A few days ago I had the opportunity to visit the Magazzini Fotografici in Naples, a space dedicated to photography and meetings. In the exhibition room there were photos of Lisetta Carmi. I am not ashamed to admit that I didn’t know this photographer, born in 1924 in Genova and still alive. Reading up on her, I learn that she was one of the first Italian photographers involved in reportage, documentary making and social denunciation. But, and the photos exhibited in the Magazzini refer to this, in 1972 she published a scandalous volume, “Travestiti”, a photographic collection that documents the life, difficulties and contradictions of transsexual people, at the time (and yet still in some cases) defined with the often-derogatory term: travestiti.
Through her vision, and thanks to her stay among them, Lisetta understood the importance of witnessing what they represented: the photographs are devoid of filters, often confined to the walls of an intimate room, often the subjects are naked, shameless. The narrative power of her voice is strong and clear, but that’s not the only theme Lisetta is known for.
Very famous is her tribute-reportage on Sardinia, built during fifteen years spent documenting and narrating the social universe of the island, but also the advent of elite tourism and the gap between the rural world and modernity: and here we have photos of housewives, of work in homes, of traditions; we have landscapes, scenes of everyday life unknown to most people “off the island”, voices of a harsh place, still very far from that plastic glamour that would invade its coasts shortly. A piece of Italian culture, therefore, that comes to us thanks to the eye of Lisetta Carmi.
Photography by Lisetta Carmi
Paola Agosti, another independent photographer strongly dedicated to women’s voices captured the 70s, a period of important changes. Paola finds herself, a young woman, in the middle of a tumult that demands equal rights, freedom of choice and arguments on which women may or may not have a say. I don’t want to waste time on the classic and cloying diatribe about the strength of women, the body of women and everything related to women. All you need to know is that Agosti’s photographs opened a channel through which people gave a certain importance to a slice of the population, regardless of gender or social background, if not only for the “noise” they produced. It’s clear that here too we find a face of Italy of the past, still not yet overcome, because some battles don’t end with just a protest or two.
Strongly political, the photographs of women, not only those mentioned above, but also and above all, those captured within the walls of the house, those in the factory (see the exhibition “Le donne e la macchina“), photos of any woman, of famous writers, of prominent politicians, immigrants, peasants, represent a part of Italy that some have forgotten. These “modern” battles have their roots in those years.
Photography by Paola Agosti
The conversation of reportage can’t be had without Carla Cerati, a Lombard photographer and writer who died in 2016. Carla began her career in the 1960s as a stage photographer. She soon understood that it’s real life that interests her. Famous for her photographs in the asylums of Gorizia, Florence, Parma and Ferrara, she won the Palazzi Prize for reportage. Between the Sixties and the Seventies, Cerati captured many personalities from the world of Italian and international culture and she photographed some of the most important Milanese political and social events, especially the bourgeois reality of cocktail parties.
Guided by her curiosity and her critical eye, Cerati photographs the 1960’s youth, the faces and places of the industrial sector, the 1966 flood in Florence, a Milan in full transition. In 1965, Cerati set off from the Lombard capital by car with the idea of reaching the extreme tip of Sicily. The trip gave birth to several shoots, Maghi e streghe d’Abruzzo, Sicilia uno e due, and Nove Paesaggi Italiani, with Bruno Munari’s design and Renato Guttuso’s presentation.
These were different times, yet Cerati boldly portrayed women in the nude: at the end of the 1970s she published Forma di donna, with 34 female nude photographs, the result of a long research started in previous years.
Photography by Carla Cerati
If we are talking about world-famous Italian photographers, how can we not mention Tina Modotti? A controversial figure, always poised between excess and genius, between the lawful and the illicit, her success owes precisely to this contradiction. I’m not going to unravel my love for her art, but instead focus on Tina’s unique vision.
In 1926 she said: “I want to photograph what I see, sincerely, directly, without tricks, and I think this may be my contribution to a better world” (Tina Modotti. La fotografia al tempo dell’amore).
One of the first nomadic and revolutionary artists, Modotti inextricably links photography to her fervent political activity, to her ideologies. A photographic style free from useless technicalities (some detractors will insist on the imprecision of her photographs), but full of meaning, linked to the social contents it conveyed. Her powerful testimony on the portrait and the human subject was discovered in Mexico, a land that welcomed her, a place where she forged an indissoluble friendship (some argue much more) with Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. In fact, she took many portraits of the two, capturing a place and a fervent, unrepeatable period.
As her political involvement progressed, Tina Modotti moved from studio to street, photographing ordinary people and becoming the forerunner of street photography.
Photography by Tina Modotti
And this article doesn’t exist without Letizia Battaglia: photographer, photojournalist and politician from Palermo; often known as the “photographer of the mafia” for her primordial works that told the story of Sicily in the 70s, the so-called “anni di piombo” (“years of lead”). Her photos aim to tell Palermo in its misery and splendor, lives lost because of the mafia but also its traditions, the gazes of women and children (Letizia Battaglia prefers female subjects), the neighborhoods, the streets, the parties and mourning, daily life and the faces of power in a city of a thousand contradictions. She’s much more than her extraordinarily famous photograph of the girl with a soccer ball in the Cala district of Palermo.
Despite the increasingly widespread use of color photography, Battaglia almost always chose black and white, an illuminating choice that tells us of contradictory feelings towards her city.
Her subjects are portrayed in the street, faces of authentic people, of suffering women, victims of an unhealthy system. As in the case of Lisetta Carmi and her eye on Sardinia, Daniela Battaglia testifies to a piece of the country left behind, left alone, the past of a Sicily very different from the present one… yet is it really so different? Or maybe our narration, the current one from social networks, scratch just the surface, the upper layer of a place full of contradictions?
Daniela Battaglia’s photography, perhaps even more than that of the others, shakes us, pushes us to ask ourselves questions: why Sicily? What were the conditions for what happened? Why not in Tuscany, Veneto or Lazio?
The disorder, the “street stories”, the intellectuals, the dead killed by the Cosa Nostra, the family celebrations, the religious processions, the political rallies and the children playing, pretending to be at war in the alleys of Palermo, in a river of various existence, of great emotional impact. Her images tell the recent history of our country, a story that, despite its beauty, glamour, and the famous dolce vita of which we are the destined carriers, we must not forget.
Photography by Letizia Battaglia