The Art of Innovation: Joe Oppedisano

Originally published in 2007 at 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.”

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