Venice church

Venice church © SERGE RAMELLI

There is something powerful in capturing cityscapes in black-andwhite. The grit on the walls, moisture collecting on the pavement, windows weathered with use and time — all come to life in the details of texture, shadow and form. There may be fewer distractions with black-and-white images than with color, but there can also be so much detail you could pore over every inch — looking into windows, examining the stormy skies, finding every last architectural feature as if you could reach out and run your fingers along the plaster.

The black-and-white images of Serge Ramelli aren’t simple renditions of common and uncommon spaces; they are more like poems, even whole stories about places rich with details and secrets. From Notre Dame de Paris as seen from across the Seine, to a cityscape viewed through the massive windows of the Time Warner Center in New York, Ramelli takes you through the looking glass in such a way that these come alive on the page.

It’s no wonder his images feel like epic narratives, as his greatest love is storytelling, in whatever form it might take. From drawing to photography to filmmaking, to his own YouTube channel dedicated to teaching, Ramelli spins fabulous tales at every turn. Even his own life story reads like contemporary French fiction, starting with a self-taught photographer who dives into his medium in his youth and works on his craft while a salesman in Paris.

Ramelli fell in love with photography as a child when he was first exposed to the art form by his father, who lent him his camera on a family vacation. He always loved drawing and design but found that photography was the medium that best allowed him to create the kind of visual impact he wanted. He began studying photography in every way that he could, with books and tutorials, and by speaking with other photographer friends. “I spent about 30 hours a week just studying photography. I went from nothing to everything just like that. I had found a way to create with this medium of photography,” he explains.

In the early 2000s, he was working in Paris, and in his off hours he started to capture compelling images of his beloved city. “I was selling websites to hotels,” he says. “In the afterhours, which was usually sunset, I would practice my photography.” Over a nine-year period, he explored the city, photographing both well-known landmarks and hidden courtyards. He knew where he should run to if the clouds started to brew in the sky. He knew where to place his camera to capture the details under a bridge and out to the rainy pavement beyond in the same shot. He admits to stopping to capture a sunset while heading to a sales appointment. That particular sunset ended up in two images in his first book. “I actually canceled the appointment,” he laughs. “What started as a passion became my career. I’ve been living as a photographer ever since.”

When he started to look into how he could make the most of his talent, he was drawn to the work of a digital giant. “My biggest inspiration has been Scott Kelby. I learned very fast that only the top photographers understand digital and post-processing. At the time I started, most people were still working on film and they were resisting digital.” That wasn’t something Ramelli was going to do. He started to hone his craft from capture through post-processing, becoming an expert in Lightroom, Photoshop and a number of support applications. In time he was sponsored, sought out, and recognized for the efforts he had put into making sure his images were the best they could be.

He promoted his work enthusiastically, in every medium that he could manage — digital and otherwise. After years of effort, the publishing house teNeuse contacted him and told him they loved what he did in Paris. They wanted him to expand his style to New York. “I had been to New York a couple of times and I already had a collection of images; nothing compared to what I had on Paris, but we made a deal for two books. I could give them the Paris one right away, but they wanted the photographs to be black-and-white,” he explains. Converting his color images to black-and-white wasn’t a technique he had played with much, and certainly not one he had yet perfected. “I only had color photos of Paris, but they absolutely only wanted black-and-white. And it was a bit of a struggle for me at first, because I really wanted to make a color book of Paris,” he admits. But, ever open to new challenges, the opportunity was one he couldn’t pass up.

While it was a shift for Ramelli, it was one that he embraced wholly. “Ansel Adams was a big inspiration. He has such a specific way to do black-and-white, which I tried to do in my books; it’s very dramatic, with strong contrast.” Ramelli had photographed long enough, and read so much in an effort to truly understand his medium, that he could strip out the color of his images by evaluating what was important to him. “What I’m looking for in photos is drama,” Ramelli explains. “What I mean by drama is that there is an unusual atmosphere — something you don’t see every day. I’m not interested in a photo when there’s a blue sky or when it’s something regular, but if, for a few seconds, you have a golden light, or some crazy clouds, that’s what I’m looking for. Something amazing that is happening right now.”

Read More in Photographer’s Forum :: Spring 2017 / Vol. 39 / No. 2