Italy in photographs

Now that the semester is over, I  have to say it was really fun to teach both photography and Italian this year. Although formally the classes didn’t have anything in common, it was striking how much they were connected intellectually and as an experience.

For their final project, my students of Italian received the option to discuss a few classic photographs of Italy. As I was working on the assignment to decide what to include in it, so that they would learn both about Italian culture and art, I realized what a huge part of Italian photography is actually photos of Italy, in Italy, by non-Italians.

See this, for example:


Ruth Orkin. An American Girl in Italy, 1951



It is one of the most recognizable classic photographs of Italy and is taken by an American. Ruth Orkin was a young photojournalist who decided to travel to Italy by herself, where she met a fellow American, Ninalee Craig. Together, they devised a series of images shot on the streets of Florence, with Ninalee starring in them. Those images, and especially this one above, is the iconic street scene many people have in mind when they think “Italy”.

The image is frequently pointed out, still, as an example of everyday street machismo. But in reality, it was staged: Orkin and Craig decided to do their work right before lunchtime, when most women are home cooking and so streets would be populated by men mostly. They repeated this scene twice and gave some instructions to the men included in it.


Paul Strand. The Family, 1953 (from the book Un Paese)

This photo above comes from another Italian project by an American photographer. Paul Strand was taken to the village of Luzzara by Cesare Zavattini, a noted writer who was part of the neorealism movement. He photographed the local people and eventually published the images as a book, with an Italian title even in its American edition. Zavattini’s introduction was as essential as the images themselves in finding an Italy in an ambivalence between despair and strength, at a moment that would later be recognized as a prelude to the Italian economic boom.


Henri Cartier-Bresson, Scanno, 1951

And finally, this image is by a French guy: the legendary Henri Cartier-Bresson. Along with introducing the concept of the decisive moment, what he really did was attributing a gigantic importance to the concept of presence and intuition.This is a typical Bresson photo in which lines and movement converge and pull the viewer into the picture. It is not one of his most recognizable – at least as his own – but nevertheless, I’ve seen this image countless times without really knowing the story behind it. I just took it as a quintessential vision of a timeless emblem of what Italy is, without much other reference. So it is a peculiar confirmation that Italy is a visual idea ,created to a large extent by non-Italian photographers.

This is not just a coincidence that Italy came to be defined, after WWII, by photos taken by outsiders and their point of view. It is not a coincidence because, historically, interest in Italy as a destination and the birth of photography overlapped and nourished each other. Although by 1839 the idea of the Grand Tour, in which young aristocrats traveled to Italy to educate themselves spiritually in the ideas of the Renaissance, was waning, the newly invented rail transportation brought about mass tourism. This meant that, stoked by centuries of tradition, now it was young bourgeoisie who were coming to Italy in larger numbers – and with cameras. So early Italian photography was in fact photography in Italy done by foreigners or under their heavy influence. It is their view that came to define what was photographed and seen of Italy.

So that’s why Italian photography, the way it is understood as a concept, is so much about national identity. The act of photographing was popularized in an era that actually saw also the birth of Italy as a nation (the newly unified Kingdom comprised of former small and subjugated states) so it was only natural that the new nation will cling to photography to see itself as if in a mirror. This continued and even intensified after WWII. And here’s how we got to the American girl on the streets of Florence.


One response to “Italy in photographs

  1. A really interesting read, I’m envious that you get to study this for your job!

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