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Fiction Talk

A conversation between photographer Florian Böhm and set designer Paolo Bonfini

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A conversation between photographer Florian Böhm and set designer Paolo Bonfini, behind the scenes of the Vitra Fiction production in Rome, 16 January, 2012.

Florian Böhm Vitra Fiction started by looking at Select&Arrange, Vitra’s 2005 catalogue, which was based around a wonderful and, at the time, innovative idea. The catalogue took the reader into places that were real and tried to transmit an idea of what actual homes were like. Yet people tend to get bored by too much reality. Today everyone has a camera, and they take pictures everywhere and any given moment. The aesthetics of this trend are repetitive and nothing surprises us anymore, especially in advertising. In order to bring these spaces back to life, I suggested that we move from reality to fiction and present the furniture as part of a mise-en-scène.

Paolo Bonfini You brought elements of narration, people and movement into furniture product photography. But why did you go for re-enacted situations through the use of cinematic means and not those linked to documentary?

Florian Böhm Imagine how lucky someone has to be to have a camera at hand and release the shutter at the very second that a glass breaks. We did not have the means for such a feat, so we compromised and decided to approach this whole thing like a movie. A movie triggers our imagination and emotions and even though we know that it has been constructed, if it’s done well, we tend to believe that it could be real.

Paolo Bonfini True. A movie has a strong narrative structure and a sense of authenticity, while at the same time being completely staged.

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Florian Böhm It is convincing to the spectator because an actual person is actually doing something. Though technically there are very few differences between photography and filmmaking.

Paolo Bonfini The movie camera captures motion, in 24 pictures per second. It means that in 10 seconds you take 240 pictures. In an hour, 14’400… and so on. In photography you might spend an entire day over just one picture. What a difference!

Florian Böhm Whereas the beauty of filmmaking is that even if you isolate the individual frame you still perceive what you see as something that is part of a story. During the production the work of all the people involved – set design, light, sound, actors… – is concentrated on the story line.

Paolo Bonfini It is team work.

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Florian Böhm Thus this narrative quality gets embedded into the aesthetic of a movie screenshot.

Paolo Bonfini We shot in six different locations in Rome. Logistics, props and actors had to be organized as if it was an actual movie production, and in the end, it was. You invited me and my crew to do exactly what we do when we work on a movie. But this time something new was triggered, thanks to this different kind of collaboration.

Florian Böhm The backstage was real. We wanted to tell people’s way of living through the little incidents that everyday life is made up of.

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Paolo Bonfini Una storia di vita.

Florian Böhm A story by Vitra...

Paolo Bonfini... like the scene with the rolling mandarins.

Florian Böhm Yes, you drop something. Either you catch it or you have to get onto your knees to pick it up while it continues to roll under a table. This is simply one of those things that happen to all of us at some time or another. The choice of scenes is infinite and therefore it is not important to look at what actually happens, as long as what is shown is ordinary enough for anyone to relate to.

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Paolo Bonfini Indeed these scenes do not have a beginning, or an end. There is no actual storyline.

Florian Böhm We don’t really know anything about the person in the picture. What you see is just a fleeting moment…

Paolo Bonfini And the occasional subtitles don’t give a clear answer either. Florian Böhm The lines written by Eckhart Nickel are an additional layer to the image. They give clues, but no answers to the context of the scene. On one hand, subtitles come from a long tradition. First silent movies used subtitles because gestures could only say so much. Also Federico Fellini liked to use them and he often wrote the dialogue only during post-production.

Paolo Bonfini Usually the story line dictates everything and pieces of furniture are a means to an end. My work is about showing just enough of something but never too much. If something distracts the eye of the public away from an actor, you move it a bit further to the side. If I place an object in too prominent a position it is immediately recognized as product placement.

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Florian Böhm For this project it was the exact opposite. Our protagonists were the pieces of furniture themselves, the starring cast.

Paolo Bonfini In movies the overall feeling is important. We even have the freedom to use a fake, like a fake carpet or fake wallpaper to turn the scenes alive.

Florian Böhm Because the video resolution means that you won’t be able to see what is really happening. In photography you cannot escape the fact that someone will stop in front of your image and look at it closely blown up on the wall. There is no sound, no movement to distract the viewer. In high resolution things gain in meaning. We have to question every detail to be able to use the movie data also for still images.

Paolo Bonfini The frenzy of photography. On a movie set a glass of water is placed on a table. That’s it. It is something straightforward and simple and it does not really matter whether the glass is 2 cm to the left or right. What is important is that the glass is about to be picked up and smashed. The main task of a set designer is to maintain a lightness that seems natural, and can even appear to be random. In my line of work it is good to remember that we are not trying to save lives, we are only making a movie...


Florian Böhm …moving pictures…

Paolo Bonfini …or the backstage images of a movie…

Florian Böhm …of a non-existent movie about real life…

Paolo Bonfini …and the things that life is made of…

Florian Böhm …Vitra Fiction.