I’ve taken a million pictures – 50 were good.

‘Do not call me master, for heaven’s sake,” says Ferdinando Scianna, welcoming me inside his studio, a cosy ground-floor space in the centre of Milan. “I do not teach anything to anyone. Come in, take a seat.”

Scianna has just turned 79. Photography, for him, was an obsession that lasted 60 years. “And it is over today,” he declares. He has not taken pictures for years and says that when young photographers approach him for advice, he wants to ask them for theirs instead. “I tell them the most obvious thing: photograph what you love and what you hate. But they should tell me how to sneak around in this weird era that I do not really know.”

Scianna has taken more than a million photographs and, in his words, the good shots number about 50…

He loves to work on books though. He has published over 70; more, he says, than prudence would have advised him. The first was published in 1965 and is about religious rituals in Sicily (Feste Religiose in Sicilia). “I was just a 21-year-old Sicilian kid, and that book built my career. Today, when I leaf through the pages, I feel confused. I look at my photos and I ask myself, who took those images? I was too young and ignorant. You know, I learned to take pictures over the years – basically, just by taking them.” …

I do not think I can change the world with my photographs, but I do believe that a bad picture can make it worse,” he says. “And the point is that we have too many images. If you eat caviar every day, eventually you will want pasta e fagioli.” He thinks that photography went into an irreparable crisis a couple of decades ago, when we stopped building family photo albums. “Today we all take photos with our phones, but they are background images. Even a selfie is not a self-portrait but a kind of neurosis about a moment of existence that must immediately supplant another, and so on. And we all know what happens when something loses the identity that has determined its success and cultural function. It dies.” …

He also disdains the pace of change driven by the internet. “On the web, everything is consumed quickly. Culture, on the other hand, is slowness and choice. I made my theory; it is the theory of the three risottos. Do you want to hear it?” He clears his throat. “If someone has never eaten a risotto in his life – and if they have never been to Sicily, they certainly never have eaten a good one – the first time they taste it, they can only say if they liked it or not. The second time, however, they can argue that it was better or worse than the first one. Only from the third time on can they have their own theory of risotto and, if they want, give advice on how it should be cooked. Culture, to me, is knowing things and having a choice.” …

His last solo exhibition was at the prestigious Palazzo Reale in Milan. More than 200 photos were on show and, on some days, there were long queues waiting to get in. “Graham Greene once wrote, while travelling from Marseille to Paris, at some point he deeply believed in the existence of God. With photographs it is a bit the same. And the world, you know, practises forgetfulness. Millions of men lived before us, men who had dreams, who have done things. We do not know anything about them.”

But then, I ask, what remains in history? “Things that have found their shape,” he replies instinctively, adding: “I have walked my entire my life only to take photos. I am like those little dogs who, while walking, have left their poop around the streets. But if you really want to know the truth, then yes, taking pictures has given me a lot of happiness.” He takes another puff on his pipe and watches the smoke slowly rise towards the ceiling until it becomes a giant white cloud that evaporates in a second.

— Maurizio Fiorino, excerpts from “”I’ve taken a million pictures – 50 were good’: photographer Ferdinando Scianna” (The Guardian, July 26, 2022)


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