Mattia Balsamini: MIT for Wired Italy
Wired Italy’s Creative Director Massimo Pitis together with Photo Editor Francesca Morosini recently contacted Venetian photographer Mattia Balsamini to produce a story about some of the projects and research currently being worked on at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The entire magazine issue was going to focus on photographers, so the original concept for the piece was to let images tell the story of the cutting edge research at MIT. Mattia was completely on board from the start, firmly believing in the power of photography to speak for itself.
Before the shoot, Mattia set out to research each program - reading papers to get a feel for the concepts. Knowing access is half the battle, Mattia then reached out to each lab to see if they were accessible. He then followed up by having his assistant personally scout each location.
Visually, Mattia decided to take a multi-faceted approach, combining still life pictures, studio portraits, and landscapes to weave a compelling story about each project. Mattia also decided to have each person he photographed sketch out a little explanatory drawing about their particular project in his notebook.
I had them draw on my notebook and I scanned those to include them in the series. In this way I think I was able to better explain what their research was about, even without using words.
This detail added an abstract flourish to the finished article, contrasting nicely with the descriptive power of his photographs. At the same time, this inclusion aided in the viewer’s understanding of the research concept without resorting to drawn-out captions.
Hiroshi Ishii (left), director of the Tangible Media Group and a Physical Telepresence shape display (right) Read more about Hiroshi and this project here.
The night before the shoot, Mattia recalls being worried because he hadn't yet gotten a response from the extremely secretive lab at CSAIL (Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory). At 11 pm, Russ Tedrake sent him an answer giving him full access to the lab.
When he arrived at the lab the next day, Mattia decided to photograph their 6.5 ft. robot that participated in the internationally renowned Darpa Robotics Challenge. Knowing every minute of the lab's time was precious, Mattia quickly set up his portable studio and dove in. He decided to photograph the robot as he would a person - approaching the subject more like a portrait than a still life. But getting the robot to cooperate proved to be more challenging than he thought.
Every single movement had to be controlled with functions and algorithms from a researcher at a computer and took more times than expected only to have it lift an arm. I ended up aiming for very simple "poses," focusing on the robot's formal qualities and similarities with a human body.
The Green Building at MIT houses the Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences. (left) Atlas the robot. Designed to assist humans in responding to natural and human-made disasters. (right) Read more here.
The school is a vast complex of buildings, some of them very far from each other. Lugging around his photo equipment was sometimes a challenge, especially during the heavy snowstorm he encountered on one of the shoot days. But in the end, all of that effort paid off because the white background setup they carted around gave the images beautiful consistency.
Cillia, a project by MIT's tangible media group pioneering 3D printed hair and its uses in touch sensing, mechanical adhesion, locomotion and other everyday uses. Learn more here.
Mattia is very grateful to the folks at CSAIL lab and each project he photographed for their time and graciousness. The images from the project have been very well received. All of the pictures that appeared in the Wired article are going to be included in a photo exhibition at the Triennale di Milana in Milan. So, if you happen to be in Italy this spring, go check them out!