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Almodóvar artist's secret photography

Juan Gatti is best known for his film posters, but he has spent years taking these singular snaps

Often enough, music is the perfect escape valve. More than one Billy Bond concert ended with part of the audience getting hauled to the police station, but then again, the Argentinean dictatorship did not look favorably upon rock. Juan Oreste Gatti had barely turned of age on the night when such a scene was burned onto his retina forever. The band, a pioneer of Argentinean rock, jumped on stage at La Cueva, where the mood was already tense, and the bandleader screamed: "All right people, break everything!" This command, preceded by a few rock'n'roll chords, caught like wildfire.

Gatti revisits this anecdote from his youth to underscore how much the art of provocation still arouses him. In the last 30 years, his career as a fashion photographer, designer of album covers and creator of many of the posters for the movies by his friend Pedro Almodóvar and others has done nothing but bloom. And yet he continues to consider himself an outsider. His artistic career has always tread a line between Hollywood fantasies and the Bauhaus school: "I have a more rationalist side and another side that's closer to glam and pop," he says.

The Argentinean creator comes across as an elegant kind of punk

"I went through the worst of the AIDS epidemic, and I've had very big losses"

He has transformed the entrance to his studio, in a quiet alley in Madrid's posh Salamanca neighborhood, into a garden where a maple tree is already turning red. Pleasant, polite and tremendously exaggerated, he opens the interview with one of his assertions: "What I like best in life is gardening. The most fun thing of all is to come here on weekends and get in there until I'm done and scratched all over like a Vietcong soldier. I particularly love pruning, I find it very relaxing."

Surrounded by Calder and Warhol art, designer furniture and prototypes of some of his own designs, the Argentinean creator comes across as an elegant kind of punk. It is hard to believe, as he stands there impeccably dressed in casual wear, when the creator of the brand image for Jesús del Pozo, Sybilla and Almodóvar says that his real challenge is to "dignify bastard objects."

His friend Alaska, the singer, says that no matter how many times she asks him for ordinary things, he always comes up with something refined. Any one of his projects, whether it's a poster, photograph, shoe design (he created a pair for Camper) or perfume bottle, has that Gatti touch that frames beauty so well. Perhaps that is why Contraluz (Against the light), the name of the book and retrospective exhibition of his work about to open at Madrid's Canal de Isabel II, should really be named Contra todo, or against everything. Besides displaying his most representative work in fashion, film, publishing, graphic art and art direction - "the various stages of my super-career" - the show includes a surprise: previously unseen black-and-white photographs that he has taken over the last 25 years.

Besides all this luminous work - after the fashion shoots ended, when everybody went home and only his assistants or the odd model friend stayed behind - Gatti investigated very abstract notions in an experimental manner. During this free time, his mentholated cigarette held between his fingers, he conducted experiments to see what would happen if he shook a light bulb, photographed smoke or played with the trail left by a waved flashlight. His friends say he has the soul of a couturier and the spirit of a hunter.

"As I made progress, I began looking at all these elements and even though I had a diversity of things in front of me, I found something that bound them all together: a common denominator, which is me. From there, everything took shape and I began taking pictures to complete that project," he says. In order to put an end to this game and not prolong it indefinitely, he needed to find a book and an exhibition for it. As with many other things in his life, it was all about closing one period in order to move on to the next obsession.

In contrast with the color in everything he had done so far, in this case Gatti veered toward black and neutral - almost a lack of color. It is so personal that he feels he is getting undressed, and "it makes me feel vulnerable." The other part, the public part, represents work and creation; everything has been done with a goal in mind. But the work in Contraluz is just to do with pleasure. The journalist María Vela Zanetti, who has been with him all this time, says that Contraluz "contains a section that celebrates life and a section that celebrates death." And right there, after the cover page, there is a dedication: "In memoriam: to all my dead friends." The latest one of these is the fashion designer Jesús del Pozo; but there are many other absences in his life. "Unfortunately I went through the worst of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, and I've had very big losses. This is a tribute to them."

Among all the material, and as the title indicates, there are photographs that work with the light against them, but there are also shots that are more like X-rays, where the light acts directly by isolating the object. "If I place an insect on photographic paper and project light onto it, its trace is left on it. I like the fact that the light delimits the shadow and that if you look at a face, you see the limit of light."

There are wind-blown flowers, dragonflies that look like jewels inside Tiffany's display window, pigeons resembling top models, feisty horses, and always the dazzling beauty of the human body.

"I am very, very meticulous and quite obsessive, which is why I always seek to get close to the things that have something to do with the way in which I observe life. Let's say it's about my point of view of objects and elements, where there is a discovery of beauty and a very rigorous analysis of form and figure."

It was perhaps inevitable for someone who has fashion in his blood. He grew up in his mother's studio - she was a haute couture designer - and as a child he would sit under the tables, cutting out fashion magazines and creating collages with pictures of the top models of the era. "At home, not only did we sew the outfits, we also did the needlework, the hats and the gloves. There was such a strong sense of elegance that my later attempts at turning into a destroyer-dude did not work. I think I have combined both concepts," he says.

This duality has been with him since childhood. In his case, drawing saved his life. Gatti, like many twentysomethings, could be rather absent-minded at times. Under the presidency of General Alejandro Agustín Lanusse, he stepped onto the balcony of his home in his underwear to watch a military event going on below. Gatti, an only child who had been pampered all his life, spent six months in a maximum security prison. In order to pass the time, he asked his mother for some paper and crayons, and set up "a stand where I drew and wrote romantic postcards for mothers and wives, and pornographic drawings for prisoners to masturbate over." He saw one convict get burned alive and another one raped with a tile. "It was like an initiation rite, I made it over the abyss and I survived. If I survived that, I'm not going to let a fit of hysteria cancel one of my sessions; that episode gave me fortitude, a sense that I can handle any situation."

From Buenos Aires he made the leap to New York, where he was still hooked on rock, fashion and design. Now, many youngsters follow and imitate him.

"I haven't had to give up too much," he explains. "I didn't really sell myself out to commercial interests or advertising agencies; in a sense I have always worked with artists who were as much outsiders as myself."

His life is still filled with music. "I can't work without it. I don't like music to be too heavy; I prefer moving sounds but not corny ones," he explains. He likes silly singers, such as Nico and Françoise Hardy, and his favorite band is Au Revoir Simone.

Until now, there had always been a person who took the limelight in his career, whether it was Pedro Almodóvar or the designers Sybilla and Elena Benarroch. Gatti remained in the shadows because he felt comfortable there.

"In general, I work with friends whom I respect, people with a common language. I don't do bleach bottles, I do creative projects for creative clients. The thing is, sometimes it ends up looking more like a picnic than work."

It has been that way ever since he got to Madrid in the 1980s; he was a fresh arrival from New York, hired by Kenzo to work in Paris, but he got an offer from a record label and began designing covers for the albums made by bands during the movida years - something he had already done successfully in his own country with the most important rock bands there. It was the beginning of a career that would extend to fashion and film, and take him to the top of his game.

"Of everything that I've tried, work is what I find most satisfying. What I enjoy most is sitting at my drawing table, with my music. There was a time when I worked to generate work for others, I went from dinner event to dinner event to secure new commissions, but that's all over; now I don't have more than two employees in my studio."

He and Almodóvar form a great artistic couple - with "its happy moments and its fights" - but he has also worked, among others, with directors Fernando Trueba, Álex de la Iglesia, Lucrecia Martel and Susan Seiderman.

"They usually give me complete freedom. I start doing research before the filming begins; first I read the scripts and then I watch what it's about, to eventually synthesize what I like the best about it. Rather than posters, I seek to create identifiable icons. I generally try to use a minimum of elements to obtain greater expressiveness in the sign. I try not to undermine the movie's personality, and for the genre to be reflected in it. This is something you can follow in the evolution of Pedro's own movies: the first posters are cheesier, until you start finding something more elaborate and even darker."

Fashion and film employ different languages. For the posters, he seeks a certain expression and to communicate states of mind. In fashion, he seeks to create an atmosphere and a sense of beauty.

"I disagree with the tendency for ugliness that dominates fashion," he says. "Thank goodness that's passing! In the 1990s, everything seemed to be impregnated by that half-grunge, half-careless style, and I remember thinking, 'What's the point of putting a girl with dirty hair on the catwalk...?' It's a trend, but personally I'm not into it. I've never indulged in that ugly look, I find pleasure in creating beauty, beauty for its own sake, without any concepts, discourse or other nonsense attached to it. I would rather find emotions in things than rummage around in the trash. I go completely against the grain."