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Chaotic Photo Collages Capture Raw Emotion of Rome

Italian photojournalist Gabriele Stabile turns the gritty unextraordinary scenes of Rome, extraordinary, in his photo-collages.

by Diana Shi
25 September 2016, 11:30am

All images courtesy the artist

Honest portraits of Roman civilian life and uncompromised emotions collide in a series of photo collages by Gabriele Stabile. The artist's superimposed works are without boundaries in their jagged and rebellious shapes, injecting the energy of the Italian city throughout. The cloudy faces of pedestrians are juxtaposed with the unvarnished reality of urban streets. Rome, a city associated with its glamorous cultural identity, is the anti-cinéma star of Stabile’s stark and multidimensional pieces. In Census, the reality of a litter-filled, foot-traffic city life breaks down: the unvarnished look of each collage inadvertently turns each romantic, primarily the result of the series’ monochromatic, gritty feel.

The Creators Project spoke to Stabile over email about the development of Census, and his rise from a Roman schoolteacher’s son to a newly-minted photojournalist working for the The New York Times.

[This interview has been edited for clarity.]

The Creators Project: Your photos collages contain a myriad of elements—aesthetically and conceptually. What are some of your specific inspirations for the series?

Gabriele Stabile: Well, I grew up in Rome, the son of two intrepid immigrants from the deep south, so I developed a very tight bond with that particular city. However later, when I found my own spiritual home in New York [City], once I was out of it, it's almost like, from a distance, I was finally able to see it for better or worse, for what it really was: a disillusioned old bully, an old movie star [...] [who] struggles to understand this world, that refuses to change, to update, to move on. 

In Italy I worked for a solid decade in the music business, then I couldn't really play anymore [due to tendonitis]. So I went to film school. My wife Pax pushed me to photograph, because I felt stuck. I moved to London, and [finally] to New York for ICP. I started working early on for The New York Times, FADER, and a few other publications. For seven years I worked on "refugee hotel," a collection of photographs and oral histories.

In 2013, for family reasons, tough ones, I was forced to go back for a consistent amount of time and getting out of NYC from one day to the other was almost like going to rehab cold-turkey. I went from work, work, work to super lazy Rome. Thankfully, Fujifilm had just come out with this amazing new street-photography-friendly digital camera (I used to shoot Leica, but it feels too valuable, too solid), so I bought one at B&H, a bunch of lenses, and I hit the streets of my hometown looking for nothing in particular, just to get myself on a schedule.

Around that time I was also looking at a lot of Werner Herzog interviews (I’ve been a fan since Fata Morgana), and he was talking tons about ancient Rome's classics.

My mom was a teacher in school and a bookstore clerk so I grabbed a bunch of books and would read a page now and then, or when I felt like it: Livy, Horatio, Cicero, Julius Caesar, just spanning the whole spectrum. Livy, in ab urbe condita, writes at some point of the first real census of the city of Rome. [...] I got immediately hooked by the idea of doing my own photographic census roaming [...] the same city limits, but some 2,000 years later.

Why the medium of photo collage?

I come from documentary and photojournalism, so I'm used to tight 12-picture story reportages. But this was different. No matter how I would cut or select, there was something missing. I couldn't quite put my finger on what it was. I realized it only recently: it was that I couldn't, with single pictures, give back the texture and the visual noise, the dirty, desolate side of having an endless walk in Rome while at the same time highlighting the loneliness of the characters.

If you had to describe what is the message of your photographs, what would it be?

Coming from journalism, I never really felt compelled to provide a message, I would hope that the images themselves would tell a story. [...] What you can hope for [...] is that the viewers perceive a little of your gaze, of your approach too.

I know that this will sound very unpopular, and that we live and will die in the era were creative and conceptual are basically synonyms, but for me [it] is also a lot about the feeling the images convey. To my eyes they are as raw, uneducated, juxtaposed, chaotic, rough at times tender [...] and fucked up as my hometown is.

Can you describe your artistic process when creating Census?

Rome is mostly a matter of rusted, dusty, crumbled stones and dirty walls to me. So first thing I tried to give back to the people I had photographed in the streets some sort of decency, of dignity, of lightness. In my first portfolio that I actually manually produced, I would print a photo and then, mixing like crazy weird polymers, would soak the paper and take it out of the printed image, keeping the flimsy film that was the actual image, a transfer pretty much without the base. 

So I started to superimpose the semi-transparent images I had printed and worked on. I liked the visual effect but that meant going back in the editing [process] and select images that were standing out, not as much as for their singular value (composition, subject, feel, etc.) but for the ability to convey collectively the "a day in Rome" experience. And then I started mixing photos, xeroxes, film, transfers on plexiglas, inks and papers, to shuffle cards and keep creative, because one thing that really I try to avoid is to dry out on the page—to get back at it the next day with nothing more to say and force it.

Keep an eye for Gabriele Stabile’s series Census at the upcoming Singapore International Photography Festival. Take a look at the full collection of collages on his website, here.

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