Category Archives: documentary

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:

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Ruth Orkin. An American Girl in Italy, 1951

 

 

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Alec Soth and the issue of social class

Alec Soth at UTA, in the shadow of his presentation. On the screen: a note with the dreams of his subjects

Alec Soth at UTA, in the shadow of his presentation. On the screen: a note with the dreams of his subjects

 

Last night, UTArlington and Arlington Camera hosted a discussion of the noted documentary photographer (and Magnum member) Alec Soth with the curator who gave him the first big push of public recognition, Anne Tucker of the Museum of Fine Art, Houston. These public conversations are always useful. It’s true that most probably the information they reveal can be easily found elsewhere. But there are always revelations that happen only in a face-to-face setting.

That’s the reason I used this particular image as an illustration for my post: Alec in the shadow and, on the screen, a note scribbled with the personal dreams of the people he has photographed. It is an approach he uses to get closer to his subjects and allow them to show something of themselves and make it visible in the portrait.

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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. Continue reading

Under Fire (1983)

I feel a bit reluctant to write about the role of photography in Roger Spottiswoode’s film, when it’s really about something deeply personal – the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua and the unexpected angle I got to see it through Under Fire.  First, it was exciting to see a movie about a place I know all too well even if I was constantly distracted by the Mexican accents and urban environment (it was filmed in Oaxaca).  

Second, it was  a rather crude reminder of my own preconceptions. I have to admit that growing up, I had a very simplistic picture of the American involvement in Latin American military regimes. Perhaps just like the simplistic pictures we get today about current world conflicts. All I knew was that Americans supported the hereditary dictator Somoza and aided his dictatorship financially.  Only later when I went there did I learn that the reality was much more complex and that public opinion in the US was something different from the official policy.  In fact, which is where the film comes, that tide changed with the murder of ABC reporter Bill Stewart by Somoza’s National Guard, documented by a fellow journalist. Continue reading

The Photographic Archive of Milan, Sforza Castle

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By Giorgio Zaccaria. A circus artist, ca. 1880, silver bromide print

I just have to write about the Photographic Archive of Milan, not only in aid to those who may need to do research there, but also because it is such a great metaphor for Italy in general. Located in one of the wings of the magnificent Sforza Castle, a brief walk from the Duomo, it is really a pleasure to wander around its vast cobblestone yard before venturing inside.

But, the first surprise: it’s open only in the morning. And materials are available by prior appointment. You need to go in person first and explore the card catalog, arranged by subject matter.  Said catalog is only partially digitized and can be found online along with all other public photography collections in Lombardy. Then you can place an order for what your heart desires. However, the staff is so extremely Italianly nice that they offered, in case I needed it in the future, to do any research for me and even send me scans of the images.

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Anyway, your patience and skill in navigating the system will be richly rewarded.  Continue reading

“Pictures fade when you caress them”. Found Memories (2011)

If the first day of the year is auspicious about the rest of it, I’ll be watching photography-related movies all throughout 2013. But I bet you could’ve guessed that even if I didn’t watch a couple of them on January 1 🙂

One of them was the mesmerizing – in a quiet, subtle way – Brazilian film Found Memories (Julia Murat, 2011).  Just like eavesdropping on a conversation and slowly realizing it’s about you, I realized this story could be about me: raking through a past with a camera lens and trying to bring it back to life, when the camera can only capture what’s here and now. Full of metaphors and lightly paced, it’s delightful to watch and ponder on the interweaving connection between photography and life. Continue reading

The family pictures inheritance

My grandfather in 1940. Photograph by Kiro of Smardan

This is a portrait of my grandfather, taken while he was doing his military service in 1940 Bulgaria (not part of the Axis yet). I discovered it last summer while perusing the stack of family photos at my parents’ house.

And it was one of the delights of my summer. I saw, in this picture, something in him I had not known but was so excited to discover it.  I saw how he felt in that particular moment of his life and some truths he never told me; things I would’ve discussed with him if only he were around today.  This picture gave me back a great piece of my own personal puzzle that I didn’t know existed but am so glad I found.

So, what could I do with this treasure? I plundered it from my parents’ collection without telling them, or my sister. My only justification was that it was just temporary and I would scan it and print it in large format and give them copies. Continue reading