Etna, one of Europe’s highest active volcanoes, stirs fitfully on Sicily’s east coast, rising from the outskirts of Catania like a mythical titan. Standing 3,326m above sea level, this giant forms the centerpiece of Massimo’s most recent photo essay, and one that’s been running since early 2019, but brewing in mind for several years longer.
Using his Sony Alpha 7R IV Massimo started his project despite the many challenges. “I wanted to make a series of pictures on the theme of Etna and Sicily’s natural environment, but being born in Catania I had to overcome a lot of personal resistance to telling the story of my homeland. The emotional and cultural ties have made it difficult,” he explains. “I’ve spent many months working here, but Etna is still a vast and complex territory, which you must get to know deeply in order to create images that are arresting and not superficial.”
With his projects previously focused on man-made environments, cities and architecture, the country around Etna and its UNESCO world heritage sites were a real departure for Massimo, but his approach hasn’t changed. “My job is to tell stories,” he explains, “to deepen aspects of reality and to communicate a personal point of view to anyone who sees my work. I don’t condense events into a single image. I like to take the time and look for images that best express the soul and identity of a place.”
“And Sicily is a truly extraordinary place,” he continues, It offers these extreme visions, from some of its harsh internal territories with their freshly created basalt flows, pyroclastic cones, and creeping desertification, to the tranquil beauty of its sea and the vineyards on the lowest slopes below the mountain. Throughout the project I’m always trying to translate my own emotional reaction to these places into the images that I make.”
On these long journeys and dark descents, Massimo was accompanied by his Sony Alpha 7R IV, which he describes as “an extraordinary machine. Small, light, with a very high quality, it’s absolutely ideal for working in conditions of physical stress and when weight is an essential element in the success of a project. With its files of extraordinary quality, and the very wide dynamic range, I was able to work even without a tripod in extreme light conditions.”
Many of his subterranean shots were captured at dizzying ISO levels while retaining great detail and the subtle tones of the rock. At Serracozzo Cave, Massimo shot at 16,000 ISO, helping him achieve a hand holdable shutter speed of 1/20sec, which combined with the Alpha 7R IV’s in-body image stabilisation resulted in perfect sharpness. At Vulcano Island near Messina, where the volcanic geology produces revivify mud, “I was also able to work freehand,” he explains, “avoiding the gaze of the people who plunged into the sulphurous earth. At over ISO 10,000 it was the only way to get the photo, but there were no problems with its quality.”
When it comes to choosing lenses for his project, Massimo prefers to use classic documentary focal lengths, favouring their natural, real world perspective.
“I’ve generally used the FE 35mm f/1.4 GM and FE 55mm f/1.8 ZA,” he says, “and I prefer to stick to just a few lenses, rather than carrying more than I need. With fewer options I can internalise the view each gives me, and put all my focus on the subject. Sometimes I’ll also use the lightweight FE 70-200mm f/4 G OSS, which is very useful for recording more distant landscapes.”
With his Etna project still active, Massimo is happy with what he’s achieved so far, but aware that there’s greater effort still to come. “Etna, like all mountains, requires hours of walking and scrambling, made more difficult by the sharp lava flows of previous eruptions, and while it’s nothing that can’t be tackled with a little training, the Alpha 7R IV has really made a difference in what I can achieve with each foray. I’d say it gives me the same, if not better quality than many medium format cameras, with the handling and weight of a compact. And after six or seven hours of walking up a volcano, that’s something you really appreciate!”
"Photography is, for me, first and foremost a means of expression"