The Old Masters Meet Pop Culture: An Interview with Dan Bannino

Dan Bannino is an Italian-born photographer whose work has been aptly described as 'Pop-Renaissance’. He combines influences coming from the Old Masters and the rich cultural inheritance of his native Italy with inspiration drawn from the world of contemporary pop culture, displayed on the internet or TV.


Bannino has been praised for the clarity and sharpness with which he translates ideas into images, often through outstanding still lives. He draws his themes from everyday life, books, films or the news and he creates pictures that tell stories or convey complex concepts. As he himself explains, “behind every shoot there are days, weeks, and even months of research”. 

Fondness for unusual themes is another characteristic of his work and it is one of his declared goals to draw the audience’s attention to such themes. Exemplary in this respect is his strangely beautiful “Chic Chicks” project, a series of human-like portraits of a special breed of Paduan chickens whose ridge has been replaced by colorful feathers resembling 80s hairstyles. 

Food is a topic that fascinates him and figures most prominently in his “Still Diets” project, a series of hauntingly beautiful still lives devoted to the diets of various celebrities drawn from pop culture, literature, politics and history. Bannino’s work has gained international fame and praise and has appeared in major newspapers and magazines such as The Times, The Daily Mail, The Guardian, The Huffington Post, Elle, Cosmopolitan and many more.

The Eye of the Artist - El Greco

S.J.: Your work has been described as "Pop-Renaissance". Do you agree with this description? What is the idea behind it?

D.B.: I kind of like it, since one of my main sources of inspiration are the Old Masters. I was born in Italy, so mixing the ancient (and glorious) art history that always surrounded me with the more Pop and neon-coloured world coming from TV (as a kid) and then the Internet (nowadays) is somehow a natural consequence.

S.J.: Which artists, styles or schools of art have inspired your work?

D.B.: I’m a melting pot of favorite artists. All of them, at some point in my life, have been an inspiration or a push to where I am and they all come from different fields, such as painting, the movie industry and, of course, photography. But if I had to name a few on the photography side, these would be Irving Penn, Man Ray and Robert Mapplethorpe.

Still Diets - Lord Byron

S.J.: Which themes inspire you the most?

D.B.: Behind great pictures there are always great ideas. Similarly, behind every shoot there are days, weeks, and even months of research. Everyday life, books, movies and online news always provide me with huge inspiration for telling a story. I also find great inspiration in movies and, of course, I like to spend a lot of time visiting exhibitions since I’m a huge art lover. Inspiration for the next photo can be just around the corner. 

S.J.: What role does food play in your work?

D.B.: Four years ago I moved to London to pursue my intention of becoming a full time photographer. After working as a product photographer shooting manly food, I decided to quit and move back to Italy, to focus on personal projects. My first series that gained popularity was about diets, but since then I’ve tried to dive into different topics. With my new series “Chic Chicks” I’ve portrayed chickens, and my intention is to prove that these beautiful creatures can’t just be just seen as food.

S.J.: You have devoted a series of outstandingly beautiful works to the dietary habits of celebrities (from pop culture, politics, literature, history, etc). What attracted you to this theme? What did you aim to achieve with this project?

D.B.: I started my “Still Diets” series because I’m fascinated with food and I wanted to make my pictures significant, like classic works of art that become more and more weighty as they grow older. I was especially inspired by Caravaggio, Goya and several painters of the Dutch school's golden age, with their incredible still lives. Those shots show an open window to a table left after the completion of a meal, and I’ve tried to capture the beauty that lies in this terrible constriction of diets and deprivation, giving them the importance of an old master's painting. My ultimate goal was to show how this weirdness hasn’t changed since the 15th century. 

Still Diets - Henry VIII

S.J.: One of your stated goals is to turn the audience's attention to unusual themes. Your "Chic Chicks" project is highly unusual, for sure. Would you like to tell us a few things about it? What it is about? How did you approach your subject? What did you aim to achieve with this project?

D.B.: My boundless passion for nature and animals brought me to work on this story. Everything started a few weeks ago, when I stumbled upon some news on the internet about this quirky species of poultry called Paduan Chicken and I decided to travel all the way to Padua to meet Andrea Pozzato, the reigning Italian Champion of breeding chickens. There, Andrea is growing and looking after his beautiful exemplars of Paduan Chickens, a rather unusual species of poultry that has a funny and unique crown of feathers resembling cool 80s' hairstyles.

Combining the Old Masters' chiaro-scuro technique with colourful lights, I've realised these human-like portraits by starting with a color palette built with the shades of each chicken’s feathers in mind and producing a small studio-space inside the farm itself, with a grey wall as background and a surface on which I've placed our subjects with Andrea’s help.

As I always like to do with my work, the aim of this series is to turn the audience's attention to unusual themes: in this case, chickens had been "hired" as models, emphasizing their beauty and showing the contrast between their exploitation and their extreme elegance.

S.J.: What attracts you as an artist to unusual themes? Why do you think it is important for the audience to pay attention to such themes?

D.B.: Nowadays we’re living in a fast paced environment, many things are happening as never before, and the internet can spread any news around the globe in seconds. I’ve found in photography the perfect medium to convey my messages and since I’m evolving as a photographer, I realize the importance of emphasizing certain themes over others, always trying to make people think, but also trying to make the audience smile. 

Still Diets - Mariah Carey

S.J.: Which element or elements of your work do you consider particularly innovative?

D.B.: Light is always a key element in my pictures: we can all look at the same table with the same basket of fruits, but it’s about how you organize the objects on the table and the lights that illumine them that will make your picture. I don’t know if this can be considered innovative enough, but light surely is the first element that I always try to improve in every shoot.

S.J.: Do you have a personal motto or maxim on creativity or innovation?

D.B.: Don’t be afraid of mistakes, they will make you a better photographer.

S.J.: Are you currently working on any projects? What are your plans for the future?

D.B.: At the moment I’m working on promoting my latest series but, absolutely, I’m already “cooking” my next project.

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