|Davi Russo, photographer and director|
"I'm usually the one asking the questions," I said at some point during our conversation at the bar. After exchanging a comment about the song that was playing and commiserating over both being a dying breed—native New Yorkers—we drank and talked about art, photography, sex and beauty ideals. We saw each other again at his exhibit and book release, "Turns" at Munch Gallery. Returning to the restaurant where we first met, it was my turn to ask the questions.
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I’m Davi Russo and I work as a photographer and director and I make pictures. I guess I like to think of myself as someone that is a maker of things.
How long have you been a photographer?
Well, my mother gave me photography but in like a natural way. When I was 7 years old, she gave me my first camera – she gave me actually 2 cameras – she gave me an old Kodak 110 camera, the film looks like a little telephone, and she gave me a Polaroid 600 series camera. My job was to kinda be the family photographer because my father was incarcerated around that time and so my mother realized that we’d be sending photographs to him through the mail. I think she was very smart about understanding that if she gave me this assigned role it was probably an ego boost for me as a young man, you know, and it gave me something good to do. I’m sure that my father adored having those pictures sent … so that’s how I was introduced to photography. It wasn’t like I studied it or something like that.
Well you kinda answered my next question because I wanted to know if there was a moment or that first image that you may have captured that let you know, ok, this is something I want to do…
Hmm… well I think my Mom gave me photography… it’s funny because photographer is like a role, right? It’s like a job title or something and I still don’t consider myself a photographer because I didn’t study it. I like photography; I like the act of it and I like pictures, I like making pictures, but I think a photographer is somebody that makes their living by going out and making pictures and I don’t necessarily do that. I do flirt in it and I do get paid to make pictures occasionally but I’m not a full-time photographer and I don’t know if I necessarily aspire to be that.
But to try to answer your question, I think it wasn’t a picture… I have two hands in photography. I have a left hand where I get assigned or paid to make a commercial photograph and then I have a right hand which is the hand I make pictures for me. On the left hand I was commissioned to actually work as a photographer, around 26 years old, and my first assignment was for Nike, a television series that would play on MTV and I was the set photographer. I was embedded on a film set, I’d say for about a month and made pictures on a daily basis. On the other side, making pictures for myself, I don’t think it was necessarily a picture, I think it was the idea that I wanted to make a photography book because it was like making a movie and I really had the desire to make a series of pictures.
As of this interview, what’s the last photo you’ve taken?
I took a picture this morning, walking the dog, of a group of planted flowers and plants in a pot behind a gate actually 2 blocks up. It’s on Instagram, I took that with my iPhone. That’s like my new affair now, Instagram. I’ve stayed away from those types of things for probably longer than I should’ve and I’m starting to really enjoy that. I found a place to become more prolific with making pictures and the iPhone and Instagram seem to be a really perfect place for me to make daily pictures. I mean I’m always making pictures but showing them or putting them out is like birthing them in a weird way.
Is there a vast difference between your commercial and personal work? Do you find that you have to try and balance the two?
Yeah, I mean, my personal work is self-providing, it’s what I wanna do and it’s very selfish. Commercial work is, of course, based along the line of there’s a job, there’s a project, there’s an idea, there’s something that needs to be communicated or expressed and honing in on what that thing is I think is ultimately what I consider the difference. If it’s personal, it’s my own personal expression and if it’s commercial, it’s trying to translate those ideas into expressions.
If there was one story you could tell through a photograph, what would that story be?
It’s about something transforming; I’m really attracted to the act of transformation. I really like when there’s awakenings or new chapters or something’s changed, you know, a metamorphous or becoming, an awareness, a confession, revelation – I like those things in pictures... I think I’m attracted a lot to those kinda themes and those are the things I really find exciting when making photographs.
Is there one emotion that you try to get out of your subjects? Is there one emotion that you want to capture when you’re making pictures?
I mean, making pictures, for me, is about the construction of the self-portrait so I’m always looking for things that I identify with myself whether they’re old things I know or new things I know and I’m trying to find those things in the people I photograph. I’m looking for mirrors. I’m looking for things to flirt with disaster or to be narcissistic, to be sure of something, or to explore something I don’t know. I find that that’s what I look for when I choose people I wanna make pictures with; they have to be willing to kinda gamble something or go for something or have to be willing to put something out there and I think because that’s what I wanna do. The act of making pictures, sometimes, with a person is an enabling factor I find to encourage someone to “go there”, to do it or to feel it or to face it or confront it.
What’s one of the first things you want to know or learn about someone when you meet them?
I’m pretty nosy. I like to know a lot of sexual things about people. Yeah… I like to know if they like fucking or how they like to get fucked or I like knowing their food habits. I like to know if they don’t like putting something in their mouth, what flavors they might not like. I like knowing kinda, sticky things about people, things that sometimes on a first date, let’s say, of meeting someone, could make someone definitely be turned off to my matter-of-factness or abrasiveness. I find that if we can get through that first date it’s probably gonna be a good relationship with that person because we’re probably in a similar tune and if not, it’s probably someone that’s maybe too prudish or someone that’s maybe too private or I’m just being a schmuck that day, I don’t know … (laughs)
Is there any eroticism in your work?
Yeah, there’s a lot.
There’s a lot. What’s the purpose of it?
I like looking, you know, and I think, photography allows me to confront and photofuck things that I might not normally be able to in my real life. It’s a passport into eroticism, I don’t know, it’s like a dildo or something. The camera’s a funny thing with certain people and, so, like you could talk about this for days but there’s a lot of death and eros in photography, right? There’s the act of preserving something, the act of holding on to something that’s like dying, the moment that’s passing, the whole philosophy that Ronald Barthes and Susan Sontag and all those people talk about. I’m in tune with that and I like that ideology but it think it’s Nobuyoshi Araki, a photographer I like a lot, who really talks a lot about how the sky and the flowers are the most erotic and beautiful things to be photographed because they’re the things that are always just being what they are, they’re never trying to be more erotic or more deathly or more beautiful than they naturally are, they’re just always being. Humans, we’re not just always being. We have a lot of alternative motives in things. I like to think of myself as an erotic person but sometimes my mind is more erotic than my real life game so I like the nature of photography as the entry point into erotic flirtations and makings…
In any language, what is your favorite word, and why?
I think I like the word chotto dake, it’s a Japanese word and it translates roughly to “just a peek” like “to take a peek” or “to have a small look”. “Chotto” is like small, “dake” is peek. Something like small peeking and I like that idea … and this goes back to the eros, the eroticism of photography or even just in real life, I find it extremely erotic when I just get a peek of something and that could be me on the train getting a peek at the sweat running behind a girl’s ear or, you know of course, the classic panties shot of a girl running up the stairs or just looking across the street out my window and seeing naked bodies in other windows with the blinds halfway [open]… that’s super erotic to me and it’s because there’s the act of peeking which means I’m not supposed to be looking but also the act of not seeing something completely full. I think that that word maybe translates into “peeping” here, in English, and peeping just feels very negative as a word, it feels like "Peeping Tom" but I’m fine with it being a negative word, but I don’t associate peeping as a negative thing. I think we all kinda peep and we all kinda take a peek into things. Peek is what I like. Yeah I like peeking in real life and I like peeking in work.
What’s the most useless piece of advice you’ve received?
I have to say I’ve had really good mentors along the way and I’ve been blessed…
Ok what’s the most useful advice you’ve received?
I don’t know. It’s so easy to be cliché and corny, I’ve been given good advice as well from mentors and people around the way. Useless piece of advice? I’d like to talk about that… I think that when people are done with things that they should move on, whether that means they’ve actually succeeded that thing or they haven’t. I think that useless piece of advice would be to someone “oh you have to keep trying to do the thing”, succeed, and I don’t necessarily think that one person’s idea of succeeding meets another person’s criteria of it so… that’s not really answering the question…
Yeah it is. The advice that you have to keep going…
Sometimes you don’t. Sometimes you just have to change instead of keep going and so the idea of just “keep doing it, you’ll get better at it”, it’s like well you might not necessarily be interested in it or you might not necessarily wanna get better at it, that’s OK. So yeah, somebody’s idea of doing the same thing over and over and over and over until their idea of success, I think that’s in a sense slightly useless.
Red or Blue?
Any reason why?
I mean, there’s hundreds of reasons, I don’t know, I could’ve said red as well.
Right, but you said blue.
Why did I say blue today… I don’t know, my mind gets bombarded with ten thousand things…
Aight, I want you to complete this statement: If my muse were an animal, it would be…
I’m gonna need to know why.
OK, because they wanna be photographed. Because they want to have a relationship. They wanna give you something, they share a part of themselves that’s endearing and loving and they have a gaze that I find quite attractive and I look for it. I have a dog and I photograph him. I don’t consider him a dog, I consider him a part of my family and so I think when I photograph people, I like to think that as well - that they’re parts of me and it’s the gaze well maybe the dog becomes more because of the gaze…
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