Studio Visit: Renato D’Agostin

Words: Sam Wittwer
Images: Maggie Shannon

May 29 2016

Looking down on the busy street beneath photographer Renato D’Agostin’s Brooklyn studio, it’s hard not to recall the scenes of distant observation from Francis Ford Coppola’s seminal film The Conversation. Unaware that they are being captured on film, passers by are flattened by Coppola’s telephoto lens into scenes of layered abstraction – single figures in the distance framed by the amorphous shapes of persons closer to the camera. It is very much the film maker’s intention to force his audience to confront their voyeurism.

It’s not a reference that I came to entirely of a glancing daydream, D’Agostin is not afraid of the term voyeur – he self identifies. His version of voyeurism, however, is not one with perverse or intrusive undertones. His images often abstract the human form into silhouettes and shapes that play off the harsh angular lines of the architecture that surrounds them. It feels to be a part of a lineage of great photographers right back to one of the first, Louis Daguerre. Widely agreed to have captured the first ever image of a person on film, Daguerre captured the image of a man getting his shoes shined on a lazy Paris street, unaware that he stood still just long enough to be photographed. Just so, D’Agostin’s subjects are unaware that they are being flattened into dramatic black and white compositions in the photographer’s lens. 

The images D’Agostin makes are precisely captured. He describes sitting still, awaiting the exact moment when a figure enters the frame of an arch, a man’s arm reaches out into the void between buildings, a bird flies through the field of his lens. Carefully observed, captured, and developed in the darkroom D’Agostin built just below his lofted bedroom in the apartment and studio we sit in now, his images are highly controlled compositions of chance. The constraints that D’Agostin places on his work, shot on film, in black and white, of scenes undisturbed, grant him a freedom in exploration.

This exploration seems to come largely in physical form. We’re catching D’Agostin on his return from Italy, for a press check on his most recent project. The book, entitled 7439, is the fourth in D’Agostin’s Nomadic Editions, and the first in America. A documentation of his two month journey across the United States on the back of an ’83 BMW Touring Bike. “I’m aware of the cliché of a photo book of a roadtrip. I’m not interested in cliché. I grew up surrounded by cliché.” As a young Italian growing up on the outskirts of Venice, there is little doubt that D’Agostin is more familiar than most with the trite renderings of iconic cities and vistas. In his youth, he played with his Father’s camera, but it was a trip around Europe that convinced the young Italian that photography would be his form of expression. After studying photography in Milan, he moved to New York where early on he assisted legendary photographer Ralph Gibson.

In lieu of cliché, D’agustin’s images of these famed locations, present the feeling of the place in his own iconic style. The black and white, he says “Takes the image farther from reality and closer to our imagination.” Working with poets and performers, he expands this interpretation far beyond the image on the page. For each of his Nomadic Series, D’Agostin has worked with Italian poet Luigi Cerantola to create work to accompany the images. Each of the poems is performed and recorded, and the accompanying vinyl pressing of that recording becomes a part of the piece, a physical manifestation of the performance of the work.

It is this control from shutter to shelf that seems to have allowed D’Agostin to produce a body of work so consistent and strong. In a way it all feels very traditional, while he does share his work on his website and instagram account, his work does not feel of or influenced by the internet. If it were not for the occasional capture of a modern car or way of dress, it would be easy to mistake the images as the work of another era. Yet D’Agostin’s work plays with themes inherently modern – perceptions of reality, notions of privacy. The body of images as a whole creates a tension between the old world and the new, one that it might be said comes from the history of the photographer himself. To his credit, this is not lost on D’Agostin, who continues to rely on the power of shadow and light to manifest his vision.

Maggie Shannon is a photographer based in Brooklyn.