Molly Menschel: Tell me about your winning series, Bruna, my mother. How did the series originate?
Stefano Bianchi Carini: Since I was kid I have been taking pictures of my family. My father suddenly passed away a year after my graduation, leaving me alone with mom. I lived with her until the age of 28, when I got married and left home. In the year 1998 I bought a two-story house: my mother came to live on the ground floor and my family and I on the first floor.
Mom left me on July 10th, 2020, close to turning 106. In May 2019 I asked her to find all the photos that portrayed her or father. I chose some of them, converted them digitally and reviewed them according to my feelings. I have added them to the many photos of her that I have taken in over 50 years of life together and most importantly to the photos from the last few years. With that, this project was born: dedicated to my mother who conceived, raised and assisted me with infinite love; I hope to have returned her, in the last few years of approaching the last trip, a little of that love she gave me along my life.
This is simply the genesis of the series and of a larger project. From this material I chose only ten shots to submit to the jury of the DFA; and I was lucky!
Can you tell us a little bit about your history with photography?
The passion for photography struck me from an early age, taking an interest in the device that dad used during the holidays to immortalize mom and me.
My first camera was a Kodak Instamatic, given to me by dad at the age of 13 to avoid me using his precious Voigtländer, and so I started taking what I call my “emotional moments”: a kind of notebook of my feelings of my earth passage.
At different times, like all passions, I spent my 69 years of life recording my feelings in the various situations that I have lived and that have presented themselves to me. When I grew up I was able to become friends with a professional photographer, Mario Mulas, brother of the more famous Ugo who is one of the masters of Italian photography. Observing him I learned to print the analog negative into a positive image, using my hands under the light of the enlarger.
Having gone digital for less than a decade, I continue to use my old Leica M lenses on a digital Leica Monochrome and M10, to which I have added Sony and Canon bodies with which I still use practically all of my old analog lenses. I photograph a bit of everything, from landscapes to details, to still life; but what I particularly love are portraits. All of the portraits I take, sometimes stolen from strangers or of those who I know, they are all unposed. Believing I have no imagination, I am unable to pose people or set up photographic scenarios: I shoot what I see and what strikes me as interesting.
After more than 40 years of professional activity as a chartered accountant and statutory auditor and now close to retirement, I would like to dedicate myself, body and soul, to my photographic passion.
During your 40 years of being an accountant, did your professional colleagues know about your creative passion?
I have always taken photographs, although at some times more than others, using the device as a sort of notebook to capture the moments that I feel.
It had always been a hidden passion until, at the age of 40, I published for myself a photo-book that paid homage to my friends, which was followed by an exhibition in Viadana in a public gallery. And so I began to make it known to everyone. I had a lot of fun and after that I participated in various exhibitions around Italy and the world: in Helsinki I participated in a group show with 10 images, all of which I sold. A success for me!
Once my passion was communicated to the world, I created in my home, in the basement, a small photographic studio with electronic flash, backdrops and a dark room for printing negatives, which is where I spent my nights and free time from work.
After time, I retired to my private life. Children were born and I detached myself from my passion and stopped taking pictures. In the meantime, technology had changed; digital photography had been introduced and the smartphone made it possible to remember moments. The children grew up, and at the end of the school year they participated in the end-of-year shows.
So, having bought a digital Sony, I dedicated myself to photographing them. And the passion returned overwhelming; I haven’t stopped since.
I almost always carry a camera with me, in my pocket or backpack, and all the people who know me now know about my passion.
What was the moment you knew that the project about your mother was something you wanted to pursue?
There is not a particular moment in which I decided to pursue this project: it was born and raised alone, over time, as I saw the results of the shots.
When you look at these photographs of your mom, you see a woman who to the rest of us is a stranger. What is it that you want the viewer to know about your mom?
She was an exceptional person, an old-fashioned woman: an attentive and caring wife and mother, a lover of beautiful things, but simple, stubborn because she always knew how to get, with kindness, what she wanted. She was generous, a reliable confidant with total confidentiality; plus she was an excellent cook and hostess.
Like everyone, she hadn’t always had an easy life. She was born in time of war (1914), she had lived her youth in the Fascist period and grew to maturity in the Second World War. She lost her husband at the age of 65, was twice operated on for breast cancer, recovered on the fly for gallbladder peritonitis, had a wrist fracture in old age and then chronic bronchitis. But she reached the threshold of her 106th birthday, always with a perfectly functioning brain. A month before her death, a local TV interviewed her about the pandemic and, when asked what she thought of wearing a mask so as not to get infected, she replied, “How ugly people look with those masks, I will never wear them, I stay at home!”
Your mother gave you this gift, of allowing you to photograph her throughout her life. Did you ever talk to your mother about the reasons for photographing her and what you’d hoped to do with the photographs?
Photographing Mum was a natural thing for both of us, as was photographing Dad or friends and acquaintances; in meetings with acquaintances and friends I often have a camera in my hand and take a snapshot: it’s normal for me to take pictures and for them to be photographed.
I never talked to Mom about what I was hoping to do with these photos; I simply photographed her. The idea of using these shots to create a body of work or a book is very recent.
How did your mom feel about being photographed? In her earlier photos it looked like she was always comfortable in front of the camera. Was she ever modest or uncomfortable?
Mother knew my passion perfectly – “You are my sun,” she always told me – how could she have resisted my passion and my desire to save a moment of her? She has never felt uncomfortable, or at least I never felt it.
The photos of your mother are so moving, and towards the end of her life they feel very intimate and private. What did it feel like to photograph your mom when she was in such a vulnerable state?
Looking at the images I wonder if I was too intrusive and I question what my feelings were towards her, for having captured such moments. Sometimes I come to wonder if this was love, or perhaps hate, or lack of respect, or even indifference: and for this I feel despicable.
I believe I have always been a caring, respectful son, tied to her by an umbilical cord, perhaps never broken. For many years, in the summer and with my family on vacation, I moved in with her during the day, she cooked and we ate together. During her last two years I was the one cooking for her. We didn’t need to talk, we understood each other with our eyes, it was enough to stay close, even in silence, and we were one.
Did your mom ever see any of the photos that you took of her in the last few years of her life?
I gave her for Christmas 2019 a book printed in a single digital copy through the internet, with many of the photos taken and with the photos of her youth reproduced. I chose some photos from the hundreds I have and edited a dummy through the internet, and put it under the Christmas tree. She went through it without much emotion, but then I learned that she happily showed it to the caregiver and then to a mutual friend. Mum did not externalize her emotions, like me: we both always had a deep reserve to show them.
I never talked to Mom about the photos I was taking and why I was taking them; I just showed them to her. As always, she liked some and others she didn’t, but she didn’t complain and never asked me to throw them away.
Mom didn’t have time to see the photos of last year.
What was it like for you to see the older photos of your mom for the first time? Did you feel like you knew the person who was looking out at you?
I wasn’t particularly impressed with mom’s old photos. I recognized her perfectly in the attitudes and expressions I remember from when I was a child. It was a bit like stepping back in time.
Sometimes when I look at a portrait, I feel like the person in the photo is looking directly at me, as if the photographer isn’t present at all. There’s a few very striking photos of your mom that feel this way. But at other times, I feel like I can see the photographer through the way that the person in the photo is looking at the camera. This is one of the reasons that I love looking at old family photos. Often the relationship between the photographer and the subject is so evident. In some of the older photos of your mom it feels like there is something transpiring between the photographer and subject and we’re just on the outside, getting to look in on the moment. Do you know who took these earlier photos of your mother?
For the first images I know absolutely nothing, I think a relative or brother, older than one year; for the later ones certainly dad.
Did you feel like the mother/son relationship that you had with your mom is present in the photos you took of her?
I would feel like answering: in almost all the images in which she looks at the camera.
Why did you choose to shoot all black and white for this project?
It wasn’t a choice; I shoot almost only in black and white because for me, that’s what photography is. I started out with developing film by hand, and I have remained tied to black and white. The color, similar to human vision, distracts me. I do not feel it in my heart and think it’s very difficult to manage, at least for me.
You told me that you hope to publish this collection of photos into a book. What do you see as the value of sharing your mothers story, and what is the underlying story that you’re trying to tell?
That is really the most difficult challenge!
Mommy was a very reserved person, not at all worldly, attentive and dedicated to the family, a lover of the house, not at all known, as opposed to dad, who was also reserved but known for the public role he held.
Forty years after my father’s death, I set up a committee to remember his figure, both private and institutional, and with the contributions we collected we were able to create and publish a book as a public memory of him. While the book about dad, entitled “Pietro Bianchi – a man a banker” made sense for the role he played in the city economy and in the Italian banking world, the figure of Mom would make no sense.
I have to find a theme that can be universal, in order to think about making a photographic book. Looking at the photographic material I have it is difficult to find a meaning. The passage of time and the impact it has on the body of the human being? The human frailty that emerges in old age? Tenderness and the need for attention? The illness? Loneliness? The need for help?
That’s why my dream remains, for the moment, a dream: the difficulty to elevate my shots to a common experience. I confess to myself and everyone that I’m not able to glimpse a common theme, but being persistent I will not give up on finding a curator/editor who can find a common thread.
One thing I am interested in, is how a creative interest, like photography, can follow us throughout our whole life and may never play center stage until later in life. Now that you are close to retirement, do you think an artistic passion becomes more important later in life? Are you a different photographer now than you were when you were younger?
I think that every human being has one or more passions, in addition to their work occupation which is necessary to live. Sport, art in all its forms, various other interests such as photography. Freedom from the necessary slavery of work leads us to focus our interest on our passions.
No longer needing to work to live – and the compensation from retirement – gives way to passions that have remained more or less dormant over the years. I also believe that the approach of old age inevitably leads to the need for an urgent fulfillment of unfulfilled desires; the more time passes, the more urgent it becomes!
For me photography is not properly “art”, but a mere reproduction of reality; sometimes seen in a different way from how the eyes see, but always a mechanical or digital reproduction of reality.
Sure, photography is always an expression of whoever takes it: after all, it is the choice of a moment in a decided frame that defines how or what is inside and who or what is outside.
First of all there is the measurement of the brightness of the possible scene and the choice of over or under exposure; then the choice of the shutter speed, as well as the initial choice of the lens used and the format of the camera. And then there is the choice of who or what to put inside or outside the frame. The photo is the result of all of these choices, but always, at the other side of the camera, there is reality.
The images I make today are certainly different because today I am different; I have a life behind me and an increasingly reduced future: my way of seeing, of observing is certainly different from how I observed and saw as a young man.
How did you choose the photos for your series submission for the DFA, with so many photos to choose from? Do you have any guidance that you can give to photographers who are trying to put together a series for submitting to a publication or competition?
I chose the ten submitted in this way: the first and last, which open and close the series, must have an impact and are images of joy and joke, which well represent Mommy’s character. The next four and the four after that are images of profoundly different moments: the first four are the years spent in good health and the second four are of the imminence of the end, heralded by the breaking of the rosary, and then the bed in the morning with the signs left by my night vigil, the double exposure of Mommy’s face in the hands of the Madonna as a consignment to the custody of the Madonna and the blessing of the coffin at the end of the Holy Mass at home.
It is very difficult to build an impactful series; I don’t feel I should give advice to others; everyone must try to put together the images according to their own subjective criteria. What I have followed is what I try to achieve: there must be no similar images – unless the logic of the series is precisely that of similar images – the first and the last must be of impact, the first to capture the attention and the last for conclusion (whether it is closed or open; that is, defining the end of the story or opening towards an unknown that follows).
One way to create something truly original is to do a project on something that you care deeply about. I can tell how deeply you care about these photos of your mom and that you have a strong commitment to do something with them. Is there advice you can give to other photographers who are working on projects that are very personal?
Granting and assuming that every body of work must have a profound reason for being created, a project on a very personal matter must be considered, above all, in a way that can stimulate feelings in every observer; and this is the most difficult way: to grasp a precise moment and raise it to a common experience.
Stefano Bianchi Carini is an Italian photographer. His series, “Bruna, my mother” won 8th place in the Series category of the Spring 2021 Awards. The photos included along with this interview are from Stefano’s series entry to the DFA as well as photos from his larger project about his mother.