Humanist Photography and The “Catholic” Family of Man

Tendentially I am on Christ’s side, even if I don’t believe in God.



Humanist photography reached its apogee in the 1950s, a time when photographers themselves began publishing critical material on the medium, defending it from its otherwise quasi-feral state, still ignored by art historians and art critics.2 Their essays, articles, and books reveal an urgent yet unrealizable need to harmonize the disparate photographies in existence in order to present a united “Italian” front, with those in favor of a more “neorealist,” politically engagé image while others maintained an “artistic,” apolitical aesthetic. All of them, however, despaired at the cultura salonistica (“salon culture”) of camera clubs across the nation, so mercilessly described by Pierre Bourdieu in un art moyen.3

Giuseppe Turroni, originally a film critic, would be the first, in 1959, to write one of the most complete volumes confronting emerging postwar Italian photography with the prewar “old guard” in Nuova Fotografia Italiana, in which he promoted the work of Paolo Monti and Mario Giacomelli in particular.4 The idiosyncratic architect, designer, and photographer Carlo Mollino had written an earlier tome on photography entitled Message from the Darkroom (Un Messaggio dalla Camera Oscura) (1949), although this covered a global and somewhat personal history of photography, including some of his favorite painters too.

In order to make sense of the vast number of photographers working at this time, their many formal and political disagreements, and the enormous quantity of humanist photographs and writing produced during this period, I refer to the ideological framework of the Cold War. This period tends to have been historicized according to the divide between photojournalists and amateur photographers belonging to the burgeoning camera club scene. However, I found the perspective of political or religious engagement a more relevant way of approaching the subject matter.5 While the book is not meant to cover the entirety of the Cold War, this chapter is dedicated to exploring humanist photography in relation to the two main systems of belief in existence in the ideologically fraught times of the mid-1950s and early 1960s in Italy: Catholicism and Communism. The stand off between the two ideologies was best popularized by Giovanni Guareschi’s satire, Don Camillo, of which a series of very successful films were made starring Fernandel, who famously portrayed the inconclusive argument between the religious and the political that ran through Italian lives. During my research, I met Catholic humanist photographers and ones who voted for the conservative Christian Democrats. Due to the intangible and private nature of faith or ideological belief systems, this chapter relies to some extent on personal accounts of the photographers’ political stances in order to try to decode the ideological intention in the works examined.

The postwar years also known as the years of “Catholic triumphalism” witnessed a number of repressive regimes under the reign of Pope Pius XII (1939–58). In 1949, he ex-communicated “all those who voted Communist or were in any way associated in the activities of the Communist Party”; in the Holy Year of 1950 he proclaimed the bodily Assumption of Our Lady into Heaven as part of Catholic dogma; and in 1952, he instructed the Catholic Prime Minister Alcide De Gasperi (founder of Democrazia Cristiana, a Christian democratic party, in 1942) to ally with the neofascist party Movimento Sociale Italiano (MSI) in local elections in Rome, when the city council risked losing to the left.6 The Vatican used targeted action against Communists, with the Pope mobilizing Italian voters in speeches before April 18, 1948 by opposing “the solid rock of Christianity” to a life “without God.”7 The unabashed involvement of the Catholic Church in politics was wittily mocked in Pietro Germi’s film Divorzio all’Italiana (1961) starring Marcello Mastroianni and Stefania Sandrelli, in which the village priest exhorts his congregation to give their vote to a “party that is popular, and therefore democratic and respectful of our Christian faith. A party, to conclude, that is at once democratic and Christian.”8 Despite the Vatican’s efforts to curb the red threat, Communist numbers increased and by 1950 the PCI had grown into a powerful political force with important financial backing from the USSR.9 The PCI was by then the largest Communist party in Europe, numbering over two million members, much to the United States’ concern at the height of McCarthyist paranoia.

The precarious balance of power began shifting with Kruschev’s revelations of Stalin’s crimes at the XX Party Congress in 1953 as well as the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956. Between 1956 and 1957, with the onset of the Cold War thaw, the PCI lost 210,011 members while church attendance also fell over the next ten years from 69 to 48 percent.10 After Pius XII’s death in 1958, the Catholic Church entered an era of modernization leading to the Second Vatican Council which began in 1962 under the aegis of Pope Saint John XXIII. Throughout the 1950s both camps experienced crises in faith and hardened their positions in relation to one another, and yet a number of thinkers seized the potential for exchange and discussion. The need to find common ground between the two factions was explored in “third way” (terza via) humanist circles and among the so-called “disquiet” or “existential” Catholics (Cattolici inquieti). Most of the photographers who feature in this chapter can be identified according to one of the ideological camps mentioned, and sometimes more than one, from “third way” liberals to Catholics, existential Catholics, and Communists as well as Catto-communisti (Catholic-Communists).

In order to understand the peculiarity of the Italian case, I begin by examining the ideological thrust of two of the largest touring exhibitions of humanist photography that took place during the Cold War: Edward Steichen’s The Family of Man, first shown at the MoMA in New York in 1955 and Karl Pawek’s similarly large-scale, but underreported, exhibition What is Man? first shown in Zurich’s Kunstgewerbemuseum in 1964. The little-explored Christian inflection of Steichen’s exhibition is discussed alongside its much theorized American Cold War political propaganda. With the economic miracle and Italy joining the European Economic Community, Italian humanist photography became increasingly internationalized, although in many ways its evolution can be considered frustrated by the lack of a clear national movement. Nevertheless, one of the periodicals that is considered to best represent Italian humanist photography was Il Mondo: the newspaper projected a particularly “Italian” aesthetic, within a liberal politics. I also examine the work of two Catholic humanist photographers, Elio Ciol and Pepi Merisio, who have not been given much consideration in Italian scholarship, as opposed to Mario Giacomelli, one of the few Italians to have achieved international fame. The chapter ends with photographs of the suburban poor in Milan, where the sprawl of high-rise council flats became exponential during the economic miracle. These new poor, to whom Pasolini paid homage, became the focus of the humanist lens as the country began moving from a mainly agrarian economy to an industrial one.

Searching for an “Italian Photography” from The Family of Man to What is Man?

The Family of Man, celebrating the brotherhood of mankind, attempted to override existential doubts and fears about the future of mankind and the loss of belief, creating an American utopia in which democracy was seen as the common political denominator. As the director of the Photography Department at MoMA from 1947 to 1962, Steichen’s political opinions would have the power to determine the future ideological trends for humanist photography in the twentieth century.11 These can be compared with Karl Pawel’s similar exhibition in 1964, What is Man? 12 The blockbuster statistics for both reveal their vast impact over time and around the globe: The Family of Man displayed 503 photographs by 273 photographers attracting over nine million visitors over a period of seven years (1955–62), while the first chapter of What is Man? exhibited 555 photographs by 264 photographers attracting three and a half million visitors over a period of four years (1964–68).13 There were thematic similarities between the shows, which grouped photographs according to stages in human life from birth, through marriage and work to death. Both curators sought to reduce their concept to an essential sameness between different peoples around the world, with Pawek writing, “We are not only all alike, but are also identical in conscious awareness” and Steichen looking for “[photographs concerned] with basic human consciousness rather than a social consciousness.”14 Both were seeking a fundamental human spirit of a quasi-religious nature, although their ideological angles were different.

The welter of critical material produced on The Family of Man is not the object of this research, although one of the aspects that I focus on is the way in which humanist theorists received the show. Famously, Roland Barthes scorned Steichen’s universalizing “pietistic intention” which belied “history by creating false equalities between men.”15 Since then, left-wing scholarship has accused the exhibition as being part of the American hegemonic consolidation of power during the Cold War. It has been criticized for its underlying repressed narratives of imperialism, nationalism, and aesthetic colonialism, in order to promote a heroic version of the story of man as a wholesome, optimistic force of good.16 The photographic medium, still perceived at the time as transparent and universal, with its democratic means of production and format, was used to enhance the idea of the oneness of man and of the connection between Americans and their former enemies in the wake of the horror that nationalism had unleashed.

One of the aspects of the exhibition’s utopian vision, which is relevant to my analysis of Italian humanist photography, is the presence of religious belief. While Steichen ascertained that the exhibition was about “the religious, rather than religions,” its underlying ethos appears to be Christian. Atheism, a secular interpretation of the human condition, or a loss of confidence in a fundamental human nature, was not given room for expression. Instead, the exhibition indulged a sense of cultural optimism, with the repetition of the words love, hope, and faith in Sandburg’s prologue, a reminder of the end of the First Letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians: “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” Christianity had become a site for political renegotiations of American identity in the early 1950s. This was also a time when American spiritual authenticity was promoted in art. Significantly, the words “under God” were added to the United States’ Pledge of Allegiance in 1950.17 Democracy and Christianity constituted the moral-psychological foundations of the exhibition, which relied on Life magazine as the main source of the photographs exhibited. Life’s editor Henry Luce was married to Clare Booth-Luce who was outspokenly anti-Communist and exerted a profound influence on her husband. Life magazine itself, after the Second World War, turned Catholics into symbols of American consensus and, according to Anthony Burke Smith’s study, “encouraged readers to see Catholicism in recognizable and reassuring terms of family, middle-class success and corporate leadership.”18

Some of the photographs in The Family of Man are explicitly captioned from a religious perspective. For example, the opening photograph of an ocean sunrise by the American Wynn Bullock is accompanied by a quote from the Bible, “And God said, let there be light. Genesis 1:3,” while the closing photograph is Eugene Smith’s iconic Walk to Paradise Garden (1946) (Figure 4.1). Wynn Bullock’s photograph uncannily resembles the last and only color transparency of an atomic explosion Detonation of Test Mike (1952), which featured in the first version of the exhibition in New York.19 It was subsequently replaced by a black-and-white print for the traveling exhibition, and was not included in exhibitions in Japan. Steichen intended the photograph of the explosion to signify an antinuclear message. However, considering the exhibition’s engagement in Cold War strategies to combat Communism, it could be interpreted as glorifying the degree of American power in the arms race against the Soviet Union. The religious message in the caption to Wynn Bullock’s opening photograph in conjunction with the closing one of Detonation of Test Mike, celebrating warring might and scientific progress, transmits a Manichean message of good versus evil. On the other hand, the many photographs taken in natural surroundings and outdoors reinforce a degree of visual equality between people living in Sicily, the Soviet Union, Iran, or the United States. While the photographs taken in Italy appear to lock the nation in the role of a primarily agricultural society, they do so for most “Western” nations, including the United States, with a number of FSA photographs taken from the Depression era.

FIGURE 4.1 Wynn Bullock, Let there be light, 1954 © 1954/2015 Bullock Family Photography LLC. All rights reserved.

The eleven exhibited photographs of Italy correspond to a conservative agrarian stereotype, although the most important aspect they have in common is that none of them were taken by Italian photographers living in Italy.20 Three of them, taken by Vito Fiorenza, are titled Sicily instead of Italy. Probably a Sicilian émigré in New York, Fiorenza succeeded in maintaining the misplaced notion of Sicily as a nation separate from Italy.21 The others were taken by Americans or émigrés of different nationalities, many of whom would have worked for Life or Fortune. Steichen had spent two weeks in Milan in November 1952 out of his two-month trip around Europe, researching possible Italian contributions, and yet produced none in the final exhibition.22 The lack of Italian photographers in The Family of Man did not appear to concern the critical reception of the exhibition in Italy, which traveled with United States Information Services (USIS) sponsorship to Rome and Florence in 1956 and to Milan and Turin in 1959; rather it was enthusiastically acclaimed, reflecting a mainstream pro-American narrative.23 In the words of the respected photographer and critic Giuseppe Turroni, the exhibition was an “epic, very human, tender and heartbreaking fresco.”24 The only words of caution came from two other photographer-critics: Paolo Monti, who expressed doubt over its “didactic” intents, and Ando Gilardi who, twenty years later, would angrily denounce the exhibition as a falsehood and commend the Lebanese who demonstrated against it in Beirut in 1962, vandalizing some of the panels.25

In contrast to Steichen’s exhibition, What is Man? showed photographs with more problematic political content, asking its viewers to reflect on differences in wealth and equality and on questions of capitalism and Communism.26 It featured police riots, a child suffering radiation contamination, and prostitutes, in which Western bourgeois traditions were made to appear strange. Furthermore, a number of Italian humanist photographers featured in Pawek’s exhibition, most notably Caio Mario Garrubba, a card-carrying member of the PCI since 1946, who was among the organizers of the exhibition. Garrubba had met Pawek, the editor of the prominent West German-illustrated magazine magnum (1956–66), on a trip to Cologne in 1956. Thanks to his contacts in Moscow with photojournalists at Novosti and the Telegraph Agency of the Soviet Union (TASS), he was able to contribute circa 300 photographs for the USSR section of What is Man?.

Garrubba was proud that a photograph he had selected by Dmitri Baltermants showing Soviet families looking for survivors among the dead in Crimea from 1942 had won the second prize. He also exhibited Mario De Biasi’s gruesome photograph of a Hungarian Secret Police (AVH) agent beaten to death and dragged through the streets by a rope wound around his feet during the Soviet invasion of Hungary in October 1956 (Figure 4.2). The photograph had been published in Epoca in November 1956 as part of a reportage by De Biasi and Massimo Mauri featuring over thirty photographs, some of which were also presented in an exhibition curated by Italo Zannier in Spilimbergo the year after.27 De Biasi began his career as a respected amateur photographer, shifting to professional photojournalism once he was employed by Epoca.

FIGURE 4.2 Mario De Biasi, Budapest, 1956 © Silvia De Biasi.

The fact that the channels of communication between Italian humanist photographers and Pawek were more open than those with Steichen is perhaps due not only to geographical contiguity and ideological affinities, but also to chance encounters, timing, and the slow internationalization of Italian photography. A number of Italian humanist photographers would leave for their first international travel experiences in the mid-1950s, therefore around the time The Family of Man first opened. This corresponds to the dawn of the miracolo economico, when acute postwar poverty had begun lifting and travel became more affordable. In conjunction, the PCI funded trips for its members, either directly or through its affiliated periodicals. For example, Garrubba received commissions through Vie Nuove to take photographs in Communist countries including China, Russia, Czechoslovakia, Mongolia, and Poland. After witnessing the poverty and desperation to which Communism had led, Garrubba said he “felt the failure of Communism to be [his] failure” although he remained in the PCI until it folded.28

Garrubba’s ideological position and his photojournalistic inspiration were far removed from that of other compatriots, like Piergiorgio Branzi, who sought out American photography magazines in USIS libraries. These were promoted by the Marshall Plan and were the only reliably stocked public institutions that offered back issues of US Camera and Popular Photography. In 1957, an Italian edition of Popular Photography would become a reference for Italian amateur photographers, a periodical that reinforced anti-Soviet propaganda.29 Another periodical held at the USIS libraries was Prospetti, a journal funded by the Ford Foundation, which also funded the CIA-backed Congress for Cultural Freedom. Branzi admitted once stealing a copy of Prospetti that contained photographs by Eugene Smith, author of the celebrated A Spanish Village, inspiring him to go to Spain.30 American photography magazines promoted US cultural propaganda abroad. They remained the most prized among amateur photographers, despite the increasingly prolific production of special Italian magazines, including the widely read Ferrania (1947–67), Fotorivista (1949–62), and Popular Photography Italiana (1957–72). Italian photographers working in the 1950s and the early 1960s were, depending on their interests, exposed to ideologically contrasted realities within a Cold War visual culture. Along with the North-South divide, this may be another reason why they struggled to form a united front internationally and promote the idea of “Italian photography.”

The uncertain internationalization of Italian Humanist Photography

The Italian world of photography began engaging with an international scene around the same time as Italy was resurrecting its political profile and engaging in the dawn of the European Union. Alcide De Gasperi, one of the founding fathers of the European Economic Community (EEC), signed the Rome Treaty in 1957 with the leaders of five other countries—Belgium, France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and West Germany. That same year, a number of important international and national photography exhibitions opened in the north of Italy. The First International Photography Exhibition Biennial was launched in Venice and three other national exhibitions were organized: the II National Exhibition of Photography at Castelfranco Veneto; the Gernsheim Collection organized by Lamberto Vitali at the XI Milan Triennial; and the IV Photography Exhibition of the City of Spilimbergo. It was also the year of the first international group exhibition of Italian photography abroad, held at the George Eastman House in Rochester in the United States.31 The latter, titled Contemporary Italian Photography, exhibited twenty-six photographers including De Biasi, Branzi, Donzelli, Gardin, Giacomelli, Migliori, Roiter, Veronesi, and Zannier.32

The Photography Biennial in Venice was the culmination of a series of separate projects and enterprises, including a photographic exchange between La Gondola and the 30 × 40 Club from Paris in 1954 as well as a number of efforts undertaken by humanist photographer Pietro Donzelli.33 Donzelli, building on his experience as the leader of the camera club Circolo Fotografico Milanese, founded Unione fotografica (UF) in 1951, adding a third voice, after La Bussola and La Gondola, to the increasingly populated horizon of postwar Italian photography. In a typical internecine disagreement, he welcomed the artist Luigi Veronesi among the UF’s members, but refused Paolo Monti’s collaboration, somewhat belying his aim to deprovincialize Italian photography.34 Members of UF published reviews and articles in periodicals like Ferrania, Fotografia, and Popular Photography and organized international exhibitions like the Exhibition of European Photography (Mostra della fotografia europea) in 1951 at the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan. This exhibition, organized by Pietro Donzelli and his friend from the UF, brought together Edouard Boubat and Willy Ronis from France, Bill Brandt and Bert Hardy from the United Kingdom, Otto Steinert’s Fotoform group and the Swedish group De Hunge for an Italian audience that had had little exposure to an international photographic culture.35 A further significant player in the postwar world of Italian photography was Luigi Crocenzi’s Centro per la Cultura nella Fotografia (CCF) in Fermo. The CCF initially collaborated with the photographers from Misa in Senigallia, forming more of a photographic stronghold in central eastern Italy, and subsequently distinguishing itself for its international network of exchange with photographers, scholars, and cultural figures from Europe and North America.36

The 1957 Photography Biennial was financed by the Comune of Venice and organized by the CCF, members of La Gondola (in particular Giorgio Giacobbi, the then President), and the Italian-Mexican photography critic and publisher Romeo Martinez, considered the “Pope of photographers.” Martinez championed Italian photography in his trilingual photography magazine Camera, which was published in Lucerne in Switzerland and was also a respected “cultural” consultant for Magnum. He had recently published an article by Fulvio Roiter on the lack of recognition of “Italian” photography.37 The Photography Biennial allowed Italian photography to regain an international scope, in some ways mirroring its forgotten Fascist counterpart from 1932 at Palazzo Venezia in Rome—the First International Biennial of Photographic Art.38 One of the exhibitions was funded by Condé Nast and included work by Vogue photographers William Klein, Robert Doisneau, and Cecil Beaton, while another was devoted to Magnum with photographs by Robert Capa, Werner Bischof, and Henri Cartier-Bresson. Monographic shows were not only dedicated to international photography stars like Bill Brandt, Brassaï, and Doisneau but also to Paolo Monti (La Gondola), Mario De Biasi, Fulvio Roiter (La Gondola), and Federico Vender (La Bussola). The Biennials came to an end six years after their launch when the President, Giorgio Giacobbi, left La Gondola and stopped taking photographs or wanting to look at them, dedicating himself instead to music.39 Nevertheless, they marked a short-lived celebration of (mainly northern) Italian humanist photographers among their international counterparts.

One of the curious aspects that emerges from contrasting what was happening in humanist photography abroad to what was taking place in Italy is that while The Family of Man featured numerous iconic photographs, there are arguably no iconic Italian humanist photographs. Those that have reached an iconic status tend to have been taken by foreigners, such as Paul Strand’s The Family in Luzzara (Figure 1.3). Ironically, Strand’s aim had been to create a “portrait of a village [that came] directly out of our American culture. 100%.”40 Strand had sought to eliminate any recognizable signs of Italianità or modernity in the village of Luzzara, overriding any geographical or historical specificity or even personal history of the people photographed. This was at odds with what his Italian collaborator and fellow Communist, Cesare Zavattini, had imagined. Luzzara, an unassuming town on the shores of the Po, was Zavattini’s hometown, which he cherished, while Strand’s cultural references were Edgar Lee Masters’ poems in Spoon River Anthology and Sherwood Anderson’s novel Winesburg, Ohio.41 Strand wrote that he had wanted Luzzara to look like “any village,” and kept it as picturesque and rustic as possible, removing all cars and signs of industrialization. Strand’s characteristic, etched quality of the black-and-white photograph gives it a pictorial timelessness as do the subjects’ classical poses and apparent stillness. As testified by Arturo Zavattini, Cesare Zavattini’s son, who was present as a photography neophyte to learn from the American master, Strand’s shoots would involve time, copious amounts of equipment, and would resemble film sets drawing large crowds to the shoot.42 Despite its future global success (it would be translated into English in 1997 and published by Aperture), Un Paese was critiqued in Italy. This was due to the improbable reconciliation of Strand’s solemnity with Zavattini's popularism; as a result Einaudi’s book series Italia Mia which launched Un Paese was immediately discontinued.43

In the postwar search for emancipation from a Fascist visual culture, Strand and Cartier-Bresson, who are both identified with a left-wing, humanist intellectual establishment, are the two most cited influences for Italian photographers. Their influence can be attributed to the national circumstances in which their work was seen and the Italians who promoted them: Un Paese acquired its celebrity also thanks to Cesare Zavattini, while Cartier-Bresson’s first exhibition in Italy was organized by Carlo Ludovico Ragghianti, a scholar, a critic, and a brave military commander of the Resistance faction Partito d’Azione that Carlo Levi had joined in Florence in 1943.44 The exhibition titled 215 Fotografie di Henri Cartier-Bresson was held at Palazzo Strozzi in Florence in 1952 and took place shortly after the publication of Images à la Sauvette (1952).45 That same year an article discussing Cartier-Bresson’s artistic merits featured in the first issue of seleARTE, an original and avant-garde journal directed by Ragghianti and published by Olivetti that aimed to promote culture for culture’s sake and not as an ideologically bound product.46 Ragghianti reunited three important ideals for Italians and photography: he was a left-wing ex-Partisan and a professor of contemporary art as well as a celebrated art critic. He allowed documentary-style photography to move into a discipline (high art) that it had been denied in Italy, and endowed it with a radical political history, further validating it through the figure of a world-famous foreigner. Photographers like Giacomelli and Berengo Gardin, as seen in the Introduction, were inspired by Cartier-Bresson and Strand but, in an attempt to determine a more culturally subtle vision of Italians, they openly countered what they saw as stereotyped photography that simplified and flattened their reality.

“A bit sweet, a bit ironic, a bit pathetic”: the Italian gaze in pannunzio’s Il Mondo

One of the periodicals that promoted a nuanced photographic position was Mario Pannunzio’s serious, elegant, and idiosyncratic paper Il Mondo. It employed over 200 professional photojournalists and amateur photographers, including Caio Mario Garrubba, Enzo Sellerio, Paolo Di Paolo, and Piergiorgio Branzi, who would conserve fond memories of publishing their photographs with him.47 Known for its original use of photography, Il Mondo seemingly represented a “third road, a third power; third between Fascism and Communism; third between capitalism and Communism and third again between clericalism and Communism.”48 Pannunzio, a journalist since the early 1930s, had trained with Leo Longanesi at Omnibus as the paper’s picture editor. He also founded the short-lived Oggi with Arrigo Benedetti (see Chapter 1). In 1949, he founded Il Mondo of which he was the editor until its last issue in 1966. During that time it published circa 14,000 photographs and represented the height of intellectual life in Italy, maintaining an ironic detachment on current affairs. The liberal philosophy behind Il Mondo elaborated social problems through a “third way” perspective, although this somewhat self-righteous neutrality was subsequently undermined since the paper allegedly received funding from the Congress for Cultural Freedom, an anti-Communist league founded by the CIA in 1950. The editorial tendency was to subvert Communist and Catholic ideological gravitas to the extent that it tended to point out the “flaws of Italians at times with provincial cruelty,” according to Garrubba.49

Ennio Flaiano, the author and scriptwriter for La Dolce Vita, among other films, was also Il Mondo’s editor and picture editor: he would select a single large photograph for the front page to illustrate articles with no direct relevance to its content, following the legacy of Omnibus. The social and intellectual prestige of Il Mondo created a situation in which high-caliber photographers would endure long waits outside Pannunzio’s study in Rome while he selected the prize photographs and rejected the rest. The latter, however, were never returned to their authors.50 In a further humiliation, photographers were not credited until 1961. The periodical’s intellectual reputation swept aside such “petty” considerations, maintaining photography in an unjust balance: without its photographic appeal, Il Mondo would not have developed its reputation on the scale it did, yet, its photographers were still considered on a par with artisans, or as Arturo Zavattini told me, like “cobblers.” In retrospect, they felt they owed Pannunzio a great debt for allowing them to participate in the best aspects of Italian cultural life, and some referred to their sessions with Pannunzio as a “magical moment,” when journalists, editors, and photographers would discuss aesthetics and news in a way that had not been done before and has not been done since. Two photography critics, Piero Racanicchi and Giuseppe Turroni, supported this idea and would refer to Il Mondo as a near-movement or a school (la scuola romana).51

The image of the weekly was distinguished from mainstream news organs by its nontraditional, humanist focus on the “man on the street” and a more meditative photographic selection rather than a sensationalist one. Mainstream periodicals that towed a center-right party line like those seen in the previous chapters (Epoca, L’Europeo, Tempo) tended to be escapist and apolitical in themes: articles on the beau monde, beauty pageants, and rich Americans were contrasted with exciting stories about political scandals, murders, and contraband. Il Mondo focused on more serious topics: “politics, degradation, poverty, urbanisation, demography, economy, work, immigration, tourism, religion, literature, art and theatre.”52 Its ideological framework was progressive and lay. Religion, and in particular what was perceived as the exaggerated authority of the Catholic Church, was a frequent theme treated with characteristic lightness and humor. This was reflected in a number of photographs, like Garrubba’s Naples. Confessional of the Church of San Gaetano Thiene (Napoli. Il confessionale della chiesa di S. Gaetano Thiene) published in 1955 (Figure 4.3).53 The photograph shows an intriguing play of hands and feet on one side of the confessional booth: the priest is visible only for his hand gripping the side of the confessional with seeming urgency, while the confessor only for her white shoes floating uncertainly over the step. On the other side of the booth, an elderly woman unwittingly sanctioned the intimacy of the confessional moment adding a humorous distraction, seemingly acting as an unsuspecting chaperone. The accompanying story tells of an elderly man’s misplaced devotion to Lucifer. When asked about his personal beliefs, Garrubba observed that he “went to church often,” which he immediately corrected saying “not often, sometimes, but I was not interested in that or in Marxism, or in materialism. . . . I would say I was an agnostic.” However, his photographs of religion appear to contain a disaffected message. He remarked that, although national photographic characteristics were not something he felt was important, “there is an Italian gaze; it’s a bit sweet, a bit ironic, and a bit pathetic . . . one carries it inside oneself.”54 By taking photographs in churches, Garrubba was already crossing a threshold of Catholic decorum that he would continue to do in spontaneous photographs and, possibly, in posed ones. Garrubba would either find the same scene by chance or, more probably, recreate it in Confessionale (Figure 4.4). This photograph alongside others from Casablanca, Russia, and Italy, was enlarged to a poster-size format (“over one metre” in height) for an exhibition of twelve photographs at his friend Plinio De Martiis’ gallery La Tartaruga in Rome in 1961.55 De Martiis, a photographer himself, had left the PCI in 1954 when he set up his gallery—the first to exhibit American abstract expressionists from De Kooning to Rothko. It was thanks to De Martiis’ advice that Garrubba left his badly paid job as picture editor at Il Lavoro in 1953 to become a professional freelance photographer, raising the standard price of 600 lire per photograph to 3,000 lire.56 This unprecedented triumph was continued at the exhibition, where he sold a large print to the fashion designer Luisa Spagnoli for 80,000 lire, which was the kind of sum that abstract art works fetched, announcing the dawn of a new era for the photographic market.

FIGURE 4.3 Caio Mario Garrubba, Naples. Confessional in the Church of San Gaetano Thiene 1955 (Napoli. Confessionale nella chiesa di San Gaetano Thiene, 1955), C. M. Garrubba and F. Montini, “Il Diavolo e il Cero,” Il Mondo, a. VII, n. 38 (September 20, 1955), p. 10 © Alla Folomietov. Courtesy of Archivio Caio Mario Garruba.

FIGURE 4.4 Caio Mario Garrubba, Confessional, (Confessionale), 1960 © Alla Folomietov. Courtesy of Archivio Caio Mario Garruba.

There was a conjunction, in certain social circles, between humanist photography and the fashion world during the 1950s and early 1960s that helped to detach the genre from an overly serious political commitment. Paolo Di Paolo, one of Il Mondo’s photographers who was most in demand, could be considered one of the few “glamorous” humanist photographers, documenting high society and artists as well as everyday street life. His friendship with fashion designer and socialite Irene Brin was renowned at the time, as were his solid left-wing credentials. Di Paolo’s Stadio dei Marmi (1950s), features his friend, a model, hanging off a Fascist sculpture at the stadium in Rome (Figure 4.5). Her carefree, fragile, and fashionable figure contrasts with the grave solidity of the colossal nude Fascist athlete, seemingly an ancient relic of times past on which Italians could turn their backs, and of which they could make fun. Rome had developed into the glamorous capital for artists, literati, and the film world, which Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita immortalized in its decadence in 1960, marking a symbolic end to the period.

FIGURE 4.5 Paolo Di Paolo, Stadio dei marmi, 1950s © Paolo Di Paolo.

Despite its treatment of photography as an accessory, Il Mondo forged the careers of a number of photojournalists and amateur photographers who are now celebrated art photographers like Gianni Berengo Gardin and Branzi. Another of the paper’s most sought-after photographers, Tranquillo Casiraghi, became an active defender of the idea of Italian photography and wrote critically about what he saw as a lack of Italian photographers’ social and political investment in their work.57 Casiraghi was strongly politicized after fighting in the Resistance in the Second World War and meeting influential antifascists. After the events of 1956, he left the PCI but continued his left-wing political activity through interventions at work and on the council estate of La Torretta in Sesto San Giovanni in the suburbs of Milan, where he fought for the locals to move into new buildings.58 In an attempt to create a dialogue between the two very separate worlds of amateur and professional photographers, he organized a conference in Milan that contributed an important chapter to Italian photographic history. Sesto San Giovanni, the working-class town—a suburb of Milan—where he lived, became the unlikely platform where the first National Photography Conference (Convegno Nazionale di Fotografia) took place from October 4 to 18, 1959, supported by an exhibition. The conference marked a watershed moment for Italian photography, where professionals, amateurs, critics, and academics were invited to share their ideas on the future of Italian photography and were able to clarify their visions.59 It generated a series of debates that were published in Foto Magazine/Ed. Italiana entitled Dibattiti (“Debates”). Edited by Casiraghi, Cesare Colombo, and Antonio Arcari, they concerned the renewal and development of Italian photography from 1962 to 1965.60 Casiraghi hosted the conference, determined to create a new and radical space for amateur photography in Italy and to foster dialogue within a fractured, classist practice. The self-perception of the photographers belonging to the Bologna Camera Club, for example, as examined in Bourdieu’s Un art moyen, focused on the inferiority of photography in comparison with painting, reproducing the conservative taste and décor in bourgeois homes, where painting and family photography constituted obligatory signs of social status.61 By hosting the conference in Sesto, Casiraghi was undercutting the sterile camera club atmospheres that grouped the bourgeoisie in a self-marginalizing practice.

Casiraghi himself remained an “amateur” photographer, while employed as a full-time factory worker at Falck, Breda, and SIC-Edison, and also organizing the Photographic Association in Sesto San Giovanni around the municipal library (Biblioteca Civica).62 After taking photographs of industrial landscapes in the Milan suburbs in the early 1950s, he worked on a series of portraits titled People of Torretta (Gente della Torretta) of the people with whom he lived in his block of council flats in Sesto San Giovanni, a number of which were published in Il Mondo. Men and women paused for the photographer in their daily lives. Seen together, they represent the underlying tensions between Catholicism and Communism, as in Figures 4.6 and 4.7, where an elderly woman is pictured nestled behind an altar, while a young man astride his bicycle poses next to posters from the PCI’s news organ L’Unità (Figures 4.6 and 4.7). Casiraghi registered the contradictions expressed in daily lives that Il Mondo privileged and promoted, often by unobtrusively including posters, graffiti, or other ideological and religious symbols in the background of his photographs.

FIGURE 4.6 Tranquillo Casiraghi, People from Torretta (Gente della Torretta), 1950s © Ambrogina Basilico.

FIGURE 4.7 Tranquillo Casiraghi, People from Torretta (Gente della Torretta), 1950s © Ambrogina Basilico.

By the 1960s, Il Mondo’s battles for a more liberal-democratic world entered a new, less urgent phase. The events in Hungary and the protests in Poland in 1956 had marked a definite split between Communists and Socialists, which brought a new majority toward the center-left under Amintore Fanfani from 1960 to 1963, after a brief extreme right-wing period in 1960 under Fernando Tambroni. Meanwhile, Pope St. John XXIII had launched the Second Vatican Council in 1962, inaugurating a more liberal era for Catholicism. Il Mondo’s antifascist, anticlerical, and anti-Communist protests no longer held the oppositional weight they once did and in 1966, Pannunzio closed the paper down.

Can Catholic photographers also be humanist?

The grave or sober representation of religion or religious sentiment did not appeal to the liberal thinkers from Il Mondo circles. The two photographers from the period whose work sided with religion rather than with politics, have not been afforded much space in the history of Italian photography. Elio Ciol is best known for his meditative landscapes from his native Friuli and Pepi Merisio, from Lombardy, for his rural photographs as well as his lifelong collaboration with Pope Paul VI from 1964 for Epoca. Both tended toward a nostalgic, or in Ciol’s case quasi-esoteric, elimination of signs of industrialization from their rural photographs, which corresponded to the style of photography published in periodicals by amateur photographers like Ferrania. Recently, Ciol’s connection to the neorealist movement has been reconsidered by Silvia Paoli, who counters the accepted position on his work in particular with an examination of his set photography on Father David Maria Turoldo’s The Last (Gli ultimi) in 1962.63 Italo Zannier who promoted neorealist photography had only scorn for Ciol’s work and in particular the film.64 The Last treated the story of a poor family of peasants living in Friuli under Fascism and has since been recuperated as part of a neorealist debate on the disappearing peasant world. It was validated retrospectively through the figure of Pasolini who praised Gli ultimi for its “absolute aesthetic realism.”65 Pasolini’s concern for gli ultimi (meaning “those who come last” or “the humble”) was anticlerical rather than anti-Catholic and in this way he belongs to the swathe of Italian engagé intellectuals who were searching for radical ways of rethinking the political-religious impasse in existence in the country. The “offered hand” (mano tesa) movement where Communists and Catholics collaborated against Fascism during the Second World War had contributed to bringing together the two belief systems. The situation created a postwar climate which bred activist movements such as Danilo Dolci’s successful civil disobedience campaign in Sicily in 1956, which brought religious peasants and militant Communists together, signaling the possibility for real social change. Florence in particular cultivated a radical form of Catholicism with two major figures who emerged in the early 1950s: the dissident Catholic (or “Catholic Gramsci”) Don Milani who promoted education of the poor and elimination of illiteracy and Giorgio La Pira, the “Saint Mayor” of Florence, who took a vow of poverty in imitation of Saint Francis, would often walk barefoot in public, and accompanied strikers into the factories.

While Ciol and Merisio were not directly connected to the work of Danilo Dolci, La Pira, or Don Milani, a number of their photographs translate an awareness of this context and the need for greater social equality through a concern and an identification with the poor from a spiritual perspective. The Catholic Church supplied a social role, filling a gap the state did not: its important social function in terms of rites of passage (christenings, weddings, and funerals), assistance for the poor, the widows, the elderly, and the sick, or confession as a form of psychological assistance, had no Communist equivalent. Where left-wing photographers may have gently mocked certain aspects of religion, in particular confession, Merisio and Ciol adopted greater gravitas in their vision.

Father Turoldo, who was also a poet, directed Gli ultimi around the time Pasolini was working on La Ricotta (1962), a film about the filming of The Passion, starring Orson Welles. La Ricotta led to Pasolini’s arrest and condemnation to four months in prison in 1963 for public defamation of the state religion. Gli ultimi, on the other hand, was a box-office failure.66 Ciol’s set photographs reflected the film’s ascetic style and the fundamentalist Catholic values it promoted—love for the family and the earth, sacrifice, physical deprivation, and renunciation. His collaboration with Father Turoldo would have related him to the cultural-religious Milanese scene. Under the aegis of the religious organization Corsia dei Servi (Servant’s Lane), Catholics and lay intellectuals came together, featuring exchanges with important cultural figures including Elio Vittorini.67 Although Father Turoldo refused to support Democrazia Christiana after 1948, believing that religion and politics ought not to mix, Catholic associations were involved in the making of Gli ultimi, promoting a connection between religion and artistic experimentation.

Ciol’s practice in landscape (which included more contemporary urban landscapes) was compounded by commissions of photographic surveys of the frescoes of Saint Francis’s life in Assisi.68 Despite living in the same area, Ciol did not join Zannier’s Friulian Group for a New Photography (Gruppo friulano per una nuova fotografia), founded on December 1, 1955, in Spilimbergo, because he did not identify with its left-wing politics, no doubt earning him his excommunication from scholarship on neorealist photography.69 After the Friulian Group had dissolved, Zannier reread its objectives in 1978 as “explicitly neorealist” although the concept of neorealism was not expressed in their manifesto, which insisted instead on social engagement.70 While Ciol excluded himself from the Friulian Group, he was a member of La Gondola from 1955 to 1960, and participated from 1955 to 1957 in the Popular Photography International competition in New York, winning prizes that launched his career in the United States.71 Basilica nella nebbia (Basilica in the mist) from 1957 reflected Ciol’s description of his landscape photography: “Sometimes . . . the (small) presence of man in large and solemn spaces [makes] others feel, with equally vast and solemn images, the infinite mystery in which we are wrapped.” (Figure 4.8).72 Ciol’s landscapes earned his work comparisons with Ansel Adams and Minor White, because of its “spontaneous spirituality connected to a Franciscan religious naturalism.”73 Compared to Robert Frank’s St. Francis, Gas Station and City Hall, Los Angeles (1956), first published by Robert Delpire as part of the famous and controversial photobook Les Américains in 1958, Ciol’s work remains classical in style. It was appreciated abroad and promoted by the Scottish scholar Alistair Crawford, who has also written on other spiritually inclined photographers like Mario Giacomelli and Pepi Merisio from the late 1970s onward.74 While Giacomelli is a celebrated photographer, Ciol and Merisio remain relatively unknown in Italy, or at least are rarely included in scholarship on humanist photography. However, Ciol’s work is present in photographic collections in the United States.75

FIGURE 4.8 Elio Ciol, Basilica in the mist (Basilica nella nebbia), 1957 © Elio Ciol.

Like Ciol, Merisio was drawn to photographing rural scenes that appeared to belong in preindustrial times. For example, his photograph of Monte Autore from 1966 could have been taken at the same time as when Luciano Morpurgo, seen in Chapter 1, was working there in the 1920s and 1930s (Figure 4.9). Only upon closer inspection does a modern-looking leather bag in the foreground become a sign that the photograph was perhaps taken at a later date. He chose to photograph a tired pilgrim covered in blankets on the side of the mountain, evoking a quasi-biblical mood. Both Merisio and Ciol were to some extent ostracized in left-wing photographic circles, due to what was seen as the elegiac pietism in their work. Merisio was published in conservative or Catholic periodicals including Famiglia Cristiana, Rocca, and the illustrated weekly for the organ of the Vatican, L’Osservatore Romano.76 Yet, both photographers were also exhibited abroad and published in some of the more famous American amateur photography journals, including Popular Photography and Infinity, which would earn them prestigious international photography prizes and firmly launch their careers beyond Italian borders.

FIGURE 4.9 Pepi Merisio, Monte Autore, 1966 © Pepi Merisio.

Deliver us from evil: Pathos in the work of Mario Giacomelli

Mario Giacomelli’s photographs, which tread an ambiguous terrain between art and documentary, are the most celebrated and the most well-known Italian humanist photographs. The photographic context in which Giacomelli evolved was that of Giuseppe Cavalli’s more conservative Misa in Senigallia and Luigi Crocenzi’s more politically committed CCF in Fermo. Like its senior club La Bussola, Misa subscribed to a Crocean aesthetics of artistic immanence. By Giacomelli’s time, Crocean ideals had fallen from fashion and were considered dogmatic: photography needed socially committed ideals. In this sense, Giacomelli can be considered to have sought a new photographic language, away from contemporary artistic and political “requirements,” developing it within a personal artistic “antidocumentary” paradigm. Working according to themes and series, inspired by Crocenzi’s serial work, he conducted investigations over long periods of time covering different Italian realities to which he returned, at times, over decades.77 For example, his landscape photographs, in which he would portray the charred earth from above in abstract patterns, belonged to a number of different series that spanned the entirety of his career, including On Being Aware of Nature (Presa di coscienza sulla natura) (1954–2000) and Metamorphosis of the Land (Metamorfosi della terra) (1955–68). Others, like Puglia (1958) or Scanno, which was discussed in the Introduction (he had traveled to Scanno in 1957 and returned in 1959), were part of more time-bound projects. The series I focus on here regard his interest in forms of suffering or secluded lives including: those of seminarians in There Are No Hands To Caress My Face (Io non ho mani che mi accarezzino il viso) (1961–63); those of the aged in an old people’s home in Death Will Come and It Will Have Your Eyes (Verrà la morte e avrà i tuoi occhi) (1953–84); and those of the ill in Lourdes (1957). These works contain a form of violent or anxious spirituality that could be connected to the “unquiet Catholics” with which Branzi identified.

Mario Giacomelli’s There Are No Hands To Caress My Face was an interpretation of the cloistered lives of priests (Figure 4.10). Originally titled Young Priests (Pretini), he subsequently read Father Turoldo’s poem from 1948 “I Have No Hands” (“Io non ho mani”) about a priest’s melancholy and solitude for not having known love like everyone else and the sense of sacrifice for the sake of humanity. The series was shot between 1961 and 1963, corresponding to the beginning of the Second Vatican Council reforms. Giacomelli published them in a number of magazines according to different sequences and with different photographs between 1964 and 1969.78 The priests are shown at play, and yet there is a melancholy about their joviality that comes from the empty, confining whiteness of the space in which they are moving. While the poem is about a lack of touch, some of the priests in the series are dancing together, holding hands as though whirling around in a surreal game. Others, as in Figure 4.9, appear to be in a blissful childlike trance beneath the snowflakes. Scholars like Marco Andreani have interpreted the series according to a “Dionysian” reading, as “possessed” young men in the thrall of the dance, reflecting a buried form of sexual repression.79 The whiteness of the snow can be seen as a form of erotic alienation: the priests have repressed their “base” instincts and are released, yet held captive, in an uncertain, alienating nothingness as though floating in outer space. Unlike Ferruccio Ferroni’s light-hearted Ballerini (Dancers) from 1954, where a long exposure translated the wild movement of the dance, Giacomelli’s priests are caught in a static position, causing the viewer to pause on the figure of the priest and the meditative affect of his expression rather than enjoy the frenzy of the dance (Figure 4.11). Ballerini was the only photograph for which Ferroni, otherwise a “classicist” whose work was close to Giuseppe Cavalli’s, chose to create the effect of movement. Ferroni, who came from Senigallia like Giacomelli and Cavalli and was a member of both the Misa and La Gondola camera clubs, maintained an attention to form, beauty, and grace, privileging aesthetics over political content. Due to my investigation into individual ideological credos, a large portion of the photographs selected for this chapter do not reflect the more internationally renowned style of humanist photography celebrated in The Family of Man, one in which “apolitical” love, happiness, and brotherhood prevailed over existential angst or personal beliefs, in opposition to the way that darker emotions might transpire, for example, in Giacomelli’s work.

FIGURE 4.10 Mario Giacomelli, I have no hands to caress my face (Io non ho mani che mi accarezzino il volto), 1959–63 © Simone Giacomelli. Courtesy of the Archivio Mario Giacomelli Senigallia.

FIGURE 4.11 Ferruccio Ferroni, Dancers (Ballerini), 1954 © Lidia Baruccia Ferroni.

The paradoxes inherent in Giacomelli’s photographs of priests in the snow were furthered by their wildly different publication contexts spanning Christian magazines to denunciatory articles on homosexuality among the priesthood.80 Priests and nuns were the subjects of numerous cliché photographs, often humorous and solidly rooted in the temporal world, which was possibly the reason why There Are No Hands To Caress My Face was criticized by a number of Giacomelli’s contemporaries, including Branzi who wrote him a purposeful letter asking him to abstain from such frivolous themes. Photographers like Nino Migliori and Leonard Freed had immortalized priests in ungainly positions, playing volleyball rising up to the net in their flourishing habits or mid-snowball fights in St. Peter’s Square. Giacomelli, however, took his distance from these picturesque documentary-style photographs through trademark darkroom revisitations of his negatives.

Having trained as a typographer, Giacomelli would spend years adjusting his photographs to achieve certain desired effects in the darkroom. He would scratch, overexpose, and overdevelop film and was known to leave film rolls to decay in order to experiment with stages of celluloid decomposition.81 His use of white was related to a release, the release of the shutter as well as a human release from earthly bonds. In his series Death Will Come and It Will Have Your Eyes, he used a stark white light that could be interpreted as a symbol for hope in certain photographs, but also as a metaphor for the frightening, blinding emptiness of death. In a number of the photographs, the protagonists look as though they may have been photomontaged onto the scene. This effect was achieved with high-contrast photographic paper that reduced tonal grays and a wide aperture, achieving a short depth of field. Deformation, illness, disease, and old age came under Giacomelli’s weird and unforgiving lens, which he used to face his fear of death and decay by transforming that which he found unjust, ugly, or frightening into an otherworldly vision, at times bordering on the supernatural. Like Henry James’ use of light in his ghost story The Turn of the Screw, the amount of light in scenes seems to refer to the strength of the supernatural or ghostly forces at work. Light for Giacomelli was an instrument of the uncanny, his darkroom the site for the production of haunted images, devoid of the documentary mode. Giacomelli explored the human condition beyond a realist dimension. His surreal, oneiric, often sinister interpretation of the old people’s home, where men and women have been forced to relinquish all sense of dignity and humanity, can relate in some ways to Zoran Music’s horror-filled We Are Not the Last (Noi non siamo gli ultimi) from 1972 (Figure 4.12). Music’s series was painted from memories of his experiences in Dachau, and corroborated by Primo Levi’s accounts of Nazi concentration camps in Se Questo è un uomo (If This is a Man) published in 1947. Those who had lived in concentration camps thought they were the last to have witnessed the horrors to which they were subjected, and that no one else would see what they had seen. As time passed, Music realized the same horrors were being reproduced in “Vietnam, the Gulags, Latin America” and that therefore “we were not the last.”82 In Noi non siamo gli ultimi, a barely human figure recoils upon itself yet reaches upward from the darkness, a blackened mouth and dark eyes as though alive with a last hope of life. Pointing to itself, the figure is filled with supplication and despair at being abandoned; the expanse of black and gray followed by the swathe of flesh color is like the alienating nothingness of Giacomelli’s whites.

FIGURE 4.12 Zoran Music, We are not the last (Noi Non Siamo Gli Ultimi), 1972, oil on canvas, 50 × 40 cm, private collection © Anton Zoran Music SIAE 2015.

One of the reasons Giacomelli was drawn to the old people’s home was his concern with the breakdown of family values and the way in which old people were left to die alone and in wretchedness.83 The eeriness of Giacomelli’s representation of the human condition engaged with depressing material and political realities. In 1957, Romeo Martinez asked Giacomelli to go to Lourdes for Camera, although on his return he felt his project to have been a failure and reimbursed Martinez the money he had received for the commission.84 When photographing the disabled and their long, expectant wait outside the caves for a miracle, he also took a photograph of a child locked in a wheelchair, its eyes and mouth three similarly-shaped holes, gaping (Figure 4.13). The deformed feet repeat the position of the deformed hand resting on the child’s lap whose right arm is too short and whose neck and head appear paralyzed in a single position. The child’s condition, blurred by the camera movement and the grainy quality of the image, is in some ways the embodiment of the photographic image as “mutant” in which the human “consciousness posited the object encountered outside of any analogy, like the ectoplasm of ‘what-had-been’: neither image nor reality, a new being, really: a reality one can no longer touch.”85 Barthes was speaking of the photographic image, not the particular traits of the subject photographed, but in photographing people whose condition was taboo or whose appearance was grotesque, Giacomelli was interacting with a sense of unreality and abnormality. This could be considered freeing both of the child’s condition and of the viewer’s interaction with the child, as though the child were a symbol for the whole human condition. In contrast, Pepi Merisio during the ceremony of the blessing of the ill at the Sanctuary of Caravaggio in 1956 photographed a child with Down syndrome whose identity is protected by the arms of his mother. (Figure 4.14). In an interview, Merisio claimed that, unlike Giacomelli, he believed in the objectivity of photography and in preserving the dignity of his subjects.86 In Merisio’s photograph, two veiled women (the mother and an older woman) are in focus in the foreground, absorbed in their private worlds of suffering. Merisio’s photograph captured a human sense of togetherness in misery, where Giacomelli existentially focused on the inhumanity of suffering alone. The eyes of Giacomelli’s child are empty but look as though they are watching the viewer, a reminder of Derrida’s exploration of the idea of “spectrality” as a condition of freedom in his essay “Spectographies.”87 Derrida explained that one “cannot see the eye of the other as both seer and as seen” and that we tend to consider an image as that which we look at, forgetting that wherever these “spectres exist, we are being watched, we feel or believe we are being watched.” Giacomelli managed to create an eeriness in his photographs that spoke of worlds beyond.

FIGURE 4.13 Mario Giacomelli, Lourdes, 1957 © Simone Giacomelli. Courtesy of the Archivio Mario Giacomelli Senigallia.

FIGURE 4.14 Pepi Merisio, Sanctuary of Caravaggio (Santuario di Caravaggio), 1956 © Pepi Merisio.

When Giacomelli went to Lourdes, prison and psychiatric hospital conditions were increasingly on an international agenda. In the early 1960s, literary and photographic explorations of psychiatric hospitals included Ken Kesey’s One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962), Silvia Plath’s The Bell Jar (1963), Richard Avedon’s Nothing Personal (1963) documenting the conditions of those interned at the East Louisiana State Hospital in Jackson, and Michel Foucault’s spiritual engagement with the psychiatric hospital, Naissance de la clinique (1963). This was also the time of the dawn of the antipsychiatry movement, with the need to consider mental illness within a sociological and spiritual context. It would not be until the mid-1960s that photographers began exploring the degrading conditions of psychiatric hospitals in Italy with Luciano D’Alessandro’s photographic campaign that prefigured Carla Cerati and Gianni Berengo Gardin’s photographic investigations, culminating in Franco Basaglia’s publication Morire di Classe (To Die of Class) in 1969. Cerati and Gardin’s work is anchored in the temporal world, where shocking documentation of the injustice and inhumanity toward the mentally ill appeared to be one of the last bastions of a cruel, eugenics-obsessed world in which democracy or a sense of justice had not yet penetrated. This denunciatory style of documentary is transformed in Giacomelli’s photographs where pathos lies in a liminal territory, between questions of power and social injustice. Pathos refers to the idea of suffering, and yet it is unclear where to situate it exactly: it might be in the photographic intention, in the photograph itself, or in the viewer’s reaction to the photograph, or perhaps even in an abstract “moment” in between the three. Pathos can be read as the emotional content of a photograph that allows it to inhabit an undefined space between documentary and art.

Giacomelli was drawn to the oppressed and repressed and subjected to a personal and obsessive memento mori (remember that you must die). His photographs of the mentally ill and the physically disabled at Lourdes render madness spectacular and spectral, as though the people waiting for a miracle are closer to the dead than the living. Eerie death watching us, in the way Derrida described our belief that “teletechnologies” watch us in Spectographies, became an increasingly present metaphor in Giacomelli’s photographs, where the waking dead, or the non pas mort, mais non vivant, were similar to the empty yet all-seeing eyes of Music’s figure in Noi non siamo gli ultimi. Although Giacomelli went to Lourdes on commission, he was there for his own reasons, to pray for his son: following an accident his child had lost oxygen to his brain and damaged certain cognitive responses. His blurred interpretation of a disabled child was part of his method of making sure the image, in his words, “lost all documentary characteristics, so that they come out a bit shaken.”88 Giacomelli recurred to repressive, incarcerated, or cell-like psychological contexts for his subjects as though seeking redemption for them through their oppression. In his desire to lose the documentary, Giacomelli was searching for a way to rid himself of reality, in order to access an abstract idea based on an emotion. Arguably, the visual chiasmus that forms between the political irony and the irrationality of a sense of pathos creates a powerful psychological hold on the viewer, addressing a blind spot where personal belief and public engagement meet.

Gli ultimi in the suburbs of Milan

Giacomelli’s dystopian vision correlates with the atmospheres developed by certain photographers who documented the suburban lives of “the last” (gli ultimi) including Paolo Monti, Mario De Biasi, Tranquillo Casiraghi, Cesare Colombo, Mario Carrieri, Pietro Donzelli, Gianni Berengo Gardin, Cecilia Mangini, Ugo Mulas, and Ugo Zovetti. They were in the process of building an image of a nation coming to terms with the social transformation brought on by industrialization and newfound consumerism. Rural peasants were being replaced by the suburban poor, often documented in Milan, in the wake of the city’s industrialization due to the economic miracle, and its rapid development into the largest metropolis in the country. New forms of living became manifest: consumerism, supermarkets, industrial and urban expansion, advertising, and asphalt. Architects were imagining the utopian possibility of developing a “humanist city,” exemplified in the writings of Adriano Olivetti and his periodical Comunità, Ernesto Nathan Rogers, cousin of British architect Richard Rogers, and director of Domus between 1946 and 1947, who wrote The Heart of the City: Towards Humanisation of Urban Life (1952) and, later on, Manfredo Tafuri’s L’architettura dell’Umanesimo (The Architecture of Humanism) published in 1969. Photographers, artists, and filmmakers on the other hand, tended to document a more dystopian reality, as in the figurative artist Renzo Vespignani’s paintings of peripheries, which were published in Il Politecnico, Vie Nuove, and other left-wing periodicals. His lugubrious suburban landscape Building Site (Palazzo in Costruzione) from 1957 shows the concrete shell of a high-rise council flat in a seemingly abandoned building site (Figure 4.15). The Milan periphery offered dramatic aesthetic visions to artists and photographers, who sought to represent the fragility and insignificance of the men and women in their changing environment, in a form of reverse sublime.

FIGURE 4.15 Renzo Vespignani, Building Site (Palazzo in costruzione), 1957, oil on canvas, 110 × 80 cm, private collection © Lorenzo Vespignani by SIAE 2015.

The photographic interest in the slums (the so-called “borgate”) had moved from being a mere journalistic theme of “investigation” (inchiesta), amply covered in the late 1940s and the 1950s in particular in Rome, to an artistic-activist priority.89 In 1958, Pasolini was the voice-over for photographer Cecilia Mangini’s first short documentary film, Unknown to the City (Ignoti alla città) about the spreading slum areas around Milan. In his poetic cadence, Pasolini recounts the “boundless areas where you think the city has finished, and it starts all over again, it starts all over again an enemy a thousand times over, in dusty labyrinths, in house fronts that cover entire horizons.”90 Mangini, a politically motivated photographer and documentary filmmaker, also took photographs of the Milan suburbs, such as Poverty and Progress (Povertà e Progresso) from 1957, which portrays five tiny human figures and a dog rendered almost invisible by the landscape and giant industrial agglomeration in the distance. Across a stretch of raked earth looms a brand new petrochemical station, with four storage tanks, a gas-burning stack, and a metal cracking tower gleaming in the sunlight. A woman holds a baby as she gazes upon the new building, while the other appears to perform a pointless domestic task, sweeping the rubble away. The only other sign of human habitation are two rags hanging outside the uneven closed shutters of the house. The elevated angle Mangini chose intensifies the way in which monumental progress literally towered over the livelihoods of the poor. Similarly, Ugo Mulas’ Milano (1953–54), which appears to echo scenes from Zavattini’s Miracolo a Milano, shows a group of workers heading home into the winter sludge, dwarfed by a grim row of Soviet-style blocks of flats (Figure 4.16).91 The humanity of the working classes is contrasted with the greed of the progressive, industrialized aspects of the city. Existentially charged photographs represent instances of humanity lost in endless terrains vagues, amid enormous overpasses and monstrous council flats looming or half-built in the background, echoing Pasolini’s humanist observation that “the more things are small and humble, the greater and more beautiful they are in their misery.”92

FIGURE 4.16 Ugo Mulas, Milano, 1953–54 © Eredi Mulas.

Milano, Italia (1959), Mario Carrieri’s now highly prized photobook, reflected raw, mysterious visions of everyday and street life in Milan in the late 1950s. One of the first Italian photobooks, it was structured like a film according to ten “scenes” and printed on high-quality velvety paper, paying homage to the newfound alienation provided by the city. Carrieri’s affinity in style to William Klein’s “street” neorealism over Paul Strand’s classical shots earned him a cool reception from Italian critics who, according to Russo, judged his work as avoiding “social and human references.”93 Arguably, however, his work was unpopular due to the discomforting nature of his human references, not dissimilar to Robert Frank’s cutting social comments, which were unhappily received by an American audience. Milano, Italia’s images bleed into one another, overlapping on a double page with only succinct titles at the beginning of each “scene” containing only factual information relating to the geographical location of each photograph, which he referred to as a “map” (stradario). Carrieri came from a background in cinema, and returned to it soon after his two-year photographic foray.94 His photographs bring together many contradictory aspects of Milan including a herd of sheep on a misty morning making their way past a series of high-rise council flats, a never-ending graveyard, graffitied buildings, grim poverty, night-life and juke-boxes, the property market, a seeming “remake” of Crocenzi’s “Occhio su Milano” in Il Politecnico, or religious scenes such as a confessional captured in blurred candle-light with a priest unceremoniously wiping his nose and a sign that reads “Confessions in English.” Carrieri takes no prisoners and in his “Seventh Scene,” his photograph of a striptease (Spogliarello al le roi), while shrouded in his trademark elimination of any excessive detail, may still have caused dissent among critics at a time when brothels had been outlawed after the Legge Merlin (Merlin Law) in 1958 (Figure 4.17). Carrieri was among the most socially daring of the photographers who sought out the new narratives provided by the periphery.

FIGURE 4.17 Mario Carrieri, Strip-tease at “Le Roi” (Spogliarello al “Le Roi”), M. Carrieri, Milano, Italy, 1959 © Mario Carrieri.

The gap between photography and art diminished with artists experimenting with photography and photographers with abstraction, appropriation, and early forms of conceptual art in the mid-1960s, heralding the demise of the humanist genre. Younger photographers like Mulas and Franco Vaccari, began their careers as humanist photographers in the mid- to late 1950s. By the mid-1960s they were favoring experimental work close to conceptual art, somewhat eclipsing their earlier humanist work. Mulas, for example, had begun working in the city suburbs in the early 1950s as an impoverished left-wing photographer looking for “neorealist” subjects at which time he began frequenting the Bar Jamaica in Milan and became friends with the future Arte Povera artists like Piero Manzoni. He began frequenting the Venice Biennales and increasingly turning toward the genres of fashion and art photography, publishing in Settimo giorno, Domus, and Illustrazione italiana. Eventually in the early 1970s (three years before his death), Mulas followed his friend Marcel Duchamp’s advice to “make art for himself” and created his series of conceptual Verifiche (Verifications). By exposing negative film roll, he “Duchampianly” refuted the creative act, marking a radical departure in his work from documentary photography.

Others, like Cesare Colombo, would continue experimenting with street photography in nonformalist ways, seeking a fresher and more immediate image, allowing for blurs and “inaccuracies.” Communicating a wry sense of humor about the evolutions in Italian society, Colombo’s Supermarket in Milan (1965) shows a group of housewives crowding a supermarket aisle—a discombobulating innovation imported from the United States (Figure 4.18). While the mood of many of the photographs seen in this chapter tend toward an existential, brooding atmosphere, Colombo, still in his twenties at the time, was developing a more ironic register and an interest in the strange effects of capitalism on a society that was not entirely prepared for it.

FIGURE 4.18 Cesare Colombo, Supermarket in Milan (Supermercato a Milano), 1965 © Cesare Colombo.


The decade lasting from the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s represents both the apogee and the decline of humanist photography, on a global and a national level. With the distancing of the war, newfound wealth, and the industrialization of the country, different interests in Italian visual culture emerged. Pasolini would be one of the few intellectuals who persisted in embracing an aesthetic of misery into the 1970s. Refuting the negative Marxist position on the unethical commercialization of suffering, Pasolini sought out a Catholic sense of pathos, which arguably can be connected to the fundamental pulse of Mario Giacomelli’s work. A biblical and social concern with “the last” remained a focus for many of the photographers featured in this chapter, who sought to express a sense of solidarity with the poor and the marginalized. The mixture of left-wing, liberal, and Catholic currents of thought within the relatively small photographic community produced a lively variety of styles within the humanist genre. This has made it hard to theorize this period, in particular due to the connections with neorealism which, because of the movement’s cultural monumentality, tends to absorb the photography in comparative scholarship.

By using the framework of the Cold War, through the exhibitions of The Family of Man and What is Man?, the peculiar case of Italian humanist photography, torn between ideological, aesthetic, and critical wars, emerges in all of its complexity. The photography promoted by Il Mondo distinguished itself for its humorous and self-reflective gaze following the everyday activities of working-class and petit bourgeois Italians, who constituted the majority of the population. The widespread notion of the Italian family as a guarantor of stable social values is overturned when it becomes apparent that many of the photographs examined tend to represent individuals, or contain elements of loneliness within group photographs. A melancholy existentialism or spleen in Italian humanist photography constructed a narrative in which the isolation of the individual and the breakdown of community were at times more visible than the safety and security apparent in the “Great Family of Man” narrative supported by Steichen’s exhibition. For some, the medium became a site through which to explore an existential subjectivity and where the contentious issue of faith is at times revealed in a quasi-heretical dimension, before the progressive secularization of political photography.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at admin@erenow.org. Thank you!