Italian Photography: A Beautiful Stepchild

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works
Monday, January 30, 2006; 6:13 PM

Say what you will about the French, they love and respect photography.

It is Perpignan, for example, a small place in the very south of France (nearer to Barcelona, in fact, than it is to Bordeaux) that every year draws thousands of photographers, editors, publishers, curators and dealers to a two-week celebration of photojournalism, "Visa pour L'image." Nearly two decades old, this annual homage to the great and near-great of documentary and daily journalism fairly represents what only can be called a Gallic reverence for photography.

Likewise, it probably is no accident that one of the best known photographers of modern time--and certainly the best known photojournalist in the world--was the late Henri Cartier-Bresson, a Frenchman who passed away in 2004 at age 95, leaving a stunning body of work as his legacy, as well as the great photo agency Magnum, that he helped create after World War 2. (And, mon ami, you think it an accident that the agency was named after a double-sized bottle of French Champagne?)

The French regard for photography extends to both the still and the cinematic. I won't bother to list all the great French film directors of the postwar era. You know them. I know you know them.

In fact, travel through all of Europe, both western and eastern Europe, and you will see evidence of this high regard for photography, if not for photographers, in exhibits, in magazines, in galleries. At the very least, one senses that in Europe--and most especially in France--photography does not have to scramble to be regarded as a fine art.

Everywhere, that is, except in Italy.

Even though Italian photographers have for decades been producing some of the finest documentary and fine art work on the planet, almost every knowledgeable person you talk to there concedes that in Italy, photography as an art form remains a stepchild. A beautiful stepchild, to be sure. But still a stepchild.

In Italy the "true" belle arti remain painting and sculpture, joined by the magnificence of la grande opera and the classical symphonic and chamber works of the great Italian composers like Vivaldi, Verdi, Puccini, Rossini et al.

In fact, ask a person of reasonable sophistication to list Italy's greatest contributions to world culture and you likely will hear all of the above--with perhaps high fashion from Milan and alta cucina from Bologna thrown in to the modern mix--before you hear about photography.

This is hard to accept, being as I am half-Italian and a photographer. And not just a photographer, but one who loves Italy, and who, with his wife and partner, has just spent six years working on a photography book about Venice.

But there is just no getting around it. In Venice, for example, there are precious few photography galleries, and even fewer major exhibitions of photography in the city's glorious museums.

And yet, photographic talent abounds, not just in Venice, but all over Italy. Great names like Paolo Monti, Fulvio Roiter, Gino Bolignini, Giorgio Giacobbi, to name but a few of the postwar era giants. Joining them--and still working today at the not-really-old age of 75--is my own favorite, Gianni Berengo Gardin, whose work rivals, and often surpasses that of the late great HC-B.

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