A TASTE FOR THE SHOT
Renato Marcialis is one of Italy’s most important food photographers. Among his most well-known and innovative projects is “Caravaggio in the Kitchen”: images of food realized with Caravaggio’s signature lighting.
Defining him as a photographer is perhaps reductionist: defining him as a painter, less so. Renato Marcialis is more than anything an artist of the image, someone who composes works and immortalizes them in photo shoots, trusting to the precious contribution of light, and capable of rendering a photo much more similar to a painting. Marcialis has developed a part of his art by looking to the past and taking inspiration from Caravaggio’s genius composed of light and shadows, and rendering the very warmth of light itself the true protagonist of his compositions, together with the constant subject which dominates the image: food. One of his most important projects is in fact “Caravaggio in the Kitchen,” a collection realized with the technique of light painting, which has allowed him to photograph still lifes and obtain works much more similar to
Food photography today is a trendy phenomenon. Renato Marcialis has made an art of it.
painting. As a matter of fact, Renato Marcialis is a professional food photographer, and took up this path when the obsession for gourmet dishes and chefs was far from being just a trend as opposed to an original artistic vision. Food insinuated itself into his life at a very early age, because when one is surrounded by a grandfather, father and uncle who all exercise the profession of chef, the push towards cuisine inevitably seems an already traced path. Soon after came photography; all it took was entering a darkroom to begin appreciating the magic of creation, before he fell completely in love with it in the second half of the 70s, when he started to collaborate with his brother, an art director for a series of commissions of gastronomic photography. Then came a desire to break away and strike out on his own, with all the risks that entails; he opened a studio on his own and in the following five years photographed anything and everything: fashion, journalistic reportage, publicity, industrial shots. But specialization urgently beckoned him and, by now famous and the winner of numerous prizes, he decided to make food the center of his artistic and photographic activity.
He thus began to contribute his photos to dozens of publications centered on gastronomy and the world of cocktails, collaborating with chefs, food companies and various projects including promotional ones, in the process becoming one of the most talented and recognized artists in the sector world-wide. We interviewed him and explored with him the world of food photography, a complex art that goes well beyond improvisation.
The “Caravaggio in the Kitchen” project unites the suggestions of the past and contemporary ideas in a wholly original manner: how was it possible to unite these two tendencies and what type of technique did you use to bring your photographic style close to Caravaggio’s pictorial tension? Nowadays everyone talks only about the future, the avant-garde and modernity. Well, it’s only right that that’s the way it is, but my fortune has been that, up to a certain point, instead of looking forward I have chosen to look behind me, returning to subjects and inspirations of the past which are still charged with beauty. I felt the need for coming up with compositions, mostly food-based, and enclosing them within the photograph; but instead of shooting them “normally,” I noticed
that these compositions were more similar and suitable for a painting and so I worked in such a way that the arts of painting and photography would be combined in a single creation. The difficulty was in realizing the lighting typical of a painting and creating that “brushstroke” of light: the result recalled the art of Caravaggio and became an important challenge. In order to obtain that desired effect of light I could have used a small flashlight, but I decided on fiber optics, which give a small light that can be appropriately controlled as to its brightness. That “light brush” helps us to understand how great Caravaggio was: in the era when he was working, he used lanterns or glimmers created on the ceiling from which he filtered the rays of the sun. In addition to knowing how to mix and control colors, light is the true protagonist of his paintings: Caravaggio’s use of light and shadow are an important gift to Italian art.
In the last few years, great attention and sensitivity have been developed in relation to the theme of food. How important is it that this be adequately communicated, even in a creative manner, as happens with Food Photography?
Today there is a real exaggeration: it’s not possible for everything to revolve around gastronomy. Undoubtedly there are interesting things going on, but it’s an overly inflated sector. Photography as well has dived headlong into the world of food, but one can’t just improvise in this field: a couple of decent photos aren’t enough to consider oneself a photographer specialized in food. Photography is not simply pointing and shooting, it is above all creating, developing a project around the subject. It means getting one’s hands dirty and entering into direct contact with the protagonist of the photo. Today, images are produced continually, but if we really analyze them, very few are valid.
Will you continue to photograph food in the future or will you apply your technique to subjects other than food?
I always want there to be a food element in my photos. Some of my compositions, for example, have kitchen accessories at the center of the photo, but in everything there is always some bit of food, whether an egg, a pear, or a bunch of grapes. Even other shots with humans at the center show food in the composition. I decided that food would be a common element in all of my projects, and that it will be the leitmotif and underlying theme of my oeuvre.
Obtaining excellent results and making a name for oneself in a sector such as art is very complicated: in this context, how much does natural talent count, and how much does professional specialization? Considering the current state of affairs, is it enough nowadays to have a digital camera or an app like Instagram to realize a good photo?
You can take a photo with just about anything, but it all begins in the head, in reflecting on how to compose the shot. You have to think about the idea: the camera can’t do that, because it’s only a means. And there’s no use in having a great camera if you don’t know how to use it. Even social media such as Instagram—that at the beginning I thought was some sort of disease—are of little interest for the art of photography. Technology and innovation are all well and good, but the important thing is to give space to ideas.
Do you remember your first photo? When did you understand that this passion would become your profession?
As a child I was already the one in charge of family photos and I have to say that even at that time I had a certain capability in composing shots. The real turning point came when my father, in order to curb my rather mischievous character and be fully aware of what I was up to during the day, put me into a photographic studio: after a few days inside as an apprentice, when I saw the negative transform itself into an image, I understood that it was a sort of magic. That was my first sign, and since then time and experience have only increased my passion and talent.
You also work in publicity: how do you manage relationships with the clients to in order to guarantee the artistic integrity of your work?
In the field of publicity I work with those who give me satisfaction. I no longer accept routine work and prefer to not work with some agencies where I have encountered incompatibility, which may also be generational. I look on new players with interest, but find little propensity in them for listening and learning, which often causes them to assume a peevish and high-handed attitude. I’m more at ease with professionals of my own age, and always insist that they be capable of putting art before the commercial result.
The future of Marcialis?
I’ve got a lot of steaks on the grill, but prefer to put them out there one at a time because I’m afraid they might get burned.
Renato Marcialis, one of the greatest signatures in Italian photography