Massimiliano Tommaso Rezza, Images from Psalm, Witty Books, 2020, ( Courtesy: Massimiliano Tommaso Rezza).


Massimiliano Tommaso Rezza is a photographer and the founder of Pneumatica,  an independent publishing project. Merely a few years after its inception, Pneumatica has already published five photo books that are sought after and acquired by collectors from several countries. In addition, Massimiliano’s two other books have been released by other publishing houses (ATEM, Yard Press, 2015; Psalm, Witty Books, 2020). 

Over ten years ago, Massimiliano moved from noisy Rome to his small hometown of Roccasecca. We are talking while taking a walk through Roccasecca’s spectacular gorge along a dried-out mountain river.

 MishMash: You started your publishing project during Covid when respiration was the main theme in the world. Tell us about the name you gave it – Pneumatica.

Massimiliano Rezza: Well, true, it is ironic and strange. I printed the first Pneumatica book in December 2019 and presented it in Rome at the end of February 2020. A week later, the whole world came to a halt, especially in Italy, where we had to go through two stringent lockdown periods. An airborne, invisible agent entered our systems via the lungs. Breathing air was at the center of public attention and worries. We were about to face the limits and fragility of our beliefs, cultural illusions, and defenses. We were entering an era that would change the world forever. Modernity, as we knew it, was about to end there, or at least to be perceived as a fragile project.  And Pneumatica— another strange coincidence — is a publishing project that critically focuses on some ideological aspects of modernity. I do think modernity should reintegrate themes, subjects, and behaviors that have been banned, eliminated, or erased by the hubris of its ideology. That said, I am not embracing reactionary stances here. As for the project’s name, in ancient Greek, “pneuma” means breathing, air, soul, and living spirit. I found that the word “pneumatica” is perfect because, at first, it reminds us of hydraulic engineering. Still, then if you dig into its etymology, you may find that its roots belong to the lexicon and cultural area of spirituality. 

Massimiliano Tommaso Rezza, Guarda, un cavallo di legno (Look, A Wooden Horse) 2023. (Courtesy: Massimiliano Tommaso Rezza)

MM: Walking in this gorgeous landscape, it’s difficult for me to resist the urge to take thousands of photos of this place. You grew up here and have been living your whole life in this beauty. But now you more often use found, vernacular photographs — you work with ready-made pictures rather than with photos taken by you. Why? Does it have something to do with the economy of informational space?

MR: Well, working either with vernacular photos or with my own photos is very different, even though these two types of images can, at times, share a common horizon and goal. Often the product of amateurs and beginners, vernacular photography is created without pretenses: it is not aimed at catching the public’s attention using masterfully prepped pictures. Instead, vernacular photography sparks from the urge to record an ephemeral event within the physical world before it disappears. This urge shows its existential roots since it derives somehow from the awareness that all things are transient. The real events caught by vernacular photography can be, for example, the presence of a beloved person (as in family albums), but also an unusual weather phenomenon, a public event, and so on. Amateur photography deals with memory, immanence, and existence. 

On the other hand, and according to my idea of photography, authorial photography is a cultured translation of an actual event into an image. This translation at the hands of a professional photographer —a qualified and informed person – makes the photograph depart from the physical world and reach the domain of forms and the logic of aesthetics. The photo, in this case, represents a visual diagram of linguistic influences. A masterfully taken photograph is not as earthly as the vernacular image can be. The object in these skilled photos turns out to be beautiful, well put, but lifeless and embalmed. The object is but an excuse; it is not the main reason the photographer took that photo. His latent reason was to be communicative, social, and professional. I am, of course, also very attracted to this type of photo, but for the exact opposite sense of the vernacular. In professional photos, I see both the weight of conventions in making an image and the departure from reality, which is their “negative” nature. 

Massimiliano Tommaso Rezza, Images from Psalm, Witty Books, 2020. (Courtesy: Massimiliano Tommaso Rezza).

MM: Working with found photographs, you become a director; one way or another, you construct a text – written or implied. What role does text play in your photobooks?

 MR: I agree with you when you say that when working with someone else’s photos, you consequently become an editor or a director, and I also agree that the text can be both written, i.e., explicit or invisible, therefore, implicit. In the case of the first book published by Pneumatica, “Un certo Salvatore M.” (“A certain Salvatore M.,” (Pneumatica, 2020)), I used vernacular photographs accompanied by a long text about the specific social practice and use of photography. The book presents 100 photographic portraits of an Italian state employee who was photographed by his wife to prove to himself that he was a socially accomplished person. In this case, the camera has a similar function to a mirror in which one would like to verify, adjust, and fix those proper and adapted aspects of their social persona. In fact, the camera can be a socially normative tool that corrects one’s inappropriate demeanor or reveals their success in presenting themselves. The camera is the eye of a third person who looks at and judges us.  So, in the case of this book, my written intervention substitutes the role of shooting photos, as one may not expect from an artist/photographer. The photographer turns into a writer. Of course, this text does not look for the truth but merely presents an opinion, a possible response one can have dealing with the images of a stranger’s photo biography. In another book, “Palatography, or the Risks of Arbitrary Interpretations of Scientific Documents” (Pneumatica, 2022), my text consists of an interview with Professor Keith Johnson (phonetician from Berkeley University) about the use of photographs of the human palate – or palatography – and how a generic reader can interpret aesthetically mere scientific documents. In at least three books, I shortened the text to just a couple of lines or didn’t add any text altogether. In these latter cases, I used photographs as enigmatic images, open to interpretation. Overall, I do not think I follow a precise plan when adding text to a book. It always depends on “that” specific collection of photos.

Massimiliano Tommaso Rezza. Photos from the book Un certo Salvatore M., Pneumatica, 2019. (Courtesy: Massimiliano Tommaso Rezza)

MM: “Un certo Salvatore M.” is like a two-season series – first, you look and think about this person, then read your text and the whole story of finding these pictures. And only later you realize this image of loneliness that appears in your perception until the last two pages is an illusion. Because it takes a second person to document loneliness: finally, Salvatore was pictured with his wife, who stayed unknown to us until the very end of the book, where they finally meet in the picture. But wait! Someone was behind the camera then!

MR: Yes, the book wants to offer a view on a conundrum: can we correctly interpret the photos captured by people we do not know? Does the photograph show enough data so that our deduction based on them can be considered likely? Or is the photo so poor in data that it always remains a partial piece of information despite its analogy with the physical world? While working on this book, for example, I realized that any narrative based on photographs is subjective or belongs to a discourse community; it remains somehow a sophistic exercise. My text, in fact, lies exactly halfway between sophism and semiotic explanation. 

Massimiliano Tommaso Rezza, Spread of the book ABM, Pneumatica, 2022. (Courtesy: Massimiliano Tommaso Rezza)

MM: Making a book – also a collaboration, how does the participation of others affect the outcomes? How important to you is your role as director, and creator – do you welcome unpredictable forces, the chance? Do you like the role of director or observer more?

MR: I work well only with people I trust, like, and appreciate. I am generally very excited about collaborating and working on a team. It often creates surprises, and it expands the outcome. Yes, as for the intervention of chance and mystery in my work, this is a very, very important issue for me. As I said before, referring to vernacular photography, the presence of an external agent, a lively intervention caused by chance, unexpectedness, and probability, allows what we are observing, the world out there, to resist the aesthetic control of the person behind the camera. Life is always bigger, louder, and more significant than we think, or show. It is an unpredictable and untamed entity that no one can pin, freeze, assemble, and arrange, however good an artsit might be. If the intervention of chance has fertilized an image, then that picture is no longer just an image or a description. Instead, it is permeated by lively intrusions and, therefore, effuses existence. I mean that the intervention of chance translates precisely to the untamable nature of the world out there. Chance is a living factor that ruins an artist photographer’s plans of controlling reality. It is the best evidence that life is bigger than any artistic creation. 

 I work alone— I chose a type of life that some may call solitary. I live in a small town, so it is evident that all I do originates from this way of living and from the environment. From the moment I decided to move to a small place, I also thought about changing how I work: my work would mainly rely on a very personal urge. And after all, I became even more confused about what photography meant to me, so I had to verify what exactly it is for me. But one thing I really wanted to achieve in such a small place is independence from the artistic society, influences, and norms. So now I think my life and artistic practice are more closely linked. To respond to the second part of your question, I think a director must first be a good observer. Observing is not just seeing, looking, and gazing, but it is an act that requires instantaneous collaboration between the senses and the mind.  

Psalm, 2020, Published by Witty Books, Turin. (Courtesy: Massimiliano Tommaso Rezza)

MM: We thought of the whole body of your works as a meditative flow, a loneliness in some divine uterus space, a form of exile from mortal vanity. Is this so in the end? Is it a visual lullaby?

 MR: I like your words in this question: meditative, flow, loneliness, the space of a sort of divine uterus, exile from mundane affairs. I was not made to have a pragmatic, materialistic, and to-do-list type of life. I need to physically be where people are still willing to admit the existence of mysteries, dogmas, opaque reasons, and unutterable events. I truly and reasonably believe that we humans will never be able to understand the logic of existence. So, while in my current work, I am still dealing with the materialistic analysis of media and images, in the future, I would love to create more works that can rely on poetry, and I am talking about poetic works that remain hermetic and impermeable to description or interpretation. Actually, the work “Psalm,” published by Witty Books in 2020, is an attempt to create such a type of work, and in fact, was based on the poem by the same name written by Paul Celan. Not much can be deduced from a poem; no practical information could be extracted from it. A poem is a poem, its true nature is obscure, and for this reason, its voice resonates longer than anything else within us. Yes, poetry is based on useless, unutterable, unachievable, and invisible things, all out of reach. I am beginning to think that good work is actually unexplainable, like existence, but also pleasing, like a lullaby.