For nearly 20 years, Arianna Rinaldo has let photography guide her path around the world, from her beginnings at the New York Magnum office to positions with the magazine COLORS, the weekend supplement D La Repubblica, and the quarterly magazine OjodePez. Most recently, Rinaldo has served as artistic director and curator of two international photography festivals based in Italy—“Cortona On The Move,” based in Cortona, Tuscany and “PhEST: See Beyond the Sea,” based in Monopoli, Puglia.
Throughout her journey, Arianna has learned invaluable lessons about the importance of editing, the value of detachment and relativity as well as the appeal of “new visions” of the world. Learn more in this extended conversation between Arianna and Alexander Strecker.
[Cover photo: Andrea Frazzetta/INSTITUTE, courtesy Cortona On The Move]
LC: You never studied photography in a formal setting. Where did you spend your foundational years with the medium? What is the basis of how you engage with images?
AR: Yes, you’re right, I had no academic training in the practice of photography, its history or criticism. My first degree was in classical Chinese, perhaps the farthest possible subject from the medium (well, not quite—Chinese is a very visual language…!).
In any case, my formative years were spent in the archives of Magnum, in New York. I was the director of the archives in the last era when the archive was still dominated by prints and slides. I “grew up” (professionally speaking) with all of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s contact sheets behind my desk! At that time, we had a whole team dedicated to filing and organizing the material, researching pictures, receiving requests by fax, and so on. I’m very happy I saw that world before it disappeared. I was steeped in the basics from the beginning—but at a very high level.
After that, I moved back to Italy. Since nobody in the photography world knew me in Italy, again I found myself engaged with the foundations of photography in the magazine world. I ended up as a photo editor at COLORS magazine at a time when the publication had a big budget and an unparalleled degree of editorial freedom. The artistic directors at the time were Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin. We were producing a contemporary magazine that used a totally different visual language to look at the world. The work we commissioned was the opposite of Magnum, which at that time was still the height of traditional photojournalism.
My mind was completely opened by these two experiences: nearly four years at Magnum as a base followed by nearly four years at COLORS that took me to the other end of the spectrum. This was a great pair of imprints that instilled in me the breadth and range of what is possible with photography.
After COLORS, I freelanced for a while and eventually ended up at D La Repubblica, a major Italian weekend supplement. This is where I learned to contend with the real world. We were still publishing strong work, but there was also advertising, page limits, an art director, an editorial director, a bunch of different teams and needs that had to be balanced. The product was not just what I wanted but what the magazine wanted to say.
Eventually, I was pulled towards curating, which is what I (mostly) do today. But I still think of myself as a photo editor, deep down. Really, that’s what I do: I edit work. I believe that editing is the basis of everything. Whether you’re an archive director, photo editor, curator or photographer, it’s all about editing, sequencing, choosing the right picture for the right medium, for the particular space, in that exact moment.
LC: Clearly editing is at the bedrock of how you work. How did you learn to edit? How can it be taught?
AR: As you may have guessed from my career, I learned to edit through my variety of professional experiences. In the archive, for example, I learned to edit with a very open mind, since you never know where an image might end up next year or next decade—in a museum retrospective or in an advertising campaign, or anywhere in between. At COLORS, where I was commissioning original work, the context was completely different again. Later at the weekend supplement, where we bought already-made stories, the challenge was to adapt them to the limits of our format. This was my editing gym.
To help others with editing, I offer a workshop called “The Art of Detachment” (I’m also a yoga teacher, which is another major influence on my photo-editing practice). The idea for the workshop came from the fact that in order to edit and sequence your work so other people can understand it, you need to step out of the story you’ve been working on to get a clearer perspective. It’s not easy! We become so attached to specific images, but we need to undergo this detachment process to be able to understand that other people will not have the same relation to the images. Very often, too much attachment will get in the way of clarifying the message of the project.
The other key to editing is to recognize it’s all about relativity. It’s relative to the platform—whether a gallery space, a church, one page, the cover image, online, on Instagram, in a book. But that’s what I love about the editing process—the ability to keep recreating the story, renovating it, finding the flexibility in the narrative to adapt it to different contexts. Your story can remain constant, but its transmissions must be sensitive to the various mediums in which it will occur.
This means that when photographers ask me, “Can you help me edit this work?” my first response is always “For what?” Sure, you need a basic edit for portfolio reviews or simply to start the conversation but after that, you must imagine the contexts for which you’re editing. I like to do an exercise with students—“You’re editing this for New York Times Magazine; or National Geographic; or your first gallery show, in a space that has four columns and this many linear meters of wall space and…”
It’s so important to be flexible with your understanding of your work. When someone tells me, “I always start with this image” or “I always end with this one,” I encourage them to ask why—what if you only have 3 pages? What if the space is circular? As I like to tell my students, there is no single, perfect edit—really, there is never “the one” of anything!
LC: As a curator of two festivals, you are always looking for fresh work and “new visions.” What are you looking for when thinking about emerging talents?
AR: Cortona On The Move and PhEST have different focuses, but the underlying interest is the same—I am always looking for interesting stories told in innovative, engaging ways. This has been true for me since the beginning. Whether at Magnum or at the different publications where I worked, I have always looked for “new visions.” At the magazines, I was always searching for familiar stories told in fresh ways—How do you offer insight into the Israel-Palestine conflict when we know (or think we know) the basic outline of that story so well?
Today, I continue to look for photographers who have the ability not only to see interesting things, but more importantly, to show them in an original manner. A surprising way of telling; an ability to communicate a message, a story, an emotion in an unexpected way. Maybe a punch in the stomach. Or using irony, or beauty. Whatever the tool is, I need to see you are making the effort to process and convey the information you’ve received in a striking manner. That is why I’m so interested in emerging talents: they tend to look at the world differently than what we’ve seen before.
Of course, the message still has to be clear! Don’t let novelty get in the way of communication. Beyond the excitement of the new, I make sure to ask: What is this photographer trying to say? What is the story they’re trying to tell? Why is it relevant now? It doesn’t have to be from the other side of the world; new stories can be told in your own bedroom. But in the end, think about how you are telling your story, to whom, and how you will achieve its diffusion to suit the content.
LC: Do you have any other advice for photographers, especially potential emerging talents who feel a bit unsure of themselves?
AR: Something I always like to emphasize is that “emerging talents” do not necessarily have to be young. There are many photographers who work for years in one method and then change paths, achieving great results as a result. One good example is Donald Weber, whose project “War Sand” was exhibited at Cortona in 2017. Weber began his photographic career as a photojournalist (and before that, studied architecture). Early on, he traveled to Ukraine and was photographing the protests and obvious centers of attention. Very quickly, he realized that this wasn’t the story he wanted to tell. He turned around and started looking behind the scenes. It was when he turned around that he discovered that much more interesting things were happening. So: always be open to changing your vision, your approach, your intended goal. Remain aware of what’s going on—including what’s behind you! Move that neck, turn your head!
In terms of education and inspiration, you can imagine that I don’t always advocate a formal route. In some cases it’s necessary: to learn how to light a fashion shoot, you need to get down some technical basics. But you can learn so much from workshops, assisting photographers, or simply working out in the world. I also advise going to festivals, visiting exhibitions, looking at books, following platforms like LensCulture.
But after all that, take some time to sit back and think about who you are and the things that particularly interest you. As I said, you don’t have to go around the world. Think about whom you want to speak to, who is your preferred audience. Is it just “the photo-world?” If so, make a small-run artist’s book that will only reach a few people with a maximum impact. If you want a broader audience, maybe you should put your work online or in a newspaper. Never fixate on one platform or one medium or one result. Not all work has to be an exhibition or a book. It’s important to have models— photographers who have had a path that attracts you or bodies of work that inspired you—but then go off on your own. Set your intentions and see where they take you.
—Arianna Rinaldo, interviewed by Alexander Strecker