Divina Bugatti. How it started
The first time I shot cars was in 1991 for an assignment from Bugatti Automobili and Franco Maria Ricci Publisher. I had to photograph the twenties and thirties Bugattis for a book, “Divina Bugatti.” This book became later a reference in automotive publishing.
The beginning was very hard; I had to shoot on location at Musée National de l’Automobile at Mulhouse, Alsace, France, but… let me tell my story.
Franco Maria Ricci and Romano Artioli
In 1991, I was working for Bugatti Automobili. One day Franco Maria Ricci, who already desired to celebrate the myth of the Bugatti, suggested to Romano Artioli, the company owner, the idea of a book on the legendary brand. They reached an agreement, and the plan went through. Naturally, Artioli mentioned “the best photographer in the word” to Ricci, actively encouraging my candidacy for the job. Ricci, as expected, was skeptical. “I have my photographers, ones I trust,” he said with a half smile. The persistence of Artioli gained me a meeting with Ricci. “Go and take a few shots; we’ll see,” he said to get rid of me.
A cold night in Alsace
I felt well-equipped on my departure. 145 different accessories in the trunk of my car. For months, I had been working on how to build a mobile set around a Bugatti, on location. Before violating that holy ground, I carried out a test: I photographed a modern car in a large shed. It worked, so I decided to go ahead.
After arriving at the National Museum of Automobiles at Mulhouse in Alsace (among the others 155 Bugattis are kept there), I started my nocturnal marathon. In the dangling atmosphere, in the eery silence, I came face to face with the Divine. The situation reminded me of one of Hemingway’s stories: the bull and the bullfighter still before the charge. I was almost worried that the steel muscles could explode, at any time, in all their power and the beast within could run me over like a train. I had an emotional outburst; I felt like I had a fever. As a robot, I kept shooting and opening Polaroids. I was looking at Her, but I could not see inside Her. Fatigue and tension made everything even more dramatic. “What am I doing in France, in the middle of the night, in the dark of a museum? Why didn’t I stay at home?”, I started thinking.
The turning point
All of a sudden I had reached the turning point: I opened yet another Polaroid, but this time I found the courage to look at it through a photographer’s eye. I had recognized Her, the Divine, in all her dazzling beauty. “I am yours. Only you will be able to own me”, she was saying. I started dancing like I was in the middle of the Rio de Janeiro carnival parade. I didn’t feel tired anymore. “I did it!”, I said, my voice echoing in the empty museum. I had finally gotten a hold of the situation. I had jumped on the wild horse, and I was riding as a Native American would.
The Presentation in Milan
I arrived at Franco Maria Ricci’s, feeling confident and appearing as cold-blooded as a contract killer. I knew I was in the presence of one of the most refined editors the world had ever seen, but I also knew that I could not fail: if he had any taste at all – and it could not be otherwise – he could not still be indifferent after seeing my work.
Ricci received me with a smile that was more gentle than polite. The smile you would give a child who is showing you their drawing. After his eyes had settled on the first photo, his expression changed and suddenly brightened. “But they are… lit!” he whispered to himself. “Of course they are! Did you think I would bring you the dark ones?” I answered in a friendly yet amused manner. It felt like I was watching from the outside as if I were the spectator to a film. Franco Maria Ricci picked up the phone. “Come and look at something sensational!” he said and then ran down the corridor enthusiastically. “Call the others and tell them to come to my office!” He looked at me excitedly in front of all his associates, as if I were a superhero, and offered me some incredible projects: on Spanish baroque style, on medieval armor, about the city of Parma, and on French cabinet-makers. He had just assigned me all his future projects.
I had managed to impress Franco Maria Ricci, the king of aesthetics! To think that only a few years before, it was just me and my camera lens!
See here how I worked
The basic concept is very simple. A white screen, larger as possible with two-four lights, possibly fresnel spotlights placed at the bottom of the screen to model the car with highlights and give structure to the image. Two more lights, spot or flood, set at the beginning of the screen to provide a basic fill lighting and color.
In Mulhouse 1991 and Castiglione 2009, the great star was the Avenger Butterly Modular Frame; it’s one of my workhorses. I use it as an immense reflector with a special white textile usually used for painted backgrounds in the film industry. Together with my Arri fresnel spotlights, it allows me ultra-fine lighting control on location. Because it’s modular and detachable, it fits in the trunk of my car. It’s fast to set up and fold out, ready to mount on stands in a few minutes. I usually used the 20×20 feet – 600×600 cm. version.
Read more about Bugatti and automotive shooting on location