Alex Attard’s photographic work is the kind that makes you stop, focus, and move in to take a closer look. It makes you wonder whether what you’re looking at is what the photographer really says it is, or what you think the object of interest might be. Are those the tattered pages of an ancient book or the surface of a rough shell? Is that really a blob of silicon on a building’s unfinished façade or a piece of modern art? This kind of inquisitiveness is just what the photographer wants to achieve through his work, and he certainly appears to be fulfilling his aim.
“My grandfather, John Ciancio, opened up his first studio in 1913 in Strait Street, and till this day the Ciancio family is synonymous with photography. We used to live in Valletta, and the outing of the day as young children used to be a visit to my grandfather’s studio, which later moved to Old Theatre Street next to the City Lights cinema,” says Alex. “There was always a lot of activity going on inside his studio; I recall lots of people going in and out of the shop, and watching British Navy sailors hanging around in the street. I clearly remember my grandfather re-touching negatives on a light box along with my uncle who also worked at the studio – I used to go with them in the dark room, and can still smell the developer as if it were a perfume.”
Alex says the first time he saw a print develop as a young child was a magical moment, one he will not forget easily. Although he never worked at his grandfather’s studio, he used his own little dark room at home to experiment and develop his own pictures when he was in his 20s – an endeavour which lasted around two years, before getting married, having a son, and moving on to other ventures, including running two restaurants and converting and selling old houses. The latter, he tells me, fit right in with his passion for architecture – a passion which was to have great bearing on his success as a fine art photographer.
“I let go of photography for around 30 years, apart from the occasional travel photography, and didn’t pick it up again until I was around 52 years old. I had just sold my second restaurant, Manhattan, and decided to go on a long holiday in 2006. My wife, Krista, and I visited Cambodia, and when she returned to Malta for work, my son and I continued to travel, and visited Laos and Hong Kong. My son, who’s into photojournalism – the fourth generation interested in this field – decided to buy himself a camera, reminding me all about photography and how much I used to love it. Being in my 50s, it felt like it was a good time to pick it up again.”
However, from dabbling with film photography in his 20s to picking it up again in his 50s, a lot had changed in the world of photography. “It was no longer about film, so I decided to start from the beginning with a digital photo editing course. In 2006, I bought my Nikon D200 DSLR camera, and three years later, decided to exhibit six prints during Notte Bianca called The Street Performers, featuring Spanish dancers in beautiful costumes who were roller skating up and down Republic Street. All the prints were sold, giving me the impetus I needed to keep going,” says Alex. In 2011, he hosted his first solo exhibition, A Few Seconds of Light, which took him back to his roots in more ways than one. The series was about Valletta, which is where he lived and grew up as a child, and the exhibition was held at his grandfather’s studio in Old Theatre Street, which was sold after the business relocated.
One of his more recent exhibitions which amply displayed his skill in fine art and architecture photography, as well as his approach to photography at large, is The Overlooked Performance, featuring Renzo Piano’s parliament building. “I watched its construction evolve, and knew I wanted to do something featuring the parliament building, but I didn’t really know what. I got into the project at quite an advanced stage, when the building started being cladded. I got permission to enter the site through Architecture Project, and as I started wandering around, I would ask myself what’s attracting me to the building. I felt there was something deeper, and as you build a relationship, you start to understand what’s at hand. Once you discover your concept, it becomes easier to see things around you,” says Alex.
The photographs explored that which lies beneath the surface of the building, including insulation panels, waterproofing membrane and rubber sealant – the very materials that workers mindlessly apply to a building, without a second glance. “The beauty of this project, which can be applied to many other things, is that there are so many things in life which we overlook, but they exist, and if we look at them, they will communicate something to us. I am a photographer, so I’ll photograph. You can write about them, someone else can paint about them, or sculpt. It’s all about seeing.”
It is in the same way that Alex approaches all his photographic work. “What really moves me is creating. I love walking around buildings to see how light strikes their surfaces, but what excites me is creating something out of seeing things in a different way,” he explains. “The Overlooked Performance was about architecture, but also about looking at the unconscious behaviour of workers on a work site, when they’re working on a surface that no one will see once it’s covered up. When framed in a certain way, you see a lot of abstract images, but it is deeper than a photograph of an abstract surface because there is a story behind it – the story of the behaviour of the workers.”
Earlier this month, Alex, together with three painters and a sculptor, exhibited his work in the last of a series of exhibitions organised by the Chinese Cultural Centre in Malta, following a two-week trip to China. One of the shots he exhibited from the trip features the Beijing National Stadium, also known as the Bird’s Nest Stadium, which is enveloped in numerous steel girders, creating a mesh effect that resembles a bird’s nest. “It’s been photographed endlessly, but I wanted to achieve a painterly effect which would complement the rest of the artists’ works, so I took three exposures on top of each other, creating an abstract visual. This experience required me to work outside of my comfort zone, but it was the first time that the Centre toured the exhibition on a run, so the overall response must have been positive.”
This is a snippet. Read the full feature on the latest issue of the Commercial Courier.