Mike Rossi - South Africa
Iran to India
I was born in a small oil refinery town called Abadan, Iran. It lies at the point where the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers meet on the Persian Gulf, to an Italian, Chaldean, Russian father and a French mother. My father’s retirement plans changed every few years and so I moved from country to country with my first two siblings. And as the family grew, eventually reaching a sizable number and some say lucky, of seven, they followed the same pattern.
My first years were spent in Iran. When I reached an age where a formal education was needed, I was packed off with my chaperone grandmother on a steam ship, the SS Dara, from the Persian Gulf with my two siblings, via Karachi to a boarding school a hundred or so kilometres north of Madras (now Chennai). It was convenient for my parents as my grandparents lived in Madras. But they had no plans on babysitting us. Boarding school was a nine-month term. During school holidays we would take the train to Bombay (now Mumbai) with my chaperone grandmother, via Poona and sail back to our parents in Iran, where my orthodontist dad would do his yearly check ups on my growing teeth. I always remember the journey on the coal trains and the bellowing nimbus clouds of coal smoke, slowly chugging through the vast hinterland of paddy fields.
Italy to Britain
My father no doubt influenced my interest in photography. Whenever I looked up, there he stood, smiling, encouraging, with camera in hand, either asking us to perform some Houdini trick or sneaking behind a bush to catch us unawares. Trick photography was his other interest. Wide-eyed we asked him how he created his deceptions? “Oh! That’s my secret” he would answer. In an era of no computers and digital trickery we just marvelled at his magic.
In the early years he’d snap us with a 35 mm Zeiss Ikon Contac. And as the school bills started to go away he bought himself a twin-lens Rolleiflex. I use to watch him meticulously clean his baby and gently pack it away in his square leather camera bag. I still have his camera. Once in a while, I take out the Rolleiflex— and give it a good clean. Often, I’d look up, half expecting him to be peering at me through the overgrown palm in the corner of the room.
When my grandfather died in 1957, my father decided Rome was the place to retire to — yes, he was going back to his ancestral routes. Italy, Dad said, was definitely where he was going to settle in his golden years. Two years later, he had a disagreement with the Jesuit priests and my mother took us off to the UK. There I finished my formal education, first at a preparatory school in Southern Wales, being tutored by Dominican priests. This spiritual tutelage continued into my senior education.
Britain to South Africa
Then the swinging sixties arrived, as did the cult movie ‘Blow up’. And every young lad wanted to be a photographer. Yes, nubile young ladies prancing around a photographic studio offering their tidbits did excite us all; so I went to study photography at the Medway College of Art, in Kent. Three years later with a portfolio in hand I went in search of a job.
Much as I love photography, I didn’t want to be a skivvy to some male chauvinistic London photographer and watch him prancing around with nubile young models. I also realised that my relationship with photography was totally self-indulgent. No, I was not going to make a living taking photographs of packs of detergent powder and bars of chocolate.
Unsure, I wandered from pub job to pub job. I fell into a group of advertising creatives and discovered the conceptual thinking of Bill Bernbach. I put down the Hasselblad 500c that I’d begged, pleaded and cajoled my dad for, and searched the streets of London for some visionary creative director to offer me a job. I soon discovered there were 6000 other young competitors wandering the streets with me.
Two years later I was a young art director at an advertising agency called Benton & Bowles under the mentorship of a very talented copywriter by the name of Richard Smith. Within twelve months my work was accepted into D&AD. British Design and Art Direction is the ultimate creative person’s prize. I found fame but not money; although I got to travel a bit for the agency, to foreign places like Paris, Amsterdam, and their pot bars.
Several green carrots were dangled. I chose the sunny skies of South Africa. More awards followed with more agencies. Within two years I settled into a creative partnership with Mike Freedman. More awards followed with more clients. We were having fun.
Twenty-five years later the turn of the century arrived, and with that, my interests turned back to photography — my self-indulgence was back. Open landscapes have always taken my breath away, often quite literally. The dry heat of the Limpopo has often traveled through the passages of my nostrils like a rampaging bush fire, reminiscent of nose contact with a live Jalapeño chilli. And when the heat has died down, there’s the sweet smell of mother earth entwined with garlic during an African thunderstorm.
In 2005 I started a journey traveling South Africa, photographing disappearing landscapes under a mantle of darkened skies.
As blackened cumulus-nimbus clouds are uncommon in the South African countryside, each photograph is a moment captured in time, never to be repeated – I have gone back, six, seven, even a dozen times just to capture Nimbus’s form over a particular landscape. Often finding some of the scenery had disappeared through commercial exploitation and nature.
My self-indulgence is private. But with some coaxing from Mike Freedman, the support of Greg Garden of Nedbank and the timely arrival of Cape Town ‘Festival of photography’ in 2012, it was an opportunity to reveal the ever-increasing plight of the South African koppies.
At present I live in Cape Town focusing on writing, photography and waiting for Nimbus.