Interview with Ursula Ferrara, LICC Winner in SHOOT (Photo/Video) in the Professional category. Ferrara discusses her gratitude to her father for her involvement in photography, mentions her extensive experience in animated cartoons, and emphasizes her belief in the absence of strict dictates or predetermined schedules to adhere to.
Tell us a little about your background. How did your love of photography grow?
The first time I took a camera in my hand, it was a Polaroid. And sometimes there was film inside. That’s the magic: the picture came out—the same one I saw through the viewfinder.
Later, I remember shooting a full roll with a 6” x 6” Yashica camera in the sky of Rome, where a Goodyear advertising airship was flying. I was with my father; fortunately, I also took a picture of him.
When I was 13 years old, we were sitting at the dining table. My father said, go collect your Olympus. I brought him the camera, and he gave it to my sister (???).
He placed on my dish an old, little, antiquated camera full of scuffs with a tiny lens that you had to lift up by hand, saying that he swapped that “thing” with his motorbike: that was a Leica.
I was on the verge of tears, I wanted back my Olympus with the telezoom.
My mother tried to comfort me by telling me: “Look, that’s a Cartier Bresson camera.” I felt even worse because I had no idea who this guy was.
My darkroom was the bathroom, but, being a family of five children and two parents, the place was available mostly at night. I could stay there for hours, even with people coming and going all the time, and still I have the habit of working in the darkroom during the night.
At the age of 18, I was in Florence in the Photography Academy … and then I never quit.
I believe I owe everything to my father. He was a great scientist, a volcanologist, an excellent photographer, and way more. He found a way to intrigue me without forcing me with his magical-scientific explanations.
What merits do you see in being Winner in Shoot (photo/video)? What does receiving this award personally mean to you?
When I read the mail that announced the award, I had a shock of delight, and I continued to read it again and again for three days. I was afraid that another email would follow with the message: “Sorry, it was a mistake.” I think this is a very privileged portal for my work, an opportunity that many would desire to get their own pictures out of that famous drawer.
The passion for photography is a deep and intimate thing that goes beyond prizes and awards, but who wouldn’t be happy to know that their picture can communicate to other people the emotion they felt while making it?
What steps do you take in the creative process, and what tools do you use?
The creative process is always a bit mysterious, hard to explain rationally. We may say it is a collection of many things: some practical things as techniques, experimentation, chemistry et cetera and some that I would name impalpable, that are like emotional phosphenes that wonder relentlessly in your mind for days, to finally, suddenly congregate in what we can call an idea, sometimes good, sometimes excellent by the evening… and shattered the day after.
What is certain is that when you have a good project, there’s a different push to move it forward. It is as the project itself brings you further. And it is wonderful.
As tools, I have used almost everything: analogic cameras, digital cameras, movie cameras (I’ve done animated cartoons for years), painting, drawing, pottery, and so on. Now I use mostly ultra large format analog cameras. I’ve got an 8’’x10’’ Eastman Commercial camera from 1944 that I use principally for the Wet Plate.
Then I built my own 16’’ x 20’’ camera with materials I found at Ikea. I bought the lenses on Ebay. My favorite is a no name brass lens, with which I do practically everything.
Some time ago, I customized my van with a giant camera using an aerial reconnaissance lens (Aerotessar Baush & Lomb 24-inch Military Lens) and used the interior of the van as a darkroom.
Where do you find your inspiration and motivation for your work?
The motivation is a little bit always the same: not to die, to celebrate life, to play, to care. Inspiration is a bastard witch that appears abruptly and as she pleases.
Sometimes she comes from sadness, sometimes from need, and sometimes from indignation. Sometimes she is in mixed moods, sometimes she just creates confusion. Sometimes she doesn’t explain.
What design endeavor would you most like to pursue?
By now, I am experimenting with gum bichromate, an 800th-century fascinating process that brings photography closer to painting.
What impact do you believe your own culture and environment have had on your creative vision both personally and professionally?
I believe that we are made by our experiences, our lives with our parents, brothers, partners, and friends, the places we visited, the books we read, the music we listened to, the sleepless nights, the hangovers, the caresses, and the kisses. But I desperately trust my Hillman gland.
Tell us about a project that you feel has been your most successful achievement.
I started with primordial chemistry, creating a primordial soup in which I put my photos after the shooting.
I mixed the four elements: air, water, fire, and earth, with nitrogenous slag, sea water, and crude oil, leaving the pictures there for days, exposed to wind and rain, that created unexpected effects on the surface of pictures that, being taken with an ultra large format analog camera (16×20 inch) and direct positive B&W Harman paper (16×20 inch), already contained unpredictable aspects. It was a journey from an intact photo to a corrupted one, a transition given by time, chemistry, and luck, just as people and things are changed by anything that happens in their lives, be it time, chemistry, or luck.
Another challenge I faced was to build a lens with epoxy resin and a silicone cake mould. After many experiments, I succeeded, and finally, the right lens was born.
Among my projects, I’m still working on the Unbroken Series.
Which photographers and designers in your industry do you most admire, and why?
I’ll name just a few of the immense variety of known and unknown photographers that left something for me: Alfred Stieglitz, Julia Margaret Cameron, Jacques Henri Lartigue, Miroslav Tichy, Sally Mann, Ryan McGinley, Emiel Van Moerkerken, Francesca Woodman, Antoine D’Agata, Kevin Carter, Nan Goldin, Robert Demachy, Roman Vishniac… and a lot of painters. I’ll just name my mother, Bonnard, and Charlotte Solomon.
About design is a little bit the same thing, it is everywhere: from airplanes to biomedical technology to everyday objects, and I will never know the name of the designer of that cockpit, of that cardiac stent, of that knife, but surely behind all those things there’s a creative, clever spirit. I personally find very interesting the world of research on organic materials like algae, fungi, and bacteria as plastic substitutes.
There are three names of designers that I like: Marteen Baas, Ron Arad, and Gae Aulenti.
How do you think design has changed over time, and how do you envision it changing moving forward?
I believe that the human being has always tried to change any available material to make it more functional for its needs. I’ve got an Ossidiana neolitic axe, and it is a masterpiece: half-sculpture, half-knife. Just holding it in your hand is a pleasure. And yet, it was just a stone.
In that way, always, in time, useful and beautiful objects were built, as Roman amphorae for transport of oil and wine that were shaped with a point so that they could be placed in the sand and stowed in ships, or the Inuit ice-houses that are born by ingenuity and by the change of state of water in a mix of sculpture and engineering, meant to protect from cold and bears, or even the pacifier for babies that is a substitute of the mother’s nipple. It is made of the caoutchouc tree’s milk.
In other words, design is really everywhere. In this moment, I believe the most important research is the one regarding biodesign and new materials that respect the Earth and originate from the Earth.
There are leaves that glow in the dark, fungi and bacteria that create fabric and tissues, and algae that can produce dishes and glasses.
After all, on this planet, everything is already there. Design has the duty, throughout technology, science, creativity, and art, to shape what is already there and what is not yet there.
Someone believes that you need to go back to go forward. I believe that there are no diktats with predetermined schedules to follow. You don’t always have to choose between going back or going forward. What if the ones that are right are actually the crabs that walk laterally?
What do you believe to be the current significant possibilities and problems in your field?
I believe nowadays there’s plenty of space for everyone and many more chances for cultural exchange than in the past. This, however, includes the fact that many pictures look alike and are a bit stock-oriented, instagram-style etc. A sort of visual homologation that you passively get used to almost without realizing it. But, in the meantime, there are many intellectually brave and unknown talents working darkly in the opposite direction, and this applies also to talent scouts, gallery owners, magazine directors, designers, etc. that also work upstream, proposing audaciously new contests, calls for artists, and other occasions for creators.
What are you working on right now, if you could give us a sneak peek?
I’m still working on the series ‘Unbroken’, the one I presented to Licc. Here’s the statement.
I started thinking about the use of the wet plate collodion technique in ancient times: the glasses often got broken, becoming useless. Then, I used the wet plate technique, and after I broke the glasses, I decided to fix them, inspired by the kintsugi technique, a Japanese art in which something broken is not thrown away but is fixed with pure gold, making it much more precious. This also has a psychological interpretation: it is a way of life in which wounds and scars make us stronger and unique. I mixed the kintsugi with the Tiffany technique to obtain a plate that tells a story: we have a chance of living multiple lives, as when we fall, we rise.
In addition to gum bichromate experiments, I’m wondering about a new idea that’s really in its early stages. There will be people and trees and it will involve 16’’ x 20’’ analog photography and the natural processes of plants and its secretions, insects, resins… but I’m waiting for more precise indications from the witch!
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