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Italian Summer Through the Lens of Stefan Giftthaler

“I feel that reality itself is already so loaded with meanings and mysteries that are difficult to interpret: there is no need to add more.”


Lovers of Italian summer like to remember with nostalgia, even in winter, the starry evenings around a bonfire with salt on the skin or sultry afternoons with an ice cream that gradually melts away. The Italian sun has this effect on bodies and mind: hard to forget.


Young, Milan-based photographer Stefan Giftthaler shoots images that are similarly hard to forget. Giftthaler studied at the IED Istituto Europeo di Design in Milan and at the Hochschule für Gestaltung und Kunst in Zurich, before starting a career in fashion photography. He soon turned to his own account, however, as a platform to showcase Italian places, landscapes and architecture (as well as fashion). His evocative and emotional photos, which some believe capture the world’s “involuntary Dadaism”, have struck a chord with many and have been featured in magazines from Vogue to The Financial Times. 


His photos immortalize summer narratives of elusive moments. Mats abandoned to dry in the sun. Childless playgrounds with carousels that still have the lights still on. Ghost towns, water parks, the hallways of lonely houses. His photography is a real journey, metaphorical and real, in search of secrets of the Italian world. We chatted with Stefan about how Italy and Italian summer inspire his work: 


Alessandra Busacca: What does Italian summer feel like to you? 


Stefan Giftthaler: For me, Italian summer perhaps means rediscovering sensations that bring me back to the experiences of my childhood. For me, in this sense, photography is not so much portraying the things that are seen, but looking for what is hidden beneath the surface of visible things. 


The view of the world we had in childhood: the world as a set of symbols to be deciphered, almost a secret language. The world seems to be dotted with magical places whose hidden meaning eludes us beneath the visible surface. In this sense it is as if there is a secret lexicon, an alphabet that appears through these places that I try to photograph. From this point of view, perhaps it is more important for me to “feel” the places where I am, rather than just observing them. To hear, for example, the sounds of a television coming from an open window of a provincial house in the aftermath of summer lunch, or the smells of detergent from laundry hung out to dry.


AB: The way time pervades your images is very interesting. You don’t just capture a moment but, as you also say, you let the past shine through. While looking at your surreal images, I’m magically pervaded by a sense of seraphic calm that freezes everything. But at the same time, I get the impression that a gust of wind is just around the corner, ready to change everything in the frame. What is your relationship with loneliness or the abandonment of places, which emerges from some of these shots? 


SG: The relationship with time is something I feel very much marks my way of photographing. My aspiration is that my images somehow do not place themselves in a specific time. Or rather, that they may be part of an undetermined past, and that even the places taken today appear somewhat out of time. Feeling, listening to places certainly has to do with the aspect of their abandonment, of how they appear in their silent essence, beyond their primary function.


AB: Your photos introduce a “third plane of reality”–an alienating element that makes us reflect and question the ultimate meaning of things. What is your secret to capturing this effect?


SG: I try to have a simple and neutral relationship with what I can see, what is presented to my eyes. So I try to stay only with what is there, trying not to add personal interpretations (as difficult as that is). I feel that reality itself is already so loaded with meanings and mysteries that are difficult to interpret: there is no need to add more. So even in terms of light or colors, I try to work with what I find at the moment.


AB: Your photos also often reflect a humorous take on reality. There’s a lightness to them. 


SG: It is the lightness that allows us to look at the world with a bit of detachment and irony, trying to remind ourselves that we are only here passing through for a short time and so perhaps it is worth not taking things too seriously.


AB: Who are your inspirations?


SG: For me, literature is a great source of inspiration. I think of authors like Roberto Bolano, Natalia Ginzburg, Haruki Murakami, Witold Gombrowicz, Gianni Celati, Cormac McCarthy. Also the music of Battiato with his Mediterranean atmospheres. I like authors who create worlds, who start from the simple description of what happens on the surface and go deep into other mysterious worlds. I think the experience of life is interesting precisely when you realize that the everyday surface, which sometimes appears mundane, hides mysterious elements that at first glance you cannot always catch. In this sense, photography is a great medium because it allows us to look back on the places we have been to and see their magical charge that was perhaps not so evident at the time.


AB: Do you have any cinematic sources of inspiration?


SG: I feel fascinated by certain Italian directors such as Alice Rorwacher with her poetic vision, or Pietro Marcello, or even Franco Piavoli or Agostino Ferrente. 


AB: What is your relationship to Italy?


SG: I grew up in the province of Treviso, but I have lived in Milan since about 2000 and consider it my home. I find traveling interesting because it allows you to then look at your city with different eyes, as if you were looking at it for the first time. I remember Gabriele Basilico saying in an interview that Milan is like a quiet harbor to come back to and let impressions settle between trips. I find myself very much in this sentence of his. Milan for me is a continuous discovery, especially through the great names in architecture and design that have animated and shaped it since after World War II, dotting it with works that make it a kind of open-air museum. I like to walk around it, trying to feel the differences in atmosphere between neighborhoods and discover new details.


AB: What do you learn on these journeys?


SG: The slower we move, the greater the nuances appear. If we go from one continent to another in a few hours by plane, we will surely be in places very different from those we left when we boarded the plane, but if instead we drive just two hours from one province to another in Italy, then we will discover enormous differences in the speech and culture of the place, in the way the country and its community live, in the colors of the houses and residential architecture. In short, the slower we move, the greater the differences appear between places that are seemingly close to each other. Then, surely, the real journey is the inward journey. How places transform us. 


AB: Which Italian vacation spot has conquered your heart?


SG: I really love places that are not too overcrowded, that still maintain an atmosphere of their own and are not devoted solely to tourism. Those where it is possible to capture the rhythms of daily life. As seaside places, I really like Gatteo a Mare on the Romagna Riviera, certain smaller places in the Marche region such as Marotta or Cupra Marittima, or even the surroundings of Maratea. Inland Latium comes to mind, especially Tuscia, or the small towns of Basilicata and Irpinia stopped in time. The Dauni Mountains in the Foggia area. The countryside of the Po. In any case, you never stop discovering new places, and although it sounds like a banality, the most recent trip is always the most beautiful.

Photography by Stefan Giftthaler