In Conversation with Bay Area Artist Nicolo Sertorio
“A whispered message can be much more powerful than a slap in the face.” — Nicolo Sertorio
Oakland-based photographer Nicolo Sertorio knows the importance of cross-pollination. As President of the American Society of Media PhotographersNorCal, he strives to nurture a vibrant photographic community in the Bay Area. The stunning CREATE Space he founded belies this belief, as do his mixed media collaborative pieces, like Collaborations: 3 Eyes.
While undoubtedly a man of his community, Nicolo also espouses the necessity of solitude and silence for creation. He speaks carefully and shoots critically, and his cerebral demeanor reverberates throughout his work. It is clear that Nicolo composed his series of US Southwest photographs, featured here on ViewFind, with an expert’s eye and a meditator’s mind.
The photographs simultaneously convey the beauty of the American landscape and the emptiness of the American dream. The images draw you in with their neat compositions and colors, then slowly carry you into a contemplative dream state. One must take a second look not just at the photos, but also the ideological mainstays that compose American identity.
ViewFind spoke with Nicolo to discuss his unconventional path to professional photography, his need for meditation and the the landscapes of both the Southwest and the mind. — Michelle Robertson
Michelle Robertson: Tell me about your background. How did you become a photographer?
Nicolo Sertorio: I got a camera from my mom when I was five or six, and that became my way to explore the world. I used to call it my window to and from my world.
Growing up in Italy, that world was basically the opposite for me. I later figured that there was no way for me to have any career [in photography] so I started studying business economics. I began working at HP, and I moved to its Palo Alto headquarters in ‘99.
Eventually, I realized I was on the wrong side of the table; I wanted to be the creator, not the user.
I realized that I had power and responsibility early at my age, and I realized that that wasn’t what I wanted. I was not driven by power, money, responsibility, it was about doing something meaningful to me. So when I got to the worldwide headquarters, I basically realized this was not me. I took a year off and lived in India, where I decided it was time for me to go back to what was my dream all along.
You’ve traveled all over the world. What are some of the places you’ve lived?
I’ve lived in Italy, Ireland, India, Switzerland, the UK, Belgium, New Mexico, California, New York, and I have visited for periods of 2 to 8 weeks many other countries.
When did you catch the travel bug?
I come from mixed ethnicity parents. My mom was German and my dad Italian. They were both professors so there was a lot of traveling as kids. I was born in Princeton, New Jersey, and two years later, my brother was born in Geneva.
How did this upbringing affect you?
We were always kind of trying to settle. As soon as we got it, we would have to move somewhere else. But then, as we matured, we started to see what this global upbringing, for lack of a better word, was doing to us. It gave us a much broader perspective on life, and it pushed us to create personal opinions, instead of adopting what society wanted us to believe.
You are confronted by radically different ways of doing things from one place to another. When you live in the same place, it’s harder to distinguish between what you perceive and what the world around you wants you to perceive.
Photo by Nicolo Sertorio
You are the president of the Northern California chapter of the American Society of Media Photographers (ASMP). What does ASMP do?
ASMP is the oldest and largest organization of professional photographers in the US, founded in 1947. It’s chapters are all over the US.
The national level is doing a lot of support for photographers, like copyright, representing them in Congress, insurance, business practices and national accounts. At the local level, it’s more connected to the community.
What are some of your goals for the NorCal chapter?
I want to make sure that members get more [from the association] than what they pay to be a member. Second, I want to bring the photographic community in the Bay Area together.
The ultimate goal is to realize that by collaboration, we can do more than we can by ourselves.
Collaboration seems really important to you. Why?
It used to be that photographers would connect with each other when we brought film back to the film lab in town. There was a time when we’d cross paths and ask, “How are you? What are you working on?” and so on. But many other things have gone to digital and more and more work is done in solitude. Like myself, I spend hours in front of my computer editing, emailing, and that creates this sense of isolation. And so I think it’s more important than ever to find ways to be out in the world.
Maybe call me old-school, but I don’t think it’s old-school; I think it’s more of my European upbringing. I’m a firm believer that we’re human beings and we need and crave human connection, in-person interaction, and that’s when truly grand ideas are created. And this wall of social media is a vast and poor second-level replacement of that in-face experience.
And I think we’re in this transition period where, now, people are starting to realize all that they’ve lost by isolating themselves. There’s more and more of this need for a community reemerging.
At the same time, it can be hard. Sometimes when we do these events, people don’t understand the importance of being together. They think instead, “Oh, I’d much rather be on my iPhone, tell me where I can download the slides.” And people tend to get lazy about going out and leaving their house. Times have changed.
We’ve spoken extensively about collaboration, but now I’d like to shift gears to ask you about your own projects, specifically your photographs of the US Southwest (featured on ViewFind).
[With the project] I try to give my perspective as an American that isn’t really an American and an Italian that’s not really an Italian. I remember doing all of these road trips with my mom when we were kids with an RV. Having grown up mostly in Europe, I was blown away by the grandeur of the nature, the landscape. But also, as a kid, I was still a part of that big American Dream of the open space and the conquest of the West and the road trips and the freedom. These were so appealing for an entire generation of Europeans that had experienced World War II.
I did not experienced World War II, but I was the first generation after that still felt the weight of nations and borders and ideological differences. So there was this American Dream. And when I moved here and I started going on trips to the Southwest to revisit that dream, I started noticing that I was stopping at rest areas, which I remember from my childhood and are now 99 percent of the time empty and abandoned.
Why do these rest areas resonate with you so much?
I could tell that they’re so charged… to me they became these archeological remains of this American Dream of the West and so on. They looked like teepees, or oil rigs or umbrellas — it’s not just a bunch of structures. Someone had dreams and ideas when they built them, and now they’re being replaced by single buildings, large structures with air conditioning and restaurants. Part of it became looking into the death of the ideology.
Photo by Nicolo Sertorio
Why did you embark on these road trips in the first place? Traveling just for the sake of movement, or was there a specific destination in mind?
I guess it started years back when I first decided I wanted to attend PhotoFest, the biggest fine arts photography fair. So spur of the moment, I said I was going to do it, signed up, and immediately there was this surge of emotion. It reminded me of all the trips I did with my mom, who had passed away a year before. In a way, it was almost a trip down memory lane or an homage to my mom who had passed away from cancer.
Why are these road trips so important to you?
It becomes natural to carve out some time to do personal work, which in turn, at least for me, requires a certain calmness, a peace of mind.
I find it hard to do personal work when I’m [at home in Oakland], because for me, my personal work is almost like meditation. I need to pull out and be in that calm, silent space where I’m at peace with myself for ideas to start bubbling up.
So you need to enter this certain head space, put time away, in order to create?
Do you meditate? If you’re on a 10-day retreat, the first three to four days, the monkey mind is going all over the place. The past and the future, jumping. And then slowly it calms down. And the human cycle is 10 days to let go. Even if I set time apart, the monkey mind doesn’t work like that.
It takes me days of silence and separation to not worry about how am I paying rent at the end of the month, or this client and that client to really be like, Ok, what’s coming out from inside of me? How am I perceiving the world around me? To me that takes days of silence.
What you’ll find some practices of meditation saying is that the answers are within us; we just need to be able to hear the voice. The only way to hear our own voice is by calming the disturbing voices all around — the monkey mind, the today and tomorrow, the errands, the jumping back and forth.
What the work is trying to convey is that I’m driving for days and days. I don’t have radio or music, I just need to go and enter this meditative state where slowly you let go and emerge with peace of mind.
That inner voice has the answers of what I want in life, my cravings, desires, wishes, dreams. I just need to be able to listen to that. And when I can listen, that’s when the so called miracles happen.
Photo by Nicolo Sertorio
Your photographs are composed so carefully. What visual approach do you take when shooting in the US Southwest?
It all starts with visual language. Just like the regular language, there’s a grammar you need to be aware of and familiar with. The point is not the grammar, it’s not just what you’re trying to say with your story or poem, it’s about your dialogue with the reader. To me, it’s about the individual language in the respect that I want to create a dialogue, a meaningful dialogue with the viewer. And not, you know, beauty for the sake of beauty, or throwing something in your face sensationally like blood, sex, politics and so on. It’s more of a hint of something that can trigger a logical conversation.
Can you elaborate on this concept of “hinting” to trigger a conversation.
We tend to get desensitized, I know that I do. I see so much work where I don’t engage in the conversation as to why this happened in this part of the world, and it’s just like… I can’t deal with this right now. My work wants to step back from that and say no, I’m not going to hit you in the face. I create a landscape that is approachable, nice, soft. It’s compositionally well-done. There’s nothing trapped in the image per say.
But at the same time it’s a little off. It makes you think, ok, what’s happening here. I think a whispered message can be much more powerful than a slap in the face.