Oliviero Toscani shares his thoughts on life, Internet madness, advertising, n on his own work
Oliviero Toscani's provoking/groundbreaking/breathtaking images have collected adjectives, admirers & haters for over the years.
His politically-minded work directed by his own ideas made him a game-changer in the advertising world. He is the man behind Benetton's most divisive images, never afraid of bringing huge (& real) topics to the front side of his camera.
Toscani has also been a massive creative force for Valentino, Chanel n Fiorucci, and his pics have been featured in mags like Elle, Vogue, Uomo Vogue and GQ. Not only that, he is also the co-founder of COLORS Magazine and — w/ his well-known partner Luciano Benetton — Toscani created Fabrica, a research center w/ a learning-by-doing approach for free-thinking talents from all over the world. 💡
We met him there, right at the space restored and augmented by Japanese architect Tadao Ando, to hear a few of his inspiring words.
Warning: u might feel like going offline for a couple of days after reading this.
There's a lot of things about u and about what u do online. Can u tell us smth that Google doesn't know?
I have no idea what’s not on the Internet, ‘cause I don’t use it. I don’t live in a concentration camp. Nowadays, any kind of bullshit goes to the Internet. That’s why I believe it’s something for dumb people who have nothing to do. I have no mercy.
I believe it’s something that we should fight against. Not the Internet itself, but how people use it. It’s like drugs; I’m not against chemistry, I’m against its abuse. Chemistry rather can save many lives. All these things like Instagram n Facebook are dumbing down ppl completely. It’s a place to organize stupid people in alphabetical order.
Between all that we found a quote of yours: “my generation created the youth concept”. WDYT is the concept of gen z?
They’re old – because they have no sense of future. They’re afraid of the future n have no idea of what it is. So, they’re creating nothing. They’re enjoying and consuming everything that exists already. They’re consuming what is said must be consumed; they need to do it to become trendy. So, the ones who follow the trends are the new conformists. The conformists are all fashionable.
Another quote we saved: “worst than arriving late, is to bring too early a subject in a society which is not mature enough to discuss it.” Today everybody talks about everything, how can we filter all these subjects n select what is relevant?
Everybody’s projecting from present to past. When u ask someone smth, they all go to search on the computer, so it means it already exists. Nobody’s thinking to imagine smth.
Imagination holds the future, and holds smth that doesn’t exist. It holds also the possibility to produce, make, create and construct what we imagine. We see so little of it nowadays. Everybody wants to create, but what? Money, fame… but nothing for evolution. In the past they called it ideology. I’m against the idea of ideology as submission, but there’s certainly a thing we should focus ourselves, it’s called humanity, humanism. That’s completely forgotten, it’s no coincidence that in 2020 our big problems are still being solved with wars. After all, even today, morality is decided by military power. Incredible how we aren’t civilized yet.
In the meanwhile, we’re having fun w/ fashion, w/ bullshit, w/ useless stuff, w/ all these things that don’t help us to focus on the real problem. But art (the real one, not fashion) was always related to w/ humanism and humanity. But it requires preparation, intelligence, study, engagement, fantasy, courage, all these things that we don’t see anymore, ‘cause nowadays we’re accommodated. And we want everything which is comfortable and easy, so, consequently, stupid. Everything that is comfortable and easy, is stupid. We believe we are interested only because we’re fashionable. All these fashion magazines make me think. He says it’s like COLORS, but it’s not true, COLORS was a magazine that broke the rules, different from any other at the time. COLORS was born 30 years ago. At the time, it was innovative for the publishing systems. Doing it now is easy.
Can u tell us which is your fav COLORS edition ever?
No, it’s impossible to choose only one. But if I need to choose, the one about war is a strong one.
We see a lot of naked bodies in ur pictures. R u like obsessed with skin?
I have no obsessions, its society’s obsession to put every single person in boxes. Look, being a photographer is not simply photographing. That’s the last thing. Being a photographer means having a vision, making choices, having morals and ethics, having a purpose, having something you want to show. It’s not only taking a picture. It’s not like I am a driver, if I drive I do it because I need to go somewhere. I don’t drive a car because I like to drive.
I don’t take a picture because I am a photographer. I am a photographer because I have smth to tell. The hardest part is what u want to tell, not the process of taking a picture. I don’t have any obsession with bodies. Sure that body n skin are important. But see, when I say skin I don’t talk about the skin, I talk about race, discrimination, about life, death, sympathy or no sympathy, integration, about differences. Undoubtedly they are surfaces w/ many problematic things. I talk about skin as territory, human territory.
Who made the first move: was it you who chose photography or did photography choose you?
I chose no damn photography; it has chosen me. I believe that’s the most interesting means of communication in our present time. I don’t say that I love photography. If someone tells me that loves to drive, I ask where he/she wants to go, what he/she wants to drive.
That’s not my relationship w/ photography; instead, I think it’s quite limited technically. That’s a means. I’m not a writer ‘cause I like the computer. But there are the ones who like the computer. Most photographers like the photography’s fetishism. I don’t like it. Instead, it limits me and disturbs me.
What’s missing in today’s photography?
It’s missing the culture of who makes it, the study, engagement, responsibility and courage. That’s what’s missing. But it’s missing in all professions.
It’s said that advertising is the opposite of art n reality. But what is meant by advertising, art and reality?
What is publicity? The Sistine Chapel is the church’s publicity, but it’s also a piece of art. As you can see, there are classifications made by mediocre people. The mediocre person wants everything classified, so at least it becomes easier for them to understand. They can’t go deep in anything.
I never worked in a publicity agency in my life; I have no idea how it works. I make images that are used publicly. Like an author who writes a book, he/she public his/her ideas in the book, and then someone else makes its publicity. He/she publishes what he/she thinks through the book.
Can u imagine a world without publicity?
No, because what I call publicity is communication. I don’t call it publicity, I call it communication. I never advertised, not in these terms.
Back in 1978, u took a picture beside ur wife dressed as brides n u sent this photo to family and friends. Everybody believed that you were married, but u were not married yet. U like to say that “image counts more than reality”. What about it nowadays?
All we know – excluding a little part of it – we get to know by direct experience. Most of what we know, we know because we saw an image of it. People, places, things… The reality for the most part of people nowadays is an image. Everybody knows Trump, but nobody saw him live, we know only an image. Almost everything is like this.
Photography is firstly a historical memory. Since we have photography we get to know the important human events, among which we’re also ashamed of. And we believe in somth only if we can see a picture or on television. Now, reality must be mediated by technology, photography, cinema, TV, all these technological means. Otherwise, nobody believes in it. If u don’t see it, it doesn’t exist.
In these globalized times we are living, what do u believe can be the best & the worst made by all these images we see every day? Where are we going?
I believe technology along w/ its images will put the most part of humanity in an irrelevant place. We won’t need most of those ppl. I believe it will cause a cultural dictatorship, of those who are not technology dependent. I don’t say they’ll not use it, but they won’t be dependent on it. Irrelevance will be very important.
Right now we have two possibilities: to participate or not say anything. If you say nothing, you’re a collaborator. If you participate in a group or movement, so you took a position, and first, you were irrelevant. Who says nothing is irrelevant. You either take a position or you’re irrelevant. Not only irrelevant but also a collaborator for the worst.
For u, what will social media ppl do to art, photography n communication?
It’s a means of communication like the alphabet. It evolves. It’s all communication.
Every field, every space, every angle, every depth, every surface has communication and is communication. And every communication has its technology and means to express. However, inside all these different means of communication there is a thought one that is the one to decide the “supporting wire”.
This wire can be conjugated, expressed, made, produced through different means, like writing, music, photography, painting… But this internal thread (the idea), which goes through the means, is not reproducible. That’s something that we can do only as a human being. It’s useless to talk about AI. It’s bullshit. My horse has an intelligence much more refined than mine, as a horse. The machine has intelligence higher than mine, as a machine. But I’m the only one who owns my intelligence. It’s not duplicable. Instead, artificial intelligence is the same for you, her or him. But mine is not! Incredible. Neither his. Nor even hers. Therefore, you either believe it, or others will be useless. It’s all becoming homologated.
So what’s the human being's great wealth?
The uniqueness, the difference.
The most important thing in life is...
I think is life itself.
Big one: what’s life?
It’s an artistic action, the only one that’s real and true. It’s like painting a canvas: when we born we receive a canvas, and we need to paint on it. It could be a photo, whatever you prefer.
That said, r u satisfied w/ ur painted canvas?
Could be better. I was privileged, w/ no doubt, very privileged and lucky. We need to admit it. I could believe that I should have been more intelligent, less lazy, more athletic, more handsome, more everything. But… It’s ok like this.
Now we would like u to comment on some pics we brought u. First: “Bricklayer”, by August Sander.
That’s my favorite picture! It’s printed badly. Too dark.
This is the image of the human condition. We see this proud boy, who’s only a bricklayer assistant, but he brings the construction of life in his shoulders, the weight of life, of what we do, what we construct. He looks to us w/ no shame of his conditions. After all, he’s only a simple bricklayer, but he looks likes a prince, a warrior. It goes beyond any prejudice or social classification.
Even if he is humble, he is not humble, he is proud w/ no presumptions. He’s also dressed well. Look at the rag he uses as a glove, ‘cause they had no gloves. Look at the symmetric construction of bricks: it’s architecture. There’s also this light that beats upon him, it’s the construction’s shadow, so we can feel that he’s constructing here, but at the same time we see all this space around him, and we see all the work that still must be done.
“Ingrid Bergman”, by Anonymous Artist.
The photo is not worth much, but she has a unique beauty. Especially because she’s intelligent. She’s one of those people who reflect the light. I tell you as a photographer, it’s not everybody like this. There are people who absorb light, but she reflects it. She has an incredible interior. We can feel it in any picture of her.
Now let's talk about ur own work: “Kokeshi dolls (piercing girl with cellphone)”, by Oliviero Toscani.
I made this one. I can’t judge her, she’s a funny, poor girl. She was a pioneer in the 90s. Pioneer of dementia. They were a very extreme group. It was the beginning of criminality, as I call it. Every ornament is criminality.
“Oliviero and his wife naked on the beach”, by John Swannell. Tell us about this day, was it a good memory?
Oh, I have a lot of good memories. Who suffered w/ this picture were my children. (laughs) Someone brought it to their school, I don’t remember if it was my son or my daughter. “Look here your parents”. (laughs) Anyway, it looks like I have nothing over here.
What about the HIV campaign? How is it even possible to take a pic like this?
It’s possible because u want to do it. First of all it’s not only photographing smth and “that’s it”. Normally ppl look for a photographer to take a picture. I don’t do it. I create image. A photographer is only a photographer. Besides thinking, I photograph what I think.
Last one: “Warhol and Toscani”. Good memories about Andy?
See: he had no tattoos. He looks likes a bank clerk dressed like this.
K, now it's time for airplane mode. 📵