IN CONVERSATION WITH FEDERICO QUINTANA
The photojournalist Federico Quintana was born In Italy but grew up with an Argentine passport due to his father's line of work. He discovered photography in his teens as a way to freeze memories that impressed him. It quickly became a direct means of communication for him and the decision to make photography his profession soon followed. After studying journalism and photojournalism, Federico focuses on editorial, wildlife, documentary and human interest work mostly, also working on personal projects in the Bolivian Andes, documenting people, from salt and tin miners to remote indigenous tribes. He has covered a lot of miles in Patagonia, northern Argentina and China. Lately, he has been consolidating his documentary work mostly in analogue during the 90s with the more recent work in digital.
In this interview for The Pictorial List, Federico speaks to us about his time in Patagonia, Antarctica and China and the conception of his projects and the issues at the heart of his work.
Tell us a bit about yourself, how did you become interested in photography?
I was born in Trieste, Italy in 1966. My mother was Austrian/Italian and my father was an Argentinian career diplomat. Because of my father’s line of work I received at the time only the Argentine passport. My father was stationed in Indonesia. There was great political instability, so my mother came to Italy temporarily. Shortly after, my father was transferred to Beirut, Lebanon and so was I, at three months of age.
We stayed in Lebanon the first six years of my life and as a result my first language is French. From that point onward we continued to move around the world. It was two years in Moscow, two years in the Ivory Coast, back to Argentina under military regime and then Switzerland, when I was around eleven. I stayed in boarding school until the age of sixteen. My parents separated and my father returned to Argentina to follow his career while I ended up in Paris, France with my mother and finished my studies at the American High School of Paris.
At nineteen I moved to Arizona where I had friends and worked in construction while studying computer science at a technical school in Phoenix. I was already photographing a lot at the time with my first camera, an old Canon FT that my father had given me a few years earlier. My AA degree in computer science was from an accelerated program that lasted one year instead of two but during that time I had met the owner of an Aerial Survey and Photography company who offered me a job if I wished to return.
I also discovered that Arizona State University had one of the best Journalism Schools in the States in addition to being the only one offering a photojournalism emphasis program. I had at this time decided I wanted to become a war photographer, and at the same time I had also requested to the Italian government my birthright citizenship, so in response they called me back to Italy for military service. Because of my interest in war photography, I volunteered as Airborne and subsequently in Alpine Airborne Rangers 'Special Forces', as I wanted to get proper training for conflict situations.
After finishing my military service I returned to Arizona for my B.A. in Journalism and Mass Communications and a Photojournalism emphasis. I worked my way through University with 'Landiscor Aerial Survey' in Phoenix, where I had every job available in the company at one point or another. Finally I returned to Italy for a short time before returning to the US to finish university and complete my degree. At this point I met the lady of my life who accompanied me back to Arizona for my last year and graduation. After this we married in Las Vegas, with only one condition on her behalf: “no war!” So would documentary work be okay, honey? Laura is of course still by my side. I wanted to move to Argentina and get to know my heritage... while growing up I had only lived there for two years and in the worst imaginable time of a military regime, which later culminated with the Falklands war.
We moved to Argentina in 1996, and the first thing I did was to travel to the Falklands for my first documentary work attempt, this resulted in an important exhibition at a major university in Buenos Aires where I met the owner at the time, of Lugares magazine. I soon started contributing with them and my photographic career began. After a year I decided I really wanted more knowledge in photography and returned to the US, this time in Santa Barbara, Ca. at Brooks Institute of Photography. I wanted a Masters degree and they had accepted my enrolment for two years. After six months, I had started at Brooks, the owner of Lugares sold the magazine to Argentine Newspaper La Nacion but remained as director and editor of the magazine. She offered me a position as staff photographer if I would return, so of course I did. Lugares magazine is a high level travel magazine inspired by Condé Nast Traveller, but mainly dedicates its coverage to the Argentine territory, although it also encompasses many world destinations. They do two special editions at opposite times of the year, one in Patagonia and one on the North of Argentina.
My first assignment as staff photographer for the magazine was the Patagonia edition. It lasted three weeks and Patagonia literally blew my mind and sunk in very deep. There are many similarities with Australia, so I think you might know what I mean. I just love the vastness, incredible beauty and intense loneliness you can experience in such places, it puts you in touch with yourself like nowhere else. I love the land, rivers glaciers and horses that play such an important role in that territory. I am also an avid fly fisherman and Patagonia never disappoints.
In the year 2000 my son Matteo was about to be born and the situation in Argentina was very bad, a terrible crisis was driving people away from the country and my position in the magazine was difficult, as the management had changed and they were requesting the rights to my images, which I could not accept. During a trip to Europe I went to visit SIPA/ PRESS - IMAGE in Paris, and they proposed a collaboration that I accepted.
Tell us about your first assignment to Patagonia?
Before leaving Argentina, on a short assignment about grey whales in Peninsula Valdés, halfway down the Patagonian territory I discovered a story that would keep me returning to that point for the following three years. In the northern tip of this peninsula lives a pod of Orcas that have developed a very specific sea lion hunting technique by stranding on the beaches to capture their prey, but my focus was on the park ranger who had developed a means of communication with these supreme animals with the use of a harmonica.
This has been my most important published work to date as it was featured in BBC Wildlife mag, which ran simultaneously with the major cinematography film production “The Blue Planet”. Animan magazine and many others also later published this work which was handled by Sipa during the times to follow. For the last year of the project I worked in stills and video because of the unique situation with the Orcas. My footage was later acquired by NGS Television for a documentary film.
During the years of this project I realised Peninsula Valdés was directly on the opposite side in Patagonia from the Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre mountains in el Chaltén, and you could access the Continental Ice Field from there. This is the world's largest ice field beyond Antarctica and only a few hours drive from Puerto Valdés. So I tagged along a proper self sustained expedition covering a good portion of the ice field during a twelve day hike on the ice.
In the end I left Argentina in the year 2000 and have been living in Italy ever since, but I kept my most important belonging there: my 1995 Toyota 4Runner, which has truly been a spaceship, going full length from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia at least 6 times throughout the years. It actually stayed in Ushuaia a full winter after the Antarctic expedition, as I had ran out of time and returned to Europe by plane. I recall calling the hotel that had kindly allowed me to use the parking lot, for information about my truck and for three months the reply was: "sorry we can’t see the vehicle under the snow"... I returned in the spring and drove the 3000 km back to Buenos Aires once more.
Antarctica is on a many photographers' bucket list. Describe seeing it through your lens for the first time.
The Antarctic assignment was for Lugares/Nacion, as they had proposed a book project on Patagonia with the images from all the assignments. The only missing territory was the Antarctic Peninsula, which in the time of Pangea when all the continents were attached was united to the tip of South America.
So for this project in 2010, I drove from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia where I embarked The MV Ushuaia for a 12 day voyage to the Antarctic Peninsula. Travelling to Antarctica is only possible during the summer months as at the end of March when winter approaches, the ice pack forms so hard it will trap any ship to remain there until the following summer when it melts again. I was on the last trip of the year before this happens. At that point Antarctica is alienated from the world as no means of transportation can reach the continent safely.
Antarctica is the coldest, farthest, most remote, most dangerous and most mysterious continent in the world. That was our intro, from our expedition leader the first day aboard the MV Ushuaia. The ship was not an ice breaker but the hull was specially reinforced for that purpose and the expedition was semi-scientific as we had wildlife and climate scientists onboard as well as a small group of fortunate passengers and the photographer...
What was your photographic process in your Antarctica series?
Although most assignment for the magazine where conducted together with a journalist, in this case I had to do both the writing and photography as there was only one spot available onboard.
This was 2010 and the digital world of photography had already taken over the disappearing film, but the only digital camera I owned was an Epson RD-1, which accepted my Leica lenses, not very useful for Antarctica. My main working equipment at the time was a Nikon F5 and F100 along with 300 and 600mm lenses used for the Orcas project and a couple of short and medium zooms. Lugares gave me, literally, all their last film stock, about 30 or 40 rolls of Kodak V100S and Fuji Provia 100. On my earlier Patagonia assignments it was always a mix of Nikon and Leica M6.
Although Leica rangefinder M cameras have always been with me and my favourite photographic tool of all. They were in those years a complement to my gear as I was covering subjects that ranged from interior architecture with lots of artificial lighting to wildlife where rangefinders really don’t do too well. So because of my heavy weight gear in Antarctica the Leica’s remained at home.
The project in Antarctica was the last of my film photography with Nikon and the real long lenses, I still use Nikon today in digital for specific assignments but only if I really have too. The long lenses were replaced in 2015 for Leica M9-P’ and M Monochrom, after putting them to use for world championships of high speed motorcycles for a couple of years.
Do you have a favourite photograph from the series? What is it's story?
My favourite shots in Antarctica are the night shot of the MV Ushuaia as we are approaching the first islands in of the Antarctic peninsula, after crossing the terrible Drake passage and the shot of the snowy compass the following morning at first light.
The feeling of arriving at night in Antarctica was just very special and so was the incredible silence and power of the atmosphere at dawn. Hard to describe...
For Patagonia, the white horse being dragged to the ground by a gaucho is from my first trip to this territory, there was so much energy in that scene around me that I seriously risked being run over by the horse, it was a decisive moment for me. All are very subjective choices of course.
You also shared a series of photographs from China with us. Describe your time there.
My work in China has always been personal and therefore shot with my most natural and true vision about photography. I started travelling to China on my own in 1998 on a freelance self assignment to photograph a cultural worldwide event where China opened the doors to the Forbidden City, featuring Puccini’s Turandot Opera. This event had monumental proportions with Zubhin Metha as conductor and produced by Zhang Yimou. I had managed to get accredited at the Hilton international press room, but most importantly about the image process I decided to shoot with Leica M6 cameras and Kodachrome film. Consequently I stayed three months in China documenting, in Xi’an, Guilin, Shanghai Beijing, Li River and so forth. From the start I was very interested in the juxtaposition of the highly modern developing China and extremely rural and antique culture, even in the urban environment, spread over a period of 20 years, both with digital and analogue images. To me this work is about reflecting the way I saw through my lens then and now, while attempting to create a balance between the modern medium and the old.
In recent years I travelled throughout China on corporate assignments and shooting in parallel on my own. To me these images show my nature and approach to documentary and street photography but also the changes in time and the things I can improve.
What I mean, is that I’ve been searching for this colour combination and shooting style in the digital world but also kind of picking up from the best of my documentary photography from those years by applying it to what I am doing now, as a means to pave the direction in which I want to continue.
The Leica M6 combination was to me the ultimate as I had a passion for the ISO 64 Kodachrome, which was so picky in exposure and had a mild magenta shift, so difficult but so good at the same time if the light was right and there was something red in the image. The equally loved (low light) Kodachrome 200 was grainy but also so sharp and with a slight shift to orange. After all they were the favourite and most used film ever at National Geographic, and both had a very specific and unique fingerprint.
Do you have a favourite quote/lyric/saying that especially resonates with you?
The only quote that often resonates in my head is not exactly very nice... especially if one doesn’t know why... It is from a play by W. Shakespeare:
“No beast is so fierce that has no pity... But I am no beast and therefore have none”.
In Patagonia I once saw an Orca capture a sea lion pup on the beach and drag it out to sea, clearly for an easier kill. As the pup struggled for his life when she let go, instead of killing it the Orca accompanied the pup back to the beach almost nursing it and stayed a little on the shoreline to see it climb out of the water safely.
This event really blew my mind, I didn’t know such an apex predator could feel compassion, as that was exactly what it looked like. I wondered a lot about that and the perfect balance of things in nature. I also often compare human nature to this incredible act I had the privilege to witness.
Are there any books that you have read that have inspired your creativity and that you would like to recommend to us?
One of the most amazing stories and books ever, is the story of British explorer Ernest Shackleton who got trapped two winters in a row with an 80 men crew and managed to keep them alive and in good spirits without any human loss. An absolutely incredible human endeavour and adventure to save their lives. All recorded on large format camera by a great Australian photographer...I highly recommend this book 'Trial by Ice: A Photobiography of Sir Ernest Shackleton' about human courage and great adventure.
I love several photographers from National Geographic as well, but one in particular just was so cool that when I received the magazine, the first thing I would do is look for his name to see if he was inside....David Alan Harvey...he just was and still is fantastic, a true light chaser and amazing story teller with a flair and the most incredible visual acuity. I learned from his photography to “dare” and go beyond my shyness when approaching people shots. I learned that the image comes before all to a photographer and you can’t hold back, ever. If you want it you have to go get it! I learned from David that the great shots are always one step further than you think and always on the edge of failing! Any of his books are highly recommended.
But indisputably the most incredible photographer and man of all, must be Sebastiao Salgado, in the footsteps of Bresson. Salgado’s photography, humanity and sacrifice in life for this art form, goes beyond words, he might just be the best in the world.
I was very lucky to run into these guys in life at some point or another. Sebastiao Salgado showed up in Peninsula Valdés when I was shooting Orcas. He was working on a 5 year project for UNESCO, which encompasses this area in their protected territories. From Salgado anything... but early 'Terra', definitely gave me a lesson at the time.
In the year 2000 I met David Alan Harvey in Perpignan while attending “Visa pour l’Image”, as he was signing my copy of his book, 'Cuba' and recently in Puerto Rico for one of his workshops. His last book, 'Off for a Family Drive', is just absolutely fabulous, downright to the awesome smelling black organic paper. It is a spread out collection across the years...superb.
The same goes for James Nachtwey as far as war is concerned, in direct lineage with Capa. He is just incomparable in the world of war photography his images are just poignant. I could list books from these photographers but really, anything you see that comes out from their cameras is bound to be a masterpiece. James was present at a casual dinner in NYC with friends in common, I was so surprised. I thought he was a fake... It is funny how life seems to consider a person’s dreams, sometimes...
Bruce Davidson as one of my all time favourite photographers who although truly known for his extensive bodies of work with New York gangs in the 50’s and 60’s and what absolutely blows my mind is his more rare color photography. 'Survey' would be a good one in B&W.
Does the equipment you use help you in achieving your vision in your photography? What camera do you use? Do you have a preferred lens/focal length?
My main cameras for personal projects have always been Leica. All cameras are just tools to achieve what a photographer needs and the Leica rangefinders are extremely special for documentary work. The greatest difference with all other cameras is the way they are in front of the photographer’s face. Leica M cameras only cover a very small portion of the face when manual focusing, this establishes very direct approach to the subject. You just don’t get to hide behind the camera like with a reflex camera... This always leads to a deep interaction with the subject and is almost always reflected in the images. Leica’s are also extremely quiet, discreet and small and the glass is not comparable to anything else around. Finally, they are just beautiful instruments no matter the year of production. I continue to work with the M9-P and Monochrom.
I tried Fuji (xpro-2 and x100 (t and v) for a while and although truly wonderful cameras they don’t produce the rangefinder shooting experience obtained with a Leica M. It is not just a quality thing, it is a matter of how you move, frame, pre-focus, the Leica forces me to visualise the image before I shoot so I think and prepare better to be in the right place when something is going to happen. In short, I shoot a lot less and a generally a lot better.
I am a slow changer so although my cameras are three generations behind the latest models, I am not letting go yet of the M9P’s and Monochrom. The M9 and MM have CCD sensors, which are different from anything ever produced and return very unique files with unequalled dynamic range and colours at base ISO. The sensors were also created by Kodak, for which I always had a preference, and these cameras reflect this very well. Although they are not perfect – white balance is often off and you can hardly push them beyond ISO 800, but that is more than enough for me. Although I have no plans to change I am always paying close attention to what the Leica masters are doing in Wetzlar.
My preferred focal length has always been the 35mm Summicron, and I shoot mostly with my 20 year old version (IV) which I always find amazing. That would be my desert island choice:) Next I love the 21mm asph. Elmarit and also use the 50mm asph. Summilux, which always saves the shoot and can never fail.
When I work seriously with Leica’s or when I travel, I always have two bodies and those three lenses, a very small flash and a remote trigger. I generally also take along the 90 Elmarit, just in case, but rarely use it. The coolest combination is one M9P and the Monochrom, it's like having a camera loaded with Tri-X and one with Kodak slide film. The Monochrom returns incredible B&W but most importantly forces me to think in B&W, and it really changes the approach when shooting without the choice.
Photojournalism, street, and documentary photography are all related in the approach which ultimately leads to strong images when there is human interaction involved. So in those fields, your behaviour and how you move and interact with people are the more important aspect and skills necessary, because they will create trust and confidence, allowing the photographer to shoot freely and move faster when it counts. This process also always has room for improvement as it has to do with all the actions you take in life. It’s about communications skills throughout the photographic process.
So as far as tools go this is really it for me but I am also image quality obsessed and completely fascinated with last state of the art M10-R, but not yet!
Do you have any favourite artists/photographers? Who do you think has mostly influenced your style?
Several great photographers have influenced me. At the cost of sounding boring I surely would start by Henri Cartier Bresson and Robert Capa, who laid the guidelines for 21st century documentary and photojournalism in their respective genres. During the beginning of my professional career I was extremely influenced by the early work of Alex Webb in revolt stricken Haiti, 'Under a Grudging Sun' and later 'Amazon: From the Floodplains to the Clouds'.
Where do you find your inspiration? From looking at your gallery...you have travelled to many places. Do you have a favourite place to shoot? Or what was the most memorable place you have shot?
Places don’t really make the difference, it's all about going far and encountering people across the world or across the street and establishing a connection through the camera as a means of communication. That is what drives me I think...I am a storyteller, lazy in words faster with a camera. It’s the desire to convey one’s emotions and visual record.
What makes you want to go out and shoot? What draws you to take a photo?
It is that that makes it worthwhile, freezing the memory of the human encounter, which stays in an image and leaves a mark. Surroundings just establish the remoteness and humanity the similarities.
What are some of your goals as an artist? Where do you see yourself or hope to see yourself in five years?
At this time I am trying to consolidate my old images in perspective with more recent work, eventually I plan to make books out of a rather large archive of images. At the same time, the thirst for shooting is stronger than ever and I want to up the level of my photography. I am also considering to try and find a photo agency for future collaborations.
I feel I still have a long way to go and my approach is constantly changing, it is time I apply the experience gathered for something that is really me/mine from my soul, again.
What is next for you? Are there any ideas or special projects you are currently working on that you would like to let everyone know about?
I am searching for a meaningful project of human interest to follow deeply and am considering a story with Gauchos in Northern Argentina at this time (Covid permitting...). But really anything that comes up and will keep me shooting!
“When I am not out photographing, I (like to)...
I have many interests in life (other than photography) and they have changed several times throughout the years. At present, if I am not shooting, it’s certainly because I am sitting on my very loved Harley Davidson, shooting American traditional archery or Fly Fishing somewhere far, possibly in salt water or simply with Laura, Matteo and my super terrible German Terrier, Athena."