An emerging photographer who lives near Venice, Italy, Ramon Zuliani has an abiding passion for two things: photography and skateboarding. Both are clearly evident in this masterfully executed portfolio of compelling black-and-white images he shot on film with his Leica M6. Here he shares the story behind his latest work, “Depth and Speed,” taken with his Leica M6 and developed in his own darkroom.
Q: What camera equipment do you use?
A: I have a 1985 Leica M6, the year of my birth, with a Summicron-M 35 mm, the lens I prefer and use in any situation, and a Tele-Elmar-M 135 mm.
Q: Why did you choose the 35 mm focal length, and what are some of the imaging characteristics of this lens that you found most useful in creating this portfolio? Do you ever use your 135 mm Tele-Elmar when shooting skateboarding-related images, and if so, when?
A: I choose the 35 mm Summicron for its versatility. I can use it for portraits, shots and wider angles, practically everything depending on the distance and my need. It’s also very light and non-invasive or flashy if you want to go unnoticed. I use the 135 mm when I want to isolate my subjects from situations or things that bother me, or that I find irrelevant to the beauty of the final shot.
Q: How would you describe your photography?
A: My photography is part of who I am and what my eye sees beyond the camera. It is a vision, mostly black-and-white, with different shades of gray, not dry and strong, but soft and descriptive. I could describe it as rough and wild, sometimes dirty and imperfect, and that also explains why I choose analog photography. This allows me to taste the feeling of naturalness and charm that I relive and watch taking shape in the darkroom.
Q: Your answer implies that your photography is a kind of expressionism, and it is noteworthy that you relive these experiences shot on the streets in the confines of the darkroom. Are you, in a sense, rebelling against the oppressive structures of society and asserting your freedom and individuality? And do you think that view reflects what many skateboarders are doing as well?
A: Freedom is essential for a human being, and it is important not to forget that ever. I am not against society, but it is true that it often does not allow us to express our true individuality.
Q: Are you a full-time photographer or would you describe yourself as a serious enthusiast?
A: In recent years I’ve been investing and working so that my photography might become a full-time profession, and to be able to do a better job in executing my personal and freelance projects. This is what I want and this is the goal I want to achieve. As the saying goes, “Anything is possible if you want it badly enough.”
Q: When did you first become interested in photography as a mode of expression, an art form or as a profession?
A: I began to get close to this world during my high school of art years, and it’s from that experience that my passion and love for this art was born. From that moment on I began my experiment. I always saw photography as a free form of art that can be interpreted freely without too many schemes, rules and clichés. I still support this idea and I try to add to it in the process of creating my work.
Q: Did you have any formal education in photography, with a mentor, or were you self-taught? Was there a photographer or type of photography that influenced your work or inspired you?
A: I owe a special debt of gratitude to my father for passing down and instilling in me this passion. It was he who gave me my first analog camera and he who brought me into the darkroom and taught me all he knew about that world. I also have to thank him for having made me discover part of the secrets of that world, for having shown me its beauty and balance.
From that moment on, all my photographic studies were focused on experimenting, taking pictures, having fun and capturing on negatives part of my life and part of the world around me. There are many photographers whose work has left a trace in the history of photography that has implanted, stimulated and motivated my photographic vision. Above all, there are also many underground and unknown photographers who have been and still are a great source of inspiration, among them many friends whom I respect, follow and support.
Q: What happened in your father’s darkroom, and what did you learn that opened your eyes into this new world and how do you think that experience still influences your work?
A: The experience that has inspired me throughout started when I held the tank and developed my first black-and-white roll. Chemicals, developing times, waiting and watching it dry hanging in the darkroom were a magical experience. It was a thrill to see the image emerge on the paper in its early stage of development, and seeing photography became something palpable. This still influences the way I work because everything starts from an idea to which we give concreteness with our camera, but it is in the darkroom that the image comes to life. It’s a place where the post-production is, the time in which the manual and technical work becomes reality.
Q: What ideas did you pick up during your high school of art years that pointed you in the direction of experimental and freeform art “without too many schemes, rules and clichés?” And how have the unnamed “underground photographers” you mentioned stimulated and motivated your photographic vision?
A: It all started by trying not to have fixed rules on subjects and themes, issues that often are imposed by fashion and media. I do not assign any importance to such criteria in determining what I photograph: old, new, loosely, state-of-the-art equipment … it really does not matter to me. All of this has led me to have my own personal visual style. I have used many disposable cameras, even expired ones. For many years I used and tried different sizes of Polaroid film. With the passing of time, I began to know many photographers, some known, others unknown, but all talented. This is not only thanks to skateboarding, but also thanks to traveling, to the people I met and to the experiences I had in places I’d already visited, but had then seen with new eyes.
Q: What genre or genres, if any, would you place your photos?
A: I do not catalog my pictures under any specific genres, because often I do not want to focus on a single style. Street photography, skateboarding and portraits are my key points; they’re what I realize and follow the most, and are my main daily incentives. These were my first steps into this world, and for this reason, ever since I started taking pictures I’ve never left aside my key points. They are like the first love, the one you never forget.
Q: Although you don’t classify your images as belonging to any particular genre, you do note your key points as being street photography, skateboarding and portraits. Why do you think this is so, and how do you see your photography evolving over the next three years? Do you plan on exploring any other genres going forward, such as photojournalism, sports photography, or urban landscapes?
A: As I said, these are my key points, because they are a part of my everyday life. I see my photography constantly changing. I do not know for sure how and where it will be in three years, but definitely push it in the direction I chose. I want to finish my projects, make them known, not only in Europe but also in America. Sports photography is not really part of my world, but music and urban landscapes are. They’re types of photography I’ve never really investigated and I may do so. Photojournalism also fascinates me, and in the future it may be a new adventure.
Q: How did you first become interested in Leica?
A: I have always followed the world of Leica, in particular from the standpoint of the photographers and their projects. Before buying my Leica M6 I pored over the technical and mechanical specs of Leica products. I have studied all the different models, their characteristics, peculiarities and advantages of having a Leica product and determined what was the best for me.
One of the things I really appreciated and that excited me was the “LET US ROAM” project, supported by Leica. This project was about some short movies about the history of four great photographers, and their analog and digital history linked with skateboarding.
Q: Can you tell us more about the “LET US ROAM” project and why it really excited you?
A: The “LET US A ROAM” project struck me because it showed the world of four different photographers, both from a skater’s and photographer’s viewpoints and in terms of their way of shooting; Arto Saari, Ray Barbee, Greg Hunt, Atiba Jefferson, each with his own personal pathway and a story to tell. They expressed very well and in many different ways what it was like for them to do photography and how it has affected their lives. Each video is very well done and is accurate in every detail. They provide good feedback, encouraging me to keep going on with my own projects and doing what I like. I also really love that this project will continue with additional photo stories.
Q: What approach do you take with your photography or what does photography mean to you?
A: It represents my world; what I see, what I can imagine, and what I perceive in a few instants; a whole world to capture for me and for others; an emotion and need that is an essential and constant presence in my daily routine. I believe that the human eye is the major and only means of expressive and photographic communication that a human being can have. No lens or camera can replace it, but only interpret and make it matter, and make it real. This awareness leads me to appreciate time, waiting, duration and the moment not only in my photography but also the images seen and captured through other eyes.
Q: In noting the primacy of emotion in your work, you go on to say “I believe that the human eye is the major and only means of expressive and photographic communication,” and that “no lens or camera can replace it, but only to interpret and make it real.” This is actually a paraphrase of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s famous statement the “the camera is an extension of the eye.” Do you agree, and how does this concept shape your photographic vision?
A: What Bresson said is a right, true and timeless concept. It can often happen when a picture is taken, and at the very moment that we see with our eyes what we see behind the camera will never be the same again. I think that having the knowledge to savor the moment while we are living it is crucial, but often I’m not able to photograph it. This happens to me very often, and it has taught me that missed but lived pictures are, however, a means of real, unique and personal expression that is part of the process that is almost as important as capturing them.
Q: You shot all the images in this portfolio on black-and-white film with a Leica M6. What are some of the features and characteristics of this camera that makes it especially suitable for your kind of work and what is it that draws you to the black-and-white medium? By the way, which film or films did you use to capture these images?
A: Superb mechanics, rangefinder focusing, intuitive operation, fast shutter, compact yet substantial at the right points so you’re always aware of its presence and never lose it or forget it ever. Black-and-white? Its history makes it my choice. The films that I used for this project are Kodak T-Max 400 and Kodak Tri-X.
Q: There is something sad about the first image in this portfolio, a high-key photo of a lonely skateboarder moving along a barren road with traffic lines, heading under an overpass. However, one can also see this image as an assertive act of defiance in which an individual is transcending an oppressive society to experience the pure joy of movement. How do you see this image, and what were you thinking when you pressed the shutter release?
A: I chose this shot because it represents the act of pushing on a skateboard and it conveys a feeling of freedom, harmony and strength. This shot shows what skateboarding means to me. I like the geometry, the defined lines of the bridge that bind to the road lines, the contrast between white and black, the elegant shape of a fast skater passing over it. Immediately after taking it I smiled and felt satisfied. I thought, “Keep on pushing!”
Q: This one is a fascinating and enigmatic image of three guys holding up and examining a sleeveless dark jacket or poncho adorned with all kind of inscriptions and icons in contrasting white. My first impression was that this must be the garment of a fallen skateboarder, but the amused expression on the face of the one guy that’s fully visible points in another direction. What’s actually going on here, and why did you include this image in your portfolio?
A: This photo was taken in 2010, the first day that I set foot in Canada. That day I went to Hastings Bowl, the historic Bowl of Vancouver with Sket, a friend of mine who lived there. They had organized a day of skateboarding in memory of Josh Evin, a Canadian pro skateboarder that died a few months earlier because of a motorcycle accident. The “gilet” those guys are holding symbolizes every thought and dedication of his friends who were all there that day. I will never forget that day, for the feelings and sense of unity of all the people who were skating just to remember their common friend. “NEVER FORGET” is a shot to which I am deeply attached. R.I.P. Josh.
Q: Here is a striking, well-composed image that reveals the dangers of skateboarding, namely the possibility of falling and injuring yourself. One of the nice things about it is its matter-of-fact grab shot quality that seems to say, “this stuff can happen” without making any judgment. How did you come to take this picture and what do you think it says to those that view it?
A: Blood, falls and injuries are part of the hidden side of skateboarding. For those who do not practice it this may seem strange, but that’s what makes you truly alive and also aware that physical pain is part of this. Sometimes it can be frightening, but it can help to push above the line. The photo portrays a friend, an Argentinian skater that I shot while filming a video in Barcelona.
Q: This dramatic vertical picture of a skateboarder in mid-air framed by trees and a pole clearly required precise timing and a high shutter speed to capture in this way. Can you tell us the story behind this image and provide us with the technical data?
A: I was in Barcelona with my friend Claudio Majorana who is a skater and a photographer (he’s the guy in the picture). We were there to escape from the cold of our country. It was a sunny day, the sea was on our side, and suddenly we found this slope spot, full of benches: there we shot this trick. It was a no-frills spot, but it had caught my attention because of its geometry and angle, the contrast between the tree and the light pole next to it. I used Kodak T-Max 400 and shot it at f/8 and 1/500 sec.
Q: Do you have any plans to exhibit your skateboarding images at gallery shows in Europe or elsewhere or to publish them in a print or online book?
A: As soon as I finish “Depth and Speed”, I would like to make it known in various countries and maybe arrange some exhibitions. That would be great! I’m also trying to print a book that collects all the shots that are part of this work.
Q: Do you have any new projects in the works now or in the immediate future that you can talk about?
A: I have many plans for the future. This winter I will document an adventure trip on the Dolomites, both on film and in digital, and as a culmination of this work I will present an exhibition in Milan and probably also one in Portland (I’m keeping my fingers crossed!). Together with some photographers and skaters friends I’m planning a project (video + photos) related to travel and skateboarding. I’m confident it will be a productive year.
Thank you for your time, Ramon!
-Leica Internet Team