Traditions and Margins
Italy’s postwar years marked a time of artistic revision as writers, photographers and filmmakers were goaded by a desire to define their own “reality” which had become fractured during the nation’s rebuilding. This shift in consciousness and the gradual transformation of the everyday landscape was largely urban, with rampant development pursued through speculation, often hastily and illegally, resulting into new urban sprawls and peripheries. Immigration spurred makeshift working class ghettos, or borgate, which were built on the city outskirts.
Popular media and film communicated these urban and social transformations in both poetic and hyperbolic terms, and photographers participated in this new vogue of storytelling. In postwar photography the urban periphery emerged as a formal subject but also as a conceptual suggestion of modern Italy. The photographic image became as expressionistic as the so-called “realism” that was being documented, and in the same way, architecture’s role as a historical symbol became just as quixotic in the frame of the photographer.
Paolo Monti (1908-1982) first began his experiments in photography as a member of the Venetian photo club, La Gondola. In 1953 he moved to Milan and began to investigate its decayed urban texture, becoming a photo-educator and professional photographer, and collaborating with important local institutions like the Triennale. Monti’s photographs reveal an interest in the vernacular of post-war architecture, frequently juxtaposing the new constructions against the signs of the old city, and suggesting how commerce grows along this community.
Mario Carrieri (b.1932) focused on his native Milan in the late 1950s, producing a striking book titled Milano, Italia (1959) that assembled a tight sequence of images of the industrial center and its surrounding areas. These images are the photographer’s own and distinct vision of the city: grainy and expressionistic works that underline the tension between modern man and his environment.
Cesare Colombo (b.1935) is a photographer, eminent historian and critic. He was a key player in Milan’s social circuit during the 1950s and 1960s and engaged with numerous other photographers like Ugo Mulas and Paolo Monti in shaping the field professionally. Colombo’s work hints to the aesthetic of the intimate snapshot and he visits the psychological interactions of individuals with Milan’s grey and busy neighborhoods.
Gianni Berengo Gardin (b. 1930) first began taking photographs in 1954 and his early images, influenced by the French school of photography, were frequently published in the Italian magazine Il Mondo. He settled in Milan in 1965, where his professional work became intertwined with numerous publishers and industries such as the Touring Club Italiano, the Istituto Geografico De Agostini, Olivetti, Alfa Romeo, Fiat, IBM, and with renowned architect like Renzo Piano. In 2008 he was the recipient of the Lucie Award for lifetime achievement and his work has been widely collected by European museums.
Gabriele Basilico (b.1944) was trained as an architect and transitioned to photography in the early 1970s. Beginning with his striking series titled Milan Factory Portraits, Basilico investigated this city’s industrial periphery during a time when the Italian working class was reacting to a marginalized political status. These singular studies of deserted factory buildings have developed throughout the artist’s career into more extensive and complex compositions that survey the urban construct from a distant viewpoint, scrutinizing the details of its tight infrastructure.
Maurizio Montagna (b. 1964) began to focus on the series Billboards in 2000, capturing a lonely blank sign immersed in nature. Conceived as a conceptual unit shown as a tight grid and in multiple configurations, the Billboards series retains a geographical anonymity that borders on indifference; it evokes a periphery of consciousness as it obsessively describes the paradox of functional advertising structures that are empty and silent.
Peripheries of the Mind
What unites these images is a conceptual approach that spawned their creation. Through mirroring, splitting, multiplying, inserting, and looping, these works challenge the viewer to expand their notion of photography as a description of “periphery.” Whether they were created in the southern territories of Italy or at the outskirts of the country’s northern cities, these photographs formally highlight the constraints of the lens to capture a sense of place. As in Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, these visions are simultaneously lucid and enigmatic, pointing equally to the photographers’ subjectivity and to the fantastic worlds that lie beyond the urban borders. Experience these photographs as if they were travels to a foreign land, consider them as if you were seeing them as if for the first and last time: while they can awe and inspire, imparting details about the rhythms of another place, they also have the potential to relate something essential about the nature of being in the world.
In Campo Urbano (1969) Ugo Mulas (1938-1973) disbands with conventional divisions between documentation, portraiture, and artwork by employing tilted camera angles, unusual framing, and a series of images that visually describe a daylong intervention in the city of Como. The work foreshadows his later engagement with the conceptual side of photography, its framing and mirroring of the world.
Since 1966, Mario Cresci (b. 1942) has methodically explored the idea of the South as a “foreign” and peripheral space within Italy, and the challenges inherent in its representation. In contrast to picturesque and exotic portrayals, his analytical approach explores themes of time, graphic measurement, and fragmentation through a systematic visual evaluation of the landscape.
Franco Vaccari’s (b.1936) artistic practice is inspired by the camera’s ability to autonomously redefine the relationship between artist and subject. In this exhibition two separate works feature random dogs’ street perceptions and the spontaneous pinhole creation of a camera obscura, drawing the viewer into a rarely seen vision of the world upside down and from the lower ground, thus showing a world that feeds back onto itself.
Born in the small town of Scandiano in the countryside of Reggio Emilia and educated in nearby Modena, Luigi Ghirri (1943 – 1992) became one of the most influential photographers within Italy, the spoke person for his generation. His photographs reveal the mystery within the mundane: they play with perception while earnestly speaking of truth. Ghirri curated the exhibition and book Viaggio in Italia, 1984, which was instrumental towards the recognition of a “new” Italian landscape photography. The twenty photographers in this group, including Olivo Barbieri, Guido Guidi, Mimmo Jodice, Vincenzo Castella, Vittore Fossati, strove to find a personal everyday; rather than repeating the ubiquitous image of monuments and ruins, they sought an overpass, roads in the outskirts, a railroad track, or a dusty football field. Their photographs presented a country strewn with the poetry of daily life, rather than an Italy frozen in time for tourists.
The daily encounter with reality, with the fictions and surrogates, the ambiguous aspects, poetical or alienating, seems to deny any way out of the labyrinth, whose walls are always more illusive even to the point of confusing ourselves with them … The meaning that I try to give to my work is that of the verification of how it is still possible to wish to face the way of knowledge, to make it possible at last to tell the real identity of man, of things, of life, from the image of man, of things, of life.
Beginning in the mid-sixties, renowned photographer Mimmo Jodice (b. 1934) has focused on the vernacular landscape of his native Naples and on the resonance of the Mediterranean light on local ruins and artifacts. Timelessness and the experience of archaeological stratification have been the dominant themes in his work. This conceptual framing of a church wall in Naples was included in Luigi Ghirri’s Viaggio in Italia (1984), thus confirming the similar poetics that bound together Italian photographers of this generation, intent in the exploration of a new geography perceived through marginal nooks that belonged to the everyday.
Guido Guidi (b. 1941) has been defined as “a poet of detritus and odd corners” for his particular focus on a marginal Italy characterized by construction sites, housing developments, and abandoned factories, all photographed in different stages of ruin. The word “periphery” applies to his work not only thematically but also stylistically, as most of his eight-by-ten-inch view camera color photographs are taken from an oblique viewpoint that defies the centrality of Renaissance perspective.
The images of Olivo Barbieri, Vincenzo Castella, Walter Niedermayr, and Massimo Vitali describe a new topography as their large format cameras capture cities and spaces of leisure from expansive heights and angles. Their optics and locations re-map these daily spaces with a detachment that is critical to their understanding. Scale, detail, and perspective overwhelm or disconcert the viewer. Each world-traveling photographer has returned to Italy to document urban and geographic peripheries – spaces dissociated with a traditional notion of city “center.” Collectively, their work speaks of distance and temporality, alienation and ambiguity, the presence and the absence of human traces. Theirs are landscapes of detached proximity and anonymous specificity, cartographic descriptions of the infrastructural and sociological conditions of today’s Italy.
The work of Olivo Barbieri (b.1954) transforms familiar landscapes into surreal places. In his most recent series, site_specific, Barbieri has chosen the aerial observation point from which to frame the world. Hovering over large metropolis like New York, Las Vegas, Rome, Milan, Florence, Catania, Rio de Janeiro, and Beijing, he transforms them into toy-like collections of small architectural models - in Barbieri’s own words, this operation “is a deconstruction of the normal way of seeing.”
Massimo Vitali (b. 1944) is driven by a curiosity focused on the masses at leisure that he captures in emblematic photographs of beaches, crowded swimming pools and packed discos. The artist has described this process as a waiting game. With an elaborate set up including a 20 to 30 foot high custom-made platform, and large-format 8x10 and 11x14 inch cameras, he waits until he fades into the landscape, and then continues to wait for the perfect moment in which the scene is filled with individual stories and interactions. His large-scale work is highly detailed and invites the viewer to engage with the miniscule vignettes overseen from the camera’s distant viewpoint.
Since 1998, Vincenzo Castella (b. 1952) has represented European and Middle Eastern cities, creating a body of work titled Siti. In this series, Castella captures the metropolis from above and at a distance with highly detailed exposures. His images embody the increasing homogeneity of the contemporary city and the traces that absent people leave behind as they navigate space and time. This approach has extended to collaboration with the group Multiplicity, where Castella was asked to focus on locations in Milan where murder or tragedy occurred. This large-scale image of Milan informed a digitally animated video titled Chronicles from Milan. Fragments of the Urban Unconscious (2009).
Throughout his career, Walter Niedermayr (b.1952) has focused on the impact of infrastructures on natural landscapes. This monumental dyptich stems from a commission the artist received from Linea di Confine per la Fotografia Contemporanea, recording transitional areas across the ancient Roman Via Emilia. As common in his work, the scene is broken up into multiple prints, providing a sense of disconnect. Such a striking interpretation of a parking lot and highway intersection assimilates the contemporary Italian landscapes to North American nowhere lands, thus conveying a sense of global disorientation.
Resistance and the Invisible
The artists in this section choose unique perspectives that draw attention to the overlooked in contemporary society. Their photographs of fragments of public spaces, makeshift shelters, and marginalized populations convey a universal desire to “belong” to a world that appears increasingly alienating. Marina Ballo Charmet focuses on hidden details of public spaces, choosing eschewed perspectives that are quite disorienting. Paola Di Bello frames discarded household items that have been turned on their sides and reclaims their proper place in the world. Alessandro Imbriaco’s lush photographs show evidence of temporary shelters embedded in the landscape, giving a view of what it means to create a home with an extreme scarcity of means. Francesco Jodice confronts the viewer with straightforward portraits, or figures dwarfed by their industrial surroundings. Armin Linke has created a vast archive of images from around the world, which includes photographs of marginal zones and populations in Italy. Including these subjects in his archive, he declares these ignored elements worthy of consideration and visibility.
Paola Di Bello’s (b.1961) photographs capture human traces of overlooked details of the everyday that reveal how the contemporary landscape is inhabited. She presents these typically unnoticed elements in a highly visible format, to reclaim the discarded. In the series Concrete Island, 1996 – 2001, she has turned the camera angle to present the object in an upright state, to show that it is not the object that has lost its use, but the world around it that has forgotten how to see its purpose. In Fuoricampo Napoli, 1997, Di Bello created a series of classic landscapes as framed by the handmade goal posts in the many improvised football grounds throughout the suburbs of Napoli.
The photographs taken by Marina Ballo Charmet (b.1952) shed light onto the experience of vision that is unconscious or prior to language. Trained as a children’s psychotherapist, she composes finely structured images of the city’s edges, as in the series With the Corner of the Eye and Background Noise presented in this exhibition. Ballo Charmet’s perspectives allow the viewer the opportunity to zero-in on what often goes unexplored by those who traverse the urban landscape daily.
Armin Linke (b. 1966) relentlessly explores the diverse fragments of the contemporary world, as well as the incapacity of a mere photographic impression to contain it. Over the course of his ceaseless traveling, this artist’s photographic archive has grown, echoing the development of urban and rural landscapes, and the spaces in between. For this exhibition, Linke has created an accordion book with a particular sequence of photographs of Italy extracted from his larger archive.
The work of Francesco Jodice (b.1967) stands out in contemporary Italian photography for its rigorous insistence on the human figure in the landscape; conceptually, the artist is interested in the body as the “interface” of a changing urban world, as he remarks upon the transitory, mobile nature of contemporary life and its bizarre conflations in global cities. The consistent humanity imbued in these portraits is tempered by a quasi-scientific investigation into spatial relations, belying the artist’s training as an architect and his crucial participation in the group Multiplicity, as one of its founding members.
Alessandro Imbriaco’s (b. 1980) A Place to Stay is a series of photographs documenting the peripheral, circumstantial, illegal and unorthodox dwellings inhabited by immigrants in Italy. Dispersed throughout Rome, both the city center and suburbs, these dwellings are tucked within an arch of an ancient aqueduct, or burrowed in the forestation behind a new condominium. These images reveal the ambiguities intrinsic in the contemporary Italian landscape; touching on the tension between the antique and the recycled, the pastoral and the discarded, they reveal a sharp sensibility towards these invisible urban thresholds.