Centers and Peripheries in Contemporary Italian Photography

Article excerpt

Looking at Italy today, one will see a multiplicity of regions, accents and traditions -- not necessarily the mythic birthplace of Western civilization, Italy's fragmentation mirrors the complexity of the European project of community because it presents a mosaic of cultural differences within a national unity.

In 1979, in Storia dell'arte italiana (Vol. 1), Enrico Castelnuovo and Carlo Ginzburg contested the global image of Italian art history in an essay entitled "Center and Periphery." They suggested a new approach to Italian art through the study of the regional schools and the individual artist's "deviations" from a central "norm." The essay intended to relocate the so-called "peripheries" as "centers" in their own right; it mapped Italy as a multi-regional entity, and it encouraged further inquiry on the local contexts and productions.

Italian contemporary photography can also be approached in the terms outlined by Castelnuovo and Ginzburg, as it presents a regional pattern rather than a unified, homogeneous center. For the past 50 years, regionalism in Italian photography has played a decisive role, both to the advantage and disadvantage of the medium. Regionalism has generated creative projects for the interpretation of local cultures, but it has also caused an institutional delay in the support of archives, museums and educational activities. The lack of a national style has thwarted a significant art market for photography.

The critical analysis of regionalism goes back to the 1940s with Antonio Gramsci's study of local traditions -- anthropology, folklore and dialects. Along these lines, Italian neorealist writers, filmmakers and photographers paid close attention to the culture of everyday life. Since the 1970s, Italian regionalism has been an active element in the critique of consumer culture and media as well as Italian stereotypes and mythologies. Not surprisingly, most creative projects in photography in the past 30 years have tried to suggest what Italy is by showing what it is not: not the leaning tower of Pisa, nor the picturesque landscape, nor the collection of masterpieces stored in museums.

One photographer in particular, Luigi Ghirri, became the spokesperson for these projects, Ghirri, who died in 1992, knew what it meant "to suggest," both with words and with pictures. He left an important legacy of his interest in the phenomenology of an Italian "elective landscape" -- a marginal, fleeting landscape, rich with local memories and daily events, which he captured with lightness, wit and a childlike wonder.

He saw this landscape as the alternative to the cliches of Italian culture. He entitled one of his many series "Italia Ailati" (1971-1979) with the intention to mirror the omnipresent, official image of the country ("Italia") with the reversed word and image ("ailati"). He sandwiched both images, and from that he derived a sense of estrangement and surprise. In Luigi Ghirri (1979), the catalog to his exhibition at the University of Parma, he noted:

Whenever I have traveled in italy by train, I always observed with enjoyment the distance between the landscape seen from the window of the train and the photographs hanging inside the compartment of the train: these photographs illustrated the invariable leaning tower of Pisa, the Romanesque cathedrals, the Renaissance cities, the mountains, the lakes, and the Mediterranean pine trees. Thus, my travel was twofold: one perceived outside, from the window, and one experienced inside, in the train's compartment.

Ghirri photographed the space "in-between" two Italies -- the peripheral and the mainstream -- with a lyrical and critical eye. His work revealed the possibility of integrating personal and collective memory, indicating, as he said, "a new set of clues" for the perception of Italian landscapes. With this intention and dedication, Ghirri curated an exhibition, "Viaggio in Italia" (1984), which brought together the work of 20 photographers to depict the peripheral and the vernacular landscapes of the peninsula. …