DAVID WILSON. RATHER STRANGE WAY
© David Wilson from the series 'Minor Collisions'
David, how did you get interested in photography? What about your first shots and your first photo-excursions? Do you have any special memories?
David Wilson (DW): I became interested in photography about twenty years ago, probably like most people – with a certain curiosity but without any clear idea of what I wanted to photograph. After having played for a while in a local band, the individual nature of photography had a strong attraction for me. Several years passed before I began to understand what I really wanted from photography, but to tell the truth there were no particular memories, or at least none that stands out for me. There were, of course, a number of factors which influenced me while I was learning, which led me to understand what I wanted to do, but the process was a gradual one.
In 2015, L'Artiere Edizioni published your first monograph, 'Minor Collisions'. To start with, why London?
DW: There were many reasons. First, I’m not unfamiliar with London, so it was easier for me to concentrate only on my photography: I didn’t feel out of place in my daily routine, but I did while I was wandering in certain areas which were completely new to me. I was still a foreigner there and London, apart from being huge, also represented to me the archetype of the modern city – on the one hand, it's a city like no other, but at the same time it's just another place. Right from the start, I wanted to avoid imposing my own interpretation on the city, but rather to allow the city to be my guide. It was a sort of anonymity that I found very helpful, because I was free to adopt a more spontaneous approach. For the same reason, I focused mainly on the residential suburbs of the city, which was where the things I was looking for were most evident.
© David Wilson from the series 'Minor Collisions'
You have always been a regular user of the internet, first with the Strangers collective and now with FDS too. Perhaps the question is rhetorical, but how has today's new information and communication technology changed your personal experience in the use of the medium on the one hand and your perception of the image on the other?
DW: Right from the start, I related with the internet and the social networks in a way which has been to a certain extent conflictual, but in many cases it's a positive one too. Strangers, for example, would never have been possible without the internet, and the same applies to FDS; when Bryan Formhals had the idea of forming the collective back in 2009, he brought together a group of photographers who were more or less on the same wavelength, and got connected through Flickr – which, although it would appear in many ways to be a platform that is dedicated to the amateur photographer, provided the perfect structure for sharing thoughts, try to take them to a deeper level, and of course to share each other’s work.
It is amusing to see that, in those days, almost nobody thought that a social network could prove useful for anything more than the snaps of the basic amateur photographer, and it wasn’t taken seriously at all, while has become the norm nowadays. But, although there were not many who actually used the platform in this way, it was there that a number of serious photographers actually began their careers, going beyond the dynamic of the social network based on the number of 'likes' and on a low-cost sense of gratification, which continues almost to govern the lives of many people to this day. The whole thing has by now reached proportions that leave us a little disoriented. We devour photographs in a sort of bulimic feeding frenzy, often hastily, in an effort to sift through the huge amount of material that is posted each day.
At the same time, this mass of images is in itself an opportunity, one that opens up new horizons which encompass plenty of curational opportunities too. The deck has been shuffled, and it is not yet possible to make any judgement as to whether the phenomenon is a positive or negative one. Perhaps it will have no intrinsic value, it is merely a fact. It's up to each of us to accept it and use it in the best possible way.
Tell us a little about FDS, the latest publishing project which centres on a ‘genre’ of photography that many people had thought of as outmoded, but which is today more vital than ever.
DW: FDS is the Italian acronym for "fotografi di strada", which translates to street photographers in English, and for this reason might sound related to the street photography thing, but in fact is just “shooting on the street”, in a metaphorical sense. It’s a subtle distinction which makes a huge difference to us. Anyway, FDS is a whim that I and Christian Grappiolo granted ourselves, and stems from the experience shared by us and many other friends on the earlier Flickr group. After a variety of vicissitudes, this led to the creation of a site where we tried to make it possible to see the things that are important for us in different settings and contexts.
Our position on ‘street photography’ is one of ambivalence: while we recognize the potential value of a very instinctive and spontaneous approach to photography, at the same time we realize how hard it is to put the idea into practice effectively. Perhaps it is an illusion to think that the genre is still vital: certainly, it is having its moment of glory, but this form of recognition is frequently self-focused; we don’t see a real seeking for meaningful debate that often, nor many people who are actually willing to go out on a limb, to get out of their comfort zone. People observing the genre often look at it in a condescending way, seeing it as being cocooned in a sort of ecosystem which is not easily contaminated – even though it may not look like this, considering how it has changed aesthetically – and which has grown to the point of self-sufficiency, with all the risks that self-sufficiency can bring. We find ourselves obstinately critical of this world, not because we are snobs, but just because we are enamoured of an idea of photography that risks being debased by an excessively superficial approach.
© David Wilson from the series 'Minor Collisions'
Let us turn to your work. What I find fascinating about your approach to photographing your subjects is partly your instinct, your detachment and that subtle, lateral sense of humour; on the other hand, you have a knack of distancing yourself from your subject, which allows you to observe a situation patiently, without focusing on specifics, and to build the overall picture.
DW: I have always led a sort of double life, split between this way of interpreting photography and an approach which is more reasoned and rational. I don't think the two things are necessarily in contrast with each other; they just come into play at different moments – sometimes the idea is the starting-point, but other times it might be the final aim. One thing is clear to me: the effort required to complete a project in the way you describe would be far greater for me. I have to start from scratch each time, building the grammatical structure and putting together a vocabulary of photographs, because in the end it is these that are at the heart of what I try to express. I need to start by creating a complete world, and then step back and see what happens.
Perhaps this is why I enjoy working with the idea too, starting from a well-defined project: in my head, I eliminate everything that is superfluous, and I go out to shoot knowing exactly what I want to find. It sometimes happens that these two very different processes combine into one, as it often happens that I see something I didn’t expect, and this might lead to some changes to the whole project. The boundary between the two approaches is clearly-defined, but the forces in play are such that, however robust the wall between them, it takes little to break it down.
© David Wilson from the series 'Minor Collisions'
Let's talk about places. What kind of city is Pordenone?
DW: Pordenone is a small town in north-eastern Italy. Just a normal town like so many others. Some may say that it's a bit boring, and to be honest this is the only aspect of the city that I sometimes take time to observe, on which I would like to work. To be honest, it's hard for me to find any other interesting features. What is certain is that, like the rest of north-eastern Italy, Pordenone has changed a lot over the last few years. The number of empty plants and warehouses in the industrial areas is immediately noticeable, and supermarkets and shopping centres are steadily replacing smaller high-street shops. On the plus side, Pordenone is in a fairly strategic position: it lies in the Friuli Venezia Giulia region, which is small in size but extraordinarily varied in terms both of the natural habitat and of the many cultural influences. Almost on my doorstep I can find mountains and foothills, lowlands, deserts, limestone Karsts, sandy beaches and rocky coastlines, and of course the lagoons. It's hard for me to explain how I relate to these places. When I'm there, I can't wait to get away. But when I'm somewhere else, I feel the urge to return...
One of the latest projects you showed me is about a Harbour. How much does being an angler too come into what you do?
DW: Hugely. This project came about in a rather strange way: I had just come back from London, and I wanted to take a break and turn my hand to something different. I've always loved the sea, and ever since I was very young, fishing was really a pretext, an excuse to go there. I was fascinated by the mystery of what lurked deep down in the abysses (at the time I didn't know that the water was only a few feet deep, even hundreds of yards from the beach). The trouble was that the places where I was able to go were unlikely to reveal much of this mystery. It was difficult to observe any forms of life beneath the surface, given that I had to make do with what little the shore-line had to offer. Fishing – even though it created a certain conflict of ethics for me – was the only way in which I could actually see any fragment of that world close-up.
But fishing brought me into direct contact with the environment too, and helped me to understand some of its secrets. After several years of assiduous visits to the coast, I realized that I had actually learned something that I had never known, and I felt a growing need to find a way of expressing all this. For this project, I chose the place where I had spent the greater part of my time, a narrow strip of water, almost deserted, and surrounded on three sides by gloomy, unattractive docklands. It was a sort of microcosm that I came to know like the back of my hand, but which at the same time retained that air of mystery that had fascinated me throughout my childhood. In this sense, the project may be seen as being complementary to my work in England; in London, I saw things from a different perspective, accepting what I saw and facing a place that was simply immense. I made no demands on the city. Here, it is different. I can photograph images that have been in the back of my mind for years; I know where to find them, and more or less when they will emerge. My memory also plays some part in the process, in both specific and broader terms.
© David Wilson from the series 'Harbour'
I remember that when you were in London several years ago, you used to check up on the weather forecast for the Friuli region. Studying the weather can become almost compulsive. I remember that my father, who was a pilot, was trained to study the weather situation very carefully before taking off. I understand that you are working on a very curious new project 'The Northern Tropics'. Can you tell us a little about it?
I'm half English, which probably explains my interest in the weather. And I fish, too – I think that just about explains it (smile). The project you refer to is in standby for the moment. In a way, it's finished, but as it is based on a situation that has yet to evolve, perhaps it will come to fruition over the next few years. I don't know why, but palm trees – the subject of the project – have always attracted my interest. Maybe it's simply their attractive form, or perhaps it's because they evoke a warm climate that we are not exactly accustomed to here. Whatever the reason, my interest in palm trees led me to notice that, over the last few years, certain species which had previously proliferated throughout the Mediterranean – except here – had begun to appear on these shores too. And the trend was seemingly on the increase, so I began to photograph the area between Jesolo and Grado. I began to visit the local nurseries, asking for information about this. Their responses were sometimes contrasting, but in any case interesting: some of the nurserymen told me that climate change was responsible, while others thought it was purely a sort of fashion trend. And so, with this project I wanted to highlight the phenomenon of climate change by focusing on evidence that is on our doorstep and can be seen in our day-to-day lives. At the same time, the phenomenon led me to reflect on the perception of ordinary people on these changes and on their reactions to them. It's a curious little detail – though I would not deny the justifiable preoccupations about climate change – and something that might become more and more noticeable over the next few years.
© David Wilson from the series 'The Northern Tropics'
And finally, Venice. You have recently collaborated with Isolab in a number of workshops. What's it like to photograph the most-photographed city in the world?
The guys at Isolab have helped me bring a number of projects to fruition. They are all young and full of enthusiasm, and we are perfectly in tune as regards a teaching approach that I use with everybody, irrespective of their level of skill. Unless they are essential to the success of the experience, I don't concentrate too much on technical aspects, I just cover the basics. I prefer to suggest an approach to photography which is both honest and direct, where the essential factor is the enjoyment – or rather, the gratification – of the photographer. I think that's the most important thing. In this sense, Venice is a city that has huge potential, although it is strangely difficult to photograph: there is so much 'raw material', and so many people walking around; the urban fabric consists of multiple stratified layers, and the photographer can bring together a variety of different elements in his work. In addition, Venice is pretty complex, and is perhaps the most-photographed city in the world. This means that it's a real challenge for anyone who wants to capture it in an original way. When I lived there myself, I was very aware of these difficulties; on the one hand, I attempted to "mask" the city, because its very essence emanated from even the most ordinary piece of stone, but at the same time I wanted to try to bring out the most iconic aspects as strongly as possible.
Last, though no less important: Do you have any secret dreams for your career?
By the end of the year I hope to finish working on Harbour, after which I'll try to put it on paper. I want to keep an eye on the 'palms thing’, too, and I will also dedicate my efforts to photography for its own sake. I'm in no hurry, I don't want to take on one project after another. Right now, I just want to feel free to take my photographs without any set schedule, to go wherever I want. I want to photograph everything, but maybe that's a bit much even for me. Almost everything, I'd be happy with that. But for the near future, I'll be perfectly happy to continue to take photographs without having to compromise, and without having to haggle about what I want to do and what I don't. Otherwise, I'm happy with things as they are.
Minor Collisions book