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by Leonardo Magrelli 

When you look into a mirror, do you see your true self? Is the person in the mirror the truer version, compared to a photograph?

It was the technical ability displayed in Leonardo Magrelli’s Meerror that caught our attention, the difficulty that Magrelli has overcome in photographing mirrors, somehow without including himself.

Of course, there are various digital and analogue methods to do so, and while the technique no doubt impressive, it’s the questions that arise from this work that we are interested in.

Long has the self, and the representation of the true self, been a topic of debate in photography; plus, the topic of truth and reality in general. Magrelli has attacked these subjects, by removing the self completely from the scene.

It has a jarring effect, the feeling that you’re looking at something strange and unnatural because, unless you perform some complex gymnastics, never are you unable to see your reflection in a mirror.

Magrelli is a professional graphic designer and practices photography on the side, born and raised in Rome where he is currently based.

Read our interview with him, where he tells us more about himself, his practice and this project.

What’s your story?

I studied visual and graphic design, and I got closer to photography by working as a book designer for a photographic publishing house, Punctum Press. At that time, I had no intention of becoming a photographer. I was also working in another studio, much more focused on design for trade books.

I can’t exactly tell when, but at some point after I left both studios and started to work on my own, I understood that I wanted to spend more time working on photographs than designing book covers. Although, my graphic design background and influences have not vanished.

What is it about photography that drew you to it, away from design?

I think design is about finding the right way to express what someone else (the client) wants to say.

Photography allows me to express what I have to say. Those designers who think that their work is about pure creativity are totally wrong. When I design something, I’ve been taught to ask myself, ‘who am I talking to? And who am I representing when I talk?’

Design is always about problem-solving and compromise; photography, on the other hand, is a field where I can develop my work without having to answer to anyone but me.

Aside from the most common influences that design can bring to photography (composition, balance and so on), I was also used to modifying the images: combining them together, cropping them, erasing unwanted parts, changing their colours and the light.

What you do to images in order to design a good book cover is very different from the approach to images that a photography student has, with all the mystery and the respect that the darkroom inspires. And so, when I slowly turned my interest to photography, I brought all these experiences with me.

Do you fully embrace how your work is influenced by your design background, or do you sometimes find it difficult?

It’s not something difficult, nor is it something conscious. I don’t think of photography as a strict discipline. A lot of the best photographers did not study photography: they were painters, designers, architects, artists.

Every one of them, in different ways, was influenced by their background. But in the end, who isn’t?

Tell us about your project Meerror.

The path that brought me from graphic design to photography has also brought me to focus on digital photography, on its possibilities and boundaries.

I’m far from being a purist of analogue, and I’m against the demonisation of the digital methods; I think that a medium should be studied and used to express or show things that no other medium can say. This interest in the uniqueness of digital photography has moulded my last two projects.

I have used analogue a little bit, but I’m not very comfortable with it. If I have to be honest, I am much more interested in the “cameraless” kind of works.

I’m referring to those that don’t even use the typical camera, but that are developed entirely and directly in the darkroom — like some of Wolfgang Tillmans’ works, Ewa Stackelberg’s, or Ugo Mulas’ Le Verifiche.

One of my previous projects, The Glitch, was a series of photographs taken in a single day when the sensor of my digital camera broke down and all the colors were deeply altered. No analogue camera could have ever produced the same.

Those images were truly RGB native, therefore their colours can only exist on a monitor. With Meerror, only through the digital manipulation of the images are we able to see what neither our eyes nor the camera lens could; what mirrors reflect when we are not in front of them.

In my work, there is always the urge of taking pictures unseen, almost vanishing.

Equally relevant is the sensation of unease that some people — myself included — feel in front of the camera. A discomfort that less and less people experience today, in the era of selfies.

That probably comes when we look at our own image, in which we do not always fully recognize ourselves. Thus, the error, the disappearing of the self (”me — error”), the acknowledgment of ourselves as disturbing elements and the denial of our own image.

A self portrait that becomes still life. And indeed the self portrait and still life collide, creating images that are both things at once and neither of them at the same time. In fact, up to where is it legitimate to speak of the “portrait”?

Each one of these photographs are the result of the cancellation of the self portrait. Yet is our very absence, an absence that turns these photographs into still life, that triggers the mechanism of the picture.

For something like six months I photographed nearly every single mirror that I could find: from museum to clubs, from houses to thrift shops, from bathhouses to highway bars. I ended up with a lot of photographs, that I numbered progressively.

Then I had to stop, because I could have gone on forever. I tried to narrow the choice as much as I could while I was editing the project, keeping in mind Todd Hido’s advice: “All killer; no filler.”

What inspires you?

After completing my degree in design, I chose to take a second one in art history to broaden my horizons, and to study what was done before us. History can be a constant source of ideas and inspirations.

So, right now I’m knee deep in studying Renaissance and Baroque Art History, and I’m loving Panofsky, Gombrich, Zeri, Baxandall and Montanari’s books.

Regarding the more contemporary influences, I should mention the works of Brodovitch and Rodchenko, for their ability to merge graphic design and photography, and those of filmmakers Hitchcock and Wong Kar-wai because each one of their shots is always perfect, balanced and strictly connected to what the story is about.

In the field of photography, among the huge number of photographers that I love, I should mention John Rafman, Thomas Ruff, Nadav Kander, Todd Hido and Larry Sultan.

What are you up to next?

I’ve recently begun a collaboration with a young curator, Alessandro Tini, who is now helping me to plan my next moves: to promote the Meerror series, and to develop the new project that I’m starting to think about. Let’s see where we’ll end up… as Woody Allen said, “if you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans.”

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