The click? That’s 10%. The rest is culture
Written by Luca De Nardo
Talking to Mattia Baldi is a visual experience: as the words flow, images unfold that could be taken from a Duras novel, from Salgari’s adventurous repertoire. China, or rather Asia, breathes together with his diaphragm: the impulse that brought him to the Orient at only 22 years of age, after the Academy of Fine Arts, was born from an instinctive afflatus, brooding under the ashes of the martial arts he had loved since childhood. That Playboy cover of his with the first Thai model on the magazine’s front page – shot in a real 19th century Bangkok whorehouse with that cinematographic, cinematographer’s style – expresses the life of a popular fresco and the sophistication of a courtly painting. He manages to bring centuries of art history, street life, American marketing and Asian hermeticism into the gap of photography. It all starts with a futurist photographer great-uncle, a high school where one drew 45 hours a week and an intellectual mobility that preceded – or went hand in hand with – physical mobility.
Didn’t photography immediately captivate you?
No, I have always lived close by because my great uncle, the brother of my grandfather on my father’s side, was a famous futurist photographer. He used to do Man Ray-style alchemy, superimpositions, double exposures, often without a camera, in the darkroom. Dad was a photojournalist, he wrote a lot about it. For me in those days, photography was a job related to weddings and restaurants, it didn’t really appeal to me…
Then what happened?
It happened that knowing how to draw, I was sent to a high school where nothing else was done. After that, it was fatal to join the Academy of Fine Arts with a specialisation in painting. The first year was fun.
I met an English guy who worked for the Vatican, he drew the icons of the new saints. And I became an assistant to a painter, Daniela Papadia.
There I started using an old Nikon to take pictures of artists while they worked. I was interested in the view camera, I had some books by Avedon: when I won a painting competition, receiving a cash prize, I used it to pay for my master’s degree at the Roman school of photography.
That heritage of art history, painting, would be very useful to me in the years to come. Also to evaluate a model during a casting or to understand if a subject was photographically placeable.
And then, all of a sudden, you went to China?
Yes, I was always attracted to their culture, I spoke worse English than Renzi but I had an innate familiarity with the Chinese. Besides, China before the Olympics offered a lot of work. They were the golden years, from 2001 to 2010, I lived them all. When I returned to Italy I didn’t know that I would soon be back in the East.
I was hired by Ford as an Asia Pacific expert. It was a great job based in Bangkok, it brought me into the world of commercial photography at the highest level.
Your years in Asia: what did they leave you with?
A lot in terms of experience, I travelled around Singapore, Korea, Japan, South East Asia, shooting important campaigns for many American, British, Italian brands.
But in $4 million campaigns, does the photographer have a say?
It can be said that, although everything in big campaigns is decided beforehand, the photographer must be good at interpreting, a bit like the director of photography in a film.
How did that masterpiece on the cover of Playboy come out?
They had selected five reference photographers for their countries, but they wanted pictures that I had already taken and in my opinion they did not fit. So I proposed to redeem some photos ad hoc, the budget was there. The real surprise was the model: mine, the one I usually used and which had the sophistication for that type of photo, was sick.
I didn’t expect Playboy to put me on the cover. Neither did the model, the first Thai in that role: she was very successful, with a long interview in GQ.
Speaking of models, you have produced a wonderful book, Casting, a book of women, where there are no classic cover beauties, can you tell us about it?
Actually, that book had such a following that I did a second edition and we are thinking of doing a third. It features discarded models who were meant to be somebody but didn’t make it. Some never thought of modeling because they didn’t meet the standard standards but had a strong aesthetic.
Casting, a book of women is a compendium of my experience in the world of modeling and definitely goes against the beauty standards of the world we live in
I selected the photos out of more than 14,000 shots over a year and a half. There are 41 models, each with two or three photos.
What does photogenics depend on?
In cinema it is not the photographic beauty that counts, but what you express when you move. The casting director, the person who can see beyond that, counts a lot. Everyone can have something beautiful, but it depends on what the viewer is looking for! For example, I already see the person contextualised in a mood.
I often stop people in the underground, my background in classical or visual culture helps me in the selection of subjects.
But it is also important to understand if a person has similarities with famous actors, if he or she has different characteristics of expressiveness or vitality than usual. When we were choosing models in the Bangkok agency, thousands came in. The one who was successful was one of the least beautiful. But she had aggressiveness, drive, a distinctive face.
Those who can pose spend time looking at themselves in the mirror, in videos, a dose of narcissism is almost imperative. Moreover, good models are often equally good photographers.
I ask you again about the photographer as a profession. What determines value?
The photographer is almost entirely a cultural job, the click is 10%. If you think about it, the director of photography in a film walks around with a badly printed A4 in his hand, it’s all in his head. Today he’s doing Cesaroni, tomorrow Ridley Scott, he’s a tradesman. Then there are the excellences, like Storaro.