January 01, 2011 — Photography leads most on a journey down different and often changing paths before arriving at a place of serenity. Some are determined to remain on the journey forever. For Mattia Balsamini a passion for photography has taken him on a journey more than 6100 miles from his home in Italy, so he could discover what truly made him happy.
“Photography changed my life because it made me decide I wanted to do something and it made me take a stand for myself,” Balsamini says. “I was unsure about what I was going to do in high school because in Italy you make that decision early on and you stick with it. Very rarely do you switch careers. I ended up in an accounting school so I always thought I would be sitting at a desk. One day it hit me and I just couldn’t believe this was what I was going to be doing for the rest of my life. At that point, I made myself step back and think about what I really wanted to do.”
Balsamini says he has always been drawn to images and imagery, whether it was photos, video, drawings or paintings. “Even as a child they immediately took me to another place and made me forget where I was,” he says. “At 15, my father gave me an old Nikon F90x and I had the opportunity to create images of my own. I enjoyed being creative and it wasn’t until I stepped back that I realized I wanted to pursue photography. I couldn’t find a photography school in Italy and someone suggested Brooks [Institute of Photography] to me and after looking into it—that was that. I moved away from friends, family, a girlfriend and everything, and started from scratch. Photography revolutionized everything I knew and put me somewhere completely different, but it’s a journey—my open door to happiness.”
With his decision made he left the small town of Sacile, with a population of around 20,000 people, for Los Angeles. The bustle of a major metropolis caused Balsamini to learn and understand the power of a single image to stop someone dead in his or
“Often you have one opportunity to catch a viewer’s attention with just a single image,” he says. “If I am able to connect with people in just one image then I am a successful communicator, which I have always strived to be.”
This is the mentality he has taken with recent projects like his Bio-Illogical or Incredible Machines series, as well as his Home project. Each started as an assignment requiring a single image, and Balsamini expanded each one into a series.
“Bio-Illogical has been my obsession for a long time now,” he says of his series that depicts different foods combined with different parts of the body. “The idea behind is was to portray how wrong I think it is that we over process what we eat. We alter it so much that it’s not even real anymore. We’ve gotten to the point where every product we produce in our society is too polished and too distanced from what it was meant to be. So I tried to exploit that in a way that was creepy enough that you think it is weird and nasty.”
His favorite image from the series is a photograph of a lobster with two hind legs that have running shoes on the feet. Adding an eyeball in an egg yoke, screaming mouths on each of several avocado pits or a banana that grows muscled arms are not a difficult stretch for Balsamini to come up with. “I think sometimes I am already pretty twisted and I will look at things and let my mind wander with them,” he says. “I was eating lunch with a friend and he was eating corn on the cob, and I said to him ‘how weird would it be if a hand came shooting out of the cob and just started strangling me?’ Of course, after a thought like that, you have to shoot it.
Stupid talk like that with your friends can turn into something great. And if it doesn’t, it doesn’t matter because it’s personal work anyway. After doing this project though, I envision body parts everywhere.”
Each of the concepts in the series was conceived, shot and composited individually. “I pretty much try to plan every final image before I started shooting and then I shot one concept and worked on it before moving on to the next,” he says.
Balsamini became very efficient in Photoshop through the work involved in this project. He says the initial images took nearly six hours of postproduction to create the final image. “It sounds crazy for how simple they look, but I wasn’t very proficient at the time. This project actually helped me form some of the methods I use today to be more efficient while editing and creating things from scratch.”
The Incredible Machines series came from a more personal place than Bio-Illogical, and brought Balsamini back to his childhood. “I know I’m just 23, and maybe I am not that far removed from my childhood, so I shouldn’t miss it so much, but I do,” he says. “I used to think I was an inventor as a child. I had a box in the trunk of my dad’s Mercedes that was filled with old electronic chips, tools, broken down computer pieces, and when we would go somewhere I used to ride in the trunk—I think this is illegal now—and I would be building or tearing stuff apart. I wasn’t really building anything but the idea of creating something from scratch that looked cool really got me excited.”
An assignment to combine textures in Photoshop, lead Balsamini to the backdrop for Incredible Machines.
“I shot some wood, tape and some old yellow paper. As I was combining them they started reminding me of my box of stuff. The background started looking more like Leonardo da Vinci sketches and it brought back the thoughts of creating and inventing. This brought me to decide to make a kids book of inventions where I would combine objects to make something new. The background became my pages of the inventor’s book.”
Some of these combinations had more reason to go together than others, such as a Coca-Cola bottle fire extinguisher, or a lipstick tube with a bullet coming out of the end. “The Coke bottle was where I realized they didn’t need to look completely real and flawless, I could just give the idea that they are together, so literally in that shot the Coke bottle has a line in the middle where the extinguisher ends and the bottle starts.”
Balsamini has taken this approach of rejecting perfection and overly polished art to his style of shooting, which he says is more along the lines of commercial lifestyle work with a quirky twist. “I’m getting away from the clean representation of things and trying to dirty it up by including elements you wouldn’t normally find in a shot just because they would ruin your shot,” he says. “Commercial photography is polished to an unreal perfection and everyone is used to it. You can have a guy jumping off a cliff with flames shooting out of his eyes and people are no longer shocked or surprised by it. But by producing commercial work that is less polished and maybe which contains some placed mistakes in there, you can take the viewer back to the point where they wonder if it is a snapshot or a produced shot. It’s my idea anyway.”
On his Way Home
After three years away from home, Balsamini graduated with a degree in advertising from Brooks in December. The time away from family and friends and the town he loves has made him miss his home. And, as any artist does, he wanted to express that in some type of project and his Home project began to take shape.
“I’m really connected to my family and place of birth,” Balsamini says. “I started thinking about what home means to all of us. I began approaching homeless people in Santa Barbara with the intent of photographing some for this project, but it took a lot longer than I thought because many of them have been photographed many times before and they hated it and didn’t want their photo taken. So I ended up spending a lot of time with them just talking before I ever mentioned bringing a camera with me. I asked them what their thoughts were about home and told them about my experiences. In the end I photographed 10 and I asked them to write on a piece of paper what ‘home’ meant to them. Some said they didn’t care about home anymore. Others said they were really happy where they were now. This was their choice and they are happy with it. It was touching for me to see how people can be happy without having much of anything. It was a very
Balsamini could relate in some regards having left everything that was home back in Italy. “I pretty much just hopped on a plane and left everything I had,” he says. “This has been a great experience, but I am excited to go home.”
Before he takes off on the next leg of his journey, Balsamini is paving the way to have photographic clients in the U.S. and back in Italy. “I will stay in L.A. for a little while after graduation to build up clientele in both places. I will be looking to find some reps here so that I can do commercial work in both places,” he says. “I have been fortunate to work with some amazing people. I have done retouching and assisting for some great photographers here, but it’s time to turn the page and I have to see where this road takes me. I’ll plan ahead and set things up, but I don’t want to force anything on this journey, I want to let it happen and see where I end up.”
To view more of Mattia Balsamini’s work, visit his Web site at
Joe Pangburn is a freelance writer and editor from Tucson, AZ. He co-owns a photography business with his wife Kadie and he likes to think the end is always worth the journey.