An accomplished jewelry designer—first with Anthias (founded by Japanese designer Natsuko Toyofuku) and then on her own—Monica Castiglioni has always cultivated a passion for photography, both in her design activity and as personal artistic expression. In recent years, this passion has turned her curious and experimental gaze to the city of New York and its public space. Her subjects are not the results of meticulous research but are, rather, serendipitous discoveries made by walking through the alleys and desolate streets among the old factories and historic buildings of Tribeca just south of Canal Street. Perhaps, however, she portrays the most photographed city in the world in a unique way thanks to a watchful eye that looks down (instead of up towards the sky as is most common in New York) to capture fragments; creating, in a spontaneous, almost accidental way, a faithful and comprehensive portrayal of the downtown neighborhood (where Monica lives when she's in the city) currently undergoing profound change. She is careful to point out that her pictures are not Photoshopped or cropped; they are no more and no less than what the lens was able to capture at a given point in time. At Galleria Francesco Zanuso in Milan, Monica Castiglioni presents more than forty images selected from the more than one hundred photographs in her book, A Glimpse in the Puddle (Charta, 2008).
Elena Sommariva: Can you tell us how you started your work as a photographer?
Monica Castiglioni: I've taken pictures forever—for my postcards, jewelry catalogues... I've always done it. Several years ago, I had a show in Williamsburg and another one in Milan. I've always worked as a photographer and as a jewelry designer. Recently though, photography has become somewhat freer and has found its own autonomous direction.
Tell us about the New York seen through your puddles?
It's hard for me to describe my work; I take pictures so I don't have to use words. These images have even more distant origins. A few years ago I started photographing crosswalks. I chose crosswalks because I think they are some of the most public things that exist. I was doing some work on streets at the suggestion of Cindy Allen, editor of Interior Design, and for the Design Trust for Public Space of New York; I also participated in a benefit with my photographs. It was then that I "fell" into a puddle and I haven't gotten up yet. The funny thing about puddles is that you see them and notice them even if you avoid them. In New York where the weather is highly variable, there are always puddles.
The work on puddles is a bit less abstract than your previous work (pedestrian crossings, streets) perhaps because the buildings' reflections help identify specific places. You might say that it's a different way of observing public space.
Yes, and incidentally this kind of public space is disappearing from the city. Many historic buildings are being demolished to build other things and the usual approach is to show less concern for public space. In this sense, my images contain a rather nostalgic view of a New York that is vanishing; the last rays of something that soon will no longer exist.
Have you done research in this direction?
No, there is no research. My work always comes about randomly. I develop things after I come upon them by chance. In the past year and a half in New York, I was able to see for myself how many buildings were being destroyed. There was an acoustic pain and the pain of not seeing any kind of worthwhile reconstruction. I think it's pretty terrifying. In New York everything changes with incredible speed, but I see no change for the better. It's the last gasp of a memory of something that is very beautiful to me.
And the problem doesn't only concern New York. The same thing is happening all over the world. Situations that have solid roots are being distorted in favor of money and an ephemeral world. In Soho, all the small shops are closing; they were the greatest thing about the neighborhood.
Yours is a labor of detail.
This is also an approach I use in my jewelry design, or even more in general. Detail is perhaps the thing that interests me most. I have always preferred detail over the more general aspect of things. You can easily delete what doesn't interest you or what you don't like and focus on a detail.
Quite a homogeneous and complete image of the neighbourhood emerges from so many details.
You can find some interesting subjects when you play on details. These old buildings, a certain light...You can recognize downtown with your eyes shut. I want to point out that I used only a small compact camera, a Canon G9, and I didn't use Photoshop. Even the frame isn't cropped; every shot is definitive.
New York—A Glimpse in the Puddle
12–25 October 2011
Galleria Francesco Zanuso
Corso di Porta Vigentina 26, Milano
Monica Castiglioni lives in Milan and New York. In her Milan workshop/studio, she designs and displays bronze, silver, pearl, quartz and amber jewelry that is appreciated around the world. She has published two books with Charta: Anthias, with a foreword by Paola Antonelli and A Glimpse in the Puddle, with an introduction by Uscha Pohl. She has exhibited her work at Milk Gallery and the Rafael Viñoly Studio in New York and at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.