Photographer, photojournalist, film maker, and artist: starting July 9th, the diversity of his oeuvre will be revealed in the exhibition Taking Pictures – Making Pictures. Alberto Venzago is among Switzerland’s great photographers. Even though he now lives back in Zurich, he has been a globetrotter for most of his life. He has lived on various continents, with restlessness being the daily norm for many years.
Venzago set out to change the world with his Leica. Whether photographing the Yakuza in Japan, revolution in Iran, child prostitution in Manila, voodoo in Africa or portraits of celebrities in Zurich, Venzago switched effortlessly between different fields of the medium. Over the many decades of his career, his photographic cosmos has included reportage, documentary, commercial and staged work, as well as film. We spoke with him about his work and his life.
It is, in fact, amazing that this is the first time that a comprehensive retrospective of your work is on display…
Yes; although I don’t like the word “retrospective” so much – it sounds too much like the first step towards an obituary.
But why has it taken so long for your life’s work to be granted this big exhibition?
I always spent my time looking forward. I never had time to look in my archives and go through the negatives and slides. The next project was always more important. In fact, I was always on the move. I lived in Australia for two years and Tokyo for five; nearly ten in New York City. I returned to Africa, repeatedly. I made films. Switzerland always figured as an island where I could recover from the world. And now, at last, I’ve had the time to look at everything again, to organise and digitise my work. Thanks to the travel restrictions imposed by covid, and a long year of work, everything is now nearly ready. Sitting in front of all the pictures, the idea of making a book again emerged – a book that would be more like a kaleidoscope, made up of all the pieces of my work. And then, in a very synchronistic manner, I was approached by the museum – I can only once again thank the voodoo gods for that.
You have taken hundreds of thousands of photographs. The selection for the exhibition and accompanying catalogue shows your more important subjects; but also includes many pictures unpublished as yet. Can you still remember the very first picture you took?
I was always an autodidact. I began to slowly feel my way into it, when I was fifteen. I photographed the girls in the neighbourhood. Later I took pictures of bands. My first commission was for the Swiss youth magazine Pop, which was similar to Bravo in Germany. I was totally focussed on Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and the Stones; I was utterly fascinated by that lifestyle. I experienced the power of photography; it became a door opener to the world. And I had access to the musicians, because they realised that I understood something about music.
However, your life had revolved around classical music up to that point…
Yes, I grew up in a musical family. My Italian father was an architect and my mother came from a German family of actors and artists. My father was passionate about playing violin, and we performed as a trio, with my two year older brother Mario on the piano. I played clarinet and studied at the conservatory. However, a motorbike accident put an end to my career. I had to rethink everything, which I now consider a stroke of good luck. My brother became a conductor. My films are about music; I’ve accompanied many orchestras, as well as my brother. Consequently, I am able to move between both worlds, which always delights me. To this day, music is one of the great driving forces in my life.
What happened with your photography after the accident?
It was very late when I actually started to take photography seriously. It was only when I emigrated, because I didn’t want to go to the military service; and also not to jail. I was first in Australia; then I went to Japan, passing through Timor and Bali. I gradually realised that photography was more than a hobby. I became more serious, committed, and my life as a “concerned photographer” began.
Which reportage from that era is most important to you?
The Iran reportage was very impactful. That was where I recognised my signature for the first time. I wanted to do a story about the Islamic Revolution, from the perspective of those affected, rather than that of the Western media. The risk was enormous; but then, I won the ICP Infinity Award and became a Magnum nominee.
With a Leica?
Yes. I bought my first Leica shortly before my time with Magnum Photos. Later on, the Leica M6 was to become my working tool. I love Leicas. They are small, robust, and the lenses are brilliant. Nowadays, I always have a Q2 on hand; earlier on, it was the M6.
One of your best known series, which you photographed with the M6, is the comprehensive reportage on the Japanese mafia – the Yakuza. How did you manage to gain the group’s trust?
I was always fascinated by darkness; and in Tokyo I saw these dark Mercedes limousines. Then there were the gangsters, who looked like something out of an American film from the fifties. I established the first contact after six months. I worked on the series for over five years. At the time, I was the only photographer to get so close to the Yakuza – a hippie from Switzerland, nothing less. A Japanese person wouldn’t have been able to do that; but, as a foreigner, I was able to. Sometimes, a thousand members met in a room or attended a funeral, when the various clans came together, I was always the only non-Japanese person there. They liked me. I had long hair and always had pretty girls with me. I was, quite simply, different. Maybe rather like a dog on a lead, who is allowed to be everywhere; so close that they no longer paid me any attention. With the Leica, taking discrete photographs was never a problem.
Did the Yakuza want to see the pictures, or get copies themselves?
I always brought pictures with me; something I otherwise never do. They were beautiful silver-gelatin prints that I had made in a laboratory in Paris. But they never went over well. It was only when I photographed the Yakuza in large-format and studio lighting that they were satisfied. That’s the way they liked to see themselves.
How did the change come about, moving from photojournalism to free work; from “picture taking” to “picture making”?
There was nothing but this restless life. Hotels; never having time to linger anywhere. I wanted to change the world through my pictures; at times wishing my M6 was a loaded Colt, when I photographed the most horrible things. But often no one printed them. I came to understand “C’est pas un image juste – ce juste une image” (It’s not a just picture – it’s just a picture). So then I looked for my own subjects.
You also had great success as a commercial photographer.
Advertising allowed me to finance the big reportages. That was great, to be paid a hundred times better for advertisements, which looked like photojournalism at the time. I always knew it was just a means to an end; never the purpose of life. The secret was to not let yourself be seduced; not to become a slave to your own creativity.
Do you have a photographic wish that you have yet to fulfil?
Oh, that’s difficult; I don’t know. There are still so many ideas…
Well, to start with we have your work in the exhibition and the catalogue. Many thanks for your time.
Alberto Venzago was born in Zurich on February 10, 1950. After studying Remedial Education and Clarinet, he became a self-taught photographer in his mid-twenties. He enjoyed rapid success, moving effortlessly between commercial photography, photojournalistic documentary and free artistic work. His numerous photo books include YAKUZA, Inside Report about the Japanese Mafia (1990); and Voodoo: Mounted by the Gods (2003), which complemented his film of the same title. He made various films, including Mythos Gotthard: Der letzte Streckenwärter (The Gotthard Myth: The Last Track Warden) (2008) and Mein Bruder der Dirigent (My Brother the Conductor) (2007). He was a cameraman on a number of documentary films, such as Wim Wenders’ Invisibles: Congo (2007), and Jagdzeit – Den Walfängern auf der Spur (Hunting Season – on the Trail of the Whalers) (2009). His most recent large photo project titled One – Seduced by the Darkness was produced with his partner and muse, Julia Fokina. Find out more about his photography on his website and Instagram account.
A portfolio in LFI 4/2021 offers insight into the photographer’s oeuvre.