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Grillo is an expert in medieval art history, specifically Italian paintings of the 14th century, as well as Renaissance and 17th-century Dutch painting. His book Symbolic Structures: The Role of Composition in Signaling Meaning in Italian Medieval Art explores how composition allows artists to better express their ideas.
For Grillo, photography has become a way to more fully understand the choices painters made. For instance, it’s one thing to read about Vermeer’s use of a camera obscura — a filmless camera that provides perspectives beyond what the eye can see. It’s another to get behind the camera and imagine what lenses the painter used — and, more important, why.
“I wouldn’t have known until I made those choices,” Grillo says. “It’s exactly those wide-angle shots that give you portraits where the person is nestled within an environment, where the environment is as important as the individual. It wasn’t until I started taking these photographs that I fully understood it.”
Beyond optics, photography has given Grillo a better understanding of the more mundane aspects of historical paintings. Take, for example, his photographs of a family camping trip. Though the scenes are different — a picnic, children swimming, a hiking boot and knapsack sitting on a rock — the ideas that drive Grillo are similar to those that drove Jan Steen or Pieter de Hooch.
“Steen asks, ‘Where’s the world we live in?’” Grillo says. “De Hooch paints people conversing in their spaces. These are rehearsed domestic scenes.”
Grillo’s street photography — urban portraits shot after chatting up his subjects — aims to capture Hendrick ter Brugghen’s theatricality. The whole process of negotiating the photograph was a performance. His domestic scenes, which feature his family, friends and neighbors going about their daily lives, reflect the “social warmth” he sees in Italian medieval works by Giotto and the Lorenzetti brothers.
“It’s staging people in their normal life,” Grillo says. “That’s the principal realm driving my photographs.”