Leonardo Magrelli on Exhibiting at PhMuseum Days

Discovered through last year's Festival Open Call, the exhibition of West of Here played with the codes of photographic realism, giving shape to deceptively classic views of a city that does not exist.

As the PhMuseum Days 2024 Open Call is now welcoming applications, we touched base with the selected artists of last year's edition to delve into their process and experience in Bologna. Here, Leonardo Magrelli guides us through the key concepts of his project, while recalling moments from the festival's opening weekend.

Ciao Leonardo. Can you briefly guide us through your process of collecting and editing images online in the making of West of Here? How did your narrative take shape through time?

The story begins in the last months of 2019, when I started watching a lot of videos on YouTube of people playing GTA V. While I was doing so, I was taking a lot of screenshots, just for my own pleasure. Then, I started visiting GTA-related blogs on the internet, where people would post screenshots they took in the game for various reasons – people would post pictures of places they discovered on the map, or they may need some help moving on in a mission, and so on. And still, I was saving a lot of these images. In particular, I was captivated by the pictures made to promote those kinds of mods that enhance the graphics and make the game look better and more realistic. In order to show how realistic the video game becomes, the developers release some images which have very interesting visual features. They look nothing like the usual images made by professional in-game photographers. In fact, they adopt a very objective, deadpan, and straightforward point of view, which resembles very closely the visual language of the Documentary Style and the New Topographics. 

So, at a certain point, I knew I had to do something with all these images and screenshots that I had saved or taken. They had so much potential, and how much more interesting it was to come across all these references in images found online, rather than me being the one who took the pictures! That would have been a boring, self-referential work in my opinion. Furthermore, the idea of reusing these pictures – cropping, editing, sequencing, and changing them to black and white – turned out to be an interesting way to speak about a lot of different issues. 

Not only was it a way to take this collective memory of a place that doesn’t exist and turn it into a single narrative, but also it allowed me to speak about the meaning of authorship, about the ubiquitous proliferation of pictures on the web, about the boundaries of contemporary photography, where there is no more trace of reality, no physical referent behind a lens. And lastly, the most important thing, it was a way to investigate the ambiguity of the photographic image and the fact that we cannot help but trust photography, even when we know full well we shouldn’t.

Do exhibitions play an active role in your artistic practice? Is it something you think about while producing work, or does it come in a later phase?

Absolutely, it does play an active role, and as soon as I have a photographic work in mind, I start thinking altogether about how to present it, how to make it into a physical object. Sometimes, this is a completely symbiotic process, and the images and their support are so entangled and enriched by one another that it would be impossible for me to consider that picture as something separated from its physical support. Of course, exhibitions are a step further in this direction, and what makes them ever interesting is the fact that you can test the physicality of your work. Usually, I know how I want my work to be presented, but it is a form that can adapt to different situations, and that’s the fun in exhibitions!

What did it mean for you to showcase your work at PhMuseum Days 2023?

To name just one example among many possible others, it meant what I was just saying about exhibiting one’s own work. It was challenging and fun to adapt my idea of the project to the incredible spaces of DUMBO in Bologna, and working with a team of other people helped tremendously.

Can you share something of your experience in Bologna during the opening weekend, as part of a group of international artists?

The first thing I can say is that I have some really great memories of those days. Lots of people to meet and chat with, very interesting talks and presentations, a really pleasant place to be! On top of that, there wasn’t a single artist whose work I didn’t know and admire. Some of them were already dear friends, some of them I had never met before. In both cases, it was a pleasure to share time together and get to know them better.

Any advice to share with other photographers on how to present their work for the application?

I’m happy to share what worked for me, which was a very accurate process of editing the images and writing a good statement. I guess it helps to know what the strengths and weaknesses are of your own work, in order to emphasize the former and navigate around the latter. In my case, for instance, part of the point of the series is to “trick” the viewers into believing that they’re just looking at another black and white documentary survey of Los Angeles. This means that without knowing what’s behind these apparently derivative images, the work seems pretty inconsistent. So, when applying, I tried to make this as clear as possible to avoid this “weak” spot and manage to capture the proper attention of the jury. I hope this makes some sense!

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All images © Leonardo Magrelli

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Leonardo Magrelli's project West of Here was selected last year through the PhMuseum Days open call. Apply to the new edition of the open call to have the chance of exhibiting in Bologna, Italy next September. The early bird deadline is set for 18 April, the standard deadline for 9 May.

© Detail of West Of Here by Leonardo Magrelli at PhMuseum Days 2023
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© Detail of West Of Here by Leonardo Magrelli at PhMuseum Days 2023