Los Angeles is a city of stark contrasts: the glamour and luxury of Hollywood are overshadowed by the rampant homelessness, and the number of hours spent in the car and traffic jams trumps the dream of the laid-back, sun-drenched, sporty Californian lifestyle. Being one of the most famous cities in the world, almost everyone has a preconceived idea of what the city is about. But how is it for those who live there?
Milano-born photographer Riccardo Banfi moved to LA in 2017 and left in February 2020, right before the Covid-19 pandemic began. But before moving out, he published Sunshine Noir, a visual essay of the city of angels compiling photos of the past three years, where he tries to capture the dichotomic nature of LA. In today’s interview, we talk with the artist to know how did he end up in LA, his favourite (and least favourite) parts of the city, and his comeback to Europe.
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Riccardo, you’re presenting the series Sunshine Noir as a photo book. In it, you document or portray the disparities of Los Angeles, where you’ve been based until recently. But let’s go back to the beginning: when did you move to LA, and what drew you to the city of angels? What was your impression of the city like?
It was in my plans to move to Los Angeles for two years, and I first visited California in the summer of 2017 to get an idea of the place. I was introduced to this immense landscape by my dear friend Pietro, who showed me how the city is difficult to grasp but very familiar at the same time.
In the beginning, it was like experiencing a déjà vu. I realized how this landscape had been part of my visual imaginary since I was a child. It was both exciting and disarming to recognize sights I knew from movies, TV series and photographic works. I knew how such places, people and things appeared under the natural light of California.
Coming from Milan, your hometown, I guess the contrast was very strong. What was your favourite thing about LA back then, and what is your favourite now? And the thing you dislike the most (also back then and now)?
The contrast with Milan is strong, but from my experience, it is much stronger with Venice, Italy, where I lived for almost ten years. Considering the geographical extension, mobility and social relations, Venice and Los Angeles are such two antithetical cities. Venice is a tiny town surrounded by a lagoon, where you walk all the time and daily encounters and events happen spontaneously. Los Angeles, on the contrary, is a sprawling urban landscape where everyone wanders alone in his own car and everything needs to be planned in advance given the long distances.
Besides this biographical consideration, Los Angeles has a profound and multi-faced soul. It is incredible to be surrounded by cultures coming from all over the world, feeling their influence, tasting their food and ending up in the more diverse discourses and experiences. However, what I loved more than anything was to finally go to a drive-in theatre and enjoy movies eating popcorns and drinking a huge glass of Coca-Cola. It was a dream come true.
Taking a look at your work, I see you have series about ComicCon, visits to artists’ studios, night clubs and parties, more personal projects… How would you say Sunshine Noir fits in your overall artistic practice?
The beauty of photography is the possibility to apply it to different situations, employing different techniques and achieving an extensive range of results. Sunshine Noir fits into a path of experimentation and exploration of the medium. I like the openness of photography and I shoot whenever I feel the impulse to do it. My first projects on the European club scene have been a terrain to build my perspective on things. I have always had a documentary approach and an interest in depicting communities, engaging in themes and topics about social dynamics and the role of individuals within a community.
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Let’s discuss the series more profoundly. You’ve collected pictures from 2017 to 2020 if I’m not wrong. When did you know Sunshine Noir was complete/done?
Most of the photographs are from 2018. I have then completed the series looking for missing elements and avoiding repetitions and distracting subjects. My deadline was my last week in Los Angeles (February 2020). The last photograph I have included in the book is Siamese twins (leaves) (2019), a close-up of a plant just outside of my front door. I find this image very poignant and a prime example of the project. It incarnates in its non-canonical appearance the personality of the city as an environment in constant metamorphosis that simultaneously embodies different identities. The photograph highlights how sunshine and noir – imaginary and reality – are two indissoluble components of this captivating city.
The combination of the words sunshine and noir first appeared in the book City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles (1990), by Mike Davis. The author recalls the history of urbanism in LA, from its socialist roots to the real estate boom, its fragmented structure, its anti-pedestrian planning, while examining issues of segregation and exclusion. Doing further research, I discovered that Mike Davis wrote an essay for the catalogue of Sunshine & Noir: Art in LA 1960-1997, an exhibition of contemporary artists in LA from a European perspective that opened at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art (Denmark) in 1997 and then travelled to Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg (Germany) and Castello di Rivoli (Italy), and had its last instalment at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. I couldn’t find a better title for this series.
Street photography portraying everyone from homeless people to stereotypical Californian blonde girls, traffic lights, cars and traffic jams, the beach, houses, skyscrapers and other buildings… You take staple elements representative of the city to describe it in a sort of visual essay. How much thought/planning goes into your photographic process? Are any of these photos thought/staged, or is everything spontaneous?
Photography is a tool to discover the world by which you create your personal vision of the world itself, in this case, Los Angeles. I always have a sort of electrocution when I see ‘ready-made’ compositions, like Sci-fi (2017), a view of the freeway combined with a group of palm trees and the Grand Arts High School futuristic and sculptural architecture in Downtown. I am not interested in staging my subjects because the spontaneity in which the world places itself before our eyes is striking. There is no need to move an object because the light doesn't work properly. It’s wonderful to see how the world presents itself and to achieve means to represent it, even in the shade.
The photographer is like an explorer, and the geography of Los Angeles led me to discover the city behind the windshield. That's why I shot a large part of the pictures from a vehicle in motion, reproducing the very point of view everyone has on the city.
And what about the selection process? What criteria did you follow to choose those images that feel the most LA to you?
The images selection and the book design went through different stages. I initially grouped similar images in order to find out the most interesting themes and which subjects further photograph. Later, when I realized the project would take the form of a book, I created several sequences on a wall using folded A4 sheets as double-page spreads. Ultimately, together with the graphic designer Federico Barbon, I worked on the digital editing of the book and on the latest adjustments. I ended up creating a story made of 125 photographs, in colour and black and white, sequenced in nearly 170 pages.
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You’ve decided to publish the series as a photo book with Italian association SAM Sampling Moods. But this isn’t your first one. What prompted you to release it in this format?
Sunshine Noir is self-published with the support of SAM Sampling Moods, an association based in Milan founded in 2017 in memory of Eddie Danielli, a close friend and esteemed house music producer, with whom I had collaborated on various projects and who in a way has accompanied me in this Californian adventure.
After Tnx, my first book published with Yes I am Writing a Book in 2015, I was eager to produce a new editorial project, and Sunshine Noir was the right one for this format. Moreover, a book gives the opportunity to communicate your work to a wider audience beyond any geographical boundaries. On the other hand, it would be fantastic – even if difficult, but not impossible – to show the complete series in an exhibition.
Nicoletta Misler and John E. Bowlt write: “Sunshine Noir summarizes and integrates the numerous antipodes which constitute the physical and emotional topography of Los Angeles, California. A city of angels, LA is at once a diabolical lair, its ultramarine sky and unabating sunshine blighted by the congestive traffic, the glamour of its mansions overshadowed by the gloom of homelessness and the spindliness of its palm trees vying with the sweep of the beaches and the desert floor.” Do you feel that’s a good way to describe Los Angeles?
On my part, I find it very difficult to condense in a text what I am communicating through my photographs. My language is that of images, and I get tangled very often in non-exhaustive descriptions. I shared the different stages of the project with Nicoletta Misler and John Bowlt, and I literally abandoned myself to their hands. The text describes exactly what my images want to convey. Of course, there are details that their words do not reveal, but it is up to the curiosity of the viewer/reader to look them up.
You don’t live in LA anymore, but you left even before the pandemic started. What made you go back to Italy? And how has your experience of the Covid-19 been like there?
The lockdown ‘stopped me’ in Como on my way back to Europe. After spending two years abroad, I was ready to move on to a new destination and I was full of enthusiasm for the release of the book. The launch had to be rescheduled and it’s finally happening this upcoming September in Milan, hosted by the curatorial project Conversation Piece.
Despite the attenuation of containment and security measures, the lockdown gave me the time to reconsider our everyday life, our habits and behaviours and, as a photographer, to redefine the meaning of the photographic practice and image production. It turned into an opportunity to stop, listen to the silence of cities and landscapes, observe the awakening of nature and seek a new awareness questioning which value do images have in the present time, what to represent and how to represent it.
I found myself in an unexpected family environment, in close contact with my three young nieces, their curiosity and their discoveries. I lived with them an adventure set in a futuristic city built with Lego toys, where coloured masks are special armours to protect oneself against bright rainbows. Fantastic creatures like a little mole or a spontaneous composition of branches reminiscent of a hand inhabited this world, where we turned eggs into precious artefacts. It’s been a time about the power of imagination and the ability to transform the sense of suspension due to forced confinement into a rediscovery of the exceptional nature of the everyday.
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