and to live differently. I wonder if these two persons have been capable, in their youth, of this same tenderness. How many people live without knowing how to caress? How many women have died without ever experiencing orgasm? When I show this photo I’m showing myself, with everything I was unable to understand, everything I should have done differently, everything I would like to start over. Even so, this photo only expresses a tiny part of my feeling – which is why I have to take so many.

Photo Mario Giacomelli

Frank Horvat : But only a few are miracles, only in some instances does the frozen instant have the same impact as the flow it was taken from. The old woman like a boat is one of those miracles, she keeps afloat on the waves of life.

Mario Giacomelli : Or maybe it’s you who are inventing the miracle. A photo isn’t only what you see, but also what your imagination adds to it. My own imagination may add something else, a third person’s something else again. But does it matter? What matters is the contact between us, the fact that we talk about trees losing their leaves, about objects we crush underfoot without realising it, about that house dying gently, abandoned by its owner, even though it’s the house where he was born, where he learnt to cry and to laugh. One of the walls has a crack which is growing, slowly, until one day the whole will collapse. But I won’t let it happen without being aware of it.

Frank Horvat : So you check it once a week?

Mario Giacomelli : And I count the days, as if I were to visit my son or my mother. I can talk to it, relate to it – while there are so many people to whom I’ve nothing to say, because all they can speak about is money. I never speak about money, though I never waste it, not even five lire. For me, the greatest wealth are those small useless objects that other people throw away, little things that don’t mean anything to them. Like this house that is slowly cracking up. Every week it waits for me. People may say I’m mad, but I don’t mind, as long I’m a madman who’s aware of what goes on around him. The really mad ones, to me, are those who never notice. Not that I pretend to see everything, but I try to make out as much as I can, which is why I’m interested in small things. Big things stifle me, I’m not made for big things, I would rather look at the small ones through a magnifying glass.

Photo Mario Giacomelli

Frank Horvat : Which may be why your greatest photos were taken here, in this small town.

Mario Giacomelli : It’s here I have to take them, because it’s here that I breathe. You can’t breathe a bit here, then a bit in a hotel and then a bit in Milano. Here I breathe continuously. Though it is true that by always staying in the same place you end up becoming insensitive to certain things. I’ve never been able, for instance, to take photos in the streets of my town, I never walk round here with a camera, few of my fellow townsmen even know me as a photographer. I hate being surrounded by nosey people. So I drive somewhere not too far away, just far enough to be plunged into a different world. That’s how I make discoveries, just recently I discovered the smell of hay after the rain! Something I had never noticed, just imagine having lost fifty years of this! Can you see how many realities are waiting to be discovered, tiny realities, almost impossible to photograph, but which somehow may blend into my photos.

Frank Horvat : In fact, without ever leaving Senigallia, you find ways of looking at things with a fresh eye. Earlier on, in the car, you said “I often take the wrong route, because routes, to me, are always new”.

Mario Giacomelli : : Because I always have the impression that something is being born, that something new is happening. People ask me “How can you take these photos?” What they don’t understand is that it’s not me choosing the images, it’s the images choosing me. As if the landscape said to me “You fool, do you think it’s you making me? Can’t you see how beautiful I am on my own?” Some images stop you in your tracks and you try to understand them – but in fact they come to you, like a pretty woman looking at you. You say to yourself “Isn’t she lovely!” and if she doesn’t turn the other way and if you feel she is willing, you think “Madonna! Maybe I’ll get to kiss her!” It’s the same with a landscape, you see it and think “Madonna!” To be sure the landscape can’t run away, and yet I always fear that it may. In order to shoot at two and twenty-two (I had to memorise those numbers, because I never managed to understand them) I must set up my tripod, so I worry that the landscape may disappear the next second and I don’t stop keeping an eye on it while I get prepared. Then, when pressing the shutter, I hold my breath. These moments are the greatest joys in my life, as if I were undressing the most beautiful woman in the world – that is, if she will allow herself be undressed. If the photo is a success, it means that she was willing. If not, it has been a lovely dream. E basta.

Senigallia, February 1987

Translated into English by Julia Mclaren