In 2014 I decided I had to do something for Italian photography. I had been working as a freelance photographer for years. Before that I had been an archivist for a weekly magazine (L’Espresso) later a picture editor (Giunti Editore) and I had been in charge of the office in Rome for an American photo library (The Image Bank, later Getty Images).
I had lived with photography for so many years, producing it, buying it, selling it, and I had noticed from the inside and experienced how little Italian photography was considered, studied and shown in Italy.
The idea of assembling a body of works by Italian photographers began to grow in my mind. I started designing in my head what the line could be aligning the pictures that I really considered important: I found out they were all by women.
I had been very impressed as a student in Milan in the 70s by a groundbreaking exhibition by Lea Vergine “L’altra metà dell’avanguardia” in which the art critic had grouped a number of female artists of the 20th century who had been forgotten and undervalued, and brought them back to life for the audience to understand.
Similarly, I considered this action could be done for photographers. The line was drawn and I started activating my project by calling on the studios of the artists that I already knew: I would expose the project and value their reactions. I would already have in mind the exact picture or series I was interested in, but the exchange with the photographers has always proven of crucial importance. Apart from being entertaining, I value personal contact with the artist and often this has resulted in new discoveries of other artists: I found solidarity and sorority more than often. I was particularly happy about this as I remember a male gallerist warning me about the risk that a certain female photographer might refuse to be part of an all women collection.
The intention on my part was to avoid the danger of ending in a ghetto. I wanted the collection to have an impact on the public for the quality of the works presented: in the end that they were Italian, women, artist or photographers was of lesser importance.
Once defined the “gender”, I proceeded finding the chronological line that suited the most what I had in mind: to describe the transformation that occurred to photography through 50 years. The first pictures I acquired were the ones by Lisetta Carmi shot in 1965, so I decided to use that date as the starting point of the project and to continue until 2015. That way I would have 50 years to describe the changes in photography, but also in Italian history and in the role of women in our society. Now I needed a place, a top public institution to be able to convey the works at the highest level. It is my opinion photography still needs to be protected, curated and presented with scientific rigour until we reach the final goal for this art to be shown not apart but together with the rest of contemporary art.
Divided in five decades, the works I collected span from black and white traditional reportage in the 60s to nowadays 3D prints: I consider every single picture as an essential brick. However, I value the fact that curators have to have total freedom in making selections for different exhibitions. An example is from the first show at Triennale di Milano where Raffaella Perna superimposed to the chronological line four sections that we have referred to since then. The four sections define recurring themes and areas of research of the photographers and describe the times, political, sociological frames in which the works were produced.
Inside the Stories, 1965-1975
What do you think of Feminism?, 1975-1985
Identity and Relationship, 1985-1995
Seeing Beyond, 1995 to today
Inside the Stories
Between the 60s and the 70s Italian photojournalism changed: photo reporters began to be recognised as journalists and, above all, their work had an element of radicalism and social engagement hitherto unseen. Indeed, in this period Italian photographers male and female alike documented with growing attention and an activist gaze the conflicts and upheavals in the country: the strategy of tension, the terrorism, the struggles of workers and students, the declaration of feminists, the conditions in mental institutions, the marginalisation of immigrants, the industrialisation and violent transformation of urban life, the feuds between clans and the crimes of the mafia, and more generally the social problems that until then had little coverage in the country’s press. Women’s contribution to this work of investigation and denunciation was crucial: some of the photo essays and books that had the deepest and long-lasting influence on Italian culture were the results of the activism of female photographers such as Paola Agosti, Letizia Battaglia, Giovanna Borgese, Lisetta Carmi, Carla Cerati, Augusta Conchiglia, Gabriella Mercadini and Lina Pallotta. They undertook the responsibility of bearing witness to difficult and uncomfortable stories forgotten by the general public in conviction that photography is an essential tool for changing the relationships of power and for restoring dignity to the disenfranchised and marginalised.
The documentary function of photography did not disappear with the transition from analogue to digital: many young photographers such as Simona Ghizzoni, Francesca Volpi, Elena Givone and Michela Palermo recognise in photography the most effective tool to tell hidden and difficult stories. Unlike the amateur and ephemeral quality of much of the photography online and in the current information industry, these authors prefer long shooting sessions and in some cases large sized cameras, often shunning sensationalism in favour of establishing a rapport of empathy with the subjects featured, to avoid photography becoming a predatory act.
What do you think of Feminism?
The importance of the photographic medium in the denunciation and demystification of the typical sexism found in the representation of women, where the woman is the passive object of the male gaze, is the chosen battleground for the struggles of Italian feminism. Photography with its unique adherence to reality was a precious ally not only for documenting the battles for civil rights and social recognition fought by feminism, but also and especially for creating alternative models of representation which take into account the age-old marginality of women, without accepting it or putting up with it as the natural state of things. What unites the works of photographers and artists present in the collection is indeed the activist and political use of photography conceived as a tool for depicting reality through a gendered gaze.
For these artists photography is a way of constructing relationships, exchange ideas and new strategies of female expression. In their hands the photographic medium is used both to deconstruct the gender stereotypes in language and media communication, as well as to explore the connections between the body and the female identity and to lay claim to lived experiences starting from the awareness that the “personal is political”.
Photographers in this section: Liliana Barchiesi, Bianca Menna/Tomaso Binga, Paola Mattioli, Marcella Campagnano, Verita Monselles, Libera Mazzoleni, Nicole Gravier, the feminist Gruppo del Mercoledì.
Identity and Relationship
The attention towards themes linked to identity and the body which characterises art and photography in the 70s is found again in different form in the works of the new generation of women artists and photographers who emerged in Italy in the 90s. in this decade and still more in the following one, we witness a widespread renewal of interest in photographic techniques that give centrality to the “start with yourself approach”, family history, daily life, emotions and individual memory, conceived as the crucial moment of relating to the other and with collective history. We start seeing a conceptual bent, the attention less focused on the formal and aesthetic aspects of the image and more on the mental and emotional resonance that the photograph excites. Artists prefer minor stories, more intimate and personal, often imbued with autobiographical elements. Photography with its special capacity for evoking the past and causing distant emotions to re-emerge is the privileged tool for representing the lived and complex nature of memory. Photographers in this section: Moira Ricci, Alessandra Spranzi, Paola De Pietri, Bruna Esposito, Martina Bacigalupo, Brigitte Niedermair, Anna Di Prospero, Erminia De Luca, Sofia Uslenghi.
The erosion of the boundaries between art and photography that begun in the 70s with Pop Art and Conceptual Art, reached its full maturity in the 90s and in the first decade of the new millenium, when the distinction between the two fields became blurred and the debate over the presumed battle between photography and art now resulted an anachronism. There are many factors that contribute to the phenomenon: the progressive acceptance of photography in institutions and museums, the growing critical and theoretic attention to the state of the art, with the formation of an horizon of common interests and strategies in which the use of the theoretic, technical, material and above all visual aspects specific to photography has an essential weight. Photographers in this section: Marina Ballo Charmet, Monica Carocci, Gea Casolaro, Margherita Chiarva, Daniela Comani, Paola Di Bello, Martina Della Valle, Raffaela Mariniello, Beatrice Pediconi, Agnese Purgatorio, Luisa Rabbia, Sara Rossi, Rä Di Martino, Silvia Camporesi, Mariella Bettineschi.
As a whole the experience of assembling the collection has been very satisfactory: I think because it happened at the right moment. Quite incredibly the idea hadn’t been considered, at auctions nobody was competing for the pieces, the photographers themselves were incredulous, and quite obviously soon conquered. It helped a lot that a new generation of female curators and critics were now available, that was the crucial point: in retrospect hadn’t it been for that we would have had to wait for longer still. I would call it a decisive moment, when things get together, new energies released and new perspectives created.
Collecting works by women photographers has made me more aware of the many questions still unanswered, but at the same time I am convinced the exhibitions of the collection have empowered many, not only women, not only artists.
The impact the collection is having is strong and powerful and the reception of the project has been surprisingly rewarding for the years of study and research, but it is obvious we are still encountering resistance and denial: for these reasons it is crucial we keep trying being on the scene with the most striking works shown in the best venues. As in my career as a female photographer I find endurance the necessary virtue: next year, a show organised and curated by a male professional. Normalisation finally? Let’s hope to be on the way.