RM: What is “home“ to you? Maybe also talk about where and how you grew up and where you feel your roots are.
MDG: This is a question I’ve been asking myself many times in the last few years and – to be frank – I still don’t have a definitive answer. I’m more prone to say that the idea of home reminds me of a place you should desire to go back to, a place you feel you belong to and, ultimately, a place where a mix of memories comes back to your mind.
I was born in Pescara, a coastal town on the Adriatic Sea in Central Italy. I would say it is an anonymous provincial city, where nothing really happens. The only thing you could really do was roaming from one place to another, exploring the surroundings with no real plan in mind. Summers were a bit more exciting, but nothing outstanding. It was a really tough time and I soon understood this couldn’t be the place for me.
When I was a teenager, I was so frustrated because everything seemed to be so narrow-minded and left straight after high-school at the end of ’90s. I felt so relieved when I did. I needed to study abroad and try to pursue my interests. So, I first moved to Rome, then London with brief experiences in Brussels and New York City. And now I live in Milan. I rarely came back to Pescara during my time abroad. I never worried too much about my hometown in the past. It’s something that came up in 2012, when I was forced to move back there for about a year in order to carry out some important rehab after a road accident.
That year, for the first time, after more than 12 years of living elsewhere, I had the chance to see the place I grew up with different eyes. This is when I started questioning myself about ideas such as “home”, “hometown” and “roots”. Photographing the place in that time helped me a lot and I began feeling a connection with the landscape, which was rapidly changing from a featureless small town by the sea to a cluttered overcrowded and disorganized city. What I found beautiful was that the places where I used to go when I was a kid, mostly countryside and mountains, were pretty much unchanged. What caught my attention was this strong clash between the city and the adjacent spaces.
The atypical thing is that I was born there, whilst my mother’s family was from Naples and never had strong relationships with my father’s family, as my parents split up when I was a baby. I do have my mom and a bunch of friends from high school who I still see when I go back, but the real connection is with this dull, messy, bleak and full of contradictions landscape to which all my childhood memories are connected. For the first time they started coming back to my mind when I had to stay there without the chance to get away, which I always had in the past. Nevertheless, this is the only place I call “home”.
By staying there for several months, I started understanding how a person – no matter where he/she goes – is still partly shaped by the experiences made during childhood in a particular place. In a way or another that person carries “traces” of these experiences and feelings, which can’t be avoided forever.
And since then, I strongly feel the need to elaborate and work on these connections in the only way I could: through photography.
RM: I‘m asking because your work so obviously deals with the relationship to landscape, the relationship between the people and the land they occupy. It‘s a subject you have in common with Simon Roberts, who I believe you studied with at some point. Who else, would you say, had an influence on your work? Which photographers did you look at intensively? Where is your home artistically?
MDG: I was lucky to meet Simon in 2010 if I’m not mistaken. At the time, I was studying Photography at Westminster and was asked to choose a photographer for an interview. I had fallen in love with his first monograph, Motherland, and wanted to talk to him about that body of work. It was an important encounter for me. I also had the chance to follow him a few times while he was shooting Pierdom, but the most important thing is that we have kept a regular relationship based on internet calls, occasional physical meetings and mail exchanges. To sum it up, he is the one I always call when I need an opinion and an advice. Not sure he is happy about this, ahah. But, definitively, he is an important figure in my way of interpreting photography.
Another extremely central figure in my career has been David Campany. He was my professor at Westminster and he really brought my understanding of photography to another level. David’s classes were outstanding, the way he presented photobooks, exhibitions and anecdotes was very powerful. That really changed the way I look at the medium and, after that, I immersed myself into photobooks.
At the time, of course I knew the big names, but I needed to go back to them, so I restarted again from William Eggleston, Stephen Shore, John Gossage, Robert Adams, Richard Misrach, Lewis Baltz, Joel Sternfeld, Alec Soth, Robert Frank and so on.
My obsession for William Eggleston still remains. I regularly go through his work; I never get tired of it and always find something new in his oeuvre. Starting from the names I have mentioned above, I have discovered fantastic work made by Joachim Brohm, Ron Jude, Mark Ruwedel, Hans-Christian Schink, Lars Türnbjork, Claudius Schulze, Gerry Johansson, Jason Fulford, Michael Wolf, Bryan Schutmaat, Mark Power, Raymond Meeks, Roger Eberhard, Gregory Halpern, Robin Friend. The list could go on and on.
These are the names I have been looking at intensively in the last months: Mark Ruwedel, Hans-Christian Schink, Ron Jude, Mark Power and Claudius Schulze.
Back to your first? question, I would say that artistically my home is split between the US, Germany and the UK. This is connected to the first question: I often feel I don’t really belong to this country even if I live here. This might sound like I have something against Italy, which is not true. It probably comes from the fact that many landscape photographers operating in Italy have a background in Architecture. There’s this strong relation between architecture and photography here, whilst I studied Philosophy and Social Sciences in general, therefore I’m more that type of photographer who needs the “The OpenRoad, to say it with Campany’s words. The road-trip is an important aspect in my photography. I’m not only attracted to lines, shapes and structures, but much more to anthropological, sociological and philosophical issues and this is where my interest for the interaction between people and landscape comes from, even if people are rarely present in my photographs.
RM: In your first answer you briefly mention a road accident. Are you comfortable talking about that? I‘m asking about it, because it feels like it had fundamental consequences also in your work.
MDG: You’re right. It did have consequences in my work and I think that is really important.
In a few months it will be 10 years from that road accident, hence talking about it is not a problem.
It all happened in July 2011, while I was working on the MA final project in the Balkans. I knew the area very well as I had several NGO assignments in Bosnia, Serbia, Croatia and other countries around there and my idea was to work on Bosnian national identity 20 years after the beginning of the Balkan War.
I don’t have any memory of that day, the last thing I recall is when I left the hotel in the morning. I woke up 4 months later in a hospital bed in Milan with wires and tubes all over the place and my mother was next to me. It was quite tough as I was highly sedated, so the awakening process was gradual. Doctors had to find the way to tell me what happened to my body as well. They would come every morning adding a bit more information about my state as well as what I could expect from the future. During the 4 months in a coma I underwent 54 abdomen surgeries and a leg amputation, which actually saved my life.
A very long rehab process began the day after I woke up. At the end of 2013 I was able to walk a few steps without external aid. The year after I moved to Milan, where I continued my rehab and based myself. So that’s where and when another chapter of my life started.
It might sound silly, but one of the things that mattered the most for me at the time was finding a way to get back to photography. I don’t come from a rich family and I had worked really hard to be able to make a living as a photographer before the accident. I had to start all over again.
I’m a stubborn person and could not accept that a 20-year old guy driving irresponsibly could ruin my life forever. I worked hard on both sides: getting back to full autonomy and finding a new approach to the medium, which could be compatible with my situation. And, in a way, I think I got there.
When your condition changes in a split second, your body and brain are put under deep pressure, as they have to work on finding a new balance. That being said, having a mobility issue forces you to re-think the space around you. Things are completely different and the way you move around the world has to be re-learnt. Your brain has to work in a different way and there are many things you can’t do any longer. You’ve got to find a solution. This brings you to perceive the space in a completely different way.
Right after the accident, I had many friends around me telling that nothing had changed and I would have always been the same person. At the beginning I believed in that, but then I figured out that it was a profound lie. Any traumatic event radically changes you and I think it is normal. It has to provoke a change. The way you change may differ, but thinking that everything is going to be the same is somehow silly. Once you accept that, you are ready to face the new reality.
I think that the true switch happened when I was editing my first complete body of work, which resulted in the publication of I wish the world was even. That book had to be the foundation of this new chapter as an individual as well as a photographer or artist if you prefer. I changed the edit so many times. At some point, I was about to give up.
I took a break and – when I got back to editing – I decided that the book had to speak about me, my fears, my desires, my limitations, my passions, my stubbornness, my fragilities as a human being. By being so personal it could also become a more universal body of work on other people’s existential conditions in today’s society.
That’s why I decided to take off all the portraits and use the landscape as a metaphor accompanied by excerpts from my travel diary.
RM: Let’s maybe talk about that first book you published after the accident, I wish the world was even (Artphilein Editions, Lugano, 2019). It’s a road trip, you traveled by car from Milan to the North Pole…..quite an endeavor….
MDG: Yes, at the beginning it started as a challenge, but this can be misleading. It was also a provocation. From my point of view, disability is too often correlated to sport and heart-breaking experiences. It seems like this is the only way to take revenge on something unfair that happened to you. There’s that feeling that brings people to do something they wouldn’t have done in a normal situation. Hence, they go running, jumping, cycling or whatever. I don’t have anything against sports, but I just wanted to go back to do what I loved. Very simple.
The idea of hitting the road came to me in 2014, when I was finally able to walk again. Not crazy stuff, but at least I could slowly walk for a few miles with a small backpack.
At the same time, being on the road seemed to me the best way to exorcize what happened in 2011. Add to this that I had always wanted to go through Northern Europe, probably the last open space in continental Europe. In short, the ingredients were all there.
I set up a crowdfunding campaign to economically fund the journey and amazingly it worked out. I set out from Milan with a friend of mine in October 2015 going North. I knew we would run out of light very soon and I found it photographically intriguing. The journey was really random, we had a sort of itinerary, but it really was “let’s follow the road and see where it takes us”. So, we would go to a place, talk to someone, go to another place, talk to somebody else in a bar and take a detour and so forth. Really no plans whatsoever. We spent two months this way.
The question I always had in mind was: how would I deal with the world surrounding me now that so many things have changed? As I said earlier, I had to re-learn how to move within a space. We give so many things for granted and we only realize how important they are when we don’t have them anymore or when we don’t have them all. It was tough, believe me, but perhaps it was what I needed. I would redo it any time. I really tested my own limits during those two months and I can say that I really understood how my everyday life would have been limited in the future. That is not easy to accept, but the more you try to accept it the more you can find a way to work around it.
Being limited is hard because you always think about things you can’t do.
Two really tough months but also fantastic in many ways.
I got back with a bag filled up with exposed film and a diary full of notes. I really wanted to get something out of what I shot in that timeframe, without adding anything else. Just that experience. I soon realized this would have been the hardest part, because it wasn’t just about talking about the road, it was talking about the road with myself in it.
I remember I had a conversation with Arthur Herrman after the journey. He helped me a lot during the crowdfunding and he warned me by saying that finding a publisher for a book so personal would have been really hard. At the beginning, I was editing the book with Giulia Zorzi from Micamera (who curated the work), but it wasn’t easy, probably because she knew my story too well.
I decided to take a break, then I had another surgery, which forced me at home for about two months. I spent that time starting over from the beginning, making physical dummies, re-arranging images and working on different titles.
This is when I started arranging the notes taken during those long northern nights with the images I had taken. I realized that many things I wrote were about how I was feeling in that particular day. I had recently taken part in a workshop run by Gus Powell at Micamera and his The Lonely Ones has been really important for me. The way Gus put together words and images in a poetic way was so inspiring. Needless to say, that dialogue between my words and my photographs was much more melancholic than his, but I finally felt I had found a way to make it work. To be more precise I had the impression that something interesting could come out when I found the sentence “I wish the world was flat” in a single page of my diary and I put it together with the only image that is somehow twisted, not straight, not flat at all in the sequence.
The book was supposed to be published by Peperoni Books, but Hannes suddenly passed away and this is when Artphilein Editions accepted the risk to publish such an intimate and personal book. I can’t thank them enough for what they did and the collaboration that has taken shape since then. The book came out three and half years after I got back from the road trip… that’s a long process I must admit. If I look back, this probably was the key, as working on that material wasn’t emotionally easy for me.
That “flat” has then been turned into “even” in the final title, as it gives more the idea of the double meaning I wanted to convey. “Even” in the sense of a world without barriers, which would make my life much easier and “even” in the sense of more “fair” world. It comes without saying that these are both utopian ideas, more a desire than an actual tangible thing. But that’s what the work is all about: a utopian desire.
RM: It certainly sounds like you had to push this project through against many obstacles, it’s a product of will-power and resilience, it seems. It‘s remarkable however, how much one doesn’t „feel“ that, when going through it. The editing is so calm, elegant, if that‘s the right word. That‘s when Emiliano Biondelli comes in, I guess. Can you talk about the editing process a bit?
MDG: I’m really glad you say that. I think this was the real challenge, as I did not want it to be a body of work about “the pain I have gone through”. The question was: “who would ever care about my story”? This thought brought me to think about something more universal, which could bring the viewer to a deeper understanding of human nature, relation with space and personal feelings.
The work had to be more about the pleasure and the need of looking at the world with fresh eyes. That re-learning process that starts when you accept all the adjustments you had to make after a traumatic event. Cause, I reckon, almost all of us go through something traumatic during their lifetime and everybody deals with fears, anxieties, desires and hopes.
What I had in mind, when I re-started the editing process from scratch, was a poem about life with its multi-faceted aspects. I did not want to give any physical or geographical reference to the work. In my mind it had to be a sort of “possible world”, a lyrical sequence instead of a descriptive one.
I came out with this hand-made dummy with bad prints glued on blank pages and handwritten text.
This is when Emiliano Biondelli jumped in. He worked with me on the sequencing of the pictures and the graphic concept of the book during the last stage of editing. Probably for the completion of the work I needed a person who knew very little about me and about my story. We got along very well. All the dummies you saw in Arles were the results of our collaboration.
I showed the dummy to Emiliano in a bar and told him the whole story behind it, which he didn’t know. One of the first things Emiliano did, was to bring some order into my chaotic way of working. I’m diligent in the field and much less in the studio… He acted as a guide, asking questions and to take a look at what I had edited out.
From that moment, we had several editing sessions and put together many sequences, until we were both satisfied. Of course, the whole story took months, but I was really happy about his way to create a dialogue between my images, including the oneiric touch of black and white part in the book. He gave that twist to the sequence, which made it much more fluent, working a lot with white spaces to make the work flow in this unspecified land in an undefined time. The very diaristic handwriting got substituted by a more universal typeface.
What we tried to do was creating a floating world between reality and fiction starting from a road trip, hence the Flying Beetle in the cover, which returns in the middle of the book from a different perspective. All the portraits I took along the way got taken off, because the most important thing was the relationship with the space, with the landscape I had encountered. The human presence was not necessary. And finally the title, this impossible desire. Again, all of us wish something and rarely this is something possible.
Since we published the first book together, there has been a continuous dialogue between us, which naturally evolved in working again together on my second book, Blue Bar. It was right after the publication of I wish the world was even that the idea of a trilogy had come up.
RM: What struck me about that trilogy of books is that the projects are published in reverse order chronologically. The first book you published, I wish the world was even that came out in spring 2019 is the latest body of work, the newest project of the three. Correct? Before that, you photographed Blue Bar, published in fall 2020. What is it about, Blue Bar?
They deeply overlap.
I will briefly give you a timeframe for each project. I started shooting some of the images that will be included in Traces in 2013 in Abruzzo, the region I was born in and where I grew up. My hope is to get the project done by Fall 2022. I have a tight shooting schedule ahead this year.
I wish the world was even was shot in 60 days straight, October – December 2015, on the way from Milan to the northernmost point of Norway and back through Finland, Sweden and Germany.
The first images of Blue Bar were made at the end of 2014, but the entire work was shot intensively from the beginning of 2016 till end of 2019 along the Delta area of the Po River in North-Eastern Italy. During these last five years I have kept gathering images for Traces.
Hope this clarifies a bit…
Despite being the most difficult body of work to deal with among the three, I really desired I wish the world was even to be the first one to be published. I see it as a statement of my new approach to the photographic medium.
Back to your question, I would define Blue Bar, in one sentence, as “a work about uncertainty”. Everything started during a conversation with a fisherman who lives in the Delta area of the longest Italian river, called Po. The river cuts Italy in two parts, North and South. The Delta Region lays under sea level and it is constantly threatened by floods. While driving, he told me that if you accept to live there you also have to accept the idea that everything can instantly disappear if the riverbanks collapse. This has happened quite a few times in the past.
I tried to portray, hopefully with success, these human feelings of suspension, stillness, slowness, the circularity of time, which accompany this part of Italy. The Cormac McCarthy’s words that open the book very much express the feeling you get when you talk to the people living there.
It is entirely shot in Italy, but – as well as my previous book – I did not want it to be a documentary related to a specific place. My intention was to evoke a common human condition which most of us have to deal with and thought the Delta region, with its foggy flat landscape, could have been very much the right place.
I used the landscape as a metaphor of a human state. As you go through the book, you realize that it has much more than just flatness. So many elements pop out along the way, giving the idea of a strange human presence, sometimes hard to codify. That area holds this sort of melancholy, that idea of feeling blue, which is often related to a certain American culture. I can unquestionably admit that it is a homage to the American Photography, which I’m strongly connected to.
This second book has been much more challenging in terms of editing and sequencing compared to the first one. We wanted to re-create this sinuous character of the river with all the contradictions within the landscape around it. That is why Emiliano and I played a bit more with the layout, adding double spreads and different positions for the images. Always giving room for white space, which is an important element in my work.
RM: Blue Bar is such a wonderful body of work! At this point maybe a big shout out to Giulia Brivio at Artphilein for her commitment to this long term publication trilogy. Tell us about the third title, Traces – to be published next year!
Thanks for that! The only thing the makes me sad about Blue Bar is that we have not been able to have a proper presentation and that is a pity. Same thing for a dedicated show. This would have meant a lot to me. Hope there will be a chance in the near future!
Probably everything was there; publishing a book about uncertainty between two epic pandemic waves…
Nevertheless, the book is selling good and more importantly is going around quite a bit and I couldn’t be more surprised. The power of books, eh. They go everywhere! That’s probably why I’m so proud of my photobook collection and keep adding titles to it. They drag me in a different world each time and I could not live without this.
David Campany made me discover the potential of photobooks when I was in college. That was the moment when I understood that the book form would have been the best way to present my work, but I have always been attracted also by the gallery wall and the way a body of work can be translated in a three-dimensional space.
Maybe I’m wandering away from the topic. Let’s get back to the question.
Traces. This work is supposed to sum up – together with the previous two books – my last decade of thoughts, ideas, decisions, studies and influences. As you have already figured out, the last ten years have been intense. The most important thing for me was the choice of not giving up photography, but trying hard to find a way through it.
Many things have happened since 2011: radical change in life, got back to my hometown after a long period abroad, had to re-think my photography, turned 40 and moved to what here people like to call the “most vibrant city” in Italy and so on. You know when you reflect on how, when and why things happened? You think about what you actually are and realize that is not so easy to be categorized. It is hard to be defined in a single way, you are a mix of things. To me a single person is the result of different experiences and, lately, I like to call them traces, which you gather along the way till they form a sort of unity. They come together and shape yourself day by day. It is this continuous movement that keeps you alive.
Traces will be the only body of work that contains photographs shot in a period of time that spans over almost 10 years, from 2012 to the beginning of 2022. It started as soon as I had the chance to pick up a camera in Pescara and continued whenever I had the time to go back for various reasons, until I felt that a work had to be done and that place had to be the theatre of it.
Being forced to go back to an area you wanted to leave is not ideal, but it all depends on the way you deal with it. This new situation gave me the chance to look at that place with different eyes, not just frustration, but also a sort of curiosity. Thus, I began exploring the spots I used to go when I was a kid, went to different locations around the region where my parents used to take me, revisited spaces I hated to be taken to. And, somehow, they all looked different. When you are a bit more than a teenager you want to conquer the world, you want to show others that you can do whatever you like: I wanted to study, live in a great city, be a photographer, visit as many places as I could. The only way to do all this stuff was by leaving right away without looking back. That’s what I did.
This means Traces has a lot to do with memory. Pescara is the city from where I set out in 1999 and it’s the place where I had to restart all over again in 2012. The work is still under construction and deals primarily with home, roots and the idea of belonging to a place that you don’t really feel connected to. But it’s also about youth, love, loss, discomfort, change of perception: a mix of emotions.
Traces is a sort of incubator of the other two works. It contains them all and it also adds content to them. That’s why I think about the three books as a whole, they are deeply linked. There’s an American writer, Kent Haruf, who wrote a trilogy (he would call it “loose trilogy”) about an imaginary town called Holt. My trilogy has no town, but underlines the power of photography to construct different worlds.
The trilogy doesn’t have a proper structure and that’s the reason why I feel connected to the definition of “loose trilogy”. The works share different elements: a similar approach to the medium, no geographical connotation, use of landscape as a metaphor, similar aesthetic and lyrical editing made of suspension and symbolic connections between images. They are not a description of a place whatsoever, I already said that, but it’s key and needs to be emphasized. Another crucial leitmotiv of the three books is that they are all based on a road-trip.
It must be something latent, as I can’t really explain why I need the road to produce work. Probably it’s this roaming desire seen as a tool not only to discover places, but to understand more about myself, the world and human nature. It’s something very meditative.
Therefore, Traces will also take shape from numerous road trips through my homeland. There are so many things that can happen when you’re travelling. I think the road-trip is a gnoseological tool. There’s no chance you get back without learning something!
I drew on a map a series of paths to follow through the area where I was born, remembrances from family trips, experiences out of town, the sea during winter with its desolation and fascination. And Traces will be the result of these trips.
You mentioned Giulia Brivio in your question. Working with her is utterly amazing, we never had any disagreement and really like the way she approaches the projects she follows. She is the editorial coordinator of Artphilein Editions and we often discuss content as well as technical aspects of a body of work. She follows you step by step and working together for me is a real joy.
Though, the idea of a trilogy came up whilst we were having an informal meeting with Caterina De Pietri, the chief of the publishing house. I was showing them images from Blue Bar and it became clear that the works were so interconnected. Then, we talked about the fact that I was working on a project related to the idea of home. We were actually discussing the German word Heimat and the impossibility of a translation of it.
It might have been because they overlap: I wish the world was even was just out of the press, the image production phase of Blue Bar was finished and I was still shooting for Traces. Together we decided to work on this unplanned trilogy, keeping a few recognizable features: book size, back title and a picture on the cover, always of the same size.
RM: I love how elegantly we have come back to “Heimat“ /home and to my first question here and maybe this is a good way to end this conversation. I very much look forward to seeing the final trilogy in print and to working together on the selection of images from all three series for the exhibition that we have announced at our gallery in Berlin for fall of next year!
I couldn’t agree more. Very much looking forward to working together on the show at your gallery!