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Becoming Present

Becoming Present

Luciano Fileti

“In art photography, if you incorporate something real, something with history, it’s a great thing. Like in fashion, if you take a picture of a great makeup artist, they prepare faces in a particular way. The model who knows their touch will also present themselves in a certain way. There is respect. There is a knowledge that is easier for you to register in a picture.” — Luciano Fileti


Today, we take a close look at how being receptive leads to experimentation, happy accidents, learning, and a sense of genuine connection with our surroundings. Luciano Fileti and Ioana share a love for reportage and art photography, likely stemming from a deep need to tell stories.

Luciano’s a commercial photographer in the fashion and still life space in New York, and he’s also spent more than a decade, sometimes two, developing personal art projects.


Music: Ben Tyree

Transcript, edited for length and clarity

Ioana: How did photography become your craft? 

Luciano: I was born and raised in Brazil. When I was young, I never had this, I want to be a photographer and take pictures, or anything like that. That came later. I was already in college for architecture, and I started taking more and more photographs of buildings. And I thought it was a natural thing for me.

In Brazil, back then, there was one school I knew that had photography, and I decided to come to the U.S. to go to School of Visual Arts and later ICP. I was in the commercial still life and fashion part of photography, but it was good always to have a project on the side. Without any pretensions of, Oh, this is art, or this is my expression. It’s just something that I had to do for my sanity, take the camera out in the street. 

Ioana: How did it crystallize for you that you wanted to take on other projects for your sanity?

Luciano: It’s probably different for everyone. For me, I do the things I do because I have to. It’s not a thought like, Okay, this will help me with that… No, things present themselves.

So-called projects show up in front of me, and they take form. Like, my first project, for ten years, I was taking pictures of things I liked in New York — billboards, posters, architecture, and fashion, and the interaction between them.

Later, I started looking at those negatives. I found that project [of Signs], and then began to develop that idea further. But it was already there. I had to select from inside a bigger universe of things that I was doing.

After I recognized there was something there, I started looking for other places and interactions that would make those first elements more solid. 

Ioana: It doesn’t start with you. 

Luciano: Things just boom, hit my face. And I realize then that I need to pay more attention. Oh, there’s something here.

Ioana: I love the visual of an idea finding you. As if it has a life of its own.

Luciano: I think so. I think it’s out there, and your work is to recognize it. The development of [the idea] is never easy. And I like to work for a long time, ten years, 15 years, sometimes in parallel.

Ioana: How do you collect feedback and from whom? 

Luciano: Different times with different people. I never like to collaborate in the production of it. I do that by myself. It’s in the editing of it that I consult a different point of view because you’re too close to the whole thing. And it may be that you do not see the value of various aspects within it.

But even at that point, even with people you respect, you should, at some point, say, “No, there’s something here.” You have to stick to it.

In the beginning, when you’re still selecting for intrinsic value, sit with a couple of people and then sit with the thing again. And you defend your work sometimes. I mean, you have to feel it. It might be that the work is leading to something bigger, or this person’s not seeing what you’re seeing. It may be you’re just crazy. You are seeing things that are not there. But if you keep working at it, you can maybe make your idea more clear. 

Ioana: Is it necessary to you that other people see what you see in your work? 

Luciano: Not anymore because I think it’s impossible. Different people see different things, and it’s about connections. Your connection with the object, the film, that piece of music is yours. And it could be so personal, no one else can understand it. I’m not too worried about this anymore.

It depends where you’re going with your work. If you go to sell your work, that’s a problem. You need to connect to as many people as possible. 

Sometimes people connect for a reason you have no idea about. They try to explain what they see in the work, and I’m like, “Wow, really? Great.” You can learn from other people when they’re honest. I think it’s rare and not even necessary that people see what you see. 

Ioana: If nobody sees the same thing, how do you work with the feedback? 

Luciano: That’s a great question. Recently, I had a chance to work with an important museum person. When you share the vision of something, it makes you want to create more, which is excellent.

But if you’re not sharing the vision, then I step back and say, What can I learn from their point of view? I try to expand my vision of the thing itself. Because I trust this person. They’re not bringing an agenda or motives.

That’s how I handle criticism that I don’t understand. Open mind, open heart. I believe those people approach it in the same way.

It will be different if you go for, say, an art magazine. They say things in their feedback that will help their vision, their collection, their products.

But when there’s no reason, it’s just pure friendship or love in the sense of, Okay, that’s how I see right now, I step back and try to understand why I do not see that same way. And see if I can even change my point of view.

But if I still think I’m on the right track, I will stick to it. I’ll work more on this idea and try to show better what I’m saying. 

Ioana: Sharpen that expression of the idea. 

Luciano: Maybe it’s just not clear for other people. You can see it so clearly, but it’s not. Then it’s your job to keep working at it. I don’t know if there is any divine inspiration, any kind of inspiration. There’s sit, put your butt down, and do the work or go out and do the job.

And the more you do, the more problems you’ll have to solve. And you create your problems. This is the process for me, at least. 

Ioana: How many problems are you creating for yourself these days? 

Luciano: You can create silly problems. The project that I’m working on right now came out of 20 years of archives. I started moving files around to make sense of them. Organize the work in a way that I could find something.

I created my own game. I found that sometimes three, four, or five images have the same file numbers because I used cameras so many times the numbers were repeating. And I started seeing relationships between those images. They’re each from different times, different years, different subjects from work backstage, still life, or personal projects.

Anyway, I started seeing some relationships with them. It could be a flower and a nude shot, or a broken object and something else. They work well together as diptychs or triptychs. And I started taking screenshots of them and making a selection.

Every project has presented itself like this. I was not saying, Okay, you know what I’m going to do? I’m going to go look at all my images and start finding relationships. No.

And I kept doing this, and I realized I had thousands of images. You create your problems, right? Because this relationship is not between just any photos I have. It’s between images that share the same numbers. Meaning, there’s no grand artistic vision behind this.

And after a couple of years of doing that, I started printing them. That’s very difficult because you’ve got to find the original file, work on it, then on the next picture, then print them so they are ready to be presented.

And at that stage, their relationship might disappear. There’s a problem of scale. The images may or may not retain those relationships between colors, textures, and the movement they create at various sizes. All these things have to be solved before they’re ready to be put out there.

Ioana: You mentioned that there comes the point where you’re like, “Yeah, I believe in this idea, in this body of work. I’m going to keep going.” Have you always had that ability to come back to the center? Or is this a skill that you’ve developed? 

Luciano: I think you have to be stubborn. What people call art should be an obsession. Something that you have to do no matter what. In some shape or form. For any reason, right? Because it makes you happy, or because it makes you see things differently, or because it enables you to deal with other areas of your life.

If your obsession is to produce objects, images, the making of it is the most important thing. And if it is so important, you are going to stick to it because you feel like it’s essential.

I don’t know if you develop this. And like I said, be open. You can, at some point, say, “Listen, I pushed this, and it was a failure. There’s nothing. here really.” This is why you work in different things at the same time, and you find a balance. And sometimes, yeah, no matter how important the person who’s giving feedback is, even if they say there’s nothing here, in the p, it’s like, “Well, there’s nothing here for you.” 

Ioana: You’re not the audience. 

Luciano: Yeah. Maybe at some point, they will be, but you can’t control that. You control your process. 

Ioana: What are you working through right now, aside from your accidental diptychs?

Luciano: Working with the students at RISD, that’s always great. Lisa is the head of the department of fashion. We worked together on a book she created a few years ago. When she started working with RISD, she invited me to join them in documenting projects they do there. And when you find someone there with talent, it usually blows your mind.

If you want to be relevant and do any work in fashion, you need to be in contact with new creative people. Fashion is about new ideas and new ways to see. Being exposed to those students changed me a lot. I became less strict in presenting things, and I try to make them part of it because they’re bringing in something very intuitive. 

Ioana: How often do you go up there? 

Luciano: On average, a couple of times a month. There’s another teacher there who, last year, started a self-discovery process for the students. One of them was an amazing makeup artist, and she did this monster Kabuki thing. And this excites me because working in commercial fashion photography, you often work with what’s safe, or how most people have accepted to work.

And the students are not there yet. They’re pushing boundaries, and you have to go with them to make yourself better. 

Ioana: I love that. 

Luciano: Yes, they didn’t have enough time to develop the idea of it. They are just compelled to do it. 

So I document the clothes, the final project, the development. It’s a challenging media. They have a lot of concerns about what’s ethical, what’s ecological. And they have to bring that in and make an exciting garment that’s a pleasure to photograph. I reinterpret it for them, to help them see it in a new way because that’s what it’s all about.

And the team, the teachers are fantastic. They’re super creative. 

Ioana: Everybody I’ve ever met or worked with who’s come out of RISD has been a dream. 

Luciano: There’s something there. It’s not a big place, but you can see, at least in the fashion department, they do their best to motivate and bring in lessons from the past and things happening right now to develop the students into the best version they can be. They’re surprising. I have fun. This is the best kind of job. 

Ioana: The RISD portfolio is how I came to learn about your work. 

Luciano: Oh, really?

Ioana: Yeah

Luciano: You also did a great thing, presenting my work to people you worked with.

Ioana: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Because you’ve shot a lot of backstage fashion stuff. 

Luciano: For years. 

Ioana: It’s beautiful work. I can only imagine how chaotic fashion week backstage is. The images you pull out of that are just firstly super cool. Very discreet, very defined moments within what I imagine is utter chaos. 

Luciano: There’s a technique, right? 

Ioana: What’s your technique?

Luciano: You use a long lens, so you don’t have to be too close to the person. And you look for abandonment, right? People who are waiting for their makeup, for example. 

Also, the beginning of fashion week is different from the end of fashion week. Those girls are tired. They work a lot. Some of the girls start at five in the morning and go to 11 at night. So there’s a natural slow-down that I like to capture.

There are different approaches. You can approach the crazy part of it, too. It has to do with technique and with what you want to show.

You learn, right? You learn who people are. You learn the best times to register them. You learn how to explore.

Believe it or not, it’s easier to capture better things on big shows with big names because, even if there’s more movement, more photographers, more cameras, and more everything, there’s also more quality. Quality people, quality product, quality of the makers.

Even in the most straightforward image, it’s always the quality of elements that make the picture a special one, memorable. 

Ioana: Can you talk to me about what those elements are? Can you describe them? 

Luciano: Say you’re going to photograph someone making a pizza. It’d be better if the hands making the pizza is someone who knows how to do it. The knowledge is in their hands. They will move in a certain way. They will prepare it in a way that telegraphs their knowledge. There’s intelligence in their hands that makes it easier for you to make a photograph.

You can ask someone who’s never made pizza to pose, and you can kind of get it. But something’s going to be amiss because there is a knowledge of doing it that almost changes your hand.

That’s my approach, right? That’s the reportage approach.

But for anything, if you can incorporate something real, something that has a history, it’s a great thing. Like in backstage photography, if you’re going to take a picture of a good makeup artist, they prepare faces in a particular way. The model who knows this person’s touch will also present themselves in a certain way. There is respect. There is a knowledge that is easier for you to register, to take the picture.

You can take a beautiful, fantastic picture of someone pretending to do the thing. But then you’re going to have to use different elements, a brilliant light, a beautiful whatever to masquerade the lack of authenticity. 

Ioana: Yeah. It’s like a recipe. Right? You can have shit ingredients, or you can have great ingredients. One is going to be a crappy pizza, and the other pizza is going to propel you to space. It’s going to blow your mind. 

Luciano: The right people for you, the right material, it’ll make you better work, and you can do this for a living. If you’re not able to do this consistently, you’re not a professional. I’m talking about the editorial aspect of it, but even personal work I approach in similar ways.

Ioana: Who are your ideal clients? 

Luciano: People who create things where you can understand the quality of it. You can appreciate the beauty of it. You do your best creative work with more open people.

Many years ago, I had the opportunity to shoot backstage for Vogue Paris here in New York. And from this work, for many years, I took the reportage approach.

And later, I had the chance to work with a Brazilian magazine that took me to Paris. Chanel was consolidating their ateliers. The magazine’s creative director said, “Listen, we’re going to visit all those ateliers and deconstruct the making of this dress. The making of the little pieces of it, and hats, and the gloves that go with it. And then, in the end, show the picture of it on the runway.”

It was a beautiful idea. It was a week-long thing, running all the historical things in Paris. This is ideal. Where you see history, you know the quality, and you start to understand the process. Even if those houses are very savvy,  very good at presenting themselves, your job is to find your way to extract that story. 

And we had 20-30 pages of hats, and feathers, and people working in the atelier, and the models trying on the clothes, the fittings, to the makeup — the whole preparation. And then, in front of the house. I had the entire process. That was quite amazing.

Ioana: That’s so special. 

Luciano: Yeah, and the whole team behind the magazine did the layout beautifully. 

Ioana: As I’m listening to you tell the story, what comes to me is intimacy. To be part of something at such a deep level where you’re witnessing the process, soup to nuts. Every person who is touching this dress or this hat from point A to point Z. Going on that journey with them is so unique. Then you appreciate it all more than if you were to just see the final product on a magazine page. 

Luciano: Being able to reportage on that process was quite amazing for me.

And a different example, I went to the New York City Ballet. I photographed them learning from a new choreographer, all the process. So experiencing talent, experiencing history, experiencing people trying to do their best always makes my life easier as a photographer from the RISD students to the choreographer in New York. 

Ioana: Yeah. And there’s a whole other side of your work, the flowers, and the nudes. You’ve just described a craftsmanship story. Does that play out in your other work? And if it does, how?

Luciano: They’re all the same, and they’re all different. The approach is similar. For instance, the connection you recognized in the backstage fashion week work exists with a nude. You have to create some sort of relationship. It’s almost like a portrait.

There is a link between that moment, the camera, the person. The person became vulnerable and became present.

Others have a more formal approach. They create this connection through a formal pose. You direct someone until they are out of their shell.

My approach comes from the backstage work, the chaos. You’re right, one thing informed the other, for sure. It’s an evolution.

Ioana: As I’m listening to you, another thing that’s coming up is this idea of being receptive.

You’ve talked about having ideas come to you. Witnessing the backstage and letting it be what it is, and then making a connection with people. You’re talking about being receptive to a person who’s posing for you in a studio. I’m seeing a theme come up, being open. 

Luciano: You just described photography.

Ioana:  I mean, look, you have David LaChapelle, who is not observing as much as creating a scene.

Luciano: Haha! Let me rephrase that. This is photography for me. 

Ioana: Yeah. I’m learning that about you!

Luciano: I don’t have the right to say what photography is for anybody. But yeah, photography for me is about being open and receptive, to connect.

And sometimes, photographers that I respect so much do a different thing. They might irritate people to make them express…

Ioana: Like Bruce Gilden, who yells at you on the street.

Luciano: Yes, to break you down, make you cry, whatever. You create different connections that way. 

Ioana: “Breaking” sounds so violent. 

Luciano: It’s breaking your mask.

When you work with a professional model, it’s hard. Because they’ve presented themselves in a way for years and they’re very good at it. If you do commercial work, how they show themselves might be the best thing. It’s easier for everybody if you just go with it.

But if you talk about my editorial or the nudes, which is a personal project too, I want something else. I want to find a way in. 

Ioana: You’re echoing what Stephanie Rooker just said on this very podcast. She is a sound therapist and a vocalist. She says that really established singers will come to her because they have the technique down, but they don’t feel seen because they’re hiding behind the technique. The mask is up. So performing is quite a lonely experience for them because it’s just a show. It’s not a connection. 

Luciano: She’s entirely right. You need to find a way in if you can call it a successful photograph.

The only judge of anything is time, right? If an image is relevant for a long time, it’s a successful one even if the makers liked or not because it’s beyond them too. It’s beyond the photographer, beyond the subject, it has a life of its own. 

Ioana: I’m going to say something that’s going to sound so woo, but I don’t give a shit. 

If we’re looking at an image that has stood up for many years, it’s because it shows that we’re inherently connected, that we are one. 

Luciano: And you can see it. You can look at an image and say, “Wow, there’s something here.” You don’t necessarily need to know who took the picture or who’s the person in the picture. 

Ioana: So there’s an image that haunts me to this day. When I worked at Magnum Photos, I went through their archive a lot, and I fell in love with Robert Capa. The image of the falling soldier from the Spanish Civil War – I still think of it. 

And maybe it’s because I’m looking at that moment and realizing, “Holy crap. That’s going to happen to everybody in some way, shape, or form.” 

Luciano: Yeah. It’s so violent and so beautiful. You can find beauty in many forms. 

I think anyone could be happy if they have one or a handful of images like that for their whole life, even if it takes 60 years. 

Ioana: You have to be persistent, and what’s the word you used? Stubborn.

Luciano: Yeah. It’s the only way because it’s the only part you control, right? 

Ioana: That’s so true. 

Luciano: You control doing it. You can manage your part, and you have to do your part as best as you can, as long as you can if it’s in you.

I used to believe that I had to work for 12 hours a day. You can do four hours a day, as long as you have to create that space. 

Ioana: Yeah. Protecting your time.

Luciano: The rest is another talent. If you have an ability for a relationship, talent to write about the work, to talk about it, it has nothing to do with the making of it.

In the making of it you research, you apply, you mistake, you do it again. You recognize, you have a little help from some friends.

I used to love to go around the West side in New York and take street photography. Usually, I would walk the dog from my place and find something I liked to shoot. And then I’d go back home, take the camera, and go to see if that thing was what I thought it would be. A thing and an image of the thing are completely different.

When I moved here to South Orange, all this garbage, this dirty water, all the things I love about New York, even the bad parts, they were not here. Everything was pretty. I resisted it all, because I’d worked with people who took fantastic pictures of flowers. I mean, it’s been done, and greatly.

But flowers were presenting themselves to me. And then I was collecting those flowers, stealing from neighbors.

Ioana: Is that where all our zinnias went?

Luciano: I can’t confess. But yeah, lately, we started planting flowers to make sure that I will not get in trouble. I began to work with this environment.

And there was a process that started of frustration. I destroyed one of the flowers because it was dry. And I followed the path thinking, “This is cool.” I experimented with flowers being destroyed, and I created a sub-series of Destruction of Delicate Things — because I understand that a good title is important to help you sell.

And the other thing, I try not to work from the memory of an image another person did. To recreate it. I can work out of the memory of my accidents. 

Ioana: I love that. Your accidents. That’s gold.

Luciano: Yeah. Dig deep.

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