Would you like a coffee?

By - Roberto Mutti -

A long time ago when making arrangements with a photographer who wanted to show me her portfolio, I suggested: “Let’s meet at my studio in piazza del Duomo”. Once we began seeing each other more often, she told me that at first she’d been taken aback, but then when I invited her inside the bar which looks out over the square, she thought I was joking. But no, when meeting photographers and viewing their work, which is part and parcel of my work as a critic, I have chosen different bars as veritable studios. I first began doing so because I like to take the edge off the situation (anyone waiting for your judgement is bound to be tense), but also because they are welcoming places, where you can start the meeting off with a coffee. There’s this whole ritual which takes the edge off the atmosphere and helps us to get to know one another. Sharing the fact that you drink coffee with no sugar sets the foundation for a relationship between coffee enthusiasts. I also observe whether they take small sips or finish it in one go and immediately place the cup to one side. This is a sign of impatience and also a clue as to their personality, although I don’t always get it right. I still remember the first time I met him, at a Sicof a long time ago, the great reporter Francesco Cito was participating with his personal exhibition. During the interview I couldn’t help but notice his ultra ristretto coffee languishing in the corner. I thought that he’d simply forgotten about it, because he’d got so carried away with his story – Francesco’s always been a remarkable storyteller – but no: I’d discovered the only Neapolitan on the face of this earth who enjoys his coffee lukewarm. Let’s get back to choosing a bar, it requires careful consideration: you can’t sit at a table that is too small; it is important that there isn’t too much noise; they should also let you stay for a while without giving you dirty looks. The serving of quality coffee is absolutely essential, otherwise all efforts to create a relaxed atmosphere will be undermined. It doesn’t matter if it’s a very elegant place: Jamaica, the famous bar where the lives of illustrious photographers the likes of Mario Dondero, Mario Mulas, Uliano Lucas, Alfa Castaldi and Jacqueline Vodoz crossed paths, was just an ordinary place where lots of coffee was served, not least because it was the cheapest thing on the menu. I like to think this was what it was like in Paris, at Le Deux Magots, where Robert Doisneau and his friend Jacques Prévert met, or at Shakespeare & C, where Man Ray would often sit. Who knows if Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Capa, after recognising each other as photographers on a bus, went to discuss their plans on creating an agency in one of those places where you sip your coffee next to a large window looking out on the street. The staggering variety of bars in Milan enables me to indulge in the matching of the characteristics of a venue with those of photographers: generously-sized tables for viewing portfolios, crowded places for fleeting communication, upholstered armchairs and low coffee tables for taking the first steps towards future books, pleasant déhors to get the low down on how the Photofestival is going. Then there are places where you can get to know each other before even catching glimpse of photos, to see whether the right chemistry is there, whether or not you feel like working together. I can remember an example of everything starting with an invitation to lunch; I feared the person in front of me would not conclude with a coffee as otherwise they’d have trouble falling asleep at night. This wasn’t the case and it had an immediate effect on the formality of conversation, which glided effortlessly from elegance to complicity. Since then we have chosen two bars, in two different parts of town, and we alternate to best suit each other’s commitments. When a project starts to take shape we take things slow. We sit down, order two coffees and begin by talking about anything from our favourite films or photographers, or something which perplexes us; perhaps if I have a photographic book with me, then we pick it apart together. If a friendship also emerges from all of this, I like to think that it all began from the words “Would you like a coffee?”.

Roberto Mutti
Roberto Mutti is a journalist, critic and teacher of photography at Accademia Teatro alla Scala and the Istituto Italiano di Fotografia; he curates exhibitions of young promising as well as affirmed authors. Author of numerous books, catalogues and monographs on photography, he is the artistic director of the Milan Photofestival and heads the department of the action house Finarte.