Story and photos by Aimee Elber
Flipping through a glossy catalog, photographer Samantha “Sam” Gazzetta points at bedspreads, mugs, and mousepads superimposed with images of smiling babies. Her fingers glide across the slippery-smooth pages as she takes note of various merchandise: a heart-shaped keychain, an oversized pillowcase, a cereal bowl. This is Sam’s next ambition: to follow the digitization of photography, making a living by selling portraits printed on household items. While she strives to keep up with modernization, Sam’s life journey began with a family legacy that dates back more than a century.
Foto Duranti, a small photography studio situated just off the piazza in Cagli, Italy, was established in 1887, though some speculate the business has served Cagli residents for a couple of decades longer. For the past 15 years, Sam has run the business with her father, Luigi Gazzetta, who worked the shop with his father before. While she is an expert in her craft, Sam’s artistic talents and interests stretch far beyond photography.
Educated at a music school in Pesaro, Sam has a life-long interest in music. In addition to singing, she plays the piano, violin, and guitar. With the exception of a particular penchant for the works of Bach, she enjoys and plays most modern contemporary music. As is typical in most parts of the world, a person’s hobbies may not always be a workable career trajectory. After graduating, Sam was faced with a choice. She knew her work as a musician would be sporadic and unpredictable. Following in her father’s footsteps (and generations before her), she chose photography as a sustainable option for making a living; she knew she would likely experience continuity in her work along with a somewhat steady income.
The techniques of the trade are constantly changing as technology advances. Moreover, the demands of the customer have transformed as society experiences a global shift toward digitized information. Fewer and fewer customers at Sam and Luigi’s studio request printed images. Gone are the days that family photos adorned the walls of living spaces and bedrooms. These days, most customers want digital images to post on social media and share with friends via text or email. This demand, coupled with the challenges of drumming up business in a small town, is forcing Sam to think creatively about where she would like the business to go.
While her father reminisces on the past, pulling out dusty daguerreotype images made with a large box camera and developed in mercury fumes, Sam tends to be more progressive. With a strong affinity for New York City and Americana, Sam’s current focus is to start offering portraiture images printed on everyday items to be used as keepsakes. Of particular interest are mobile phone protectors, linens, and dishware. Her hope is that this venture will continue to generate the income necessary to keep the business alive.
Residents in the small town of Cagli know Sam as a local fixture in the community. Not only do they visit her studio to schedule photo sessions and purchase prints, but they also like to share local gossip. Over the years Sam has learned to listen politely, entertaining the chinwag but not necessarily taking part. She has learned that, rather than making enemies in such a small town, it is best to maintain affable relationships with clientele.
Sam knows that, in Cagli, she is limited by lack of demand, lack of consumerism, and plain geography. Of all the lessons she has learned as a photographer, choosing to stay in her small town stands out the most in her mind. In Cagli, she feels constrained. The demand for print photography is dwindling with the advent of mass interest in digital images. As the population of Cagli grows older and the younger generation takes over, the need for print photography will surely fade.
Sam is working to keep her business alive and capture the appeal of customers young and old. However, if money were no object and she had the option, Sam would travel to America and drive Route 66 in a red convertible, feeling the wind in her hair as she made her way across several states. Such a trip remains her dream, and while she may find herself in America again someday, for now, she stays in Cagli.