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The light of memory

Interview with Guido Harari to mark the “Remain in Light” exhibition

Published: 21 Oct 2022
Guido Harari – Remain in Light is a retrospective exhibition (at the Mole Vanvitelliana in Ancona, open until 6 November) that covers the fifty-year career of this great photographer. Over the years, Harari has used his camera to reveal the person behind the celebrity and the soul behind the icon of numerous artists, especially those in the music business. He has photographed musicians from Frank Zappa to David Bowie, Paolo Conte to Bob Dylan, and Vasco Rossi to Ennio Morricone. At the Mole Vanvitelliana in Ancona, over three hundred photographs, installations, projections, record covers and videos retrace Harari’s eclectic career while also celebrating the century of rock.

Let’s start with the title of the exhibition, Remain in light. This clearly puts light at the heart of the art of photography.

The title had been running around my head for a while. I also had another idea, You Want It Darker, that looked at light from the opposite perspective, and comes from the title track on Leonard Cohen’s last album. It is a record I listened to a lot, and it had a significant psychological effect on me that kind of focused the post-production of the photos for the exhibition and the book. In the end, Remain In Light won over, partly because we were exiting the most critical stage of the pandemic. Remain In Light is not just the words a photographer uses to coax a restless subject back into the light cone they have prepared. It is also a prayer that the memory of this moment will not evaporate or be swallowed up by the darkness we live in. Saving memories of people and a period is one of the missions of this exhibition, especially in a liquid age where everything withers and disappears so quickly.

You see that a lot in your portraits of certain great artists. Lou Reed once said, “I’m always happy when Guido takes my picture because I know it will be a musical picture. And it will also have some poetry and feeling to it. The things that Guido captures with his portraits are, generally speaking, ignored by other photographers."

Yes, I have always been extremely interested in getting to know the inner character behind the celebrity. I knew, even as a kid, that I didn’t want to just be a fan experiencing records and concerts passively, because the artists I loved brought culture and inspiration. It was photography, my other great love, that showed me the language and tools I needed to get closer to them. Many of my subjects understood immediately that photography wasn’t a job or a profession for me. I was cultivating a level of sensitivity and empathy that went way beyond the professional aspect. This is true not only for musicians, but for all the people from the worlds of culture, show business, design, fashion, sport, business and science who have posed for me. It’s a global embrace.
Dori Ghezzi and Fabrizio De André © Guido Harari
Dori Ghezzi and Fabrizio De André © Guido Harari
You can see this approach especially in the photos that straddle the public and private spheres, like the one of Dori Ghezzi cutting Fabrizio De André’s hair.

With many artists there was never a strategy. Even when I already knew how the photos I was taking would be used, like for a record cover or a magazine article, I was never anxious about following rules. I wanted to create an authentic dimension, of real life, and it was often there that I had my best ideas. That’s what happened with Fabrizio De André and the famous photo in which he is propped up against a radiator fast asleep. Another example is Tom Waits who grabbed a cape and ran across a set created by another photographer or Morricone who wanted to provoke me by hiding behind a door and letting only his unmistakeable glasses show. Our interaction in a particular instant created these images. You have to know how to improvise. I have been called a rock photographer but, in this sense, we could say that I am a jazz photographer.

You have worked for a long time with magazines. Today, printed material is coming back into fashion, in terms of both vintage collections and a new fandom. What do think about that?

I find it fascinating. Perhaps this phenomenon is caused by nostalgia amongst young people who want more solid traces of their memories. Think about how they feel when they lose their cell phone or break it before they have saved the data on it. In the solid eras that preceded our current liquid modern age it was easier to keep track of memories. Perhaps that explains the recent vinyl boom.
Ennio Morricone © Guido Harari
Ennio Morricone © Guido Harari
How do you feel about the exhibition in Ancona? As it is basically a celebration of your work and career.

Celebration is a big word. When you come out into the light after two years of lockdown and social distancing, with a mad desire to start something new and explore new paths, you also need to pause and weigh up your life. For me, 2022 is a special year because it’s 50 years since I started out as a photographer and it’s also my 70th birthday. They are round numbers that encourage you to take stock. I’m such a restless spirit, working on this exhibition was interesting as it meant going back over the years I spent in music, and everything else as well, including the books I saw as “taking pictures without a camera”. This exhibition has numerous souls, so it’s a bit like a Matryoshka doll. That’s why it includes a section on the different spheres of Italian excellence, and another dedicated to some of my books, which I consider very important. I wanted to show how my personal journey has diversified over the years with dreams and desires that always seek to create a memory that creates another memory. This includes the Magic Cave, a set I have installed at the exhibition to take portrait pictures on certain days. It is another source of memory creation that allows me to look the city where I live in the eyes. Which, in this case, is Ancona.

How do you feel about being on the other side of the camera and becoming the subject of a photo yourself?

In general, I treat everything as a game, so... with a heavy dose of irony. Because it’s always a game. I don’t think I have any great revelations to offer. But I find the idea of making this sacrifice extremely entertaining. I do believe, however, that photographers, like the great composers from past centuries, should remain anonymous and invisible. Even if social media exposure pushes in the other direction, photographers shouldn’t take the place of their subjects. The photographer must always step back and leave the spotlights and general focus on their subjects and the narrative they wish to communicate.