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Sergio Villaschi: ‘my photos reflect the idea and emotions I have in my mind’

Sergio Villaschi creates the kind of still life photography that, at first glance, looks like a classic painting. Using the most ordinary of objects in his compositions, he carefully considers the colour, light and textures to bring out a particular mood and reflect the emotions he has in his mind.

Here, we learn more about his process and what initially drew him to still life photography.

Tell us a bit about yourself and how you developed an interest in photography.

I was born in a little town on the foothills of the Alps, then moved to Rome with my family when I was a child. There I went to school and university, and I also had a career in surgical pathology. I retired early and moved to a small town in Connecticut, where I still reside.

My interest in photography started during my last year in high school. I clearly remember around the time I fell in love with photography and the Nikon F, David Hemmings was acting in Michelangelo Antonioni’s film “Blow-up”, and so do a few close friends of mine. As a matter of fact, a few weeks ago, I spoke with one of those friends, and he reminded me of the discussions we had about the Nikon and Topcon cameras we wished we’d had. In the end, he ended up with a Minolta and I a Pentax since Nikon was too expensive for our finances.

What attracted you to still life photography?

Until a few years ago, my photography was mainly about landscapes and particular moments or places—nothing special there, but I always liked still life scenes. Seeing still life frescos in Pompei or the Roman mosaics in the National Museum of Naples was a mesmerizing experience. Visiting the Vatican museums had a similar effect on me. The paintings of Giorgio Morandi were also an inspiration.

A couple of years ago, I bought my first digital camera. I needed it to produce jpegs of my woodturning work I was submitting to the juries of arts and craft shows (I am a woodturner too). With that camera, I also bought a couple of softboxes. That was the beginning of my still life photography.

We read that you are self-taught. How did you go about learning the technical and artist side of photography?

I never went to a formal art/photography school nor took classes, but at the time of my beginning in photography, there were many nice magazines like the Italian “Fotografare” or “Popular Photography” that I was avidly reading. They had many informative articles in almost every issue. I also read many books on photography and composition and about the theory and practice of negative development, which I mainly did by myself. Kodachromes came later.

When I transitioned to digital and started shooting still lifes, I needed to learn a photo editing program to process my photos. Photoshop immediately came to mind, but it was expensive, and I did not want to have the limitations of a subscription because I was not sure I would continue with my photos.

Affinity Photo popped up on the internet when I was looking for alternatives. The price tag was perfect, so I bought it. Little by little, all by myself and with the help of the online tutorials, I started to understand how to work with it, and I never regretted it.

How do you choose the theme, subject matter and composition for your still life images?

As I mentioned, I have been interested in photography and frequented museums and read art books throughout my life. With the advent of the internet, it became easier than ever to see images of great artists of the past, painters and photographers alike. They are all inspirations for my work. In still life, it is difficult to “invent” something new since it is such an old genre with subjects often derived from common objects of daily life. I work a lot on the colour, light and texture in my composition, trying to balance them so I can bring out a particular mood. Pears are one of my favourite subjects since they have an anthropomorphic shape and a great texture. They can definitely have a mood.

“I work a lot on the colour, light and texture in my composition, trying to balance them so I can bring out a particular mood.”

I also like to photograph calm and soothing landscapes and find that there is nothing more pleasant and calm than an old barn. People seem to like them too.

Sometimes I try to “copy” a painting, and one of my favourite artists is Gustave Courbet.

More often, I arrange my “props” trying to reach a balanced and pleasing composition. I adhere to the teaching of Giorgio Morandi, one of my favourite artists, who believed that with just a minimal change of the same objects on the same table, you can alter the resulting feeling of a composition.

Tell us more about the light painting techniques you sometimes use in your work?

In short, light painting is a technique where the photo is taken in the dark, and a light source is moved around to highlight the subject with the shutter in B mode. More images can be taken and then blended in post-processing. This is a good way to control the lighting and bring out the texture of a subject by controlling the angle of the light source. It also results in a nice dramatic and painterly effect.

How much time do you spend taking photos versus editing them?

Generally, I spend more time editing the photos than taking them, and this is because I am never satisfied with the results. Some may call me a perfectionist. I feel that there is always room for improvement.

“I do not want them to be the mere representation of reality. I want them to reflect the idea and emotions I have in my mind.”

What are your usual post-production steps for retouching your images?

I want my photos to be moody and possibly have a painterly look. And that applies to still life and landscape photos too. I do not want them to be the mere representation of reality. I want them to reflect the idea and emotions I have in my mind. The background in a still life and the sky and the foreground in a landscape can have a major visual and emotional impact, likewise can the colour, lighting and texture. Thus my usual first step is to isolate the subject to the closest pixel. I start by creating a mask of the subject, and then it’s easy to substitute the original background with one I feel will bring up the mood I want. I often use more than one background and texture that I blend together.

From this point on, I try to work non-destructively with the various adjustments that Affinity Photo allows. I change my mind rather often, so working non-destructively is the way to go for me. I fine-tune the colours, lights and contrast. I particularly like the selective colour adjustment of Affinity that allows for a very fine adjustment of the colour hues.

I apply the same process to the landscape photos I take. I particularly like the reassuring and pleasing presence of an old barn. Here, in Connecticut many have been destroyed or dismantled, but a few remain to remind us of the not too distant past we tend to forget.

Do you have any favourite features?

Definitely the non-destructive adjustments, but I must say that I like Affinity as a whole. It has something intuitive about it that I found very useful when I was starting to use it and trying to get familiar with it.

What achievement are you most proud of in your photography career and why?

I have won numerous awards, but my deepest pleasure comes from interacting with customers who purchase one of my photos at the shows I attend. Usually, they ask how the photo was created and about the process involved, and then a nice conversation may start.

Creating a nice photo and working hard to get the desired result is a satisfying experience, but nothing feels as satisfying as knowing that one of your photos was appreciated enough to be purchased, and is now hanging somewhere it can be seen every day.

“…nothing feels as satisfying as knowing that one of your photos was appreciated enough to be purchased, and is now hanging somewhere it can be seen every day.”

To see more of Sergio’s photography, visit his website and @sergiofinearts on Facebook and Instagram.