Dangerous Heights

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If you follow this blog, you remember that last summer I started studying a series of photographs that today are part of the collection of the Photographic Archive of Milan. I may have not mentioned though what this series is and why this research project is so exciting.

The images are of the reconstruction of the Sforza Castle, Milan’s perhaps most emblematic historic building, and the building of the beautiful Galleria Vittorio Emanuele, arguably the first shopping mall (and the concept behind all those “galleria” type malls we find in many American cities today, by the way).

The images are remarkable for different reasons. First, because they show the wave of renewal that gave Milan the face we know today; the physical process of how it came to be. Second, because the places are so emblematic. The Sforza Castle was the seat of Milan’s ruling Renaissance dynasty. Although of course it had lost its significance by the 19th century, being a castle in the era of industrial revolution, its near destruction by Napoleon’s invasion was still an insult. So the new state of Italy (unified in 1861) wanted to elevate its historic legacy with the reconstruction some 30 years later. The Galleria, of course, was to showcase the wealth of the new industrial society. Think fashion. That’s why both are closely related to Milan’s identity as a city.

But this is not exactly why they are exciting.

If you observe the images in the slideshow above, you will notice the workers standing or perched on dangerous locations and heights on the construction. They are smiling, showing off, even taunting the viewer from their almost impossible positions. The archivist with whom I spoke even told me the archive curator doubted the image of the arch of the Galleria above really showed a woman reclining on the arch. A woman, in their opinion, couldn’t possibly have reached such a height while wearing a corset and a petticoat, much less show such nonchalance of demeanor. Besides, that woman clearly wasn’t a construction worker.

But these are not candid images of real-time scenes of construction. Since we are talking about 19th century photography, these are slow-process albumen or wetplate prints of images that were carefully thought out and deliberately posed. They are not authentic in the sense we expect photographs today to reveal what is actually happening at the moment that would happen even if there are no cameras present.

The images are not about authentic documentation, but of defiance. Both in the face of gravity and social convention. Or historic fate. What they really reveal is how these big urban projects were physical and emotional challenges of their participants.

At that time, Italy was already a very popular destination and in fact, many photographs of the country from that period were done by visitors. The interest was sparked and channeled by the Grand Tour trend that took (mainly British) intellectuals and aristocrats to visit the iconic places of European civilization, especially the Middle Ages and Renaissance. But Milan fell outside of the itineraries of Grand Tour and so was free to (re)invent itself away from the pressures of foreign photographers who, unwittingly, imposed on the country an idealized vision of what it meant to be Italian that was frozen in the past. The passion of the builders shows that freedom of self-invention in modern terms.

This kind of visual taunting of gravity and social norms is significant also because it is so much ahead of its time. If you are not particularly impressed by workers at dangerous heights, it’s perhaps because you have seen images like this:

Painters on suspenders on the Brooklyn Bridge. Photo by Christopher Jobson, 1914

Painters on suspenders on the Brooklyn Bridge. Photo by Christopher Jobson, 1914


But it’s from a much later era. Also, later images of construction workers focus on the power of the labor class and celebrate much different values. The photographs from the Sforza Castle and the Galleria often include not just common workers and builder, but also – and I would say especially – the investors of the projects and the architects. Notice the men in white pants in the slideshows? They are the CEOs.

The basic work on this research has been done, but stay tuned for further developments. In the meantime, here’s another image that will amuse you, although it’s not a construction scene. And let me know if you think of other 19th century examples!

The fire station in Sundsvall, Sweden, with their ladder. 1899

The fire station in Sundsvall, Sweden, with their ladder. 1899


One response to “Dangerous Heights

  1. Fascinating post.

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