Samantha Casolari’s photographs shimmer with a warm haze that feels like flickering candlelight. The rich amber tones are serene and beautiful, so I laugh when she tells me that her biggest influence is classic black-and-white war photography. Calling from her home in Brooklyn, New York, on a cool November morning in 2020, she explains, “War has been one of my main interests since I was a young kid. In college, I studied conflict resolution and security studies. I went on to work in refugee camps.” She tells me that if I saw her bookshelf, I would run out the door.
Born in Modena, Italy, Casolari is drawn to the extremes of human experience. “I was interested originally in the politics and psychology that produce wars—how humans can adapt to such extremes,” Casolari says. “This led me to look for ways that people had visualized conflict.” She studied the war photographs made by the early members of Magnum Photos, the iconic agency created by Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa, George Rodger and David Seymour. She later interned at Magnum two days a week while she was an exchange student at Sorbonne University in Paris. “They were digitizing their archive, and it was a dream for a beginner like me to be able to dig into these massive archives,” she says. “It was my photo school in a way. I would study them, going through the contact sheets during my lunch breaks.”
Casolari’s proximity to the icons of reportage photojournalism inspired her to pursue photography more seriously. Her photo book collection grew with titles from the likes of Dorothea Lange and Berenice Abbott, and, as a result, she set out to make her own documentary images.
Casolari’s career began with a story about young people coming out of Sing Sing Correctional Facility, the maximum-security prison in New York. Her best friend in New York had been working with incarcerated people and introduced her to the realities of life after prison. Casolari, who thought the subject wasn’t given enough attention, contacted an editor at Vanity Fair Italy, and they decided to publish the images.
At the time, Casolari’s photographs looked very different from the way they do now. She embraced the reportage photojournalism style she had been looking at. “I thought, ‘I’m never going to crop. I am going to be a pure photographer,’” she recalls. “Eventually, I found that constraining. I wanted more freedom. I’m a more complicated person than that allows, so I let go and started experimenting.”
This turned out to be a very good idea. Her experimental work caught the eye of clients like Prada, Nike, Apple, Vogue and more. But having never formally studied photography, the learning curve was steep in commercial settings. “I didn’t know anything about photography as a career,” says Casolari. “I didn’t know what a portfolio was or how the photography world works.”
On an early-career Nike shoot in Italy, she recalls how she didn’t know what to expect while working on a set. “I didn’t have an assistant, so I was changing my own rolls of film. I didn’t have anything—no reflectors, nothing. I knew the creative director, and he fully trusted me. But the Nike people there were speechless. They couldn’t believe it was just me and a backpack and a camera,” she says. “But they loved the pictures.”
She has since photographed rapper Cardi B for the cover of a Fader summer music issue, actress Dakota Fanning for a Miu Miu campaign and even former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon for a Bloomberg Businessweek cover story. I note how she frequently collaborates with musicians and ask if she is a musician herself. “Music is one of my biggest passions,” she says. “I listen to music pretty much the whole time I am awake. I studied violin at a conservatory for six years when I was a kid. So I think music is really in my photos, even though I don’t play anymore.”
Casolari laments that her work is often described as “dreamy.” “I don’t like to be confined to a style. I want to be more poetic than dreamy. Poetic work doesn’t have to be dreamy,” she says. “Especially nowadays, we need to really deal with reality. There’s less space for dreaming. We have to be realistic.”
Casolari’s pragmatic drive pushed her to organize a print sale for New York City’s Elmhurst Hospital Center in April 2020, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in the city, when it was a global epicenter of the virus. Casolari, with the help of a few friends, set up a website where prints from 187 contributing artists were available for $150 each. The Pictures for Elmhurst sale raised a stunning $1,380,000 for the hospital. “The city was being devastated by the pandemic, but at the same time, we needed to stay inside, so it was quite difficult to help,” says Casolari. “I got inspired by a similar fundraiser that took place in Italy and to which I donated a print, so I decided to try and replicate the sale here. We had no idea it would be this successful. It was very heartwarming and humbling to see the results.”
I ask her how her past year has been, which I wince at, because it feels a little cruel to ask that question in 2020. She describes an isolated and intimate journey. “It’s been hard. Really, really hard. I have a daughter, and she’s young, so I have been taking care of her while my partner works. I’ve had to slow down and look inside. As a woman during the pandemic, we have been hit so hard because we are often responsible for childcare, on top of whatever else we are doing in our lives,” says Casolari.
Earlier, she had apologized for delaying our call—she had been busy taking care of her daughter. But the lockdowns have also enabled Casolari to make new kinds of photographs. “Since my daughter was born, it has always been difficult for me to photograph her,” says Casolari. “I have iPhone photos of my daughter, but not really any photos with 35mm film or medium-format film, like I use professionally. She was never my subject. It was strange, and I felt bad about it. But this year has forced me to slow down and photograph my child. We have this connection from the umbilical cord, so photographing her is almost like taking a selfie.”
Some of these images are collected in a new series titled Quarantine Diaries. They are slower, more-intimate views than the rest of her work. Close-up shots of skin, windows, flowers and her family emerge from an enveloping darkness in the frames. The images are a record of interiority in a strange time, and, in a way, her ethereal and hazy aesthetic is the perfect medium to reflect the fluctuating nature of time during the pandemic. Days drag on and simultaneously months fly by.
The escalation of the Black Lives Matter movement this year has also impacted Casolari’s approach to image making. “Not being politically engaged right now is complacent. I have been thinking about racial issues in America since my first project at Sing Sing, because most of the people I was photographing were Black. But I want to do more. My work will need to be more political than before. There has to be more urgency,” she says.
I ask what “doing more” means for her. She tells me about a new body of work reflecting this desire, and tying back to her earlier work at Sing Sing. Casolari is photographing teenagers who are coming out of prison, or who have parents in prison, as part of a UNICEF program. Both projects examine the structural and institutional causes of incarceration on a personal level. This time, she is photographing the teenagers in her studio, which is frequently used for fashion and editorial shoots. The photos are complicated, blurring the lines between documentary and fashion photography.
For Casolari, this is what makes a photograph successful. “If you give the viewer all of the information in a photograph, then it turns into something that is purely an aesthetic experience,” she says. “But if you want something beyond the purely aesthetic, then the photograph must make the viewer ask questions.” ca