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Filippo Giani

27 May 2021

Filippo Giani is a filmmaker by day and forest-walker by night. His style could be described as ethereal, often utilising the fine outlines of bare trees against a shimmering light. Combined with underexposed dark ochre tones, it lends a sinister feel to the imagery that is captivating and haunting in equal measure.

What is your backstory?

I was born in northern Italy and moved to Tuscany when I was 5 years old. I attended school there until I turned 17 and was offered the opportunity to spend a year abroad, which I took. I graduated from high school in Chicago and then eventually moved to London to study filmmaking, following a brief stint as a business student in Germany. After 5 years in the UK, I moved back to Italy. My time in film school was very fruitful for a variety of reasons and it's what introduced me to image-making. I had always thought of myself mainly as a director up to that point, and never really considered something like cinematography, for example, as a viable option. I decided to take a few classes and DP'd a few short films. I probably wasn't very good, but having done it is what got me started on this path and I'm extremely grateful that I ended up giving it a try.

How did you first start out in photography?

I first started taking pictures properly around 2017. I was using my phone up to that point, but I wasn't taking it all that seriously. Eventually I decided to make the investment and purchase a digital camera. I really didn't know much about photography at the time; I was using it more as a substitute for filmmaking during times in which I couldn't work (almost as a storyboarding tool). As time progressed I started to research the medium in greater depth and realised that it harboured a much greater potential than I had originally anticipated.

Where do you draw inspiration from?

I draw my inspiration from a variety of sources. Luminist painters come to mind as a prime example as of late. Other big sources include the work of other photographers, books and of course movies. However, I also often find myself being influenced by several other forms of media such as articles of various nature, news reports and music.

How would you describe your style?

My current style could perhaps be described as meditative / atmospherical. It's really not for me to say however.

What subjects do you like to shoot?

I recently started rediscovering darkness after a period spent producing lighter, more ethereal images. I like the dark as it represents a realm of possibility. When walking through a forest at night, for example, you can clearly feel the presence of a hidden, underlying potentiality for something unexpected to emerge from the shadows. Nothing ever does, or at least it never did in my experience so far, but the feeling of an imminent threat is very tangible in the moment you experience it. It's an interesting state of imbalance, a liminal area between the knowable and the unknowable. Without the ability to rely on your senses as accurately, you can't form a comprehensive overview of the surroundings. As a result, your predictive capabilities fall short and you're left at the mercy of whatever the future might be holding for you. The darkness essentially anchors you down to the present moment, in a sense.

What are you looking for when you go out shooting?

I typically go out shooting with a very approximate objective of what I intend to get. The planning goes as far as selecting a time and a place based on atmospheric conditions.

Once I'm on the spot, I tend to mostly improvise. I shoot nature scenes here in Italy for the most part, due to availability issues involved with other types of location. Hard to say what exactly catches my eye, as I typically think very loosely once I'm working. I guess that often times a scene will remind me of another picture or film that I saw, a song that I heard, an idea that I previously had, etc. I think that the mechanism at work is an associative one for the most part.

How do you know when you've got "the shot"?

I rarely realise exactly what I got right after a session. It typically takes me some time before I can look back at a given batch with a proactive attitude. Then I explore the material and scout for hidden potential in the shots after having reached a degree of detachment from them. The editing process is where the images are truly found, made to emerge from the rough outline that is the digital negative. I guess I never really know when an image is ready, and whatever stands out to me at a given moment might not interest me again a few weeks or even days down the line. I would say that overall, if I felt that a given shot created the allure of an invisible story which tied into it, I'd probably elect it as a standout.

Are you an impulsive or planned shooter?

A mixture of both, but leaning more towards impulsive. The workflow is typically contemplative in nature but the situations which I'll be encountering are outside of my control, forcing me to adapt to them rather than vice versa.

How do you achieve the look in your photos?

My editing process isn't standardised and varies depending on the specific image. I don't use presets and edit every image from scratch. I tend to experiment a lot with white balance and tint before I find the combination which I think would best suit the picture. Sometimes a warm image will be turned cold, other times it will be the other way around. This is done in conjunction with various exposure/contrast adjustments and entirely performed in Camera Raw.

After having found the basis for how the picture should evolve from this point onwards, I transpose the workflow onto Photoshop and start masking, cropping, selectively enhancing, etc… The process from here on could involve anything from merging two different takes together to just simply fine-tuning the color palette using the color balance and hue/saturation adjustments. Generally speaking, I tend to lean towards adequately exposing while shooting to then darken in the editing, but at times I will also underexpose in-camera as a way of bringing out some noise and imperfections if I feel that the image could benefit from them.

Before and after editing
Before and after editing

How do you feel your style has changed/evolved over the years?

It has changed significantly and it is still evolving to this day. I've made several transitions over the years and I wouldn't really know if there was any obvious throughline to be drawn across them. I guess the style has simply changed in relation to how I've changed, and if you were to look at my whole life as an interpretative key you'd probably be able to find an underlying logic to it.

Do you have any photos that are you particularly proud of?

Yes, I do have some favourites. One that comes to mind is this untitled image I took of a house while revisiting my old neighbourhood in Chicago last year. It was snowing heavily and the sky had a very interesting pale-purple tint to it. I remember spotting the house on the opposite side of the street as I was walking along. It immediately stood out to me given the fact that a nearby street lamp was casting a very feeble light on the sidewalk right in front of it, but the house in itself was pretty much engulfed in shadows, with the exception of an indoor light shining through the main entranceway. It occurred to me that I must have almost certainly passed by that very same house multiple times in the past while I was living in its vicinity, likely under the same exact weather conditions, and yet never really noticed it. I imagined this was probably because I wasn't as receptive to these types of scenes at that point in my life. I started to think about how perspectives and outlooks change over time, effectively causing the environment to morph around you. How your surroundings seem to evolve alongside yourself, essentially.

What does photography mean to you?

That's very hard to say and I don't think I'll be able to go into too much detail here, but I think that once I started to become more accustomed to the medium I began envisioning it as an interesting form of self-exploration. When I look back at pictures I took in the past it can almost feel like reading old diary entries. Each moment captured is one that must have struck me at the time for reasons I might no longer remember, each stylistic choice made is the result of very specific factors that once caused me to be responsive to it and that are now gone and irretrievable. It's a way of getting a more earnest glimpse into past iterations of yourself, as I find that I very rarely think too much ahead when taking pictures, whereas the very premise of a diary is to be read back in the future, thus broadening the potential for subconscious dishonesty to occur.

It's also worth mentioning that there is a hunting dynamic involved in the photographic process which I've come to find quite exciting. Going out into the cold and looking for moments, not knowing what you're gonna get, if anything at all. At times I find myself fantasising about what kind of pictures I might be able to take under certain conditions and it sort of propels me to start chasing the dragon more practically once the opportunity to do so presents itself. I would say that the allure of ideas and the thrill of their chase are certainly very important motivating factors in keeping me going.

What advice would you have for people getting into photography?

I am relatively new to photography myself and I don't really know if it's my place to give any sort of advice. Also, it's worth pointing out that there are many different approaches to photography which individually abide by specific rules and feature different dynamics, many of which I'm not entirely familiar with. I can say that all in all, for the kind of photography that I do, awareness and serenity are very important. I have gotten through a lot of frustration and perhaps even lost my cool a couple of times in the past as things weren't working out the way I'd hoped for them to. This was mainly due to the fact that I was making some significant mistakes in the way I was envisioning my work and overall process.

Over time, I've found that there is a rather significant gambling component involved with photography (and if you shoot on film it skyrockets) that causes the artist to practically experience a higher variance in terms of results and a shrunk "win rate" (if you will) in relation to the effort put into it when compared to idealised scenarios. This is because in order to take pictures (and I'm once again referring to the kind of pictures that I personally take), you have to heavily depend upon circumstantial factors outside of your direct control; you kinda have to wait for the time to be right, then go outside, explore and hopefully get lucky by stumbling upon something worth your while.

This in a way is what makes the medium so special to me and something which I've really come to appreciate over time, but I also recognise that it has been a source of discouragement for me as I was first starting out. I think that ultimately, the main breakthrough for me has simply been to form a solid understanding of what exactly I was getting myself into and learning to keep expectations grounded in reality. As long as you know what the rules of the game are, you'll know what could be reasonably expected out of any given situation, and this translates into a sustained lightheartedness which will be essential in the long run.

How has COVID-19 affected your photography?

I have started to shoot less new material and experiment more with what I already had.

I was also able to approach film photography and development, although as an amateur. I have to say that all in all not much has changed for me ever since the pandemic started. My lifestyle has remained somewhat comparable to what it had been before, except of course for the restrictions on travel, but I really can't complain overall.

What are your thoughts on Instagram as a photography platform?

I used to like Instagram much more than I do now. It's hard to say whether or not it was effectively better back when I first started using it. Although I'm aware that there are a lot of negative things to be said about it, I have to recognise that it helped me get in touch with many like-minded people who in a few cases I even got the chance to meet in real life. It also allowed me access to opportunities which I wouldn't have been able to come into contact with otherwise. I am very grateful for all of that and I won't deny that the platform's original premise is (was) indeed an enticing one.

That being said, I find that it has progressively morphed into a psychological torture chamber reminiscent of some kind of dystopian assembly line. Nowadays, instead of being encouraged to post, it almost feels as if you were being demanded to do so by an algorithm that has essentially become completely indecipherable and even somewhat vengeful at times. I think that from the perspective of the artist, all of this significantly takes the focus away from the work in itself by positively reinforcing a quantity-over-quality approach, whereas from the perspective of the viewer it cripples variety by imposing creative compliance to whatever the current trends happened to be dictating. The result is pretty much a lose-lose situation.

I still use Instagram as a way of keeping up with the work of artists that I love and admire, but I post much more sporadically these days. I would however also like to point out that it's not all doom and gloom, as there are still a lot of gems to be found on the platform, especially from smaller accounts, if you care to dig deep enough.

What are some of your hobbies outside of photography?

I mainly like to write and research, which I'd say is obviously beneficial. I also play around with music from time to time. It's mostly soundscapes achieved through sample-manipulation, but the results I am able to get often happen to complement the atmosphere of my pictures pretty well. I think that at the end of the day though, anything I do somewhat feeds into my creative process to a degree.

Thank you for taking the time to speak to us Filippo. Any final comments?

Thank you for having me, appreciate you taking interest in my work!

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