25 Nov FORMA Interviews
Francesco Russo: Beyond Photography
Francesco Russo is a photographer based in London and Venice, specialising in architecture, interior design and the built environment. He strives to produce simple but bold and striking images to illustrate the work of architects and designers.
After working as an architectural assistant in Italy and in London, he followed his first and most burning passion and he is now a free-lancer involved in important projects in the capital. Let’s hear from him.
How did you first get into photography?
My passion for photography started when I was about 10 years old. At the time Kodak’s disposable cameras were really common and cheap, and that is how I started experimenting with this art. I took it more seriously when I started studying architecture at university in Venice. This is why Architecture and Photography have always been two parallel paths for me rather than two separate passions. I have been travelling around the world for ten years now with my camera to capture interesting examples of modern and contemporary architecture.
The London Mastaba by Christo and Jeanne-Claude, London, UK © Francesco Russo
Why did you leave your job as an architect in order to dedicate yourself to photography?
To be honest, I have not left architecture yet. After working as an architectural assistant for three years both in Italy and in London, I started working on a few small residential projects in London by myself, which I am still running. It is a good challenge, but after experimenting with both the businesses at the same time, I understood what I enjoy the most. Photography was my first passion, it’s giving me more satisfaction and I find the creative process more stimulating, but it is always connected with the world of architecture and design, which I could never completely leave.
Cat Cairn by James Turrell, Kielder Forest, UK © Francesco Russo
Do you think it still makes sense to teach architectural photography in the Instagram era?
It makes a lot of sense. Being able to take a picture does not mean being able to use this media to communicate a project properly and to bring to the world the intents of architects and designers. It is something that comes with time and experience, and having a mentor in the early stages is essential. For example, at the London College of Communication there is a course, which I attended, focused specifically on Architectural Photography. There are also many other courses in London, so I think that teaching photography is still valuable and necessary.
Rivington Place Gallery by David Adjaye, London, UK © Francesco Russo
What photographic gear and post-processing workflow do you use and how important is the role of post-processing in your creative process?
I am a Nikon user, but just because when I was 19 years old I was introduced to a more advanced stage of photography by my uncle. He is a very well renowned documentary photographer and filmmaker in Italy, and he has always used mainly Nikon gear in his career. So it was quite obvious for him to bring me to that side of the force :-).
To be honest, nowadays I think that the brand you are using is not that relevant. All the professional cameras can deliver much more than we actually need. What matters is that you know what you are doing with your kit and that the camera you are using affords you all the control that you need. After that, it is all in the photographer’s eye and experience.
Talking about the post-processing, I always try to capture as much as I can at the moment of the shoot, but all of my images pass through the process of the digital editing, which is an integral part of the creative process. Most of the times it is just a matter of adjusting the shadows and the colour balance, but sometimes I have to go through more specific adjustments to obtain the image that I created in my mind at the beginning.
16. Venice Architecture Biennale, Belgian Pavillion, Eurotopie by Traumnovelle and Roxane Le Grelle, Venice, IT © Francesco Russo
What’s the most interesting experience you had so far as a photographer of architecture?
Without any doubt that must be the project on the construction of this year’s Serpentine Pavilion by Frida Escobedo. I was in charge of the documentation of the building site which went on frenetically for six weeks between May and June. Working closely with the construction team was very interesting, as well as having a first-hand experience of all the challenges that such a peculiar project brings.
R7 by Morris + Company, London, UK © Francesco Russo
With the Internet and social media we are saturated with images. What’s your way to emerge and make your work recognisable?
This is one of the main challenges for photographers today. I like to follow the “less is more” philosophy. I try to focus the attention of the images on the few important elements of the project and where possible I like including people in the shots. Places are made for people, and it wouldn’t make much sense to me to represent an empty place which normally would be populated. I would define my work to be more toward the documentary end of the architectural photography spectrum. I like showing how a completed building or space is actually used, without forgetting about pure architectural elements such as details and materiality.
I am also experimenting with alternative techniques. I have recently launched Instant Architecture, my latest personal project entirely shot on Polaroid instant film with my Polaroid SX-70. I enjoy using it during my urban explorations, with all the challenges given by an old automatic non-professional instant camera. The result is a quite unique contrast between modern architectural subjects and the retro colours and styles that the camera delivers.
Construction of Serpentine Pavilion 2018 by Frida Escobedo, London, UK © Francesco Russo
One Italian master and one international master that you admire.
When I think about masters in architectural photography in Italy I always think about Gabriele Basilico. One of his most famous projects is “Milano, ritratti di fabbriche” (Milan factories’ portraits). I probably admire it also because of my great interest in the industrial heritage of our cities. The projects I usually appreciate the most are adaptive reuses of old industrial buildings brought back to life with a wise use of materials and details. Many examples can be found in London, especially around the King’s Cross development area.
Another Italian photographer I’m fond of is Francesco Jodice. I think his aesthetic and imagery as an urban and landscape photographer is unique also because of his commitment to representing the society that lies in between of the built environment.
Talking about contemporary and international photographers, Iwan Baan is for sure a great inspiration. His capability of merging architectural and documentary photography is quite unique. I had the pleasure to meet him at the launch of the Serpentine Pavilion this year and it was interesting to see how one of the most renown photographers in the world works in a very relaxed way and with a quite basic camera gear.
Serpentine Pavilion 2018 by Frida Escobedo, London, UK © Francesco Russo
What is your business plan for 2019?
I’m working on two new projects in London, but for now I’d like to keep them secret because they are still at an early stage. It’s hard to find the time for personal projects between all the business commitments, but I think they are really important because they show what’s the real soul and interest of a photographer. On top of this, I’m planning to expand my network outside London and possibly abroad.
201 Bishopsgate and the Broadgate Tower by SOM, London, UK © Francesco Russo
What are your top three books, documentaries, films or a mix and match of them?
A great book is “Shooting Space” by Elias Redstone. I think it is an exhaustive overview of contemporary architectural photography, showcasing the work of 50 photographers including Hélène Binet, Iwan Baan and the Italians Andrea Bosio, Paolo Rosselli and Michele Nastasi. In its introduction there’s an extensive explanation of how documentary and architectural photography developed from its birth to the digital era.
“The Salt of the Earth” is a documentary film by Wim Wenders and Juliano Ribeiro Salgado on the life and work of Sebastião Salgado, a documentary and travel photographer who has spent forty years documenting societies in hidden corners of the world. It was inspiring for me, not for his imagery and contents which are quite far from mine, but for his great passion and dedication to photography and for his empathic relationship with his subjects.
Can I include an exhibition on the list? I found stunning last year’s Andreas Gursky’s exhibition at the Hayward Gallery in London. Gursky is considered the pivotal figure connecting traditional documentary photography to digital art. Those huge prints made me appreciate every single detail of his meticulous work of documentation carried out for the last four decades.