Italian photographer Stefano Massimo was brought up in Rome by his unconventional father Prince Vittorio Massimo. Photography has been his passion since his father gave him his first camera at the age of twelve. The photographs in this series were taken in one of the oldest tanneries in Fès, Morocco, often called the ‘Mecca of the West’ and the ‘Athens of Africa’.
The art of tanning in Fès is almost exclusively run and carried out by men. Workers and their families live close to the tanneries and their skills are passed down from generation to generation. The life of a tanner is not an easy one; not only is it considered to be one of the hardest and dirtiest professions in Fès, but it is also incredibly labour-intensive. The hides of sheep, goats, camels, and cows are treated using an ancient process, where the skins are soaked for two to three days in large vats that contain a mixture of cow urine, quicklime, water, and salt to loosen excess fat, flesh and hair that the tanners then scrap away in order to prepare the skins for dyeing. Within the Old Medina, the tanneries continue to use natural vegetable dyes, such as poppy flower (red), indigo (blue), henna (orange), cedar wood (brown), mint (green), and saffron (yellow). Other materials used for dyeing include pomegranate powder, which is rubbed on the skins to turn them yellow, and olive oil, which makes them shiny.
Massimo considers ancient crafts such as these the ‘heart of cultures’ and is interested in how these traditional skills and crafts that have remained unchanged and resisted modernisation have contributed to, and created, distinct cultural identities across the world. His interest has now brought him to India, where he continues to explore ancient textile traditions and crafts.
“A childhood in Rome ensured that my youngest senses were exposed to the works of Caravaggio. I marvelled as photographers, doubtless, always have at his mastery of light and shade, and the way their bold interplay defined the textures of draperies that found echo in those of the powerful sculptures of Bernini, forever still, forever frozen in motion.
Only after taking this series of pictures did I realise that the simple subject had been, essentially, the hypnotic object of my attention, almost as though it were conscious enough to be able to access my visual memory and program its own image-making process by means of some sensual archetype that I associate, by instinct, with the baroque in general and drapery in particular.
Such form becomes being at some visceral level and the intestinal quality of cloth formations I saw emerging in the images developed into an abstract awareness of the manifestation of organic forms that survived, seemingly untouched and unchanged by the passing of the centuries and the mutations of civilisations.
I feel it is such draperies that Aldous Huxley is speaking of when he writes:
‘Draperies, as I had now discovered, are much more than devices for the introduction of non-representational forms into naturalistic paintings and sculptures. What the rest of us see only under the influence of mescaline, the artist is congenitally equipped to see all the time. His perception is not limited to what is biologically or socially useful (…) For the artist as for the mescaline taker, draperies are living hieroglyphs that stand in some peculiarly expressive way for the unfathomable mystery of pure being.’
Italian photographer Stefano Massimo was brought up in Rome, in London he became photographic assistant to the great ballet photographer Anthony Crickmay, through a recommendation by British Vogue’s Art Director Barney Wan. While still working as an assistant, Vogue published his first portrait of a very young Emily Astor in a full page spread. Massimo’s photographic portraits subsequently became a regular appearance in British Vogue and Beatrix Miller, then editor told him that, she envisaged him as a portraitist, ‘a young Snowdon’. Massimo moved to Milan where for thirty years his fashion, portrait and lifestyle photography was published in many of the world’s most important style magazines, his images have appeared in Grazia, Elle, Marie Claire, Harpers and Queen, Taxi and Tatler.
His interest in the human condition and societal challenges renewed interest in reportage photography, a lifelong passion. In 1988, he visited Gaza and occupied the West Bank during the first Intifada. His reportage photographs were published in German news magazine Stern and also appeared in a number of British television documentaries. In 2005 he returned to Palestine to take a series of black-and-white photographs for the book “Silent Witnesses, the Lives of Palestine’s Children” for the Al Madad Foundation, and these images were later used by John Berger to illustrate his reading of Ghassan Khanafani‘s ‘Letter from Gaza’.