Interview with Serge Bassenko (translated from Italian)

by Stefano Colonna
Bollettino Telematico dell'Arte, 21st of May 2006, n. 433

How long did it take you to shoot your photographs?

As usual in all my life, it took me a very long time to realize my photographic work : thirty years. Almost twenty in Venice and its Lagoon, from 1973 to 1989; twenty in the Countryside of France, from 1980 to 1999.
There are almost 100.000 photos, from which 30.000 of Venice and its Lagoon. I started in Venice in 1973, and closed in the Countryside of France in 1999, moment where the object of my interest was completely transformed: Venice and its lagoon, and also the Countryside of France, didn't hold anymore the genuine enchantment of ancient times; modernity had invaded them from now on.
On the other hand, I've never been able to live but in conformity with my mind and will. The consequence was that I must manage by myself. So it took me five years to restore my 1930 Contax cameras because of their marvelous handmade Zeiss lenses. I personally scanned more than 6.000 photos of my Cdrom at 1.200 DPI. I personally realized 2 Cdrom of Venice and its Lagoon, 2 Cdrom of the Countryside of France, and 1 Cdrom of Friul. I personally realized a Website to present these photographs, and so on, and so on. Most of my life was spent in this work.

How is born the idea to realize your photographic work on Venice?

Before coming to Venice, I didn't know quite anything about it. I remember my "visiting Tour" of the city - a rather ridiculous plan, to tell the truth.
I had decided to arrive at night - because night bewitches me - then go round the city and cross over the Bridge of Sighs... by car.
Reality has been much different. The car left, I sailed upon what appeared to me a see as black as ink, frightening every moment to sink. The night was dark, all around me was so dark, just hither and yon the glistening of a poor light.
Down onto quay, I rushed into the alleys and after a while came out onto Saint-Mark's Place, not even daring to look up, scared of its immensity. Again I rushed to alleys and in the end I paused near a bridge. I remember the canal, silent and tender - and my thought: "Venice is a city where you can cry".

I have never had the idea to realize a photographic work, neither upon Venice nor upon the Countryside of France. To me, it has ever been a walk, quiet and serene, just a walk. I was pleased with saying: "Let's go to Venice for a walk". By day I wandered through inner alleys and canals, by foot or with my boat. By night, I peacefully walked in the tender and mysterious light of the old lampposts. I could rest a full afternoon on the quay to watch the water under a bridge, and to talk about this and that, while the available time was passing by; photographs came in addition, if they came. They came.

Venice is no more the one it was, and from now on these photographs, which only intended to exalt Venice beauty and deep intimacy, have properly turned historic; they can be of use for the memory of Venice and its Lagoon.

Why precisely Venice?

Because in Venice, man has been the measure of life.
Because in Venice, man has created his own world despite impossible conditions.

Sometimes I think to the story of Venice.
Running from death, men found shelter in the lagoon: its calm waters received and saved them.
Then Venice laid its foundations in the water and got erected, streaming down, sparkling with precious stones and colors, marble and gold, facing an incredulous and jealous world.
The lion of Saint Mark roared till the extreme boundaries of earth, imposing tributes, robbing lands and kingdoms; carrying away slaves, scented spices, dreaming cloth, unknown goods, refined and exotic customs.
In Venice, everyone breathed his own sky, free and upright. Everyone continuously invented the life they wanted to lead.
It was life that created rules and conveniences, and not laws that created life.

What link is it between you and Venice?

Friendship. I felt at home in Venice.

Have you a master of photography or are you an autodidact?

Several years ago I wrote a short dialogue between two fans of music:

- He is really a creative genius! Who before him could have imagined the harmony of this music? One could say it's coming from another universe!
- Yes, it's true, I'm amazed. What a good teacher he must have had!

As for me, I have never had a master of photography, neither am I an autodidact - because these words implies that you have to learn. I think that watch cannot be learned.
Pushed by I couldn't say what, I pressed forward to watch and photograph, as if life depended on it. I have photographed the trail left back by man in nature.
I shot about 100.000 photographs, that's true, but as an amateur could have done it. As a matter of fact, I know nothing about the rules of good taste and I have never learned the ones of composition, and, moreover, I am not interested in them, art being to me artificial and false. I am not a photographer (nor a writer nor whoever else): I am a man, Venice and the countryside pleased me, I've shot remembrance photos in order to know how was the life in those days. I don't try to take beautiful photos; I love life, and life is neither beautiful nor ugly, it's life, it has neither rules nor models.
If I'd wanted to explain how I manage to take a picture, I'd just say this sentence: I photograph what I watch.
So did I to take the pictures of what a man watches when coming back home after work, or even of what a boat watches when sailing in a canal! I've shot the photos so to speak for me, not barely caring what the others did, not even hypothetical demands of public: I did as I pleased ; I photographed what I would have liked to show to my friends. The idea of a publication came much later - and without being really convinced of it.

How much time does it take you to shot a photo starting from the choice of the spot until the shot?

Veni, vidi, shotti !

Nota Bene: technical preparations for night pictures are numerous and long: you have to set the tripod onto the steps of the bridge, check the vertical and fine tune in the dark, protect the lens with an umbrella from the reflection of the lamppost and in case also from rain, look out if no one is walking across, wait for the light in the window to be turned off, and in the end, when you are freezing in the wind, an unexpected boat ruins you the stillness of the canal for another twenty minutes...

With what criterion or according to what inspiration do you choose the captions of the photos?

I have no inspiration. I choose the simplest words to describe the picture or its effect on me. I wrote the captions of the photos of Venice and the Lagoon first of all in Venetian, because it is the language of the Republic of Venice. It is the Venetian of the Dizionario del Dialetto Veneziano (dictionary of Venetian dialect) by Giuseppe Boerio and Goldoni's comedies. Italian, English, Spanish and French are only my adaptations added to this base.

What can you tell me about your writings mentioned in the Cdrom?

Little by little, to professional occupation I preferred a life dedicated to photography, later to writing.
They are short texts unusual enough to say the truth, because I have made them with my own thought. The original is in French, and some are translated into English.
They are six novels of about 140 pages that deal with the discovery teenagers make of existence: psychological meeting of boy and girl, of boy and adults' world, discovery of love by boy and girl, questions upon oneself, or upon the value of words and judgments.
There are short satirical dialogues on daily life, too - like the one mentioned above - that are in Italian as well.
But the text which counts most to me is The Sage. 189 thoughts of 3 or 4 lines in order to tell how the world of humans is. I wrote them in English and in French, with no translation. Here are two thoughts to give an example:



What is the link between your photographs and your writings?

I've made them!
Both are a look upon the world. Curious, and without judgment.

In your writings, are you inspired by your photographs?

No. Not at all. Only in the novel Il faut que je sois un homme (I have to be a man) (in French), where some teenagers put questions about their own being, the action takes place in the French Burgundy, although it is not mentioned in the novel. I've chosen a precise spot in Burgundy, because I like it very much, and because it is for me the essence of the ancient peasant world I wanted to present in the novel, since I've never got back (for the same reason, given in the first answer, I've never got back to Venice.) It is the life I found in the countryside that inspired me more than the photographs I took there.

Have the photos of the lagoon been shot with a special criterion? I mean, are they a systematic reconnaissance, or do they follow the criterion of a choice referring to aesthetics or landscape?

The photos of the Lagoon are neither a systematic reconnaissance nor a choice referring to aesthetics or landscape. They show the thousand-year old life of the Lagoon, ignorant of the mobiles and comfort of civilization, struggling with the powers of nature, wind, fog, currents, loneliness; nevertheless a paradise of impalpable and friendly magic. They also show the thousand-year old life of the few fishermen remaining in this area of North Lagoon twenty years ago, area at that time inaccessible and completely unknown even of Venetians.
It has been necessary to study the hours of sunrise and dawn very precisely, especially the hours of high and low tide, and the exact measurements of the sea bed on sea charts.

Why did you publish precisely 1913 Baedeker's map?

In the Cdrom, in order to find the spots where photographs have been taken, I have indicated their exact location on Baedeker's map. The map is retailed and you get it clicking the little star that goes with almost all the captions of Venice enlarged photos.
I preferred Baedeker's map because I like the precision of its typographical printing and the delicacy of its colors very much. It is an old map (in fact, the original is from 1850 and was reprinted in 1913 Karl Baedeker's Guide Italie Septentrionale), established in days when mechanization was still unknown, when man's hand is perceptible. It doesn't disturb my dreams.

Can you send me your biographical profile to publish, in case an excerpt, at the foot of the review?

What is an author's biography for? For one to know why Mr so-and-so became this author. Therefore, it doesn't matter to know whether Mr so-and-so learned geography or played tennis. As watch cannot be learned, I never studied in any Art school.
The only thing to say is that my scientific studies permit me to restore my cameras and to know the principles of optics.
Whatever school is has nothing to do with it, I want to be judged on what I have done and not on what the others have done.

Unter Vorbehalt aller Rechte 2006