Paolo Pellegrin’s Photographic Quest for the Sublime

Pellegrin grabbed a water. “What the fuck am I doing here?” he said again. The smoothness of travelling as a tourist seemed irreconcilable with the state of exertion and extremity that Pellegrin thought of as inherent to the creation of good work. There were all the conditions for viewing Namibian wildlife, but none for a…

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Pellegrin grabbed a water. “What the fuck am I doing here?” he said again. The smoothness of travelling as a tourist seemed irreconcilable with the state of exertion and extremity that Pellegrin thought of as inherent to the creation of good work. There were all the conditions for viewing Namibian wildlife, but none for a submission to the elements which would leave him in a state of aesthetic contemplation.

That night, when we were alone in our cabins, the wind howled through the ancient red dunes. Primal, forceful, terrifying—it whipped sand against the walls and the windows. At breakfast, Pellegrin noted that to the wind it didn’t matter the name of the country we were in, the shape of the land, the borders. It was the indifferent form: wind the archetype, expressed in a specific instance—that wind on that night in the Kalahari. “Photography strives to be the opposite—to evoke the archetype through a specific instance,” he said.

He showed me an image that he had taken during our sunset safari drive: a blue wildebeest, caught in motion. The photograph was blurred in such a way as to obscure any particular qualities of this wildebeest, and in that way it elevated the image to the abstract: wildebeest the species, wildebeest the idea. The image evoked the cave paintings of Lascaux, drawn by hunter-gatherers some seventeen thousand years ago. How had I not seen this distilled form, too? I’d been with him the whole time, chasing after the galloping herd.

Pellegrin was born in Rome, into a family of architects. His father, Luigi, was an internationally renowned designer of public buildings and schools, and his mother, Luciana Menozzi, was an architect and a professor who came from a family of faded aristocrats. The Pellegrin home was filled with art and poetry, classic works from the humanities, and artisanal tools—aprons, brushes, pencils, sketchpads, rulers, inks, cameras, paints. “There was this family imperative that you had to express yourself, either in the humanities or the arts,” Pellegrin told me. “And there was this absolute disdain for anything that was related to office work—that would have been, you know, just unforgivable.” His mother’s family motto was Etiam si ali omnes, ego non—“Even if all others, not I.”

Pellegrin’s parents separated when he was little. He and his younger sister, Chiara, lived mostly with their mother, and Luigi treated his time with the children as an opportunity to impart his aesthetic world view. “He would expose us to art and history of art, and his references in the humanities and in science,” Pellegrin told me. There were pilgrimages to the Met, the Louvre, and the Sagrada Familia, and to sites of great art and architecture all over Italy. “Borromini Sundays, Bernini Saturdays, the churches, Caravaggio,” Pellegrin recalled. “My father introduced me to Senghor, Wole Soyinka, and Derek Walcott, and the things he was reading. He was very much a Renaissance man, with a wide range of interests. And I think he felt that there’s a duty—his parental duty—to transmit these things to us, which ultimately formed an ethical system.” Through artistic expression, Luigi instructed his children, “you have to pay for the oxygen you breathe.”

Chiara announced her intention to become a painter when she was thirteen years old, and today she teaches art in Rome. “I, on the other hand, didn’t know what to do with myself,” Pellegrin told me. “I was schiacciato”—flattened—“by this totemic father figure. I had not found my vocation. So I was kind of failing in expressing myself, failing in this absolute imperative for every person. It didn’t descend upon me, like it did for Chiara. I was trying things—art, drawing, graphic design—and I was studying chess. I did a few tournaments. But, simply, I didn’t know what the fuck to do with myself.” When he turned nineteen, he enrolled in architectural studies at l’Università la Sapienza, in Rome. “I never knew how much I was trying to please my architect parents, or if it was the easy thing—a placeholder while I figured it out,” he said. His notebooks from that period show meticulous sketches of Baroque arches. But, after three years, “it just became clear to me that it wasn’t my calling,” he said. “There was something wrong. It didn’t coincide.”

One day, when Pellegrin was twenty-two, he walked into his father’s studio, “where my father was worshipped as a semi-divinity by his people,” he recalled. Luigi lit a cigarette and sat in silence with his feet on his desk, as Pellegrin announced that he was terminating his architectural studies. “It was very painful for me, but, at the same time, absolutely liberating,” he recalled. “The only certainty I had in this monologue was that at one point I realized that I could not get away with it without suggesting an alternative”—photography.

Luigi received the news, but said nothing. “It gave me an ulterior motive—to push myself even harder, to substantiate this decision,” Pellegrin said. He enrolled at a photography school in Rome. “And in a matter of a few months it became absolutely crystal clear to me that this was it,” he said. “I just knew. And, once you know, then everything else feels like a waste of time.”

In 2019, Pellegrin joined me in documenting an expedition to send a manned submersible to the deepest point in each ocean. While at sea, he read Alfred Lansing’s book “Endurance,” about the Shackleton expedition. I noticed that he often crouched down to take pictures, but it was only after he had finished the assignment that he told me why. He was shooting in a square format, black-and-white, from chest level, with tight framing and a shallow depth of field. The idea, he explained, was to evoke the documentary style and the equipment of expedition photographers from a hundred years earlier.

“There’s this Robert Capa quote—‘If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough,’ ” he told me. “Very true! It always comes back to reducing or annulling distance. But that is only part of the equation. The other part is that if you’re not good enough, then you’re not reading enough. And the idea there is that photography is not actually about taking pictures—taking pictures is incidental. It’s a by-product, in a sense, of everything else. What you’re really doing is giving form—photographic form—to a thought, to an opinion, to an understanding of the world, of what is in front of you. And so if we think in these terms, then you have to improve the quality of your thoughts.”

The photography school in Rome taught the craft almost as one might teach carpentry—here are the tools, here’s how to work with different materials, various iterations of film and light. “O.K., I learned the artisanal aspect, the métier,” Pellegrin recalled. “But in terms of the language—that, no one really taught. Photography is a foreign language, and I had to master this thing. I had to learn how to speak.”

Every day he went out shooting, and every night he went back to the studio to develop film and make prints. He read essays on photography by Walter Benjamin, Roland Barthes, and Susan Sontag, and noted the ways in which great authors and poets observed and refracted the world in front of them. Rilke’s eighth elegy focusses on the gaze of animals; Derrida feels ashamed when his cat sees him naked. Pellegrin worked various odd jobs, and spent much of the proceeds on photography books: “Telex Iran,” by Gilles Peress; “Gypsies,“ by Josef Koudelka. “One of the great lessons was to look at Koudelka’s contact sheets, because he would go back to the same place and essentially take the same picture, again and again, day after day,” he said. “And I completely understand that. That idea of looking for the exact position—that is the puzzle.

“I was trying to find my own voice in this,” Pellegrin recalled. “For those initial years—for many years, in fact—I put myself through this, because it was absolutely necessary, in my mind, to re-create la bottega, the Renaissance workshop. You go in and you mix the colors for six months. Then for another six months you prepare the canvas. Et cetera, et cetera.”

For five years, Pellegrin studied and practiced on the streets of Rome. He was drawn to the fringes and the forgotten, the lives of drifters, circus performers, Roma families, and the city’s unhoused. After a well-paid gig as a set photographer for a film, he bought an old Mercedes, loaded it with his books and his photo gear, and set off for Paris. He had few friends there, no contacts, no meetings—just the addresses of two photo agencies. It was 1991. Pellegrin, who was twenty-seven, dropped off an envelope of pictures at Agence Vu, and was accepted by the agency by the end of the week.

The rest of Pellegrin’s apprenticeship took place in the field—Uganda, Bosnia, Gaza, Cambodia, Haiti. “It was done by doing,” he said, mostly in scenes of conflict, epidemic, and natural disaster. He became obsessed with the ways in which a photograph can shape and be shaped by history, as well as by the ethical and aesthetic relationships between an individual subject and the larger human condition. Often, he would make repeated or extended visits, drawing out projects over the span of years. “We have, as photojournalists, the ultimate desire of invisibility—to be able to shoot without being noticed, without the subject looking into your eyes,” he said. “But you achieve that through presence—not surreptitiously, not on the go, but by being there. By being there, you become part of it. And by becoming part of it you become invisible.”

In 1999, he went to Kosovo. It was his first time working in an active-shooting war, and he stayed in the region for much of the next two years. Here the theoretical and the technical coincided with the real. Displaced Kosovar Serbs, marching in snow, appear as spectres through foggy glass; an Albanian refugee couple in a car look lost in anguish, as their windshield reflects the shadows of people grasping at a barbed-wire fence; the death of a Serbian man, murdered by Albanians, is shown not with his body but in the faces of the women who mourn what we understand to be the corpse laid out in front of them. “In photography, we have our little rectangle, through which we see the world,” Pellegrin said. “But then sometimes you can go beyond it,” suggesting a larger truth or horror by excluding the main event.

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