``What will become the image already exists in space and form. The photographer doesn’t create the final image but rather captures or reveals it``
Rich Stapleton is a photographer and artist based in the UK and is also the creative director of CEREAL magazine. His photography focuses on the subjects of travel, style and still life — each image imbued with his signature style of calm, refined elegance.
During his residency at Numeroventi, Rich studied the relationship between the body and classical sculpture, a concept that was developed after spending time in the marble quarries of Carrara, where the tradition of Humanist sculpture began centuries ago. In 1497, at the age of only twenty-two, Michelangelo himself ascended these mountains on horseback in order to procure the marble necessary to sculpt his masterpiece, the Pietà.
These trips to Carrara and the city of Florence made Rich contemplate the correlation between raw natural marble and its eventual expression, the human body perfected by art. Thus his project here at Numeroventi, aptly titled Forma, is a fascinating distillation of Renaissance grandeur through the grace of his photographic eye.
Interview with Rich Stapleton
Numeroventi: What is the part of your job that excites you the most?
Rich Stapleton: I love discovering a new side of myself through photography. Whether it is unfamiliar subject matter, or simply an experience that has had an effect on me, taking photographs makes me question my way of seeing the world, and I observe my artistry developing as a result of that. This opportunity can come in many shapes and forms, but travelling is the most noticeable. Seeing new things opens up different perspectives and shifts your frame of mind, altering the way in which you view the world.
N: How has your time in Florence inspired you?
R: Florence is a fascinating city. The opportunity to spend time amongst the art, to walk its streets and feel the history of the city in person, has provided me with an infinite source of inspiration during my stay, and certainly had an impact on the way I approached the residency. The city helped me evaluate what had come before, guiding my creative path. It has made me consider the way I produce photos, making me much more aware of the significance of the story behind them, not just the final result.
N: How does your practice as a photographer merge with your work as creative director of CEREAL magazine?
R: The two are very intertwined and at the same time very separate; it’s somewhat of a symbiotic relationship. The work I do at Cereal, both as a photographer and director, influences me as an independent photographer and vice versa. It’s a great privilege to work on the magazine in a creative capacity alongside other photographers. Stepping back to achieve something collaboratively has made me more conscious of the way in which I take photos myself, and that in turn helps me to be a better creative director. It’s a very cyclical process. I’ve been shooting for Cereal ever since we launched the magazine in 2012 and, as the magazine has grown, so has my role in the overall creative vision. In consequence, my role as a photographer for Cereal has naturally become less prominent, while my practice as a photographer outside Cereal has grown. It’s an interesting balance.
N: What is FORMA and what was your initial idea for the project?
R: Forma means form or shape in Latin (as well as in Italian). It is the title of the body of work I created at Numeroventi, which explores the relationship between the human body and the raw material of classical sculpture through the medium of photography. I wanted to approach the subject of the body in the same way that a sculptor might. My goal was to learn from sculpture and convey the way that the subject extends into space, as if I was sculpting from marble; to look at shapes and forms in that light and to show the human body as if it were a sculpture. During my time in Florence, learning more about the works and approach of sculptors like Michelangelo, I found myself following their methodology – visiting the marble quarries, selecting suitable materials and working with a live model – in order to create something representative of the same human form and spirit they were trying to capture.
'My goal was to learn from sculpture and convey the way that the subject extends into space, as if I was sculpting from marble'
Another aspect that developed organically was the echo of the human form in the raw marble itself. According to Michelangelo: “The sculpture is already complete within the marble block, before I start my work. It is already there, I just have to chisel away the superfluous material” This could also apply to photography: what will become the image already exists in space and form. The photographer doesn’t create the final image but rather captures or reveals it. I often thought about that during the process of Forma. Shooting the marble quarries first, followed by the model, and then revisiting the quarries, I saw so many forms that reflected each other. Although it was not my original vision for the show, in the end it felt natural to pair images of marble and the human form side by side, and it was the process itself that revealed this.
'My favorite approach is presenting a classical subject in a modern way, which involves rediscovering, reinterpreting and appreciating everything that’s come before'
N: Has working in Florence and at Numeroventi influenced your method?
At Numeroventi I worked and slept in the same space for three weeks. That allowed me to connect with my surroundings, to think about the light and to settle into a routine and a different way of shooting. Usually I would be in the same location for no more than a week, and the same space for only a day or two. The beauty of spending a more extended period in Florence was that I could allow its energy and customs to take hold. I loved having an espresso at the bar in the mornings, pasta and a glass of wine for lunch, and generally getting into the spirit of daily life. Having time to shoot one subject over that period also had an effect on my approach; I considered my environment and subject matter in greater depth. The residency’s greatest influence was to make me evaluate the reasons behind taking photographs, rather than striving towards the best image from a purely visual perspective.
N: As a reader of CEREAL Magazine, I’ve observed your change in style towards more classical topics. Would you elaborate on this evolution?
R: I think when I started the magazine with Rosa [Rosa Park] the things we wanted to share and discuss were inclined towards the modern end of the spectrum. As time has gone on we have been increasingly drawn to those things that have stood the test of time. Something is classic for a reason: it has been through numerous cycles and trends and has still managed to stay true. Over time I have realised that modern and classical subjects are actually well suited to one another and there can be an intersection, or balance, of the two. My favourite approach is presenting a classical subject in a modern way, which involves rediscovering, reinterpreting and appreciating everything that’s come before, then taking it a step further so it evolves and becomes relevant for today. More and more, I’m drawn to the classical, especially in art and furniture. I wouldn’t say it’s a change of style, but rather a rediscovered appreciation for those things and finding ways to align them with Cereal’s style. It’s about harmony between modern and classical.
'I was always shaping the subject matter, so the subject matter couldn’t shape me. I was missing the essence and feeling of things. I have learned to be more relaxed in my environment and more intuitive'
N: Could you describe your evolution as a photographer from the first volume of CEREAL to its current, sixteenth volume?
R: I have evolved enormously as a photographer since Cereal Volume 1, and you’ll see that if you compare volumes 1 and 16. There has been a maturation over time, probably because I am getting older and the fact that during the span of those 16 volumes I have travelled the world, which has had a profound impact on me. My photography used to be highly controlled; I had an idea of the particular frame and the particular style I wanted to produce. This helped me achieve a certain consistency but it stopped me being in the moment; I was always shaping the subject matter, so the subject matter couldn’t shape me. I was missing the essence and feeling of things. I have learned to be more relaxed in my environment and more intuitive, and I think as a result my photographs now have more feeling. My photography has since become grounded and I now feel comfortable allowing myself to be influenced, rather than having to influence every situation, which I think is an important distinction.
N: What is your relationship with Instagram?
R: I used to be more involved with Instagram in the early stages, but now it’s quite a simple relationship; it’s merely a platform on which to share my work. I think it’s important not to look at social media as a final destination or to allow it to shape the way you take photos. Photographs should be created for their own sake. As this residency was an extended project, and in many ways an antithesis to social media sharing, it allowed me to take a step back from that side of things, which was refreshing. That being said, it doesn’t mean the two can’t be integrated in a thoughtful way. For me the most important lesson I’ve learned through using Instagram and other social media channels, is to ensure that the platform doesn’t become a reason for making the work.
N: Where do you find inspiration and which artists inspire you the most?
R: I find inspiration in many places, but I’ve become better at recognising it and applying it to my work. During this residency I was inspired by Michelangelo as an artist, by Carlo Scarpa as an architect and Gio Ponti as a designer. I also read more of the writings of a photographer whom I find very inspirational, Luigi Ghirri. The people who inspire me change and evolve over time, but I had these four figures in my mind during the creation of Forma.
N: If you started another career in a creative field what would you choose to do and why?
R: I think I would be an architect. I studied engineering and ever since then architecture has fascinated me. As a photographer, architecture has also been featured prominently in my body of work. I think being involved in the creation of objects, if you can call them that, that have such an important impact on daily living, and that can potentially last for centuries, is an enticing professional proposition.
N: What advice would you give to someone that intends to be a photographer?
R: My advice would be to take your time. Travel to places that you love with your camera. If there’s a subject matter you love, show the way you feel about it through photography, show the way you see it. Over time you will develop style and instinct. I think one of the most important things for a photographer to have is a recognisable style. I’d also say, use whatever equipment you have at your disposal. You can create incredible images with a basic camera; some of my best photos were taken with an iPhone. Don’t feel like you need to have with a professional kit to begin. The most important thing is training your eye and teaching yourself to translate what you see into an image; that’s a skill you only develop by taking photographs.