First, there’s the passion: Ugo Borsatti

Ugo Borsatti

Foto Omnia. Ugo Borsatti,. We are together, in his photo studio, in Trieste, via Gatteri. Time to close, to go home almost.

Come in, come in. I’ll get two chairs for you.

If we can, and if we don’t disturb you … how do feel, working on the Mac?

Well … I feel. I work on this, I work on that – on Pc … quite complex, overall. Mac is better than Pc, maybe, for my activities, but since I have to keep both …

So, Mr. Borsatti. Stefano is president of dotART, you know each other already. I’m kind of a journalist. I’m very happy to meet you.

Ugo. It’s ok. I’m kind of a journalist too. I’m one of the oldest members of the Order of Journalists, I’m a publicist. Time ago I was reporter for ‘Crimen – Criminology and Forensic Police’ … it actually used to be a joke too: ‘What are you, a journalist? Wouldn’t you be working for ‘Crimen’ though, uh?’ – a way to tease. Name changed constantly, anyhow: ‘Chronicle’, ‘Detective’, ‘Detective Crimen’ … crime only, of course. I started sending my pictures only, then they asked me the captions too, and then in the end they proposed me to write the articles too. Yes. Now, at last, they admit photographers right to be considered journalists too.

Was there, a bit of … annoyance, from journalists side, towards photographers?

Sure there was. Used to be two distinct branches: rivals, in a way. Once, the journalist was the one that used to write the article; the photographer, in their view, wasn’t important. Recently instead, I had a big gratification, at Circolo Fotografico Fincantieri Wärtsilä. Two or three months ago, at the end of a meeting presenting some of my old pictures to public, Luciano Ceschian, who was director of ‘Il Piccolo’, stood up and said: ‘Excuse me a moment, may I? There’s Borsatti here with us. I remember an article I wrote for ‘Il Gazzettino’, I was describing a storm at sea, working and writing and re-writing it, long hours; then comes Ugo Borsatti and he gives us a picture, and in front of that picture, everything I had written was suddenly and simply … nothing’. I was very pleased. We used to work together, me and Ceschian, for ‘Il Gazzettino’ – for ‘Il Gazzettino’, I worked long, eighteen years. That ‘caste’ of journalist, was always there, and the photographer used to be underestimated in its ability.

Ugo, how many years have you been in business?

Exactly sixty. September 1st this year. From 1952. I’m working on a book, about this ‘birthday’: not only photographic. On different years and period of times. I care very much about this book; sixty years of career

May I ask at what age you began photographing?

Well, yesterday was my birthday …

Happy Birthday!

Thanks, thanks. And so a friend of mine called me and he said: ‘Many wishes for your Fifty-Eight!’ – it’s inverted, of course. Just turned Eighty-Five. I started my career late, otherwise it would be longer already. I studied to be a surveyor, I graduated when Second World War ended. After that I did a little bit of everything … the surveyor, too, working for Comune di Trieste. In that period it was subject to Allied administration. Then I worked for Censimento, in 1951, the census … done that, they took me working on ID cards for the Allied Territory, near Trieste; ID cards used to be that big, blue, written in four languages. And then photography. As a boy I had done something about photography, one particular picture too, I’ll show you later …

What did you take?

I lived here nearby, in via della Ginnastica Triestina, the street that led from the barracks to the city center. In 1943, September 8th – I was a student, still – here Badoglio’s proclamation: ‘Germans are bad!’ And they got angry, even fairly angry in their own view, certainly. Germans were escorting Italian soldiers down from the barracks, along via Ginnastica and towards a military garrison. I had a photo camera at hand, used to be my brother’s, with a strange very expensive film, difficult to find it on the market. Looking between the window shutters, half open, half closed, with my mom screaming at me in whispers: ‘No! They may shoot! Come here!’ – I was able to take three pictures. Later, they become famous. Were printed many times: one, enlarged, is in Risiera di San Sabba. They show those pictures in celebrations. My first important pictures.

You had courage. To take pictures of German soldiers while escorting, armed, Italian prisoners.

I didn’t think about it, I had the camera there, it just seemed an important moment, and I took the pictures.

What gave you inspiration to start your career?

My dad was an old amateur of photography. He used to take pictures and develop it on slabs, he used to try to have nice pictures. Something in our genes, so, probably, and I followed his trail. After those first important pictures I started trying to work, I took my license – license were blocked, since ‘Associazione degli Artigiani’ – Artisans Association – had succeeded in convincing the local police chief that they needed to be released only in presence of a positive allowance from Artisans side. Madness!

Did you have already color film available when you started?

No, at the very beginning, here, in the Forties, we had not. Kodachrome and Agfacolor dates back to the end of the Thirties and so, everything that was ‘color’ was very difficult to find. I did not have any color film or color development available. I was working in black and white.

What camera did you use?

Depending on the time period, I had Rolleiflex, Leica … in the early days I owe a Voigtlander Prominent, just released. The only 35mm with central shutter, it allowed me to work with the small flashlight I had, seven-kilos-flashy. So, here, this is my first professional picture, I was still waiting my license, still missing some day; I was admiring my camera, looking at it all around in my hands, then my dad tells me: ‘Go, go, down in the courtyard!’ – I go down, in the dark courtyard, no light meter, I had nothing at all, and with my eyes I guessed the position, and I was lucky because the mouse was lifting up the paw, just a second more and everything would be blurred, just a blot and nothing more. These, instead, were women carrying milk … Basovizza, Trieste and back. Twenty kilometers per day, leaving aside all the staircases they had to climb to reach their customers. This, instead, is the sea storm, that one mentioned by Ceschian, when he was talking about the article that he would throw away once my picture was delivered to the newspaper … we had never seen such high waves, indeed. Libeccio, in the day of Ferragosto, fifteenth of August.

Your nicest picture?

Here it comes. I would not know if I’d say ‘the niciest’; I’d say, the pictures with most significance between mine pictures. The soldier that kisses the girl, on the train platform. Trieste in 1954. She’s no more, she passed away; she went in the United Stated, I met them – a wonderful moment – and I kept in touch with them later. She was together with the boy who kissed her, forever.

Do you like color pictures?

No. Well, yes, in short. But I like black and white more. It is absurd to say: ‘I do not like color’; color, why not. But I love black and white.

What’s the difference between color and black and white, in your opinion?

Shooting in black and white is more difficult. I’ve always been in reportage pictures, anyway, not artistic photography. Some art photography I did too, but few pictures. As I said, I like color, it’s absurd to tell I don’t. When I was going to holidays, I shot and used to prepare color slides. Black and white, apart the special charm they get, has a value … when they started selling those first Instamatic cameras, everyone felt to be a little bit a photographer, it happened much more earlier than digital photography. ‘What a nice picture!’ – and they put their children there, one with the red shirt, the girl with the yellow shirt. ‘Oh how nice, all colored!’. Quite colored. A little bit too much. When we used to work with the Rollei, if we shot black and white a picture of the trees, you used to see it in nice grey, almost all in the same grey, and then you used to realize you needed to understand how to use a filter. You needed to learn translating the picture, in short – translating black and white. Understand and play with the shadows.

Can’t say I hate color; but then a customer comes, and he says to me: ‘I have a digital camera, and with that one I take wonderful pictures!’ … in automatic mode, everything is exaggerated there, colors that does not have anything of real. I do not like it, no. With the digital camera, everything is easier, but you lack understanding.

And what do you think about digital photography?

An huge achievement. I have only one thing against a digital picture: its life. People does not print the picture on paper anymore, and so … one day, it’s gone. It is lost.

In example with a colleague of mine, one of his customer, a lady that used to travel a lot … boxes of pictures. One day, she asks him: ‘But now, everyone has these digital cameras … could I buy one too?’ – ‘Surely you can, Missus, if you like to, why not’. ‘Ah then well, well, now I’ll put in the computer, then you’ll show me how to do it, you’ll teach me … ‘ – ‘Sure, Missus.’ Afterwards, when all it’s done, he doesn’t hear from her anymore, long time. Another day, he met her and asks: ‘How are you doing?’ – ‘Oh, so nice, it’s gorgeous, every night I look at my pictures on the computer, it’s wonderful, more than two thousands already, wondrous!’ – ‘But, Missus … some printout, would you do it?’ – ‘Oh yes, I’ll do … but not for now, it’s so nice to see it there!’

So a certain day, after time again, the phone rings. ‘Listen: I think I touched something on the computer. I do not see the pictures anymore. Would you come and help me?’ … ‘Missus, you know, you will not see those pictures anymore, you know? Hard disk broke’. Almost, she fainted. ‘But did you do some printout, Missus?’ She had not print a single picture; not even one. I have my negatives, here, they are sixty years old and more. There was a great reduction, in quantity of printouts: people shoots many many pictures, with digital technology, but they do not print, less and less. If you print something every now and then, same number of prints that you used to do from your twenty-four film … those printouts lasts.

I started with digital two or three years ago, did some reportage, mostly I work with pictures from my archive. Several people that started with the digital and didn’t print anything, lost everything. They took their old CD from the drawer and they didn’t find anything on it, nothing, computer doesn’t read it anymore. This is the only thing about digital photography that I do not like; I do not trust magnetic media. Maybe one day this problem will be solved, but for now I want to tell everybody: print your best pictures, do not keep it inside there only.

How many pictures do you have in your archive?

My archive of negatives, I gave it to Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio di Trieste, the Foundation, with a clause that allows me to use it. Then the Foundation gave it in loan for use to Comune di Trieste, the City government. I had worked already much on it, trying to reorganize it and document, almost four years … my archive is this, you know, this one that you see here. These small books, that I have always with me. Notes, and notes about every day of work that I did, with reference to the pictures: ‘motorcycle gymcana’, ‘public security’ … ‘ball’, you see, here? ‘P’ stands for ‘Ballo dei Poligrafici dello Stato’, ‘State print personnel ball’. They used to be at ‘Jolly’. ‘V’: ‘Young Jews Vigil’. ‘Carnevale’. ‘Acegat’, the electricity and water public service. ‘Sindaco’ – the Major, with Major’s names. These notes I loaded into my computer. There are three hundred and fifty thousand negatives. To help you understand, you are young and probably didn’t hear about ‘Montesi’ case.

Sure. Wilma Montesi. She was murdered in Rome, in the Fifties. There was a big commotion and media interest.

Good. It was a big scandal, that involved, after the girl was found dead on the beach, in Rome, Torvaianica – many politicians and prominent personalities of the time. Just tell you how much value, preserving negatives and notes has. I met a photographer that used to threw away negatives once. There were those dancing nights, I was telling you, at ‘Holly’ … the place had a tavern, below it, and there used to be a girl, an entreneuse, maybe; if she wasn’t such, she used to be there, always. I had written down the name, maybe because I had pictures made for her, or with her together with Americans … I had this name in my booklet. After many years: ‘Montesi’ case: an article comes out on a magazine. ‘Suicide in Turin’. This girl, Corinna, jumped from a window. In her personal diary, they found names connected to ‘Montesi’ case and to what had happened. I remembered the name, but I didn’t recall from where, and so through my personal archive, there it is: ‘Jolly’! Corinna Versolato. And there were also references to negatives, serial number, date. And I sold several pictures of that girl. I didn’t know that girl, she was an anonymous face for me, unfortunately, but I had written down her name and the fact I made portraits of her. I wonder how many things do I have in my archive, that didn’t emerge yet, and that I never used.

Three hundred fifty thousand negatives.

Yes, around three hundred fifty thousand. It’s not peanuts, not easy to organize it. Then I have diapos, also, those have to be catalogued and organized too. I need to finish.

Did you ever have a reaction to that, something like: ‘No, stop! I did much already?’


What tips, hints, would you give to someone that approaches photography?

Ah, tips. Not easy. It’s so … wide, as a world, this photography world. It depends.

I’ve been always into reportage, news. I mean: I did a little bit of everything in my professional life, today I shot two photo cards. But my vocation was reportage. If there’s no true passion, working with newspapers especially and daily chronicle, it’s a big sacrifice. Telling young men and women that comes near photo journalism today, what I had to to, what my colleagues had to do, to take a picture – especially in Trieste, the market where a picture was paid … nothing. It’s difficult to make people understand it, today, in the digital era. The things you had to do, to have your name in the newspaper.

For the most important jobs, as the Ginnastica Triestina, Triestina Calcio – the soccer team – and Teatro Verdi, lyrics, we had De Rota, a tireless worker. Then I remember that ‘Giornalfoto’, who had started activity two years earlier than me, had almost monopoly over the city news. ‘Giornalfoto’ used to work very much with Manlio Granbassi, of ‘Il Piccolo’. I had also ‘Il Piccolo’ brought into a law suit, I denounced it on a matter of illicit use of my sport pictures: during a match, the ‘Triestina’ local soccer team had scored seven goals. At the time we used to work behind the net, very much, and I had taken nice pictures. ‘Il Piccolo’ used to be a little bit the meeting place for all sport reporters, television was not there yet, it was in its first years.

How much money did it cost, to take pictures?

Much. Money I didn’t have. And the equipment, then. I obtained a loan of four hundred fifty thousand Lire … the bank had given me three hundred fifty thousands and the rest – one hundred thousand – they had kept for them over incoming interests, just to give an idea of what the value of money used to be. A worker, blue collar, used to earn fifty thousand Lire per month, in 1960. One hundred Lire, a liter of gasoline. With those three hundred fifty thousand Lire I bought the camera – I’ll show you later: worth one hundred thirtyfive. Then the flashlight – that small one, about seven kilos – with a very big torch, I have it. One hundred seventyfive. With the loan so I had managed to buy the ‘two pieces’. Then I rented a projector and bought two basins, for film development.

Did you go hunting pictures and news?

Sure. We were dreaming about telephones, we, photographers … in America they used to have telephones in their cars. Maybe. Once I went over the hills around the city, over Filtri, in Santa Croce: a small aircraft had crashed, two people onboard died, they were charred … I go there, with my Vespa, take pictures and go back home. Once I am at home again, I am told: ‘Newspaper called, there was a deadly accident in Sistiana!’, and I go, back to Sistiana, with the Vespa. And then back again, to develop it: quickly, in the dark, closing my eyes. ‘One, two … ‘ counting up to sixty and then on again, rapid fix, washing, fan, with film still half wet, running towards printing laboratory … ‘Oh! The film is wet!’ ‘Eh, that’s what I was able to do … it’s a bit scratched, I am sorry’. Development, printing, dryers. If only I could have a mobile phone … I have so many pictures that are yellow by now, because they weren’t printed to last long, it was enough to have them lasting for some day. They can be recovered, however, with a bit of work. Then, you had to bring everything to the newspaper. Newspaper didn’t have delivery boy, and so, directly to the Ten and Twenty train, sending them with ‘out of sack’ shipment. I don’t know if that still exists. Used to be an envelope, for the newspapers, that was delivered rapidly, without waiting general mail routing. For the most urgent things, we had ‘telephoto’ – photo transmission over wire. Expensive, and of lower quality. Just … half an hour of transmission, and they were sent to the other side, assuming the line didn’t drop. When we had ‘Fiorentina’ playing in Trieste, they used to order me seven ‘telephotos’: and if here, in Trieste, they paid five hundred Lire for each photo, from Florence I used to receive three thousands. And with one of that reportages, I had paid my monthly wage almost.

If I would have to talk to a young photographer I would tell him that passion is the first thing, the most important. Today, printing and developing is far less heavy. It’s not easy even today, maybe it’s even more difficult: it wasn’t easy, never, but today photography is a job fading away, almost disappearing. Many of my colleagues closed down their shops already, people younger than me also; I would close my activity too, if I only hadn’t my archive – ninety per cent of my pictures coming from my archive. And the stories they tell.

Do you develop your pictures personally?

Yes, in black and white. Here in my study, there behind, look.

Pictures of young photographers. Do you like it? Those pictures you’ve seen recently?

I tell you the truth. These pictures, so much processed, transformed, that I’ve seen lately … we used to do some retouch with black and white, we did it too, yes: here darker, there lighter. Changes. We used to straighten lines. It was kind of a Photoshop. More difficult than on computer, because you needed to be good in handiwork, in craftsmanship. However, it was only to correct the pictures a bit. But the pictures I’ve seen recently, totally transformed, in colors, in proportions … no. I do not like it. Everything is in the limit you impose to yourself. You should stay within that limit. You can do abstract things, you can do whatever you want with your pictures – sure you can, no one can stop it. I used to go on vacation, I played with colors too, I played with everything, I told you. But exaggeration is exaggeration, not photography, and that … ‘too much’ you see, that ‘exaggerating even the exaggerate’, no, I do not like.

An advice?

An advice. Ok. Now I really want to play the … ‘old man’ and I want to tell you: digital cameras are wonderful, but learn not to push that button too much. Don’t click too much. It doesn’t make sense. Once, we had those … Kodak boxes: ‘click’ – eight frames six by nine, and then you used to choose one. Someone took pictures with those boxes too. But you used to try to respect rules, sun behind the shoulders was a ‘no’, pole in the middle of the head was a ‘no’. You checked light before the ‘click’, maybe with experience if not with the light meter. With digital technology, now, he or she who clicks puts in that ‘click’ even less attention of who used to shot with the eight-frames Kodak. So you can take the pole away from the head later, you can recover the overexposed later, and so on and so on … ‘tac-tac-tac’ … but the picture is wrong anyway. It is not a good picture.

Can I take a picture of you?

Certainly. Why do you ask? Do it; it’s more spontaneous.

In our path through the Deadly Sins: what is, for you, Anger?

Damn. You have me at a disadvantage, now! I am a photographer, not a philosopher … Anger, photographically? Violence? I remember an image: police that charges, that gets in my face. It was during a Maritime strike, everything was quiet in the beginning; in the Fifties, 1956 or 1957 I believe. ‘Saturnia’ ship, the transatlantic. They were striking; a number of people around. Questor of Trieste – Buttiglione, father to Rocco, the politician – calls in Padova. ‘Send here the Celere!’ – rapid deployment police. They are there: I take pictures of the ship, quietly, in peace, ‘Celere’ cars – Jeeps – a little bit over there, deployed and ready. Suddenly, the three blasts on the trumpet, the Commissioner that wears the tricolor sash: ‘Charge!’ – and they started to disperse the crowd. Workers in strike were quiet, however, and I didn’t understand the reason for that charge, maybe I didn’t see something happening. Difficult years. A policeman of the ‘Celere’ leaned out of the Jeep and was hitting people right, left … of that day, I have the picture. Then he comes down from the car, looks at me and runs towards me: he grabs me, yanks me to rip the camera away. I had the Rollei with me that day. The strikers run to me, and they give me an hand. They push me aside, and I manage to get out of the trouble only with a torn shirt, yelling: ‘Press, press!’, with my card in my hand. He comes again, and tries once more, to rip the camera away, but I’m able to go away, and there it ends. Seemingly.

On the newspaper: ‘Mr. Borsatti was the head of the demonstrators, egged them against the Police’.

Court. Complaints, declarations, witnesses – I had as many as I wanted, to tell how things went in truth. Double anger. The Anger of the policeman, that for some reason was up against me. And my Anger, towards who had written false things. Questor Buttiglione then went to Sicily, for another task; the policeman left the service.

Who’s Ugo Borsatti, according to Ugo Borsatti?

The best on everything, on photography. No, it’s a joke, of course.

But it’s also true. In the career, that we wish to be still very long.

Eh, it’s sixty years only by now, I still have many things to do. Leaving jokes apart… Ugo Borsatti, he’s a man that loves his job. That loves ‘the profession’, as I used to call it. A man that until he can, will be here always. Come to see the cameras!

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Roberto Srelz

About Roberto Srelz

Editore e direttore responsabile, presidente del gruppo centoFoto , è nato a Trieste. Professionista presso una grande azienda internazionale, è scrittore biografico (ha pubblicato il romanzo breve ‘Per Due Volte’ con ‘Luglio Editore’ ) e fantastico (ama in particolare il Fantasy nordeuropeo e scrive racconti brevi sul Web). Nel 2010 e 2012, con ‘Esaedro’, è stato editore di ‘Lions & Saints’ (Guendal – Ramella) e di ‘Pin Up’ (‘Accademia di Fumetto’, Trieste), collaboratore di dotART, e dal 2009 al 2014 ha organizzato la manifestazione ‘Fumetti per Gioco‘ assieme ad altri collaboratori. Insegna fotografia ed ha partecipato a mostre fotografiche in Italia (l'ultima delle quali su Steve Kaufman con "American Pop Art") e all’estero (Croazia, Polonia e Ungheria).