Nowhere Newsletter 09: Filippo Giani

Interview with photographer Filippo Giani

What is your backstory?

My name is Filippo Giani. I am 25 years old, born in northern Italy and raised in Tuscany. I first took a serious (although passive) interest in imagery when I was about 14 years old. Three years later I was given the opportunity to move to the US and spend my senior year in Chicago as an exchange student. I wasn’t taking pictures at the time, but that’s when I first started to look around me in a different, more focused way. Chicago is a very dark, cold and frankly sinister city during the winter, especially the neighbourhood where I was living in (located in the south), which was a big novelty for me at the time. A friend of mine once described it as having “a black hole sort of feel”, and I think that’s a beautiful way to put it.

After graduating, I moved to Germany to enrol in a business course, but dropped out after the first semester and moved to the UK to study filmmaking instead. That’s when I first received some degree of formal training in cinematic lighting. I never really applied the cinematic style to my photography up to this point but some of the things I learned there still come handy from time to time, such as the zone system and eyeballing exposure settings. In 2017 I finally decided to purchase a camera of my own and start experimenting.

What camera /editing setup do you use?

I use a Sony A7RII in conjunction with vintage Rollei HFT lenses and Contax Zeiss lenses. Mainly 28mm and 50mm focal lengths. More rarely 35mm. Very old gear that was passed onto me by my father, who is also a photography enthusiast. I typically shoot on a cheap tripod and edit in Photoshop. There was a time in which I worried about absolute sharpness, stability and precision, but now not so much anymore. I like to be agile, so my setup is overall very minimalistic in nature, often limited to the camera body, tripod and as many lenses as I can fit in my jacket’s pockets. I don’t use a shutter remote and do all of my focusing manually. I don’t drive and don’t own a bike, so I’m basically stuck walking, which makes lightness a priority.

How do you achieve the look of your photographs and could you take us through the process?

I tend to pick nights with specific atmospheric conditions. I generally shoot pretty chaotically and without a clear objective, allowing the envirionment to dictate what I ought to be getting. After a session, I would backup the images and store them away into a hard drive, forgetting about them until weeks, months or in cases even a year later.

The editing process varies depending on the image. At times I simply limit myself to perform some basic color correction and cropping. Other times the editing is more invasive. The decision mostly depends on what the image is able to transmit to me upon review. If I can sense an underlying potential for something that the picture currently isn’t but could become, I dive in and try a bunch of different things.

In extreme although rare cases, I would combine several different images into a single one. The result is a patchwork of distant instants, condensed into a phantom moment that technically never occurred as represented, which I find amusing given the historical background of photography and its supposed documentaristic function.

At times, but not often, I like to shoot at higher ISO levels despite my tripod setup in order to bring out some noise. I understand the controversy that surrounds that subject, but I personally don’t mind a little dirtiness. I find it to add to the overall character.

Could you provide 3 before and after shots and take us through your process?

1. Untitled (2020) (below)

This picture was taken earlier this year when I travelled back to my old neighbourhood in Chicago to visit the family that had hosted me during my previous stay in 2012. As I mentioned earlier, I wasn’t taking pictures back then, but this time I made sure to bring my camera along. I started wandering aimlessly and eventually came across this house. It is very possible that I had seen it many times before, but I couldn’t recall a specific instance. Nevertheless, it struck me as bearing some concealed potential. I took the picture on a tripod, f/5.6 and a relatively short exposure time (1/3 sec.). When time came to edit it, I simply cropped it and brought down the overall exposure levels, while masking out the light coming through the main entranceway. I then performed some very basic color correction and that was it.

(Unedited photograph, top)

2. Untitled (2020) (below)

This image was shot in Houston on a very interesting night. It wasn’t foggy per se, but the sky had a very smooth, silky texture and a uniform purple hue which I found enticing. I walked out of the house I was staying in and saw this scene happening in the backyard. A car had been parked with the headlights turned on and was illuminating part of the wooden fence. I took the picture without thinking too much about it and then completely forgot it existed. (Settings: 50mm closed off to contain flaring and 2.5 sec. exposure time on tripod).

A couple of months later I came across it once again and saw the potential for another image hidden within it. I started off by cropping it, flipping it and colour correcting it. I then removed some blemishes which in my opinion were subtracting from the scene (like a couple of wires hanging directly above the house and some tree branches in the background). Finally, I performed some basic masking to bring out the windows and some portions of the sky while plunging the rest of the scene into thicker shadows.

(Unedited photograph, left)

3. Untitled (2020) - Motel (below)

This is a motel Michael McCluskey (featured in Nowhere Newsletter 07) and I stayed in, as we were traveling across Michigan to visit some of the spots where he regularly takes pictures. He had already shot this very motel in the past (if you scroll down far enough on his feed you’ll see an alternative angle of it). I wanted to avoid doing an exact replica of his take on it, and thus decided to opt for a longer lens choice (50mm) and shoot it vertically on tripod, 1/5 sec. exposure time. Upon inspecting the .RAW file in greater detail, I noticed that it was significantly out of focus (due to the fact that old lenses tend to be messy when opened up above 5.6/8). I sharpened it and heightened the contrast in order to recover some crispness. Then I cropped the bottom portion off and altered the color scheme, infusing the highlights with a yellow hue and converting the purples into a deep red.

(Unedited photograph, left)