ALDO SESSA: SWEEPING AWAY WITH THE FRONTIERS OF IMAGINATION
We may define Aldo Sessa as a latter-day Renaissance man. Born into a bicultural family, he developed incurable wanderlust at an early age, gatecrashed the whole globe and made it shamelessly his own. He began as a painter until he was awestruck by photography and flowed into it as if it had always been his natural medium; clearly comfort zones do not fit him and he thrives in uncharted lands. And this is exactly when a mind-bending life story starts off.
He and his camera have been travel fellows in far-flung nooks on the planet as shown in lavish photos. However, his life-long crush is on two cities which he has uniquely photographed over and over: Buenos Aires and New York. Sessa knows both backwards and shows them in a way the untrained eye miserably fails to capture, from unprecedented shots of a Statue of Liberty you believe to have seen millions of times (...wait, trust me) to taking physical risks to shoot “that picture” of the Brooklyn Bridge and teach you how to insatiably absorb all the beauty the world gives away without asking for anything in return.
He figures out life differently; while we will wipe off a drop on a café table, he turns it into a photo later exhibited at a renowned Rome art gallery or auctioned off at one of the two blue-chip auction houses. And while many undeniably prestigious photographers chained themselves to a given genre, he anarchically embraced a wide range of fields and left his unmatchable footprint in all of them, an unmistakable Aldo Sessa signature.
Listen to/ read this interview with a man who after a lifetime of rubbing shoulders with the big names in art and literature - Jorge Luis Borges, Manuel Mujica Lainez, Ray Bradbury, Bruce Weber - still has his mind set on making the world nicer to be in and who, paradoxically these days, does not skimp on compliments on his peers. His philosophy is: your only rival is yourself. And he may be right … perhaps, and paradoxically, his art corpus is only overshadowed by his own life journey.
DISCLAIMER: I have translated Aldo Sessa’s books’ texts, written by renowned figures on the cultural scene, into English for the past 17, 18 years, including his latest one, Gauchos, brought out by prestigious Assouline Publishing House, NYC, in 2018.
NOTE: Audio above. It takes a couple of seconds to begin
Aldo Sessa by Bruce Weber
Bruce Weber is one o the most renowned living photographers today, hired by big brands like Ralph Lauren and Armani and he took this picture of Aldo Sessa just because they are friends. Two high-octane artists enjoying art and each other’s presence
Aldo, how did it all begin?
I was very lucky. As a child I was a little shy and I found it hard to connect to reality. I used to think a lot and I take pleasure in observing things. My mother, who was an art lover, realized that I didn’t have the makings of an office worker. She hoped I would like art, and I did. She used to take me to art galleries on Saturday mornings to see art and then, by chance, we stumbled upon a fine arts school for children, set up by Marcelo De Ridder, just around the corner from my house, where I began to go twice a week when I was 8 and along with another 30 boys and girls I learned all the techniques. I first exhibited when I was 12 together with the kids who used to study with me at that workshop.
So you began with painting…
I began with painting, drawings, oils…
It is worth mentioning your friendship with the great author Ray Bradbury. You did two books with him, and the first one was not as a photographer, but as a drawer.
As a painter, actually. In fact, I went very deep into painting. In Buenos Aires I was hired as a painter by the Bonino gallery, which was the best gallery at the time and which had a branch in Rio de Janeiro and one in Rome, and when they appointed me as painter of the gallery, I began traveling around the world. I took part in 200 exhibits of painting, that is, it was not anything superficial, I went deep into it. However, on this journey, when I was 17, I became fascinated with photography and I practiced it simultaneously with my painting, and I was also highly connected with the film industry, due to which I admired and analyzed the great Italian filmmakers at the time, like Franco Zeffirelli and Luchino Visconti.
Did your profound knowledge of painting somehow help in your photography aesthetics?
Totally, totally because I got into photography without any visual doubt, I had learned to observe thanks to painting, and I trained my eye in color because when you work on your palette, creating a color, you get to know how a color is composed, and then if you transfer it to reality, you are very selective, it’s as if you had a visual palette, and I did it with photography.
What appealed to you about photography after having been so involved with painting for such a long time?
Well, when I did both things simultaneously, which was for a very long time, many years, I came to the conclusion that painting was my “concave” state of mind because you are all by yourself in front of a canvas and your feelings flow inwards, it’s a burden, you go to sleep with your mind set on the picture you are painting. Sometimes I got out of bed at 4 in the morning and started to paint and I went on all day long. And all this kept me away from reality. I no longer knew whether it was daytime, nighttime, I had lost track of my environment and people. I didn’t know what was going on, actually. That’s when I went further into photography because it brought me back to reality and did me good.
It was the opposite of what you had been doing …
It was the “convex” state. The “concave” state was painting, and photography, due to its own dynamics, represented the “convex” state. One day, instead of using “telegrams” as painting is, you use directly a “recorder”.
Daniel Baremboim portrayed by Aldo Sessa
A challenging picture defies the right photographer, who easily proves to be up to the challenge. One of the most renowned orchestra conductors, fully “in the zone”, in a concatenation of scenes of pure creation.
The artist seems to have a special gift to see things. How is the “photo” seen amid visual chaos, even when it is a beautiful chaos? How do you see something that may be turned into art?
That’s self-discipline that you train. In my case even in painting, because painting is also selective, why do you paint a picture that covers a given subject in a certain space? Well, I usually observe reality at three planes; whenever I have a camera, which I always have hanging from my shoulder when I leave home, I look in the distance, I look 10 meters away, and I look at ground level. I am continuously checking - as if I had a radar within - all that is taking place at those three different planes. So when something strikes me, I head for that thing as a suicide. And that question you posed, which is a great question, it is the breeding ground for a long discussion, I’d say, in my opinion, “seeing” the picture is the most important thing for a photographer to exist and be able to develop his work. The most important thing in photography is the photographer’s observation ability. It’s something that has to be trained. The difference between an artist and an ordinary person is the trained eye in the artist.
Now, can the eye be trained or is it an innate trait? Can anyone develop certain techniques to start seeing “art”?
I don’t think you’re are born with it. I think you discover it and devote your lifetime to train it. That is the key. Most people believe the key to photography is technology; technology is useless. Now I will do an exhibition with photos taken with my cell phone, which are the same in quality as those I can take with the best camera in the world in any format. The secret does not lie in technology; technology is very relative.
What you are saying is very important because in my previous interview, with Media Designer Mario García, even when he is pro-technology, he said: “Wait! nothing substitutes content”, that is to say, content is the star.
Of course. Photography is closely linked to magic. One day I was taking a photo of Ludovica Squirru (TN. an Argentine public person), and she said at one point of that photo shoot, “Aldo, relax, because I see you flowing” and the term “flowing” stuck to my mind. I know I have the magic wand in my pocket and I do not make any effort to take it out, I know that it will come. I don’t get stressed, quite the opposite. The feeling of having something in front of me, of being able to hunt it, of being able to find it gives me an adrenaline rush.
Something striking in your case, which is not all that common in many other photographers, at least the famous ones, is that you’ve been very multifaceted in your career, covering portraiture, landscapes, sports, and you seem to feel fully at ease in all of them, which is rather unusual. Richard Avedon was always into portraits, and just like him, many others.
He is fabulous
You’re speaking of a great master. The thing is that the United States is a country that tends to kind of typecast people. For example a Richard Avedon, an Irving Penn and so many other marvelous photographers came from the same place, which was magazines such as Harper’s Bazzar, Vogue, where editors - knowing each photographer’s aesthetics and potential - led them to their specialization in one area, one facet in their careers, and when they did it well, fitting an American’s mindset that if you do something well, don’t do anything else, they were pigeonholed. It’s more limiting.
Is there any genre that particular attracts you? You have a beautiful book on portraits, a stunning book on polo, you have focused on portraits, sports, landscape, which of them do you like the most, not that one you feel most at ease with, but the one you like the most?
Portraits are very interesting due to the mechanism of taking a picture of a human being and breaking down the different barriers they impose to prevent you from achieving it because they are looking in their own mirror and have a fantasy about their own face and know it well. The interesting thing is that I don’t care at all what they want and their ideal of their face, but my ideal to me is what I see and what they convey. So every time they put up a barrier, you jump it and in the space between barriers, you impose yourself as an artist and you lead them to the space you want them to be, which is your perception of what that person is like.
Do you have to bond with the model?
Yes, it’s a mental bond, it is all about who has the strongest mind, who can overpower the other, within a pleasant and harmonious space, but in fact this pleasant space is a disguise to reach an end, and you have to handle this. It is a marvelous experience, above all when you photograph every kind of public figures, and you never know their real persona. You know who is who, but as you dig, some things come up in the image potential.
Is there any person who struck you specially and whose portrait was great, beyond the quality of the portrait itself?
I remember that once an American journalist writing a piece on my work for ARTnews, very positive indeed, wrote: Aldo Sessa has never done a portrait. When I read this, and the following day I had breakfast with her, I was on the verge of telling her she was wrong, but I felt sorry and refrained from doing so at the time. I came back to Buenos Aires and told my assistant to put together all the portraits I had taken. Now I am close to 1,900 portraits. Next time I saw her, I had tea with her and thanked her because as a result of what she had said, I had gathered all my portraits and in all likelihood, I would put up an exhibition. So I find it hard to tell you who because there are thousands of stories and all of them have their great sentimental and experimental value.
When it comes to landscapes, you surely have an answer. You have cities you are in love with, I guess Buenos Aires and New York.
Exactly. You know, you like more your cityscapes when you know those cities quite well and you don’t want to fail to show them authentically. Photos should show timeless facts, but feel familiar to locals. I cannot show a fake city to local people. So, I know New York quite well, I have been there many times, and besides it is a city I have always been in love with so it is easier. And I love Buenos Aires profoundly, it is my place …
Unlike some of the other people I interviewed, I know you very well because we have worked together for some fifteen years, you are very open-minded, and I kind of know what you think of this passage to the digital world, you like it, but what was this change like after having worked most of your life among photographic developers, paper, how do you live through it?
Even when changes have taken place overnight, there have not been quantum leap changes. When digital photography appeared, I bought the first digital camera, and every year I bought the latest digital camera, and the core problem was that the system was very interesting, but they didn’t have the resolution of the analog photo camera, of the film. So, I began experimenting from the very beginning. It was always a toy, as a Polaroid was. I took some 10,000 Polaroids because Polaroid gave me a grant to work with its camera. I launched it in Argentina, I took thousands of Polaroids all over. However, you always draw the same conclusion, the toy may change, but it all goes back to the way you look at things and with any toy you go to your world, you always go back to your obsessions, and your feelings; photography is a very sentimental thing. Over time, you go back to places you have been to, you still love them, you photograph them again and again, and you see the patina of time, the decay of the environment, and you see it has no value, just a documentary value, but you do it because you love that place.
The woman who revolutionized modern dance. A living legend photographed in this stunning, temperamental, hypnotizing, grainy, black-and-white photo by Sessa, Who else?
Most of us, who do not make art, have the fantasy of the artist and his muse. However, Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa, who somehow creates art through his literature, said it is sheer fantasy, that the artist has a work discipline and he searches for the muse. What’s your case?
Just like that. When Picasso was asked that, he said a famous phrase “I don’t search, I find”. It is both things, searching and finding, and I would add luck, luck is very important. But luck depends largely on you, on your attempts. Kodak would tell an aficionado of photography to take photographs with the sun behind him, at noon, not to take pictures on rainy days, or on foggy days, and I would tell them quite the opposite, take it as it comes. When you discover that a snowstorm on the street, with only you and another 3 people walking, in New York, with 25° below zero is way better than a blue sky because it gives you footprints in the snow, people rushing around desperate, blown away, homeless covered in snow and you ask yourself how longer this guy will live, the city is white, snow-covered cars, a storm gives you thousands of images as a gift... Rain is awesome as well.
What is one day of yours like, say in New York where you go partly to work, sometimes with many meetings, but not the same routine as that in Buenos Aires? How do you organize it?
When I have a clean calendar, which I build, just to think of photography and nothing else, because concentration is essential, I am not going around absent-mindedly, I am always on the hunt, lurking around, my mind is fully set on my purpose that is coming back with as many photos as possible.
It’s quite the opposite of what people think, that the artist is seized by the muse. You go out in search of it.
Of course. I search and find. It is all about searching and finding.
As in life.
As in life. It requires concentration as in the case of a musician. A musician cannot conduct an orchestra absentmindedly. When a soccer player shoots a penalty, he is concentrated. Or a tennis player. Concentration is basic.
Even to make art
Above all to make art.
Aldo, over time, have you had any favorite camera makes, that you said to yourself I can rely on this because the technical part will be covered and the rest depends on me?
I am blindly in love with many cameras, even some I haven’t used or I don’t use, but due to their design, their grip, their sound, their viewer, all of them have something particular that underpins the end result that is the image. There is a camera that I discovered in my beginnings and I couldn’t buy it, Leica, which used to be amazing - much more so than now, nowadays it’s a decidedly snobbish, aesthetic, and for multimillionaires - and it made a splash at the time, it is the foolproof camera, very good quality, great design, it seduces. So no matter what other cameras I use, I always have a Leica hanging from my neck because I know it will never let me down when the right time presents itself. But on my right shoulder I always carry a very high definition digital camera, I love the digital system when used properly. And then I have and old Rolleiflex medium format with a black-and-white film hanging from my left shoulder with which I can do exquisite things with unbelievable definition and with all the magic the analog system still has.
Have digital cameras reached high definition? Do you feel at ease with them now?
I feel very comfortable with them. The digital system is marvelous. It was very questioned, above all in this country (Argentina), where irrational conflicts are created, but American photographers friends of mine, very renowned, still use analog cameras, but also succumb - depending on the job they do, every professional has commercial jobs too - to the digital format when doing jobs on demand. But you also have to pay attention to quality. Some photographers do jobs which aesthetically are very good, but could be better if they paid attention to quality or they cannot blow their photos up to such a point as to show a good job.
On a more mundane level, have you managed to take good enough pictures on a cell phone, to the point of saying, I might well exhibit this picture?
Of course. I came to a conclusion in New York a few weeks ago that the best camera is that on the phone. You will not be able to blow photos up too much, and I am now blowing pictures up at 40cm by 50cm, which is a perfect size. iPhone will launch a phone with a new camera this year - I don’ have any kind of arrangement with iPhone, I am not endorsing it - with 4 lenses and I suppose that this year or the next one, 2020, the phone will replace all the other pocket cameras. It is marvelous. It has a one-of-a-kind color balance. And on top of what it technologically implies, it revolutionizes your way of looking at things. In a second you can enable your camera and in a second you can press the shutter button … It is so light that you throw yourself to the ground, you rest the phone on the ground, you put it in a bucket full of ice to cool drinks and it takes a stunning photo of the ice, you can take a picture of the bubbles of sparkling water. The camera on the phone is unbelievable, awesome.
Ray Bradbury made everyone fall in love with science fiction. Inevitably so. It was not your personal choice, it was his. A one-of-a-kind author with 2 books co-authored with his life-long friend Aldo Sessa.
In addition to all your professional achievements, your life is very interesting. How did you get to meet Ray Bradbury? For those of us old enough, even if we do not like science fiction all that much, Ray Bradbury was always a special case. What was working with him like?
As I told you, many times life gives you magical random moments. My great friend Lisl Steiner, who is the most important photographer in Austria and has recently donated all her archive to the National Library of Austria - had always told me that as you grew in your profession, you had to always be ready to use the good chances gravity law provides. At first I did not catch it until one day I read an interview with Jorge Luis Borges and Manuel Mujica Lainez in a newspaper in which the journalist asked Mujica Lainez what he was doing and he replied that he was doing a book with me and Borges cuts in and says that he had done a book with me the previous year. At that very point I realized that all the weaknesses of human relations or traits of life itself make it easier to scale down your life than scale it up. Working your way up takes a lifetime and rolling down does not. Striking up a relationship with Ray Bradbury made this idea sink in. I had finished a book with Borges and I asked an American friend of mine, who was a household name in Hollywood, if he knew someone who knew Bradbury to give him a copy of the book I had done with Borges and he said: “You are with the right person because I have been with him on the Oscars committee for 20 years now. I will give it to him tomorrow”. When Bradbury saw the book, he said “I am very interested in this artist and this book because Borges wrote the preface in Spanish for my book The Martian Chronicles”, magic at work. So he immediately sent me to Buenos Aires from Los Angeles some 3 kilos of texts with a note: “See if you can do something out of this” What a humble man. And we did one book together and 20 years later, we did another one, I guess that in 2002, Seances and Ghosts (Sesiones y Fantasmas), as a homage to our friendship.
Marvelous book. Frankly today I can tell you this, I would have loved to translate that book, but I guess I started translating for you a book later. But as soon as I saw the book, I said to myself, what a beautiful book to translate.
Well it was translated by Patricio Canto, a great translator, so I spoke with him, at the time I did not know you, and then I put Ray Bradbury in touch with Patricio Canto and he did a very good translation of the texts.
A beautiful one. As a translator I felt a twinge of envy…
And you would have enjoyed the dialogues with Bradbury. He was a great guy. He was not only a great writer, but a great person as well. Very polite, very warm, very creative.
Is there any photographer that inspired you or contemporary photographers that you respect? Even when it might not be your style, but that you think “how well he does this”?
It has always been very clear to me that competition does not exist. And talking of Bradbury, once, when our book was coming out in New York, in Rizzoli, in 1980, one journalist interviewing both of us, asked Bradbury “Living in this capitalist world, what do you think of competition?” And Bradbury looks at him and answered point-blank: “Look, I don’t know whether you’ve discovered your identity, but when I discovered mine, I understood that competition ends where excellence begins”. All said. I am one of the few photographers who don’t envy any other photographer. I praise any good photograph regardless of who took it, whether the best photographer, an aficionado, or anyone by chance. I think to myself: I would have liked to take it myself, but with no envy. I know the work of good photographers, but I’ve tried not to be influenced by them because I would be choking my creativity. The most important thing in an artist’s life and in art is that you have to tread your own path. Everyone doing it well is what will keep art forever current. The important thing is to be true to yourself. You cannot be everything. Many times when people on the street, affectionately and therefore subjectively, because affection always prevails, tells you “You are the best”, it is not true. If you love Picasso, or Dalí, or Van Gogh, do you imagine every museum in the world exhibiting just one of them? You can’t waste a second on secondary thoughts when all you can do is keep your feelings in check and transfer them to the shutter button.
Anyway, something striking in you, is that wittingly or unwittingly, you have always tried to have a certain control over your work. At your exhibits you are your own curator. This is kind of unusual.
Well, it is part of the Argentine economy. They are forced detours in a country in which you have to do with what you have. There is no photographic paper, or you have to buy cameras in some other country because here they are too expensive or they are simply not imported. That is, thousands of issues that lead an Argentine to become some sort of Jack of all trades. That’s why covering different subject has always been a challenge and with a I-think-I-can-do-it attitude. It’s a very Argentine approach to things. Commercially, I have never given it much thought. I have undertaken jobs for a given client with a very clear objective, for example to have the whole floorboards of my gallery changed, to have the floor of the Tate Modern from London, which is the one I have. So I create the catalog of the company that builds my floor. I have done it on very few occasions, but I take the task with the same passion as if I had chosen it myself.
What represents Assouline, which is a very prestigious publisher and brought out your latest book, Gauchos?
It represents two things. Since my very beginnings, I have been a forced publisher. I am not a vocational publisher. I printed my books because no one else would. That, it turned out, gave me a lot of freedom and it’s very comfortable to be independent because you do what you will, whether rightly or wrongly. I had another very important publisher in New York, Rizzoli, with which I did the book with Bradbury, and then another two books. That gave me some prestige,which is always OK, it adds value to an Argentinean pursuing an international success. Projecting yourself from Argentina is shaky ground. I signed another contract with an American publisher 3 years ago, but ended up cancelling it because the editor was unbearable and I couldn’t put up with it, and I felt very sorry about not having this book published because in fact it was already finished. But Assouline bursts into my life thanks to a contact and I found something that is not all that usual in New York, a city that goes straight to concrete things and it’s somewhat cold if you will, in a manner of speaking, and on top of that the best ends up in that city and they choose what they want to do. I found that the owners of Assouline are French, they are European, and as I have a significant graphic experience, they felt really at ease talking to me, and I also solve many things for them. I know the business, the technicalities such as the paper to be used, there are very few authors taking care of these things as there are thousands of painters that don’t hang a picture at any exhibition. I always take care of where they should be hung, and next to what, or the light shining on them. So our dialogue is very solid. I have a blank contract for a third book, that is, I feel that someone values what I do.
This is tied to my next question, what are your plans in the very short term?
Out of superstition I never tell my plans. Sorry. I have a very important plan in the short term and that’s why I am trying to make up my mind whether to do it or not despite its significance because I feel like resting a little bit, which I have never done.
But there is a second book in the works with Assouline.
That is closed. It’s about New York. And they want a third one, and I agreed to it, but I don’t know if I will do it.
One difficult question. What would you like someone exposed to your photos to take away from them?
Really, Jorge, when you are closing the circle of your life, you don’t care about anything any more. You are sorting things out. And besides you don’t have any kind of speculation about anything, it is like an uncharted terrain you cannot control. If you asked me “Do you care about transcending the day you are not on the planet?” I do not care about anything. I have no idea. I will not be here. I don’t know. I do not care about that subject. There are no speculations. What I do care about is feeling OK with what I’ve done, that is, feeling no regrets, I’ve done all I could and here I am.
Thank you very much for this interview.