Issue #188  1/10/2012
Italy's Photographic Legacy; The Great Gutmann and Other Catalogues in Brief

(Just a note and an apology from the Editor. By error (mine: Alex Novak), some of these reviews were lost in our email files for an excessive amount of time after they were done. We're still catching up and will catch up on others soon. These are still very important photo publications.)

By Matt Damsker


By Maria Antonella Pelizzari. Reaktion Books Ltd., London, England. Paperbound; $29.95; 187 pgs., 124 images. ISBN No. 978-1-86189-769-5. Information: http://www.reaktionbooks.co.uk .

This well-written and deeply attentive overview of Italy's photographic tradition is an important contribution to our understanding of that nation's cultural development. Author Pellizzari, an associate professor of art at New York's Hunter College and CUNY, previously did much the same in her 2003 study of India's photography, and here she outlines how photography has mirrored Italy's rise from a gaggle of competing states to a unified, globally competitive country.

Pelizzari notes that the history of photography in Italy hasn't traveled well beyond its borders, while its art market has remained somewhat peripheral to other European and Asian regions--ironically so, given Italy's stature as the cradle of Western art. Yet only a handful of Italian photographers seem to have fashioned much of a global profile over the decades: Bragaglia, the Fratelli Alinari, the paparazzi, Giacomelli and several contemporaries such as Vitali, Barbieri, Basilico, Jodice, Wolf, Niedermayr, and Lambri. Pelizzari suggests that the nation's fragmentation into many sub-states from late antiquity onward may well have affected its artistic reach, emphasizing regionalism.

Whatever the reason, this compact yet thorough volume brings us close to the Italian photographic project, beginning with the medium's early days, when Daguerre's and Talbot's discoveries launched the first wave of itinerant photographers, who worked side by side with Italian artists (often opticians, Pelizzari notes) to capture the country's incomparable architectural relics and icons of antiquity, from the Colosseum, the great Arch of Janus and Temple of Vesta in Rome to the ducal palaces of Venice, the glories of Florence, and so on.

Many of the most enduring of these early images belong to the likes of non-Italians such as John Hobbs, Gustave Le Gray and Frederic Flacheron, but it isn't long before the Roman calotypist Giacomo Caneva established himself as a "painter photographer" and distributed his beautifully composed portraits and religious tableaux. By then, other European and Italian photographers were chronicling the upheavals of the Risorgimento, as heroes such as Garibaldi forged the unification of Italy. And as tourism flourished in the 1860s, so did the superb compositions of Fratelli Alinari, Pietro Dovizielli and others, whose albumen silver and salted paper prints gorgeously evoke the sights and atmospheres of Italy.

As the modern era dawns, of course, Italian photography soars with energy and innovativeness, and Pelizzari charts the rise of futurism in the machine-age images of Anon Giulio Bragaglia and, inevitably, the dynamic pro-Fascist images of Mario Castagneri and Marcello Nizzoli, championing Mussolini and his violent era. But the post-war surge of Italian popular and experimental art--in the films of Fellini, and as Italian fashion dominates the Euro landscape-- is carried by photographic masters as varied as Giuseppe Cavalli (his classic 1950 image, "Two Appointments," of a man and dog in parallel against an International Style edifice) and Fulvio Roiter, balancing the enigmatic urban stillness of De Chirico's paintings with the pastoral images of Italian country life.

Pelizzari notes the powerful tension between alienation and belonging in Italy's photographers, in the immense industrial views and modernist geometries of Gabriele Basilico, Guido Guidi, Luca Campigotto. Well into the present, she explains, this unique essence of Italian art is filtered through photos of astonishing variety and edge: the street visions of Paola Di Bello, the social portraits of Francesco Jodice, the Rothko-like immanence of Silvio Wolf's large digital c-prints, epitomizing a melding of pure image and pure abstraction. Concludes Pelizzari: "If this was, from the start, the challenge of photography in Italy--that of repetition of iconic and formulaic views, at the risk of obliterating the modern and dynamic transformation of a country in the making--this history has sought to show that it was met successfully…producing, in fact, pictures of great historical complexity and unorthodox beauty."


Essays by Sally Stein, Douglas R. Nickel, Amy Rule. 2009, Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona, Tucson/Yale University Press. Produced in conjunction with the exhibition of the same name at the Center for Creative Photography, through Jan. 31, 2010. ISBN No. 978-0-300-12331-9. Hardbound, 180 pages, 175 duotone plates. Information: http://www/yalebooks.com ; http://www.creativephotography.org .

Complementing the largest solo exhibition of John Gutmann's work to date, this handsome catalogue is at once a fine introduction to and codification of the late master's photographic output. As exhibit curator Sally Stein thoroughly details in her lead essay, Gutmann (1905-1998) came to the right place at the right time, emigrating from Germany to America at the end of 1933, escaping Naziism with an artistic pedigree as a top student of Expressionist painter Otto Muller, and subsequently as an art teacher in Berlin. Re-rooting happily in San Francisco, he would become a pedagogic legend at San Francisco State University, flourishing as both a photographer and a mentor to modernism.

Indeed, the Gutmann who chose to earn a living as a news photographer during the Great Depression was something of a trailblazer, touring the U.S. by bus a generation before the likes of Robert Frank, and capturing the vivid vernacular of the New World--its billboards, graffiti, roller skaters, car conveyors, and infinitely diverse humanity--often from a skewed, disorienting perspective. The great Gutmanns that haunt and delight us to this day--"Death Stalks Filmore" (1934), of a wraithlike old woman, her skull half outlined beneath her shroud-like-hat, or the merry "Aerialists" (1938)--are unfussy totems of immediacy and observational genius.

Gutmann shot from the gut, it seems, responding to the sheer spectacle of America more so than to its inequities, but he could capture its troubled narrative easily enough, as in an image of a black man standing apart from a procession of union workers after a murderous general strike in 1934, or an odd portrait of a black cowboy inexplicably sporting a swastika on his Western shirt.

Stein, in her essay, takes pains to differentiate the rhetoric of Gutmann's photography from that of, for example, another great Bay Area chronicler of the Depression, Dorothea Lange, and her points are well-taken. Gutmann's truly modernist instinct led him away from pointedly framed, polemical street photography and down a path of pure visual information, veering toward abstraction and banality, seeding the ground for Eggleston, Friedlander and others. Stein quotes Max Kozloff's 1984 essay on Gutmann: "It was his good fortune to have gotten under way as an artist in his homeland to have come of age, as a photographer, in his adopted country…acting as an instinctual broker between the visual value system of the milieu he left and the one he entered." Thus, Kozloff concludes, Gutmann's "hybrid position" led him to produce work "that deviated from what emerged by the 1970s as canonical documents as well as art of the 1930s." If anything, this catalogue depicts Gutmann as the canonical enabler of modern and postmodern photography, directly influencing countless students and leaving behind a body of work that shows much more than it tells.

IN BRIEF: Chicago's Stephen Daiter gallery's catalog, "Aaron Siskind," collects 21 of the master's vintage abstract photographs from the late 1940s through the 1960s. For many, these images of scarred, scabbed, stenciled, graffitied, paint-peeling walls and surfaces are the quintessential photo-abstractions, forcing the viewer into near-rapturous contact with sheer physical texture and the visual wonder of the close-up lens, as the pentimento of urban life presses upon us with its profoundly random energy. Information: 1-312-787-3350, or by email at info@stephendaitergallery.com .

From Charles Wood, Bookseller, of Cambridge, Mass., "Catalogue 146: Nineteenth Century Photography" describes, with many fine full-color illustrations, 161 items of great interest in the study of photography's early period. These include first editions of catalogues and albums of Thomas Annan's studies of Glasgow slums and the waters of Loch Katrine. Other notables: a first edition of Robert Hunt's 1844 history of photography (the first such history, by consensus); the first photographically illustrated medical book in the U.S. (I. N. Kerlin's "The mind unveiled; or a brief history of twenty-two imbecile children"); some of the earliest field photography (1873), by William E. Marshall, of the Todo tribe of southern India; and the first and only edition of what may be the earliest book on aerial photography, by Gaston Tissandier (1886), taken from the heights achieved by balloon over Paris. Heady stuff. Information: 1-617-868-1711; or by email at cbw@world.std.com .

On the exotic end of the contemporary photographic spectrum, Michael Philip Manheim's multiple exposures of Butoh--a performance art developed by post-World War II Japanese youth, encompassing dance and movement--are dreamlike and graceful representations, in softly contrasted black-and-white, of young bodies in purposeful motion. These nude dancers exude a primal power in their arching, aching, ritualized gestures and grapplings, and Manheim delivers the spirit and flesh of Butoh with delicacy and passion, as the blur of dance yields to the sharp-focus of an expressive face. Indeed, "In a Labyrinth: The Dance of Butoh" is a slender but highly charged volume ($35, plus shipping and handling. For more information, email: info@contemporaryworks.net , or call 1-215-822-5662; http://www.iphotocentral.com/search/detail.php/32/12502/0/12502/1 .

Matt Damsker is an author and critic, who has written about photography and the arts for the Los Angeles Times, Hartford Courant, Philadelphia Bulletin, Rolling Stone magazine and other publications. His book, "Rock Voices", was published in 1981 by St. Martin's Press. His essay in the book, "Marcus Doyle: Night Vision" was published in the fall of 2005.

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