Equipped with an SL1 and an M10, the multi-disciplinary artist, Alessia Rollo, spent February and March 2019 in the Japanese prefecture of Mashiko, one of the homes of traditional Japanese ceramics. With the eye of an outsider, the photographer took an in-depth look into the multi-faceted handicraft. Her sensitive images speak of the respectful approach to clay, which is so much more than just the basic material for pottery. She speaks here about the commonalities between pottery and photography, the uniqueness of this subject, and what she has learnt for the evolving development of her technique.
We have two creative processes here: taking photographs and making pottery. Can you make comparisons between the two, or why are they totally different from each other?
Oh, I think they have a lot of things in common: at least for the way I think about photography. Both are contemplative, artistic techniques: they require previous study, a lot of experimentation, and time for observation. I also think they are a way to give back a personal vision of the world, to shape it into something that other people can look at and find representative.
You were shooting in Mashiko prefecture. Mashiko is of major historical importance for Japanese ceramics. It is known for its mashikoyaki (益子焼) pottery. Please try and explain the creative process behind pottery making.
It’s hard to say: working with Mashiko artisans I learnt there are thoughts you cannot express with words. For example, Mr. Ono San, one of the artisans I photographed, told me that his master never told him what to do with the clay: he discovered it on his own, observing and trying until he got into the secret of the “matter” and found his way to work the clay. The same thing happened when I wanted to photograph him; he told me he could not pose for me, but that by just working the clay he would try to convey what he knows to me. So maybe my pictures alone can tell you about the creative process: it’s a mystery, it’s obscure, personal and magic.
You depict very intimate moments with the material…
The artisans use the energy of their bodies to manipulate the clay: they have a physical approach to the matter that is very intimate and strong. I was impressed when I looked at them. Each act involves physical work: from digging the clay or using their feet to activate the pedal of the lathe, to using their hands to shape this simple material into beautiful objects. I felt that I wanted to convey this approach in my pictures.
What associations did you have while taking the pictures?
The artisans looked so concentrated and absorbed in their job, that it made me think about the legends of the creation of the universe; they appeared to me like gods shaping the world. All the legends start with a simple material like clay that, thanks to someone’s vision, gives life to everything. Their dark laboratories, full of objects and smog from the kiln, also made me think of something ancestral – like the beginning of the Earth. I think this is the reason why I focused on the matter itself, and I wanted it to appear as much as possible in my pictures.
How is The Matter series different from other series you have photographed? It’s not a straightforward coverage, but rather a visual essay about the Japanese pottery tradition. How did you prepare for it?
I think my method is based first of all on instinct: I usually start a project because I feel the need to understand something that looks interesting to me. So, I generally read a lot, do research, watch movies or investigate photo archives before starting a series. At the same time, I start to take pictures to use as a visual report or draft. I think I like to mix different photographic languages. I don’t feel like I strictly belong to any one photographic category; but more like a visual artist, maybe. That’s why I need to explore the medium as well as open up a narrative for the spectator to feel free to recreate other stories.
The distinctive red-brown clay local to Mashiko, has been used to make everyday items like water jugs since the 1850s. What did you learn about the material clay?
It was very interesting and inspiring to observe how carefully the artisans chose the material they worked with, the clay. Around Mashiko there are caves with red clay of a very good quality, which is one of the reasons the pottery there became so famous. But I also learnt that you need a lot of time, passion and patience to work this material: I’ve been told by local artisans who teach their art in Europe or USA, that they cannot understand why in Western society we don’t take time to observe, but rather want to get immediate results. I think this way of thinking is connected with the quality of their ceramics.
You have also photographed details like leaves and earth. How did you fit those into the edit and why?
I think it’s important to build a kind of narrative into the project; so I look for transitional pictures that work like pauses, emotional suggestions or keys for understanding the others. In Mashiko, for example, I photographed clay and earth because they are connected to the topic of the story: they represent the basic “matter” from which everything becomes. I took pictures of nature as well, because I want to connect the story to an atmosphere, a place, the mystery and so on.
What camera system did you shoot the project with?
I shot most of the project with a Leica SL1 with a 24-90mm lens. It’s a great camera and a perfect lens, that works in all light conditions. I especially appreciate how it functioned in the workshops where there was very little light: the camera captures all the variation of shadow and gives back such beautiful results. I also used an M10 with a 50mm lens: a very light and handy camera, I have to say; perfect for when I needed to be fast and take pictures without having time to prepare the shot.
Do you have a vision of how you intend to develop your visual language in the future?
I’m very interested in expanding the meaning and usage of photography – going into manipulation, installation and mixing it with other media. In the project I am working right now, I’m trying to take a more holistic view and think “outside the box”, creating visual arrangements in accordance with the content.
The visual artist Alessia Rollo was born in Lecce, southern Italy, in 1982. She received her BA at the University in Perugia and is taking her MA in Publishing at the University Statale in Milan. She also obtained a Master in Creative Photography in 2009 at the EFTI School in Madrid, and participated in many workshops with international artist such as Peter Funch, Mauricio Alejo, Danis Darzacq, Jill Greenberg, Matt Siber, James Casebere and Mary Hellen Mark. Her work has been shown in solo and group exhibitions in Spain, Italy and Brazil, and has been displayed internationally at Photolondon, Urban Layers Triennale di Milano, Bitume Photofest Malaga and Shanghai Photofestival, among others. Please find out more about her photography on her website and Instagram channel.