Wavepool – Can you talk about the prevalence of architectural elements in your work and how they relate to your interests?
Ilaria Ortensi – I started to be interested in architecture very early. I did my first undergraduate year of university in architecture before changing faculty. Even if I moved in the direction of artistic and humanistic studies I continued to be concerned with issues related to how space is constructed and the way it influences us. When I started photographing with a large format camera years later it just came natural to me to go outside and take pictures of urban sites around Rome, where I’m from. Slowly I became aware that I wanted to elaborate the conversation between photography and architecture outside the path of traditional architectural and landscape photography. That is when I began to have a studio based practice.
Wavepool – What do you think makes photography a good outlet for talking about architecture?
Ilaria Ortensi – It seems impossible not to think of contemporary architecture in terms of photographic images. Photography is so necessary to document what architects have built that it has generated an extensive circulation of images of buildings which are complementary to our direct experience of the real places. But photography also plays with our perception of scale. Vast spaces can be contained while something very small can be represented as monumental. Size can be completely modified through photography, opening it up for different interpretations of the same construction or site. In a similar way photography has had a significant role in our experience of modern cities. It has been used from the very beginning to document the growth of urban space, becoming a way for people to elaborate the rapid and continuous change of their environment.
Wavepool – With your practice being heavily based in a studio environment, I’m curious about how you bring physical experiences from the outside world into an isolated environment. What is your process like?
Ilaria Ortensi – My process changes a lot depending on the work, but some elements and strategies keep repeating. When I’m in the outside world photographing a site I want to spend enough time there to develop an original point of view on that space that could be translated into a studio project.
For example, visiting the Hudson River Park in correspondence to the Trump Towers I had contradictory feelings about that place. I had the impression of being overwhelmed by the proximity of the gigantic constructions but at the same time I was easily able to reduce the size of those towers just staring at them from the docks. This experience of a simple change of point of view originated the idea of playing with their size. Therefore I created a system to be able to play with both the size and shape of those towers. I photographed the facades of the buildings and used the windows as a modular element to create homogeneous small woodblocks that could be piled up together. My intent was to subvert the flat and conventional logic that monumental towers usually have in a way that could be accessible to everyone, even a child. So I started playing with the woodblocks arranging them in different ways. In some cases I wanted to refer to constructions that I know well while other times I let myself be surprised by what I created. The images of the series Windows (2014) show the result of this process.
It definitely took a long time. Something that is consistent in my process is the speed of my production which is quite slow.
Wavepool – Is it always your intention to bring your findings back to the studio, or can a direct photographic response to a space be possible?
Ilaria Ortensi – It is certainly possible and I would say that both practices coexist in my work. I have never stopped photographing existing spaces but it’s definitely very different than being in studio. When I’m outside I keep a more intuitive and curious approach. The photos that I take get stored and they usually don’t circulate, with some exception. For example, recently I’ve been asked to provide the photographic component for a poetry book and I found in my archive the perfect fit. Even more recently I have been commissioned to produce a photographic work in response to a study examining the relationship between real estate, housing, and inequality within Harlem, New York. In this case I worked like any other traditional photographer, developing a coherent photographic work which was a direct response to both the space and to the report in the book.
Wavepool – Can you tell me a bit about Variations and what’s happening within the images?
Ilaria Ortensi – In Variations I wanted to create a virtual space using just the analog camera and the lights. I chose a Piranesi drawing from the series Prison because it’s generally considered the first example of an impossible architecture and used styrofoam and vinyl gels to build it. Then I ran many tests until I found out how to photograph it. I proceeded exposing each negative three times and at each time I changed the colors of the lights. I had a set of four lights but usually only three of them where on at the same time. While changing the colors I also removed some elements from the installations. The effect created is that of a luminous architecture where colors mix with each other like in a painting. The title Variations implies also the idea of developing form through a repetition that is always different. The series wants to be the expansion of one image through the multiplication of its photographs that are potentially inexhaustible.
Wavepool – An interest in virtual space seems relatively new to your practice. Is that right? Is that topic still influencing whatever you’re making now?
Ilaria Ortensi – Yes, the interest in virtual space is recent. It actually started when I was working with technologies that are related to space. The lights that I used for Variations are multicolor LED bulbs that belong to the category of the Internet Of Things. They have the advantage of being able to quickly produce different colors of the spectrum without using filters but at the same time they are incredibly flat and not suited for photography. I felt challenged by using them, especially in combination with negative films. While I was experimenting with those lights I found that they were introducing an element of virtuality into the domestic space, for which they have been designed for. So with Variations I managed to translate that intuition into photographs creating a space that doesn’t exist in reality.
But more than strictly in virtual space I’m interested in general in the relationship between technology and architecture and how it influences our perception of space. Recently, during a residency called Laboratory Spokane, I’ve created an installation called Synchronic Stream where I’ve turned a gallery space into a photographic studio and at the same time having the lights being controlled from internet data. It’s a complex idea that I’m still working on and hoping to expand it even further probably with other installation work.
To see more, please visit Ilaria’s website.