“The character is already there”: Andrea Artemisio builds narrative, attitude and tone in his photographs
No matter if you’re a well-versed gallery-going Londoner or a visitor to this city we call home, there is one mistake we bet most have made at some point: travelling to the wrong Tate. Despite differing collections and their close proximity, the Tate Modern and Tate Britain are susceptible to being mixed up. For most, this means trundling back over the river to the correct gallery, but for photographer Andrea Artemisio, this mistake provided a photographic turning point.
This was back in 2017 and Andrea, who is originally from Milan and had just moved to London, had been meaning to visit Tate Britain but accidentally ended up in the Tate Modern at the Wolfgang Tillmans show . At the time Andrea had been carrying around a camera for a few years, picking one up “when the dad of a dear friend of mine who was passionate about photography gave me a Canon”. Still figuring out his own style and approach to photography, the actual work of Tillmans didn’t really jump out at Andrea; instead, he was “struck by his attitude in taking pictures”.
“I found the light scheme that worked for me, and which I have used and readjusted over the years. It was the first step in defining my aesthetic”Andrea Artemisio
Being able to see details in photography such as tone of voice, overarching narrative and, as he’s already mentioned, a certain “attitude”, is Andrea’s key talent as a photographer. His work, no matter the client or subject, is always distinctly his. He always shoots in studio, for instance, usually on a background that, at its lightest is an off white, and at its darkest a light grey. The differentiation between his series can be spotted in the introduction of new props and contemporary costume. He’s not a photographer who waits patiently for a photograph to form in front of him; Andrea orchestrates exactly what Andrea wants. It’s meant that, despite his young age, he’s already shot for the likes of Alla Carta, Vogue Italia and Dazed, and sits alongside David Lane, Jack Davison and Bobby Doherty on Mini Title’s roster.
“I was interested in tapping into what is seen today as ‘classical’ or the canon in photography, and transporting this into a more current way of seeing”Andrea Artemisio
Thorough research and the help of some advisers along the way are to thank for Andrea’s distinctive style of photography, especially for someone so early on in their career. “I had many mentors who indirectly taught me about photography,” he explains, whether it be through conversation or “just by reading and seeing their work”. Reading was primarily Andrea’s introduction to the arts, admitting that growing up he had a fascination with biographies, “and I think some of these gave me some practical advice on how to embrace a profession that can be discontinuous and contingent,” he says. “Especially Spike Lee’s autobiography, Bruno Munari’s Fantasie and Keith Haring’s diary.”
This, coupled with the visual inspiration of Richard Avedon and Jurgen Teller, as well as a love for “the hyperrealist sculptures of Duane Hanson and Ron Mueck”, has created a portfolio of work where viewers can spot references that nod to the greats. And, in being so well versed in photographic references and artistic approaches, the medium has never been a hobby for Andrea, but always a job to be taken seriously with passion. Shortly after picking up the camera gifted to him, he wanted to know the exact ins and outs, and began working as an assistant, taking evening courses on the side. “Quite soon,” he says, “it became a professional commitment.”
Spending time with photographers and their faithful army of stylists, make-up artists, lighting technicians and retouchers allowed Andrea to define his aesthetic. “One of the first and most important shoots was ten years ago while I was still working as an assistant,” he recalls. “During that afternoon I found the light scheme that worked for me, and which I have used and readjusted over the years. It was the first step in defining my aesthetic.”
Andrea’s approach to lighting, and this moment he discovered it, is representative of the photographer’s “aim for a contemporary aesthetic” coupled with the fact that his main influences “come from classical photography, the work in grey studios of photographers such as Irving Penn and Avedon,” he says. In turn, the lighting is bright, clean and provides no distraction from the subjects in the foreground, akin to Richard Avedon’s iconic images of Twiggy, Kate Moss and Marilyn Monroe. “I was interested in tapping into what is seen today as ‘classical’ or the canon in photography, and transporting this into a more current way of seeing, applying it to everyday views and moving from a familiarity I had with film into digital.”
Other than his specific mode of lighting staying the same, Andrea admits that “every shoot has a different approach”. If he’s working on a set of portraits he’ll leave the shoot open to chance: “Usually there’s no preparation and everything comes to life on set.” On the other hand, if he’s been asked to recreate a theme, or it’s one of his own ideas he wants to explore, his love of research kicks back in, looking “into ideas and people who can help develop it visually with props and casting”. Either way, after the shoot, little post-production is needed as Andrea uses “digital photography with a film approach, given my training working with film and as a studio assistant” to produce slick results in-camera.
Despite seeing his own work as either portraits or more thematic pieces, another consistent in Andrea’s work is people. His subjects are rarely professional or recognisable models and so he presents them just the way they are. “When I photograph ‘ordinary’ people I know such as my dad, I do not use costumes. For me, the character is already there,” he points out. “On the contrary, when I work with recreating images of important figures, such as Napoleon, I tend to use props and costumes to disassemble the character and make it look almost fake.” This approach is one the photographer describes as “shaking up the myth”: taking recognisable elements – in one shoot he recreated The Simpsons family with comedic brilliance – and twisting them into artistic interpretation. “I’m interested in taking the collective imagination and dissembling it to make it more human,” he says.
“When I photograph ‘ordinary’ people I know such as my dad, I do not use costumes. For me, the character is already there”Andrea Artemisio
This is where Andrea differs from other contemporary photographers. Where many brands seek to feature “real” people in campaigns and transform them into something new, he instead keeps them as is. If he is shooting something or someone relatively “famous” he won’t dress it down to appear approachable; instead he’ll dial up the theatrics. On set, his approach differs too, purposefully creating a unique atmosphere. “I barely talk with my subjects,” he says, “which is probably the opposite of what usually happens on set whereby photographers communicate with subjects and direct them.”
It’s not that Andrea is purposefully mean or cold towards subjects, he just doesn’t want to ruin an ambience with pleasantries. It’s a decision which has led to a stylistic tendency of Andrea’s, that of never having subjects looking into the camera. “I’ll ask someone else who’s on set that day to talk to them, to have the small talk, so they remain more themselves instead of posing for me or for the camera. I try to have more distance to get closer,” he explains. “Subjects might not always be comfortable, they probably get nervous and annoyed by not knowing exactly how to pose or what to do, especially the professional ones. I probably don’t make them feel at ease but this allows me to see an unprepared, spontaneous side of the person that would otherwise remain hidden.” This approach makes reasonable sense when you see Andrea’s work and, after all, he sees photography as a job, not a jolly.
In having such a wealth of knowledge about photography at such a young age, as well as approaching the medium with an alternative attitude to many of his contemporaries, Andrea is forging his own path, which is making him a fascinating practitioner to watch blossom. In being so true to himself and so confident (on asking the photographer how he would describe his work as a whole, he bravely answers with just one word “hyperreal”), looking towards the rest of 2019 he wants to step up a gear: “This year I would like to use the very small power I have as a professional photographer to portray artists I hold in high esteem, and who have inspired me over the past few years. I don’t know yet if I can make it, but two of these are Enzo Mari and Aki Kaurismaki.”
It’s exciting to hear that despite having the attention of up-and-coming fashion brands, as well as independent and staple publications turning to him, Andrea’s love of photography isn’t motivated by working with bigger clients or on bigger productions. Instead, Andrea wants to honour the heroes that got him into photography in the first place. Maybe a shoot with Wolfgang Tillmans is on the cards?
About the Author
Lucy joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in July 2016 after graduating from Chelsea College of Art. In October 2016 she became a staff writer on the editorial team and in January 2019 was made It’s Nice That’s deputy editor. Feel free to get in contact with Lucy about new and upcoming creative projects or editorial ideas for the site.