I’ve always insisted that American society is unique in its amazing community spirit that affords people the ability to start new things by getting together informally, united by a common goal. Individualism coming with a great sense of trust in a self-selected community.
Maybe that’s the reason I was so surprised to discover a thriving, historic photo club tradition in Italy that I haven’t observed elsewhere. Almost every Italian city has a photo club, most dating since the end of WWII. They started with the goal of sharing knowledge and experience in photography at a time when it wasn’t considered a subject matter for art schools – it was a craft to be learned through experimentation and from peers. So these clubs both satisfied and spurred the huge amateur interest in photography in postwar Italy that produced the likes of Mario Giacomelli and Letizia Battaglia. The Italian photo club federation, founded in 1948, is a testament to that fervor and a glance at each club’s website reveals a very strong production of compelling images over the decades.
I had the chance to visit one such club, located in Gallarate (a mid-size town in Northern Italy) that utterly impressed me with its activity and intellectual pursuit of image making. The club has a membership of 80 and roughly half of them attend the weekly meetings, aside from the numerous exhibitions and other events they organize.
The meeting I attended happened to focus on the theoretical aspect of photography’s communication capacity. The two presenters started with the theories of Roland Barthes and Walter Benjamin and questioned its communicative function through historic and on-the-spot case studies. The lively friendly debate, which easily filled two hours, examined from divergent points of view whether photography has its own independent meaning – or even a code. I left with the conviction, though, that despite the technical mediation of the camera, where the human being pressing the button has a seemingly small role, photography is still an art loaded with intention.
The passion of these photographers to discuss what they do in abstract terms is truly refreshing. I am sure it is only possible because of the outsider status of photography, which has made it feel open and free of hierarchy. A truly intellectually stimulating, knowledgeable and friendly community. I am so looking forward to keeping up with them. Shall I also add that the club’s regular meetings are held during Friday’s happy hour, from 9:30PM on, and followed by a friendly convivial get-together?