Portuguese American Journal

Photography: Fusing Place and Perception – An Interview with Gus Petro

By Patricia Silva, Contributor (*) 

Gus Petro is a Zurich-based artist who grew up in the Lithuanian capital, “the old town of Vilnius.”  Proximity to water is what brought Gus Petro to southern Portugal to photograph what was once considered the edge of the world.

Petro’s latest photography based series, titled Weld, fuses iconic London buildings with the typical cliffside landscapes of the Algarve.  By not relying on tropes of travel photography (chasing the unknown, the hidden, the unique) Petro forges new contexts for well-known buildings and seaside vistas.  The picturesque becomes urbanized; the urbanized becomes satiated by ample sun and fresh light.

Gus Petro

Gus Petro

On a subtle level, these geographic juxtapositions reflect long-standing Anglo-Luso relations of political power, economic and cultural ties.  Gus Petro’s thought process for this project is rooted in nuances of perception and accumulations of architectural contexts.

Gus Petro studied architecture at the Academy of Arts in Zurich and later earned a Master’s Degree in Architecture and Urban Planning at the Polytechnic University of Milan.  Living in Switzerland keeps Petro in touch with the urban inspirations of his youth: the older parts of Zurich where he lives.

In this exclusive interview with the Portuguese American Journal, Petro shares his influences, the ideas for Weld, his experiences in Portugal and the significant role that urban planning and architecture each have had in his photography works.

Photographed in Sagres, Farol Cabo de São Vicente; and London, Westminster (church tower)

Photographed in Sagres, Farol Cabo de São Vicente; and London, Westminster (church tower)

How did you come to know London and the Algarve? 

After Empty, Dense, and Merge, I wanted to do my next project in my home continent of Europe, and these locations seemed to be the right places for the concept I had.

London and Algarve have such different, opposing senses of light.  London’s sky is so selfish with its glow while the Algarve is ever generous with sun.  How did you reconcile the role light plays in each region for the Weld project?

Yes, skies and light were different most of the time.  Some of the locations, which I wanted to implement in this project, I had to leave behind just because of the incompatible lighting.  While working with such big scale real world objects, I have no control over light.  The only thing I can do is to be at the right place and at the right time.

Photographed in Sagres, Belixe; and in London, Westminster

Photographed in Sagres, Belixe; and in London, Westminster

What sense of feeling and/or emotion does architecture pose for you?

Even though Merge and Weld projects both contain similar subject matter (urban landscapes), they trigger different emotional responses.  For me, these works erase boundaries between the impossible and the possible.  It feels like the world can actually change and be more united than it is today.

You have said that Weld is about “when the center meets the end point.” 

I looked at Europe as a whole with its pulsing heart in the center – ‘core’; and the skin on the border – edge’.  I chose not only iconic but symbolic locations.  London, which once used to be the center of Europe (the core of western civilization), and the Algarve region in Portugal, which was once considered as the end point of the world.  The project ‘welds’ together the ‘core’ and the ‘edge’ of Europe.

How long did it take you to develop Weld? 

It took me much longer than I initially planned.  I planned it in summer, shot in autumn, and completed digital manipulation during winter.

Photographed in Quarteira, Forte Novo; and in London's Tate Modern

Photographed in Quarteira, Forte Novo; and in London’s Tate Modern

How much time has you spent in Portugal and what impressions has my country of birth left with you? 

I spend 10 days in Portugal and drove from Faro to Porto along the coastline.  Portugal is great.  I mean it!  Its nature first of all, both seascape and landscape.  Fresh seafood all over.  People are really nice, friendly and welcoming.  Every time I had an interaction with someone it felt like I made a new friend.

There were some special moments which will remain in my memory for the rest of my life.  Like driving at 3AM alongside edge of Europe, at Sagres, to meet sunrise at the location I had scouted a day before.  Down in the beach I saw a tent in a cave where a guy slept.  While I was on the Edge, he got out naked and went for a swim.  The whole beach was only his.  He is present in one of my works.

Are you aware of the socio-political history between Portugal and the UK? Not only do the Brits love to vacation in south Portugal, but the UK got its tea time, marmalade and India via Portuguese marriage. Both countries are linked by Port and textile trades, as well as colonialism. Was this part of your research for Weld?

I’m glad you pointed this out. It was as an insight to me. Coming up with this concept and knowing the Portuguese-British history, it felt that these locations were the right choice in many ways. I’m always after a strong concept which has many layers of readability.

Photographed at a secret fishermen's bay north from Sagres; and in London, Monumet (Foster's Gerkin in the distance)

Photographed at a secret fishermen’s bay north from Sagres; and in London, Monument (Foster’s Gerkin in the distance)

And what was your first attraction: architecture or photography?

When I was 16-18, my first attraction was painting and drawing.  My second was architecture. My father was a photographer so I collected old film cameras during my youth.  That’s when I learned to use mechanical cameras.  I still think they are much more magical than digital ones.

I completely agree, the further back one goes, the more magical cameras become.  Do you identify as a photographer? 

I don’t take many pictures, only when there is something I want to say in that way.  That’s why I think of myself as an artist, not a photographer.  I don’t like it when journalists call me a photographer instead of an artist, but they do so because it is more intuitive for most readers.  You see, here is another boundary which needs to be erased.  For me, the camera is just a tool; and digital images are just the medium with which I work.

Photographed in Sagres; and at Trafalgar Square

Photographed in Sagres; and at Trafalgar Square

Do you have any influences that have stayed with you as you develop your artwork?

My background in architecture and urban planning has a lot to do with the work I make.  My Bachelor’s degree in Architecture from the Academy of Arts was heavily orientated in artistic expression, mainly based on philosophy and principles of composition, proportions, volumes, light, materials and their textures: overall aesthetics, concept and of course, functionality.  Actually, I use the very same principles while I create my artwork.  My Master’s thesis and final project in Architecture and Urban Planning program were set around ‘sustainable urban areas development’.  This background is essential for me, and the reason architecture plays such a big role in my artwork.

I can see why PhotoShop would easily enable juxtapositions, but what about the emotional side of such layering? 

Working with images, instead of paint or other medium, enables me to create photo-realistic pictures, which can be a very powerful emotional trigger.  But for some, it’s just a nice photograph.  These are reflections of the society we live in.

Photographed at the Praia das Maçãs; and at the London Eye

Photographed at the Praia das Maçãs; and at the London Eye

Color and mood are so integral to the experience of a thing and so much of a digital work flow is rooted in going beyond the pixel.  It’s actually a very human process of mediating perceptions. 

We could have a whole discussion on this.  In Edge, I wanted to represent a state of mind when a viewer feels as if they are standing on the edge but gazing from a distance at the core. That’s why the sky and the sea are so heavily desaturated, nearly black and white, while the land is in color.  In my work, the concept drives the outcome, not the skills or the software.  I don’t mind if people don’t understand that color and mood are an integral part of the work.  I don’t ask them to appreciate how hard it was to achieve.  The most important thing is how they experience the artwork.  When they look at it, it becomes a part of them – a real-time performance and what happens in their head at that moment, and the moments to come, is the key to me.

Do you see that performance as cultural, spatial, or both?  

Even though I create the parameters, I think that it heavily depends on the personality and which performance the viewer enters.  It might be only spatial, which is probably the easiest to enter, but could be also cultural, social, political or other, which requires not only knowledge to enter in all those layers, but also willingness.

There are always those who look at it and say ‘I don’t get it’, but there are also those who tell me ‘When I saw it I stared at it for two minutes and I just couldn’t do anything’.  And what happens inside of them during that time is the performance I’m going after.


Patricia_SilvaPatricia Silva is a Lisbon born Arts Writer and Arts Worker living in New York City.  Patricia curated the first Brazilian-Portuguese Pop-Up Cultural Festival’s art show in 2011; curated “Good Delivery” at Dixon Place in 2012; has written about contemporary art for Daylight, Velvetpark Media; guest blogged for the International Center of Photography; and has presented on the influence of bi-culturalism and the creative process at the University of Berkeley, California; the University of Macau, China; and Victoria University, Canada.  Most recently published in Memories Can’t Wait, 2013.