Photographer Barbara Luisi's latest exhibition AKT – Ageless Beauty in Tokyo celebrates the naked bodies of the over-80s, which makes for a striking companion piece to her black and white collection of 1000-year-old olive trees.
Olive trees which have lived for more than 1000 years fully bear fruit. Likewise, there are many people who have youthful inside even in their advanced age. You can read many stories from the skins of elderly people.
One of Japan's greatest photographers, Eikoh Hosoe, is also present in the collection both as a model and a spectator. This is surprising until we learn of Luisi's long association with the master.
First, I collected his books. Ordeal by Roses, about Yukio Mishima shortly before he committed suicide, Man and Woman, Kamaitachi. All in first editions, as they are so beautifully printed, from the sixties. I admired his way of getting back to ancient wisdom and mysticism in his black and white images.
Looking at Luisi's work demonstrates how either she was drawn to Hosoe because he has a similar approach to hers, or how he has influenced her work to recall his own. Maybe both.
Their relationship started in 2005.
When I heard about a workshop he was holding in the US, I immediately took the chance. From then I often went to see him in Japan, asking his advice, observing, assisting. He also came visit in New York together with his wife Misako.
The wisdom and vitality of the 1000-year-old olive trees that I photographed in Puglia were indeed my starting point, understanding how boring the younger trees look next to the majestic old ones. After years of photographing nudes I realized that this might be the same with human bodies.
The dignity, vitality and stories on skin of people who are in their second half of life is so much more interesting. I discovered also that my older models, no matter if they were celebrities or not, really enjoyed being photographed.
In our society youth seems to be the only desirable aspect — fashion, movies, advertisements prove this. It makes me angry. We forget how much we need to learn from our wiser and older fellow humans.
Japan is renowned for the respect it shows towards its elderly citizens. There is even a public holiday celebrated annually, to honour the elderly.
Japan is a country with strong ties to tradition, despite all its modernity, and respect for others is important and also respect for elderly people.
Japan has influenced European art a lot in several periods, think of the Japonism in Art Nouveau. The Japanese have ways of mixing material, and of putting together colours one would never think of in such a convincing way: for example, kimonos always fascinated me. There is also the intriguing art of “imperfection”, in objects like pottery… Things can only reflect life if they are not completely round, even, perfect.
In my many travels to Japan, I discovered each time something new about it.
Luisi's photographs are evocative and dramatic – more akin to painting than the crisp documentary style of photography.
I like depth in a photograph. Strong contrasts, light and depth in the shadows. I love keeping some things secret and, in a way, I take the inspiration of pictorialism (Steichen, Stieglitz), and painters (Caravaggio, Vermeer, Gauguin, El Greco) who knew all about using strong contrasts, deep shadows and mysterious light.
I seek my ideals in the past, combining also in photography old and new techniques, like digital and Platinum printing.
The results are seductive and strikingly powerful, especially when seen in the giant prints that Luisi often uses in her gallery exhibitions.
In AKT – Ageless Beauty, however, one piece is on a much smaller scale. A triptych made of photos of 84-year-old Eikoh Hosoe who is in turn holding a photo the great French master Eugène Atget.
Ansel Adams wrote that Atget's images were perhaps the “earliest expression of true photographic art”.
The photo of Atget was taken by his assistant Berenice Abbott. Here, in Tokyo, former pupil Luisi takes a photo of Hosoe — Luisi pays homage to Hosoe who is paying homage to Atget. It's an eloquent reminder of our debt to the past, if we choose to remember it and pay it respect. Very Japanese. Very Barbara Luisi.
Luisi demonstrates through her art that she doesn't forget “how much we need to learn from our wiser and older fellow humans”.
What's next for Barbara Luisi?
Barbara Luisi's AKT- Ageless Beauty can be seen in the Museum Lapidarium in Croatia, then in Zagreb, Rome, Copenhagen, Toulon in 2018 and 2019.
Her CD Encore with short little-known gems for violin and piano has just come out: Barbara Luisi (violin), Alessandro Taverna (piano) with pieces by Roslavets, Elgar, Samie, Lili Boulanger and others.
Music and the visual arts are core to Luisi's life — “the different senses work well together” — and as well as having music linked with her photographic exhibitions, she is also planning to have dancers involved in a future show.
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano') about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman's Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia' column for Dancing Times magazine.