The photographic quest for the sublime by Paolo Pellegrin
That night, as we were alone in our cabins, the wind howled through the ancient red dunes. Primal, powerful, terrifying – it whipped sand against walls and windows. At breakfast, Pellegrin noted that the wind didn’t matter what country you were in, the shape of the land, the borders. It was the indifferent form: the wind the archetype, expressed in a specific case – that wind that night in the Kalahari. “Photography strives to be the opposite – to evoke the archetype through a specific case,” he said.
He showed me an image he had taken on our sunset safari: a blue wildebeest, caught in motion. The photograph was blurred in such a way as to obscure any particular quality of this wildebeest, and in this way it elevated the image to the abstract: the wildebeest the species, the wildebeest the idea. The image evoked the cave paintings of Lascaux, drawn by hunter-gatherers some seventeen thousand years ago. How had I not also seen this distilled form? I had been with him the whole time, chasing after the galloping herd.
Pellegrin was born in Rome, into a family of architects. Her father, Luigi, was an internationally renowned designer of public buildings and schools, and her mother, Luciana Menozzi, was an architect and teacher from a faded aristocratic family. The Pellegrin house was filled with art and poetry, classic works of the humanities and craft tools – aprons, brushes, pencils, sketchbooks, rulers, inks, cameras, paints. “There was this family imperative that you had to express yourself, whether in the humanities or the arts,” Pellegrin told me. “And there was this utter disdain for anything desk-related – that would have been, you know, just unforgivable.” His mother’s family motto was Etiam si ali omnes, ego no“Even if all the others, not me.
Pellegrin’s parents separated when he was little. He and his younger sister, Chiara, lived primarily with their mother, and Luigi viewed his time with the children as an opportunity to convey his aesthetic view of the world. “It would expose us to art and art history, and its references in the humanities and science,” Pellegrin told me. There were pilgrimages to the Met, the Louvre, and the Sagrada Familia, as well as sites of great art and architecture throughout Italy. “Borromini Sundays, Bernini Saturdays, churches, Caravaggio,” Pellegrin recalls. “My father introduced me to Senghor, Wole Soyinka and Derek Walcott, and the things he read. He was truly a Renaissance man, with a wide range of interests. And I think he felt there was a duty – his parental duty – to pass these things on to us, which eventually formed an ethical system. Through artistic expression, Luigi taught his children, “you have to pay for the oxygen you breathe”.
Chiara announced her intention to become a painter at the age of thirteen and today she teaches art in Rome. “I, on the other hand, didn’t know what to do with myself,” Pellegrin told me. “I was schiacciato– flattened – “by this totemic father figure. I had not found my vocation. So I was failing a bit to express myself, to this absolute imperative for each person. It didn’t happen to me, unlike Chiara. I was trying things – art, drawing, graphic design – and studying chess. I did a few tournaments. But, quite simply, I did not know what to do with myself. At the age of nineteen, he enrolled to study architecture at the Università la Sapienza in Rome. “I never knew how hard I was trying to please my architect parents, or if it was the easiest thing – a placeholder while I figured it out,” he said. His notebooks from this period show meticulous sketches of Baroque arches. But, after three years, “it became clear to me that this was not my calling”, he said. “There was something wrong. It didn’t match.
One day, when Pellegrin was twenty-two, he entered his father’s studio, “where my father was venerated as a demigod by his people,” he recalls. Luigi lit a cigarette and sat down in silence, his feet on his desk, while Pellegrin announced that he was finishing his studies in architecture. “It was very painful for me, but at the same time absolutely liberating,” he recalls. “The only certainty I had in this monologue was that at some point I realized that I couldn’t get away with it without offering an alternative”: photography.
Luigi heard the news, but said nothing. “It gave me an ulterior motive – to push myself even harder, to justify this decision,” Pellegrin said. He enrolled in a photography school in Rome. “And within a few months it became absolutely clear to me that that was it,” he said. “I just knew. And, once you know, everything else feels like a waste of time.
In 2019, Pellegrin joined me in documenting an expedition to send a manned submersible to the deepest point in every ocean. While at sea he read Alfred Lansing’s book “Endurance”, about Shackleton’s expedition. I noticed that he often crouched down to take pictures, but it wasn’t until he finished the assignment that he told me why. It was shot in a square format, in black and white, at chest height, with tight framing and a shallow depth of field. The idea, he explained, was to evoke the documentary style and equipment of expedition photographers a hundred years earlier.
“There’s this Robert Capa quote: ‘If your photos aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough,'” he told me. “Very true! It always comes down to reducing or nullifying the distance. But that’s only part of the equation. The other part is if you’re not good enough, then you’re not reading enough And the idea is that photography isn’t really about taking pictures – taking pictures is incidental. It’s a by-product, in a sense, of everything else. What you’re really doing is to give form – photographic form – to a thought, to an opinion, to an understanding of the world, of what is before you, and so if we think in those terms, then you have to improve the quality of your thoughts.
The photography school in Rome taught the craft almost like one would teach carpentry – here are the tools, here is how to work with different materials, various iterations of film and light. “OK, I learned the artisanal aspect, the trade,” recalls Pellegrin. “But in terms of language, nobody really taught that. Photography is a foreign language, and I had to master this thing. I had to learn to speak. »
Every day he went out to shoot and every evening he returned to the studio to develop films and make prints. He read essays on photography by Walter Benjamin, Roland Barthes and Susan Sontag, and noted how great authors and poets observed and refracted the world before them. Rilke’s eighth elegy focuses on the gaze of animals; Derrida is ashamed when his cat sees him naked. Pellegrin worked various odd jobs and spent much of the profits on photography books: “Telex Iran,” by Gilles Peress; “Gypsies”, by Josef Koudelka. “One of the big lessons was looking at Koudelka’s contact sheets, because he would go back to the same place and basically take the same photo, over and over, day after day,” he said. “And I completely understand that. This idea of looking for the exact position is the puzzle.
“I was trying to find my own voice in that,” Pellegrin recalls. “During those early years, many years in fact, I forced this on myself, because I absolutely had to, in my mind, recreate la bottega, the Renaissance workshop. You go in and mix colors for six months. Then, for another six months, you prepare the canvas. Et cetera, et cetera.
For five years Pellegrin studied and practiced on the streets of Rome. He was drawn to the margins and the forgotten, the lives of vagabonds, circus performers, Roma families and the city’s homeless. After a well-paid job as a still photographer for a film, he buys an old Mercedes, loads his books and photo equipment in it, and leaves for Paris. There were few friends, no contacts, no appointments, just the addresses of two photo agencies. It was in 1991. Pellegrin, who was twenty-seven, left an envelope of photos with Agence Vu, and was accepted by the agency at the end of the week.
The rest of Pellegrin’s learning took place in the field: Uganda, Bosnia, Gaza, Cambodia, Haiti. “It was done by doing,” he said, mostly in scenes of conflict, epidemic and natural disaster. He became obsessed with how a photograph can shape and be shaped by history, as well as the ethical and aesthetic relationships between an individual subject and the larger human condition. Often he made repeated or extended visits, drawing up projects over several years. “We, as photojournalists, have the ultimate desire for invisibility: to be able to photograph without being noticed, without the subject looking you in the eye,” he said. “But you achieve it through presence – not surreptitiously, not on the move, but by being there. By being there, you are part of it. And by being part of it, you become invisible.
In 1999, he went to Kosovo. It was his first time working in active fire warfare and he remained in the area for much of the next two years. Here, the theoretical and the technical coincided with the real. Displaced Kosovo Serbs, walking in the snow, appear like specters through steamy glass; an Albanian refugee couple in a car seem lost in anguish, as their windshields reflect the shadows of people clinging to a barbed wire fence; the death of a Serbian man, murdered by Albanians, is not shown with his body but on the faces of women crying over what we understand to be the corpse lying before them. “In photography, we have our little rectangle, through which we see the world,” Pellegrin said. “But sometimes you can go beyond that,” suggesting a larger truth or horror by excluding the main event.