Swiss photographer and filmmaker about Andy Warhol, unforgettable atmosphere of New York in the late 70s – early 80s and the emotional connection between the artist and his models
Edo Bertoglio received his degree in film directing and editing at the Conservatoire Libre du Cinema Francais in Paris in 1975. He moved to New York in 1976, where he found work as a photographer for Italian Vogue, Andy Warhol’s Interview, and other magazines. He became involved in the downtown art and music scenes of the late 70s and early 80s. During this time, he was married to fashion designer Maripol. He also took his photography experience and familiarity with the rock music to do photographic work for the covers of LPs, completing many assignments for Atlantic, Arista, and Warner Brothers Records. He also worked on Glenn O’Brien’s late night countercultural talk show TV Party.
The film, titled New York Beat (later called “Downtown 81”), was directed by Bertoglio, and young graffiti writer and future artist Jean-Michel Basquiat played the lead role, which was written by O’Brien to mirror his real life.
Bertoglio left New York for his hometown of Lugano, Switzerland, in 1990, where he currently lives now, producing and directing television commercials and programs for Swiss TV.
Bleek Magazine: Mr. Bertoglio, the range of your artwork is very wide. You studied cinematography in Paris and directed a number of films (including iconic “Downtown 81”), you worked as a photographer for Italian Vogue and Interview magazine. Now, after a certain period of time, can you tell how do these 2 passions live together?
Edo Bertoglio: These 2 passions live together, because, in fact, looking back at my career and my life, they converge totally and you can see that in the “Polaroid book”. It was a sort of a chronicle, a documentary of what I saw and what I lived. For example, my first movie “Downtown 81” was conceived to show what was happening in New York in the late 70s and early 80s. And, speaking frankly, the idea was based mostly on the music which was around us, asking Jean-Michel Basquiat to participate as an actor, we were not aware that he would become a big name in the art world. For example, when I was studying in Paris I was photographing people at vernissage, art shows and in the street, and the portfolio I did in Paris was shown to the editor-in-chief of Interview magazine and he said, “Let’s show it to Warhol, to Andy…” We went to the next room, and there he was. He opened my book and kept on saying, “fabulous, fabulous…”. My heart was beating, I was thinking he thought only my pictures were fabulous, but in fact, almost everything for him was fabulous, he was a very curious person.
So I started to take pictures for music bands and Glenn O’Brien was writing about them in the music column of Interview magazine.
Bleek Magazine: So were you doing more documentary photography?
Edo Bertoglio: Actually, it came out as documentary. I photographed the whole époque, the whole scene.
I was a very lucky person to find myself in New York from 1976 to 1990. NY was full of opportunities; an artist could live very cheap in the East Village and Soho because the rents were very low.
Bleek Magazine: Your photo exhibition “New York Polaroids” is now on show here in Lugano, featuring portraits of iconic figures like Madonna and Andy Warhol. What kind of story do they tell us?
Edo Bertoglio: Obviously, Warhol was already a big star. He could be seen everywhere: in a discotheque (the famous “Studio 54”) or a small downtown music club like the “CBGB” in the East Village. He was a very curious person and to go out and see what the city was offering was also a way to be inspired for his work.
My picture of him holding a Polaroid Big Shot is a leitmotif of that period. I was also lucky to see the beginning of many careers: Madonna’s (I photographed her in November 1983), Debbie Harry (Blondie) in 1977 and many other musicians and artists. We sort of grew together.
A few months ago, when Marco Antonetto (the owner of the Photographica Fine Art gallery) and I opened my box of about 300 polaroids, I realized I had a treasure there. My idea now is to come back to my archives, because there are so many pictures I haven’t seen since the moment they were taken, which will be possibly published in another book later…
Bleek Magazine: The size of the exhibited prints is bigger than the actual size of polaroid snapshots, but their white passe-partouts totally imitate the originals. Was it the curator’s idea?
Edo Bertoglio: That was Mr. Antonetto’s idea. I thought it would be nice, because I had the pictures scanned and it was incredible that in bigger size they kept their own thing, still looking like polaroids even if they were not.
Bleek Magazine: In New York you were surrounded by present and future celebrities, in other words extraordinary and talented people. How did they influence your creative work?
Edo Bertoglio: It’s a very difficult question. You know I’m very instinctive person, I have something that brings me to do this or that… I’m addicted to faces, I can “fall in love” with a face I see on the street, its structure, the mouth and the soul of the face – the eyes, these elements all talk to me.
To me NY back then meant a huge catalog of faces, some were or became famous.
Bleek Magazine: Which of the photographs you’ve made do you like best?
Edo Bertoglio: I like all of them. To me I’m the best (laughing). I see many works other artists do and I’m taken by them, but each time I come back to mine I get very emotional, because they are not just pictures they are my life with the good moments but also with the bad ones with the loss of friends and people I knew so well and who died of drug use and AIDS.
Bleek Magazine: Did you always have strong connection with the personalities whose pictures you were taking?
Edo Bertoglio: It’s more a case of an emotional connection with many of them which I cannot always explain in a proper way. I’m an emotional person, possibly sensitive and very superficial (smiling).
Bleek Magazine: Normally it is impossible for a photographer to achieve a certain result without a big work on selection.
Edo Bertoglio: It is important to understand that selection is really the biggest part of the photographer’s work, you are right. Before saying, “yes, it’s this one” sometimes you have to take hundreds of photos. I like to interact before and after a shooting. I’m in love with my subject. Of course, it is not the same love that I feel for my wife. My wife taught me to understand what serenity is and to be in peace with myself…
Bleek Magazine: Your latest exhibition is a retrospective polaroid series. If we talk about digital and analogue cameras, what would you prefer?
Edo Bertoglio: 90% of my pictures are analogue. Film has always been in my life, since I was 15. I actually started taking pictures after I saw the movie “Blow Up” by Michelangelo Antonioni, I was captured by this film. Many people of my generation wanted to become photographers only because they saw that movie… Of course, I have to give way to modernity, it’s insane to refuse digital because of what it is. It is not really important how you do it: analogue has its soul, black and white has its soul, digital and polaroid also. Five years ago, I asked myself if I wanted to switch to a digital camera. At the beginning I had a feeling I was betraying something, but it was ridiculous, it just took a bit of time. Like to turn a page in your life.
But I firmly believe that if the picture is not printed it does not exist (or will not exist in the future)!
Actually, the Polaroid company does not produce film anymore but the Impossible Project does and it’s having success with young people and we’re seeing a revival of polaroid cameras. One way analog is still around!
Bleek Magazine: Is it the same as to read a book on paper and to switch one day to a digital device?
Edo Bertoglio: Yes. But I still prefer to read books on paper. The first thing I do, buying a new book, is smell it. I love the smell of paper And it doesn’t need a battery or a charger (laughing). We are living in a digital world, but I still do not have a website, facebook page, and twitter, all this is not for me.
I print and do exhibitions or publications.
Bleek Magazine: You have a big archive of photos taken 20-30 years ago. What the next exhibition will be dedicated to?
Edo Bertoglio: There is a series of black and white pictures of a motorcycle gang, a tough one. I was lucky to photograph it because I knew a girl, who was a stripper and her boyfriend was actually the gang boss, he later became the president of the New York Hells Angels chapter. I photographed him and his friends just the day after there was a big flood in Queens so they were busy getting their bikes out of the water.
There will be a selection of 22 or 23 works printed 60 x 60 cm.
Since I was 18, I have this passion for motorcycles and I definitely want to make this exhibition.
Bleek Magazine: Is there any project you would like to realize but do not have time to?
Edo Bertoglio: There are many projects that I have in mind but don’t realize. That is a part of the artistic approach to life. Sometimes, it doesn’t mean that if you have a project it is going to be complete. When you do a selection, you might see that you didn’t work enough or the project is not consistent and valid, and you just let it go. Sometimes, you let it go before you start.
Bleek Magazine: What would you suggest to the young artists?
Edo Bertoglio: I have the feeling that nowadays the young artists know what to do. I’m saying that because I’m a kind of a vintage person, looking back at what we did I realize that the world has changed so much, became much more professionalized.
Back then, in that New York I knew, there was no difference between having fun and working. We were not thinking of making serious money and the idea of becoming famous was a sort of a game we could play.
I feel I have nothing to say to them, except two things: to have a burning passion about what they do and to get up, get out, travel and explore our world.
© Bleek Magazine. Interviewer: Victoria Zhivotneva.
You can buy the book “New York Polaroids” on Yardpress website.