An article by Rena Silverman published on Lens, a The New York Times’ blog.
The Italian photographer Ugo Zovetti was known for his sense of realism. In a 1958 photograph, he captured a group of four street musicians, all wearing signs around their necks that declare, “BLIND.” It’s reminiscent of Paul Strand’s “Blind Woman,” a 1969 photo that shows the subject’s affected eye and evokes sympathy. The blind men in Zovetti’s image, in contrast, are simply playing on the street.
A picture like that reminds us of Neo-Realism (Neorealismo), the important Italian film movement from the same era, which is evident in “Mid-Century Postwar Italian Photography,” currently on exhibit at the Keith De Lellis Gallery in Manhattan.
“There are parallels between Italian photography and film, whether you are just looking at the subject matter or the way the photographs themselves look,” said Beth Iskander, vice president and senior specialist of photographs at Sotheby’s, who cited Vittorio De Sica’s “The Bicycle Thief” (1948) as an example. “All of these had to do with Italy’s sense of place in the world. Poverty and jobless, and the importance of the land.”
Unlike its prewar isolation, Italy’s chaotic postwar climate allowed for creative independence. For photography, this meant there were no formal schools, but important amateur photo clubs that started to form in the late 1940s, like La Bussola, La Gondola and La FIAF (Federazione Italiana Associazioni Fotografiche).
“The common basis for us young people at that time who chose photography as a means of expression was the desire to break with the past aesthetics and to propose a new point of view,” said Nino Migliori, who has two photographs in the show.
Looking at the exhibition, it is impossible to ignore the similarities among the 34 silver-gelatin prints, even if they are by 27 artists. They share a striking sense of graphic experimentation, where many frames are filled with vast white space and mere specks of sharp, black figures.
Gianni Ranati’s “Il Palloncino Rosso” (“The Red Balloon”) is a vertical photograph with over 95 percent white sky. Three small dark figures stare up from the bottom of the frame at a grayish balloon, which is seconds from floating up past the edge of the moment. Meanwhile, Vittorio Ronconi’s “Bonaccia” (“Dead Calm”) is a high-contrast print, almost completely white, except for a small black ship just to the right of the center and what looks like a buoy to its left.
Others are just as technical in composition, but without the white space. The show’s poster is a photograph of St. Mark’s Square in Venice by Gianni Berengo Gardin. Shot from above, this is a scene of two ant-size figures walking single file, traversing the frame in pouring rain. The first figure leans into an umbrella. A moiré of rainwater coats the ground. It is a dreary, beautiful scene full of off-whites, grays and blacks. It is sharp in focus, but soft in tone.
The photograph was taken in 1959 before Mr. Berengo Gardin called himself a professional photographer. He would later be exposed to the works of Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans because of an uncle who had worked at the International Center of Photography in New York. Upon hearing about his nephew’s growing fascination with photography, the uncle asked Cornell Capa, then the director of the I.C.P., to send some photo books to Italy.
Now in his mid-80s, Mr. Berengo Gardin has many books, a World Press Photo award and a Lucie Award under his belt.
Other images in the De Lellis exhibition maintain a similar scale of small figure to large space, but have a greater emphasis on the land. Guido Fumo’s “Paesaggio” (“Landscape”) shows a few shades of farmland with four tiny, scattered sheep. Only after looking for a few moments will you spy a small person at the frame’s bottom.
According to Ms. Iskander, these scenes where a figure is flanked by road or farm are hallmarks of Italian photography, particularly that which came before the mid-1970s.
“The land is important to Italians. They seek substance from it,” she said. “There is a real sense of place with these images.”
Even the street scenes in the exhibition — though captured with a tighter lens — show a sense of place. Bicycles whirling through the frame, past the point of exposure, leave only the setting in focus. But there are also snapshots of everyday Italian culture: photographs of street musicians, people going to work, children and nuns, lovers at night, cars, canals and marching bands.
Short-lived but highly influential, this postwar movement was somewhat of a reaction against fascism and the associated aesthetic values. Artists wanted to move away from heroic propaganda and ideology and instead focus more on the reality of the situation — in this case, a reconstruction period of social, political and industrial change.
One of Mr. Miglioro’s photographs, “Venezia,” is a square cut into vertical thirds. There is a wall on the left, a canal in the middle and a group of stacked posters advertising Kranebet liquor and Persil laundry detergent on the right. He took this image in Venice near Ponto del Lovo, where he often traveled with other artists to visit Peggy Guggenheim’s house.
“This photograph reveals my taste, likings and ideas,” Mr. Migliori said from his studio in Bologna, the city where he was born. “I liked this view where you can appreciate the commonplace of the Venice canals together with walls scraped by the passage of time and those discordant posters on the right. It shows everything far from the stereotypic views of that famous town.”
Mr. Migliori is in his late 80s, but he still photographs actively. “I have a lot of projects to realize,” he said. “I need at least 30 years or more!”
“Mid-Century Postwar Italian Photography” is on exhibit at the Keith De Lellis Gallery in Manhattan and will up until May 17.