Felicita Russo is an Italian photographer who experiments with light and chemistry in the instant format. Going into her work we found an incredible background that we wanted to delve into a little bit, and welcoming her at Instant Photographers is an honor. Felicita studied Atmospheric Physics and has a PhD in Atmospheric Physics from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. She is currently a researcher in Italy, and studies urban air quality models.
IP: Your beginnings in photography were in the world of astronomical photography, where does this influence come from to work with elements that are related to air, stars and atmosphere?
Well the first thing I learnt from astro-photography was patience. Whether it was taking pictures of a galaxy at the telescope or taking a picture of a startrail, each single shot took a long time to be realized. And with analog photography, you even had to wait longer to see what you were able to capture. I grew up, photographically speaking, knowing that great wonders come if you have time to dedicate to choose the place, the film, the camera setting and wait for the light to do its magic. Strangely enough I never bought a telescope, so generally when I went out for a night of astrophotography with friends, besides losing myself simply watching the starry sky, I often was taking star trail pictures, which you can consider as a primordial form of lightpainting.
I think that the inspiration from the universe comes spontainious when you do lightpainting. Your canvas is dark and you have to build up from that. Creating universe-inspired images is simply what instinctively came to me.
Subsequently the discovery of fiber optics brushes, that are a very common lightpainting tool now, sold in dedicated stores, changed the game for me and that, together with the study of different transparent mediums, made me realized that you could do do many different things with light, many more than just illuminating objects.
IP: You are one of the great representatives in experimental photography in the instant format, and your manipulations are recognized in the world of photography. What led you to this world of creating through experimentation?
Well, in my physics study I was educated as an experimental physicist, which means I’m naturally inclined to experiment on anything. My studies involved two laboratory classes on experimental astrophysics. Therefore, I studied some analog photography, which was still used as a way to capture images for astrophysics study, and I studied digital photography before it was even available to the general public. Therefore as a photography lover I’ve always approached the observation of images made by other photographers as a way of trying to apply the theory of light to that precise image, wondering how it was taken, in which conditions and things like that. It was then natural for me to try and test if I understood how that picture was generated and this is how I started experimenting. You look at a picture you like and you say: let’s see if I can do it. And when you do, you say: what if I changed that light? What if I used this material instead of that? And so on, and you become an experimental photographer.
IP: Your work with light painting is extraordinary, can you get a little into the creative and mechanical process behind it?
I started lightpainting with digital and at some point I discovered the digital lightpainting mosaic work of Chris Bauer. He used to compose his mosaic with square tiles, each lightpainted through a vertical dark square canvas. I thought that it would have been interesting to try to do something similar in polaroids, since they are naturally (almost perfectly) square. I started experimenting with his way of lightpainting but soon realized that it was very difficult for me to get the right movements of the light without any reference in space. Therefore I started using a pvc transparent panel as a plane reference for my brush strokes.
Soon enough I thought that it would have been easier to have my reference pvc plane in the horizontal position, so that I could just put things on it instead of finding a way to attach them. Therefore now I create my pictures this way: The camera is on the floor facing upwards, under a table with a transparent pvc top. I paint on this transparent top using the onestep+ manual function, which allows me to take multiple exposures. Each color is painted with the black fiber optics brush in one of the multiple exposures, aided by selfcut masking elements, that help composing the final image. I know it sounds completely crazy and overcomplicated but it helps me create the unique looks of my images. And fits perfectly within the first thing I learnt from astro-photography: patience.
The whole process has now become a sort of meditation, on focus and balance.
IP: It seems to us that your job is a bit to stop time, do you see it that way?
Well, my job is not exactly to stop time, but to use time to see if I understand a phenomenon physically. Being a modelist means knowing that time is the only variable that will tell if you really understood what you are trying to describe. But you always realize that chaos is the limitation to your prediction, and so you have to settle for the ability to predict just a few days in advance. For me this is what it means to be human, not having the power to foresee the future if not in brief glimpses.
IP: Do you habitually use photography in your professional work? Is it possible to use instant photography as a tool in science?
Well, I often happened to need photography in my experimental work (in my early days we used a full sky imaging system used to estimate cloud cover to add to the data analysis) even some kind of instant photography. But we are in the era of cell phones and analog instant photography in science has no longer a competitive position. That was surely true in the 70-80’s but today I can’t foresee a reasonable application.
IP: What is the future of instant photography from your point of view, and how do you think the rise of experimental photography changes compared to classical photography?
What I think happened to photography in the last 10 years was to have become too standardized. If you had a mean knowledge of photoshop there was a chance you’d be able to “pimp” your average vacation picture to high levels of imagery, granted to give you a wow factor in terms of internet popularity. High image quality and high definition was the Bible. This produced an overwhelming quantity of nice images, but they all were similar.
Then in this picture perfect universe, someone started adding things like film grain to their pictures just to make them look different. I think that the rebirth of analog photography started in this way, as a quest for originality. For example now, differently from about 15 years ago, image quality has become less important than the message inside the image and analog photography for me is synonymous for experimental in this evolution towards originality. You need to contaminate your process to see if there are limits to your creativity and originality.
In this context Polaroid has done a huge work for getting to the image stability and quality that one produces some good-looking stable images. At the beginning of Impossible project the emulsion was so unstable that every picture was an experiment and now some photographers are so used to experimenting with them that they will try to work against the film to get unique results.
This is what experimental photography is for me: the strenuous search for originality, for your own personal vision.
IP: What advice would you give to people starting out in the world of photography right now?
My advice would be to start from the darkroom, where you can witness light interact with the emulsion, a process that is as fascinating as it is educational. That experience will make you understand that, what is beyond the process, can become itself a means of expression which does not necessarily go through a computer screen. This means that photography does not have to be expensive, and passion will leach through every process.