It has to do with magic realism.
It is said that the difference between a painter and a photographer is that a painter puts things in and a photographer takes them out. That is, painting is built up on a blank canvas; everything in a painting must be put there by the artist. A photograph gathers up everything that is before the lens. The camera is indiscriminate and so the photographer must tame it like a wild thing, bringing it under his or her command. The photographer must select the area of view – the frame – and the point of view – the angle – the lighting, timing, focus… as they seek to highlight those things that are wanted and minimise those that are not.
Sergio Fasola was both a photographer and a painter, and he brought to image-making a very particular sensibility and aesthetic. His images were built up in stages like a painting, as he assembled pieces of photograph in the computer to create the finished work. His images nonetheless retain a sense of the real, a kind of enchanted real that is a little different from the everyday world, but still recognisable.
But there is more than aesthetic enchantment at play here. There is a keen sense of irony and, beneath it all, a dark sense of humour. His journey into the imaginative space of constructed imagery was not an escape from the world but a fresh way of looking at it: a new perspective. Many of his works comment on contemporary life in Argentina: its mores and foibles, its vanity and trepidation. That said, his work is never cruel; his images may offer a kind of distorting mirror in which the real is reflected, but they never lose their humanity. His sense of beauty, of the nobility of the less fortunate and the legitimacy of the eccentric are never far away. Thus, it is significant that his most recent work [at the time of the original interview] took a simpler and more restrained approach as he sought to capture the dignity and presence of a group of people who have little visibility or status in the world, through no fault of their own: equals who are simply different.
It has been my melancholy task this week to revise the tense of that introduction. Sergio Fasola passed away on 16 May 2022. I publish this interview now in tribute to the memory of a wonderful artist. Vale Sergio…
In many of your images it seems as though two worlds have somehow become tangled up. Things which might be straightforward in another context become strange and complex. What drew you to this strategy for image making?
I didn’t conceive it as a strategy but rather as a way to represent the images that take shape in my mind. It has to do with magic realism.
What is magic realism?
I guess I would define magic realism as an aesthetic approach that aims to show non-reality or strangeness as something that is commonplace, from everyday life. It is not a literal expression; it aims to express emotions. Magic realism intends to convey the inner truth within non-real and fantastical phenomena. It is very different from surrealism. [Surrealism seeks to evoke psychological states or dreams, while magic realism seeks to situate the fantastical within the external, material world.]
Can you describe the process by which images begin to form in your mind?
Ideas are triggered by everyday events and situations that I have either witnessed or heard about, and then the image begins to take shape. This is how I begin to visualise these stories in my mind. Eventually, I recreate them physically either on location or in my studio and then carry out the postproduction work on computer.
You are also a painter. Your paintings are abstract while your images are highly figurative and narrative.
As a painter, geometric abstraction interests me a lot. This abstraction is, I believe, the opposite of the figurative approach I take in photography. Extremes are fairly recurrent in my life.
Why do you think this is?
The painting process relates to a need for handling and being in contact with the material. Working on a surface such as canvas allows me to convey a flow of energy – a flow which is usually neither controlled nor reasoned – and this leads me into abstraction. While I would also say that I ‘paint’ in the computer when making my digital photographic works, this painting uses light, not material pigment, so the feeling is completely different because the processes of creation are different.
In ‘Retratos del Verano’ [summer portraits] you present a number of characters who seem strange because they are somehow in the wrong place.
Most of my images are imagined and then realised using models and either constructed scenery or on locations I have spotted that will give me the effect I want. Then, after I have shot the various elements, I edit them together on a computer. I have accumulated an extensive photographic archive over the years, and I often draw on these files during the postproduction stage.
Who is the leaping man in ‘El Cielo’ [heaven] and what ideas are you exploring in this image?
I lived for some time in Florence, Italy, and during that period I discovered the Renaissance and the Baroque, which have continued to exert a strong influence on my photography. The photograph of the young man leaping in a derelict church is a re-presentation of Rembrandt’s painting ‘The Descent from the Cross’ . I conceive this modern man as a martyr; a martyr within a confused society heading towards self-destruction.
The image comes from a series called ‘Pasión’ [passion]. What, for you, is the passion that links the images together?
This series has to do with passion, not necessarily in religious terms, but as something that we like in excess and that becomes an extreme obsession.
What is the most unexpected response you have had to this series?
Someone told me that he had been having the same recurring dream for years and that he was astonished to find his dream depicted in one of my recent works [above centre]. The image depicts a man dressed in white, on his knees praying. He has a red sash across his chest (which echoes the tee-shirt of the River Plate football team). Behind him there is an image of a rival team’s stadium (Boca Juniors Football Club), where the fans seem to be cheering this kneeling character. He asked me if the picture was of him!
Tell me about your series ‘Inmigrantes’ [immigrants].
These images refer to historical accounts that have been described to me or situations I witnessed myself when I immigrated to Europe in 1976. I constructed the images on the basis of these accounts, bringing studio sets and photographs of models together into a big montage with the aid of the computer. Each of those images represents a story that has happened and has been told to me by my friends or acquaintances.
Can you describe one of those stories?
In the mid-nineteenth century, there was a significant immigration of German people to Argentina. They were known as the ‘Volga Germans’ because they had previously migrated to Russia and settled on the banks of the Volga river. They chose the province of Entre Rios as their new homeland and, among other things, established a cemetery there. With the passing of time, the inhabitants of this colony scattered, and it eventually disappeared. Some years ago, a descendent of these immigrants came from Mexico looking for the place where her great-great-grandfather had lived. She visited his grave, which had been one of the first in the cemetery. The image ‘The Volga German’s Great-great-granddaughter’ [above centre] represents this story of re-encounter and celebration – a celebration in the manner of the Day of the Dead, which in Mexico is a joyful family festival shared with one’s ancestors.
In your series ‘Mujeres Pintadas’ [painted women] you bring together modern women with classical paintings.
I wanted to pay homage to the masters of painting. For this project I went back to classical portraits of women from art history. In each case, I took the body as depicted in the painting and combined this with the face of real present-day woman, setting the new figure into situations from our own time.
In a number of your photographs, you explore different concepts of masculinity. Are these various male types particularly Argentinian, do you think, or are they universal?
I believe they relate mainly to Argentina, which is where I come from and with whose idiosyncrasies I am more acquainted as a first-hand observer. These images arise from the reality in which I live. I could not say whether they might be considered universal. These types have to do with a macho or chauvinist culture that has become naturalised in Argentina. At the same time, I guess our culture is very cosmopolitan because Argentina was populated during important nineteenth-century waves of immigration from European.
The landscapes, with the pools of colour are very beautiful. What did you want to say about landscape in making them?
I may define this series as interventions on landscape. It is undeniable that they are human interventions even though there is no-one present in the picture. The atmosphere is intensely metaphysical. These images are visual metaphors and allegories that hover between nature and culture. These works suggest that not everything is lost in this world despite decadence, destruction, and abandonment. The images in ‘Terra Viva’ [living landscape] depict a wonderful and unstable world where there is still hope…
Tell me about the two images above…
It is not easy for me to talk about my photographs. I’m very intuitive: sometimes I have no answer. ‘Árboles’ [left] involved interventions in which iconic images are painted on the trunks of trees. It includes Andy Warhol’s ‘Marilyn Diptych’  and the image of a saint called Gauchito Gil, who is widely venerated in regions of Argentina, with shrines scattered along many highways across our country.
The baskets used in ‘Canastos’ [right] are real; I photographed them at a craft fair in the North of Argentina. I see them as something that contains our desires.
What is your most recent project?
My latest project is to take photographs of people in a mental health institution. Unlike my previous work, these pictures are straight black-and-white shots using natural light. The pose is selected by the subject and there is no post-production.
That is a big change in the way you work. What motivated that change?
One of my referents has been the photographer Fernando Paillet [1880–1967]. He was an immigrant and devoted himself to recording the people in the colony and their occupations. He always worked with resources close at hand, using cloths to filter natural light. I decided to pay homage to this master by making photographs in a similar way. I set a makeshift studio in the courtyard of the institution and made pure, classic portraits… without any Photoshop. This series is entitled ‘Iguales–Diferentes’ (the equals – the different) and one of the works (‘Maxi’) has recently been acquired by The National Arts Fund of Argentina in order to be donated to the Museum Rosa Galisteo de Rodriguez in the city of Santa Fe.
What advice would you give to a young photographer who wanted to use the medium to become an artist?
I rely strongly on instinct, and follow no rules for completing my work. However, for the beginner, I would suggest first becoming acquainted with the history of art and not only with the masters of photography. Paintings can teach a lot about how to become a good photographer.
Can you give an example of something you learned from painting that you might not have done from a photograph?
Painting is built inch by inch therefore what we paint is what we really want to be seen. Painting teaches us to observe. I build my images and deal with them as if I were working on a painting – each object in my work has a reason to be there and a particular meaning. The light in a painting is an ‘illogical’ light, while the light from flashes in a studio follows the logic of nature. I light (or illuminate) my photographs by means of the illogical light characteristic of painting. I paint with light. And this can only be understood by first understanding how one paints.
Sergio Fasola was born in Santa Fé, Argentina, in 1953. He studied in Florence, Italy, and in Argentina with the Bauhaus professor Esteban Marco. He initially worked as a screenplay writer and TV producer, later turning to editorial photography. He has received many awards in Argentina and abroad, and his images are held in a number of prestigious public and private collections worldwide. He died in Santa Fé in 2022.
A version of this article was initially published in Chinese, in the October 2014 issue of PhotoWorld magazine, Beijing.