Bigger picture - Issue 113 - Magazine | Monocle

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Alessandro Gibellini, gripping a clunky, wood-framed, large-format camera, squeezes the contraption’s black accordion bellows and a whoosh of wind rushes from its lens aperture. The hole used to be covered by a magnifying glass, taped there by Gibellini as he attempted to construct his first-ever camera. The back was covered in tin foil.

The former civil-engineering student, now aged 28, taught himself the mechanics of cameras by making prototypes like the initial apparatus he now holds in his hands: a rickety, handcrafted forerunner to his lightweight, precision-machined versions today. They’ve been developed over four years of experiments and are now in demand by top photographers such as Massimo Vitali and Hiroshi Sugimoto.

At Gibellini’s studio in Sassuolo, a small northern Italian town with medieval roots, the flames of the furnace behind him are roaring, the peel of an orange on top wafting warm citrus smells through the air, defying the chilly spring afternoon outside. Gibellini installed the heater and all of the electricity in the converted cork factory, where the original concrete floors are patterned from when discarded corks were trodden into the floor. Looking the part of an engineering student, with his unkempt demi-beard and metal-rimmed glasses, the softly spoken Gibellini has to raise his voice to be heard over a quartet of horns. One is being played by his brother who shares the studio, rehearsing an 1875 Wilhelm Ramsøe composition in the neighbouring room, using trumpets and trombones of the period.

“I was interested in having a lot of flexibility with photography without having to resort to Photoshop,” says Gibellini. Fascinated by photography, although he lacked professional experience handling a camera, he took the engineering approach and decided to build himself one from scratch. Not the amateur’s pinhole gizmo but the aficionado’s large-format device, which beams an image directly onto the film many times the size of the 35mm variety. It produces a sharp, richly articulated image with light that more closely mimics what the human eye perceives.

“It’s only through my experiments that I came to understand what photography is and what a camera is,” he says. Around him are the drills, grinders, electric saws, lathes and tiny drawers of nuts and bolts that constitute the more manual end of his machinery. “By the second or third model I understood that there was a market for these things,” he adds, estimating that he’s sold more than 300 of the cameras since, at prices that run to several thousand euros. He employs five or six people on average to assemble them and handle sales to photographers who order online or arrive in person from as far away as the US and Singapore.

Gibellini places one of his larger models on a tripod facing the studio window and the courtyard below. On its rear ground-glass plate, a crisp projection of the world outside suddenly appears upside down, as with all large formats. At the bottom, blue sky and wispy clouds fill the image; on top, through the arched passageway of the courtyard, pedestrians stroll with their feet above their heads, uncannily pacing the ceiling of the image.

Despite the charming eccentricity of this old camera type, Gibellini’s is a modern product. For his latest models, the professional end of his camera line is fabricated from anodised aluminium (or in far more costly titanium), crafted by the fully automated machines at his production facility in nearby Polinago. In a corner of the Sassuolo studio, a 3d printer is at work transforming a bobbin of corn-derived plastic into a honey-comb patterned frame piece for a lower-priced version of his camera. Not quite as sturdy as the aluminium edition, the plastic-framed version sells for a more approachable €400. The new aluminium and carbon-fibre model, far more solid than its predecessors, is being developed in the full range of camera sizes, from 4x5 inches to 11x14 inches.

“From a technical point of view the cameras are improved every year,” says Gibellini. “I would never say that a design is definitive.” Each model is tested in a meteorologically controlled room in Polinago, where the focus length and other dimensions are measured for exactitude. Then it’s time to shoot test photos, though the changes from one year to the next are often structural improvements.

Gibellini acknowledges that digital cameras can now compete with large formats in terms of resolution, and looks forward to bringing out his own digital model in a couple of years. But he adds that a large format still gives you the flexibility to set what’s in focus and what’s not, and to straighten out distorting curves. Behind him a wall of the studio is lined with framed black-and-white photographs: close-ups of hands and feet at work, which he shot with his initial camera prototypes. His success at making cameras now precludes any time to experiment with his original passion for taking pictures. “At this point, this is what my work has become,” he says, setting down the squeezebox of the metal-framed camera. “I’ll leave photography to the photographers.”

Massimo Vitali:
The renowned photographer captures vast crowds of people, often beachside, delineated by a depth and clarity that for years came from large-format cameras. “Large format forces you to think,” he says. “The revolution begins when you put a camera on a tripod.” Four years ago he bought one of Gibellini’s custom-made models with an extra-large 11x14 inch stock. “Alessandro had a good idea to make an old camera in a modern way, to make it light and sturdy.” The two have remained friends. “Alessandro has lots of state-of-the-art machinery so he can make solid, precise cameras.” Even so, Vitali thinks digital cameras have caught up with even the largest format model. “This year I convinced Alessandro to try making a digital camera,” he says.

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