The Art of Innovation: Joe Oppedisano

Originally published in 2007 at TakeGreatPictures.com. The article has vanished from that site, but it shows up here and I’ve reproduced it below.

Photographer Joe Oppedisano proves with his 35mm Imation 3M disposable cameras that you don’t need an expensive set of gear to create art worthy of getting published.

Joe Oppedisano does a good impersonation of a tourist. Strolling down the streets of New York, he surveys everything eagerly, peering at signs and storefronts, and squinting at skyscrapers towering overhead. From time to time, he stops and whips out a disposable camera. The cheap plastic device captures the scene with a satisfying “click,” and its owner walks on. Thus he ambles through the city, to all appearances another shutter-happy sightseer. But in reality, Oppedisano is hard at work.

The stocky, mustachioed pedestrian with the single-use camera is a photographer, one of the best-known in Italy. And the disposable 35mm is one of his favorite professional tools, not least because it lets him blend in with the crowd. Almost anyone else would find the plastic box infuriatingly limiting, but Oppedisano uses it with relish, creating startlingly beautiful pictures of the urban landscape. In one photo, the Twin Towers rise dramatically against a stormy sky, their tops nearly vanishing in the brooding clouds. In another, soft yellow and blue hues lend a melancholy ambiance to a scene of deserted Coney Island rides.

It is hard to believe that such subtle visual effects can be wrought with such primitive equipment. When his photo books New York and On the Road appeared, based on his work with Imation 3M disposables, journalists asked to see the negatives, doubtful that the throwaway camera could render this kind of art. “It intrigued me to demonstrate that you don’t need very expensive camera gear to create an interesting image,” says Oppedisano. “A lot of people, when they see an interesting image, they always ask you, ‘What camera did you use?’ They actually believe that the camera took the image, and not the person behind the camera.”

It’s ironic that this observation comes from someone who has always made the most of technology. When he is not clicking away with disposables or shooting with quirky contraptions like a huge 50×60 Polaroid, Oppedisano is taking apart and reconfiguring his cameras, going to the nuts and bolts to expand the expressive range of the medium. “I’ve always been an artist, so I’ve always tried to push technique to its limit and also bend the rules.” This continuous technological experimentation has had striking results. From the surreal melding of perspectives in his “Inner Self” series, to the mesmerizing fragmentation of his collages and “Extensions” portraits, his innovations have yielded unusual effects that push the envelope of the photographic format.

The edgy originality of his work, Oppedisano feels, derives in part from his bi-cultural background. Born in Reggio Calabria, on the “toe” of the Italian boot, Oppedisano, now 52, spent the first seven years of his life in Italy before moving with his family to New York. He grew up and received his education in the States, before moving back to Italy, where he has lived for the past twenty-five years. Coming of age as an immigrant gave him an unusual perspective on the world around him. Like the Swiss-born photographer Robert Frank, whose unflattering depictions of ratty diners and forlorn faces in his photo book The Americans articulated the fresh, skeptical viewpoint of an outsider, Oppedisano found that being a newcomer had its advantages. “I saw life in a different way,” he recalls.

His interest in photography was kindled early, by a small automatic Bell and Howell camera that he gave his brother for Christmas but then appropriated for himself. Snapping pictures of his friends and family and the places they visited, Oppedisano discovered an enthusiasm for documenting life. But his artistic ambitions were hazy even after he enrolled in Queen’s College in 1971. Out of curiosity, he took a photography course as an elective, and it proved a revelation. Finding that photography fused his passion for travel and culture with his artistic propensities, he left Queen’s College and studied photography at the School of Visual Arts in New York for two years.

His freelance career began in 1976, when he was hired as the official photographer for an Alitalia press junket in Tuscany. The same year, a giant earthquake rocked the Friuli region of northern Italy, killing nearly a thousand and leaving 70,000 homeless. Oppedisano was commissioned to cover the event by a writer for the Philadelphia Herald whom he had met on the Alitalia junket. The young photographer had set his sights on photojournalism, but the encounter with mass destruction left him deeply shaken. Meeting people who had lost their entire families in the disaster, Oppedisano discovered that he lacked the cold blood necessary to be a journalist. He shot perhaps three rolls of film during the five-day tour of refugee camps and wreckage. “It was just like being in a death camp…I couldn’t even shoot. I felt terrible taking pictures of these people.” News journalism, then, was out, and Oppedisano turned his attention to less wrenching professional avenues like advertising photography and cultural reportage.

Three years later he was back in Italy. The newly-created International Center of Photography of New York organized the Venezia ‘79 la fotografia, a four-month series of seminars in Venice headed by the top photographers in the world. “You name them, they were there,” Oppedisano recalls. As an assistant at the seminars, he worked with luminaries like Harold Edgerton, Ernst Haas, and Lisette Model. Edgerton exerted a particular influence. Oppedisano, always fascinated by technological innovation, admired the MIT engineer for his invention of the electronic stroboscope, which allowed photographers to capture phenomena too fast for the naked eye to perceive, like a drop of milk splattering or a bullet slicing through an apple.

Spurred in part by the Venice experience, Oppedisano decided in 1982 to return to his Mediterranean origins and settle in Milan. Experimenting and using unique technology continued to fascinate him. In 1987 he took a series of portraits using a mammoth 50×60 Polaroid camera, one of only three in existence, and later turned the same camera to the colorful world of Italian circuses and festivals. He also began thinking about how to modify a normal 35mm camera to expand the scope of the film format. An interest in Futurism, the early twentieth-century Italian art movement, stimulated these reflections. The Futurist painters used something called “simultaneity,” the depiction of successive stages of movement in one image, to capture time and motion on canvas. Oppedisano pondered how he could push the boundaries of his own medium in a Futurist way.

Photographers can evoke the passage of time by shooting a sequence of images. For example, the gallop of a horse can be represented by a strip of images of the horse in motion. Unfortunately, this leaves distracting spaces between each frame, acting as visual barriers to the eye as it progresses from one image to the next. Oppedisano wanted to create a sequence consisting of a single, seamless image. The solution he devised was to slide the film back a little after shooting each picture in a sequence, thus eliminating the spaces between frames. The resulting merged sequences were beautiful, but manually adjusting the film in the camera was a slow, tedious, and error-prone procedure, so he began tampering with his camera in search of an alternative technique.

Oppedisano worked on the problem for about a year, destroying three cameras in the process. But his persistence paid off, because he finally had a re-engineered 35mm camera that shot film frames without interspaces, the only one of its kind in the world. He used the modified camera to create full-body portraits, shooting various parts of the subject in succession from head to toe. His portrait of Eddie Floyd, for example, is a vertical strip of seven panels depicting different parts of the R&B artist’s body. Floyd’s head fills the topmost panel; the panel below it frames his chest, but shot closer-up than his head; and so on. Each panel offers a different perspective of the subject, and when you sweep your eyes from top to bottom of the absurdly elongated portrait, you are seeing Eddie Floyd as you might in real life. Because we cannot absorb all the visual information in a given scene at once, we glance at various parts of the scene and then synthesize these images into a mental whole. The Floyd portrait simulates that process, conveying an almost cinematic sense of immediacy and reality.

Like his “Extensions,” Oppedisano’s “Inner Self” series, which he started in 1995, renews the portrait genre with innovative technique. Oppedisano had long been intrigued by the artistic potential of double exposure, the device of superimposing two images by exposing a single negative twice. Believe it or not, you can do this. “Most people think, once you put a roll of film in a camera, you can’t take it out unless you wind it all back. But you can take it out and put it back as much as you want,” notes Oppedisano with a chuckle. Applying double exposure to portraiture yielded marvelous results. Oppedisano would shoot the profile of the portrait subject against a white background, then capture a close-up of the subject’s face on the same frame of film. The resulting image is a hybrid of two perspectives that makes you look twice in surprise: the silhouette of the profile circumscribes the face. Like the drawing which is either a rabbit or a duck, depending on how you look at it, the “Inner Self” portraits appear, impossibly, to embody two different images within one.

No wonder that people greet their own portraits with a mixture of astonishment and curiosity. “They’ve never seen themselves that way…It makes them think,” says Oppedisano. “They appreciate it, because it’s something that they see in themselves also.” By bending the format in an abstract way, Oppedisano infused the portrait genre with a new kind of psychological depth and suggestiveness. The Italian poet Edoardo Sanguinette wrote that in his portraits you can sometimes hear the person’s voice – and for Oppedisano a higher compliment can hardly be imagined.

His innovations do not stop there. Like the “Extensions,” Oppedisano’s gorgeous collages push the expressive limits of the photograph, but by means of a grid rather than a stack of images. Consider his collage of renowned Italian film critic Morando Morandini sitting in his study. Morandini is enclosed in a few little panels of film, while around him proliferates a chaotic welter of books, papers, and pictures. It is like seeing through the eyes of an insect, and Oppedisano’s technique of tilting the camera differently from frame to frame adds to the confusion. But the image is remarkably rich, and the eye lingers on its multitudinous details, which have a subtle harmony of arrangement.

Oppedisano, now living in a villa with other artists in Verona, is enjoying his professional repute. His work has been recognized in exhibitions all over Italy and abroad in Quebec, and has been published in various books (among them Unusual Portraits, The Circus, The Inner Self, New York and On the Road) and international magazines. In 2004, he was awarded the international trophy “Life for Photography.” Tragedy, however, has cast a pall over his recent successes. In November 2001, an ex-girlfriend of his, journalist Maria Grazia Cutuli, was in Afghanistan covering the fall of the Taliban for Italy’s leading daily Corriere della Sera, when she and three other journalists were pulled out of their car and executed by an Afghan gang. And two years ago a journalist and friend from his area was captured and beheaded in Iraq.

Oppedisano has been pulling himself out of a creative slump induced by the trauma. Recently he shot a series of “Inner Self” portraits on perhaps the trickiest subject, himself. “I try to do it spontaneously…I load one in, then I think of something that I want to express within myself, and then I just go out and shoot it…I leave it a lot up to the moment, because of course your feelings change constantly and every day…So I try to make it an emotional effort.” He has also started experimenting with color portraits.

Oppedisano has a lot more on the table. For a while he has been dreaming about making the world’s longest print, an 80-meter monster produced by the fusion of 250 exposures. To pull off this feat, he would have to add a sports back, a special device for holding a spool of film, to the modified camera he uses for his “Extensions.” Although he has the technical process figured out, a couple of kinks remain. He will need a sponsor, for one thing. And Oppedisano wants a vertical, rather than horizontal, print, which limits his options for a subject rather drastically (candidates include a redwood tree and a giant male member). Another dream: he is thinking of going to China to do a reprise of a photographic tour he conducted there in 1984, with a new vision for a changed country.

Whether or not he realizes these ambitions in the near future, Oppedisano will keep exploring new photographic terrain. “The more you experiment, the more you learn,” he reflects. “You get deeper and deeper into the subject, and into the matter.” Which explains why Oppedisano, who prides himself on his innovative use of technology, never forgets to pack a disposable camera with him on his excursions. Any camera, if used in the right way, can stretch the possibilities of the medium. What matters is the vision behind the viewfinder. “The concept of photography is always the same. Whether you shoot it with a disposable, or you shoot it with a digital, it’s not the camera that takes the picture. That’s the fundamental part.”

Blast from the past: China at 186 mph

Originally posted March 28, 2013

In early March, I took the bullet train from Guangzhou to Beijing. The route, which opened last December, is the longest high-speed rail line in the world. The train hurtles across the country at an average of 186 miles per hour, linking the southern megacity to the northern capital in a journey of 1,428 miles – roughly the driving distance from Boston to Miami.

The trip takes eight hours or longer (depending on the time of departure), which is far slower than flying, and my second-class ticket cost 862 RMB ($138), which is about the same as discount airfare from Guangzhou to Beijing. On the other hand, rail travel is far more comfortable than flying, and high-speed rail is, after all, awesome. I’ve taken many bullet trains to and from Shanghai, and always enjoyed them, so the chance to ride this astonishing new railway was hardly something I could resist. The only real question was how to get a seat.

Buying a train ticket in China: still Kafkaesque

For the average foreigner, booking a train ticket in China has always been a trying process. As I headed to Guangzhou South Station, I half hoped the gleaming new facility would set a good example for the future by having a straightforward and convenient system for buying tickets.

Nope. As usual, the experience was Kafkaesque. There are two options for buying a ticket at the station. Banks of self-service ticket kiosks, with Chinese and English touch-screen interfaces, allow the traveler to choose the destination, departure date and time, and class of travel. This is almost too easy. But wait! You need to swipe a Chinese ID card in order to make the purchase – those of us holding foreign passports are out of luck. On to option B: the ticket hall.

Ticket hall, Guangzhou South Station

“Bedlam” is a word that comes to mind at many of these ticket halls in China, with their infamous crowds and queues. The one at Guangzhou South Station was better than I had feared, but still stressful. Amazingly, there was no English to be seen in this ticket hall, which would be understandable at a backwater bus stop, but was harder to explain at this huge and vital station. Given the global hype about the new Guangzhou-Beijing line, did it not occur to the Ministry of Railways that some foreigners might actually want to ride the thing?

Before doing anything else, I needed to find the train schedule – but that was easier said than done. At the back of the ticket hall was an information booth with a couple of employees. I asked one of them for a schedule, and he handed me a Chinese-only brochure with a vast chart covered with microscopic text. When I asked him to help me find the trains to Beijing, he pored over the brochure for a minute, then apologized and shrugged helplessly. (The train times were there; I later found them myself, with great difficulty.)

As it turned out, it was easier simply to go back to a kiosk, punch in the preferred day(s) of departure, and look at the available times that showed up. Then I could book my ticket at one of the windows in the ticket hall.

Gigantic scale

Skylight over departure concourse, Guangzhou South Station

Infrastructure in China tends to be unsettlingly vast, so I had a familiar feeling when walking around Guangzhou South Station. Designed by a London architecture firm, the mammoth structure sprawls over some 5.2 million sq ft, with multiple floors for arrivals, departures, and metro lines. A beautiful 1,142-ft-long skylight soars over the departures concourse. The enormous size of the station seemed to be justified by the crowds, which even on a Monday afternoon were substantial. During Chinese New Year the place is probably packed, and usage will surely increase over time as the region continues to boom.

The Chinese government plans to merge Guangzhou with eight other cities in the Pearl River Delta to form a giant megalopolis which will be 26 times the size of Greater London and will contain 42 million people. Guangzhou South Station is a key transportation hub in this emerging super-city; no wonder it’s so big.

Passengers at departure concourse, Guangzhou South Station

Low-altitude flying

The trains themselves are a high-tech marvel. As a benighted American, I am used to old, slow, clattering trains on which you practically expect to see soot-covered men shoveling coal into a boiler. I can never forget the thrilling experience of riding the futuristic maglev to Pudong Airport in Shanghai, with its top speed of 268 mph and its terrifying 12-degree tilts.

The average cruising speed of the Guangzhou-Beijing bullet train, like the Beijing-Shanghai bullet train which I took a few weeks later, is about 186 mph. At Guangzhou South Station and Beijing South Station, passengers present their tickets, then descend on an escalator to an island platform, where their sleek, humming train awaits, like something out of Star Trek.

Bullet train, Beijing South Station

Boarding a bullet train, Beijing South Station

The trains are clean and comfortable, and the rides are extremely smooth. Uniformed train attendants come by wheeling drinks and snacks carts. Seats are equipped with power outlets and free Wi-Fi is supposedly offered. It’s like flying, minus the turbulence and inner ear issues.

The passengers are mostly middle-class, a high proportion of them businessmen. Peasants are not to be found on these trains – they can’t afford the tickets. Everyone seems to be glued to a smartphone, tablet, or laptop watching movies, chatting, or getting work done. As the long journey unfolds, many people doze off.

Bullet train, Beijing to Shanghai

On the Guangzhou-Beijing trip, I enjoyed watching the rugged, green subtropical landscape of Guangdong province flying by:

And here are some views from my later Beijing-Shanghai journey:

At one point, I heard a great whoomp and the landscape outside was suddenly replaced by a white blur. The blur filled the window for a few seconds, then just as suddenly disappeared, leaving me blinking at the landscape again. It had been a train going by in the opposite direction, at a relative speed of about 375 mph.

Average cruising speed

The experience of riding these trains is not always as genteel as the Jetsons-like technology and aesthetics might lead one to expect. The annoyance begins at the station, where buying tickets can be a trial of endurance. At the Beijing station, brusque restaurant staff, like street hawkers, tried to hustle me into their suspect eatery. On the trains, the attendants go about their duties with grim professionalism and rarely smile. Ceiling-mounted video screens offer such fare as a Mr. Bean episode and a trashy American reality TV show.

Previous trips on China’s bullet trains have sometimes been even rockier: noisy, wandering passengers; violent action movies turned up to infuriating volumes on the train’s speakers.

Costly and unnecessary?

These minor annoyances aside, high-speed rail is simply the best way to travel. The experience is so awesome that many Americans who ride these trains for the first time will be thinking: Why can’t we have some?

It is not clear to me that America needs high-speed rail, at least over long distances. Building a bullet train line from, say, Boston to Atlanta probably would not make a great deal of sense, for reasons which Megan McArdle at The Atlantic lays out here and here. For that matter, it’s not clear that high-speed rail makes a great deal sense for China, either; the Chinese Academy of Sciences reported to the State Council in 2010 that the country’s large-scale network may be impractical and unaffordable.

Putting aside the economic issues, what interests me is the sheer energy and ambition behind China’s high-speed rail buildup. Within five or six years, China created the largest and perhaps most advanced high-speed rail network in the world. There are probably more total miles of high-speed track in China now than in the rest of the world combined, and the government plans to double that figure by the end of 2015.

This may prove to be a disastrous misallocation of resources, or it may not. We will have to see. But by any standard, it’s impressive.