Cool & Noteworthy 2012: Olivo Barbieri captures London from above

Olivo Barbieri began taking photographs in 1971, and his interest in the urban sprawl emerged early on – his first major body of work showed the glow of artificial lighting emanating from European and Asian cities. In 1999 he developed what would become a signature style, using a large format camera, plus the tilt-shift process to manipulate focus and perspective, rendering aerial views of cities and landscapes into what appeared to be miniature models. The already highly artificial façade of Las Vegas became even more exaggerated, the skyscrapers of New York were rendered quaint rather than imposing, and the Iguazu Falls became a picturesque microcosm. Barbieri continued in this fashion until about 2008, when his own artistic focus began to shift. 

“At first I was interested in the transformation of bits of cities into plastic models. It’s a virtual process to bring into question their planning,” he says. “Then I decided to go beyond – to start from the drawing, the planning.” This new approach became a way to comprehend the exponential growth of urban centres, and to extrapolate forward to the future. “The purpose of this work is to go forward, to understand what will happen to the future of cities,” he says. “Over the next 20 years it will be very interesting to see how they will cope with the amount of people they contain.” 

Viewing cities from above still affords Barbieri a unique perspective, however, and it’s an approach he’s still fascinated with. “It is a completely different view from the air – you can understand the real shape and size of a building,” he says. “Florence, for example, is fantastic from the ground, but from above it looks like a broken theatre. When you go up in the air you don’t so much see the meaning of a place, its context, but shapes, which give you a fresh understanding.”


Image © Olivo Barbieri.

Barbieri shot site specific_LONDON 12 in early summer, before the Olympic Games began – just like he worked in Turin, shortly before the 2006 Winter Olympics. He enjoys photographing Olympic building projects because he likes to witness historical transformation in process, he says, but he’s also interested in London because of its intriguing mix of old and new. This interest is evident in the 12 images he chose to include in the series, which record historic sites old and new – from St Paul’s and Tower Bridge to the Shard and the Olympic Stadium. Barbieri researched artists past and present to choose his locations, and says Pink Floyd’s classic album cover, from the 1977 release Animals, was the inspiration for shooting the Battersea Power Station. 

Site specific_London 12 is a mix of monochrome and vibrantly coloured images, but Barbieri worked on all the shots for a long time in post-production, developing a visual language for the series. “I try to define the image’s attractive points, like in a written page,” he says.


Image © Olivo Barbieri.

Each image is meant to act independently but also function as part of a wider whole that is more than the sum of its parts. “The challenge is to succeed in building a story that perceptually discloses hic et nunc the location; then to relate it to other locations in order to draw a bigger picture that describes the shape of the contemporary city,” explains Barbieri. 

The result is a set of images that hardly resemble photographs – perhaps appropriate for Barbieri, who views photography as more than just a means to an end. Other photographers might lament the end of the ‘golden age’ of photography, but he embraces its progress, and says the proliferation of photographs and photographers has made the confusion between photography and art much clearer. “It is much easier to understand what an artist using photography is doing,” he says. “You don’t have to prove that it relates to photography and artists can concentrate more on their work.”

Londoners are now able to see their city through Barbieri’s eyes, with large prints of the series on show at the Ronchini Gallery until mid-January. Barbieri hopes his images will allow locals to discover something new about their hometown, and in turn provoke questions about the nature of perception and the photographer’s role in it. “We’re not moving away from photography, it’s photography that’s leaving us,” he says. “I’ve never been interested in photography, but in images. I believe my work starts when photography ends.”

Site specific_London 12 will be exhibited at Ronchini Gallery, London, until 12 January 2013. Visit A book of site specific_projects, comprising more than 30 cities, will be published by Aperture in late 2013.

05-site-specific-london-12Image © Olivo Barbieri.

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