Creating a portrait of our times

Suffolk photographer Amedeo Castellani is gingerly making his way towards me holding two cups of coffee. He is carefully negotiating his way across the room, stepping between hundreds of prints and boxes, a large part of his life’s work, which are strewn across the floor. I have caught him, as he puts it, ‘mid-sort’. This feature and the arrival of Suffolk Open Studios has spurred him into action. He has been meaning for months to sort out his archive and now seemed as good a time as any.

Amedeo says that he has an idea for a book in the back of his mind but first he needs to wade through hundreds of thousands of prints and negatives which he has accumulated on his travels over the past 30 years.

Born in London to Italian parents, he studied in Rome, absorbing and recording street life on the same camera he still uses to this day. He also specialised in portraits, capturing some of the most beautiful women of the 1970s and 80s, when he returned to London, he immediately found himself caught up in the punk explosion and became a regular figure at club gigs across the capital capturing the new energy of rock’n’roll.

“I’ve got some wonderful shots of Ian Drury here somewhere,” he says, indicating his past spread out on the floor beneath our feet, “It’s just a question of finding the negs. I don’t think I ever printed them up, not properly. Ian was fairly new on the scene at the time and Stiff Records commissioned me to get some live performance shots – only I was never paid, so I filed the whole lot away but they are round here somewhere.”

This is the first year that Amedeo has taken part in Suffolk Open Studios and he wants his home-cum-studio to reflect the work he has produced over the last 30 years.

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“I was born in London. My father was head-hunted to be a waiter at The Savoy. He had worked for a time at the Hotel Luna in Venice and in Harry’s Bar. Apparently, while at Harry’s Bar, he famously had an argument with Ernest Hemmingway. It’s said that Hemmingway kicked up a stink because he felt he wasn’t getting served fast enough. He came up with that immortal line: ‘Don’t you know who I am?’ My father just looked at him and said: ‘No, who are you.’ Apparently Hemmingway behaved himself after that.”

Unfortunately, for Amedeo relations with his family weren’t always easy while growing up and in 1966 he went to Italy: “I went to art school in Rome and really found myself. It was quite a struggle because I didn’t really know what I wanted to do or what I wanted to be. I had a friend, who was a couple of years older than me and he suggested that I would do well at art school and he was right. I came out top in my year.”

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He said that the biggest change that happened while at art school was that over the three years, he became less interested in painting and drawing and increasingly interested in photography. Having left art school he then spent a short period working at the internationally famous Cinecitta film studios.

“Then from 1974-78 I went backwards and forwards between London and Rome trying to decide where I wanted to be and what I wanted to do. I suppose I have done a lot. I always kept myself busy but a lot of my achievement was indecision.”

He added that when he arrived back in London in 1978, the arrogance of youth meant that he phoned up Magnum Photo Agency, the world’s leading supplier of freelance images, and said that he was prepared to join their agency. “There was stunned silence at the other end of the phone. Then this very patient voice explained that it doesn’t work like that, Magnum invites you to join. I think I saw myself as a photo-journalist going round the world, covering the world’s trouble spots. Sadly they never phoned me back.”

He freelanced for a few years, working for a pair of Scandinavian newspapers chasing Bjorn Borg across north London at the height of his Wimbledon fame but quickly tired of the paparazzi lifestyle. “I just couldn’t do it. It was soul destroying, How many times can do take the same picture? How many times can you photograph someone getting out of a cab or coming out of a doorway?”

He said that he didn’t come from an artistic background and for many years he was convinced he was going to be an engineer. “From the age of about 11 or 12 I have always been fascinated with cars and engines. I love them. I still do. I was convinced that I was going to spend my life designing sports cars.

“So although I became a photographer, there has always been this engineering aspect to my life and I think in a funny way they do go hand-in-hand. I am interested in how things are constructed. At arts school I studied art, architecture and design. In design there is a certain amount of engineering – if you design a chair, you want to be able to sit on it.”

He said that images and photography gradually crept their way into his world and he realised that he enjoyed being a photographer. It’s a world which continues to fascinate him and he delights in keeping himself abreast of the latest developments. Last week, he informs me, he attended a digital video training course in London and now plans to incorporate video into his future work.

“Many modern cameras can now do high-defintion video as well and it’s great to have that option.”

He said that his two sons were keen to help their father develop his video skills and had offered their support. “My eldest son is a musician, so he has been cast as a willing victim in my video designs and the other son works as a visual effects technician in London. They are both very keen and it’s just a little project for the three of us to keep things interesting.”

He said that if he were forced to choose just one area to work in, then it would be portraiture. “It is portraiture and street photography which has sustained me over the years. The two areas don’t really meet but they do have something in common which is documenting change.

“For example, yesterday I took photographs of a woman who is now 26 years old. But when I first took her picture she was 18 – for her birthday – and you see the changes in the person. It would be great to take another portrait in another ten years and so on, and you can see how people change and grow.

“That’s the same with places. I have been doing that in Rome. It started when I was at art school, there was a place where we used to go and draw. When I stopped drawing , I started photographing the place. I have been back several times and have continued to chart the changes in the area.”

He said that although he still has his original camera, it left his possession for many years. “It’s a bizarre story. When I finally left Rome in 1978 I sold the camera to a friend, who gave it to another friend, who used it in her job as a set designer for 20 odd years and on the 25th anniversary of having taken certain photographs I went back to Rome, managed to buy back that camera and went around photographing those exact same places again.

“The amazing thing was because cameras had changed so much in the intervening 25 years, as soon as I picked it up, I felt I had been transported back in time 25 years. The weight of it, the feel of it was so different to modern cameras, that I felt I had literally stepped back in time.”

He said that there were certain scenes that he went to re-photograph armed with photo-copies of his original pictures, so he could duplicate the angles precisely. Others were caught by moments of deja vu. “I’d be walking about and I would suddenly remember taking a shot, so I would immediately set about trying to recreate it. Even without the photocopy I managed to get a different version of the same scene which was fairly accurate. It’s amazing how the image stays in your head, even after 25 years.”

He said that one of the objects of the Suffolk Open Studios event was to show several of these shots taken over half-a-lifetime. His particular favourites include a group of strolling street musicians which he was able to match, entirely by accident 25 years later, and a sidestreet in Rome which was decorated with various murals including a flying donkey. Gradually the area has been gentrified and cleaned up. One by one the murals have disappeared but the flying donkey remains.

“Suffolk Open Studios has been great in focusing my mind and getting all these pictures together. I have been planning on doing this for ages but never got around to it. Now I am part of Suffolk Open Studios I have to get on with it.”

Suffolk Open Studios is an annual opportunity to talk to artists and photographers in their studios or workspaces and see first hand what goes into making art happen. It allows the public to talk to artists as they work or be given a guided talk about the work on view and gain an insight into how an artist goes about their work and how they see the world.

Although, Amedeo views the digital revolution with some trepidation, he’s never been afraid to embrace change – although computers fill him with dread, he does love his new digital cameras and has accepted that the quality they now produce does match the best of the old medium and large format cameras of old.

“My career has always been about change, you have to move with the times. I may still have my old camera I started with but also have new modern digital cameras, I am planning to start experimenting with video, so there is plenty to inspire me, keep me busy and the mind sharp.”

He said that one of the defining tenets of his photography is that he never crops anything. Amedeo is a great believer in getting the composition right when you are taking the picture. “If you are shooting 35mm then you need all the negative area you can get.”

Amedeo Castellani’s studio at 8, Ash Close, Woodbridge, IP12 4BP is open this weekend as well as on June 19/20 and 26/27 from 11am to 5pm.

It is part of Suffolk Open Studios event where 142 local artists open their doors to the public for a series of Open House weekends in June. Directories are available from libraries, tourist information offices and galleries and further information is available online at

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