Dr Nicoletta Leonardi, (University of California EAP Florence), Photography and Materiality in Italy in the 1960s and 70s: Mario Cresci’s Work Between Urban Activism and Participatory Planning

PHRC seminar, Tuesday November 5th 2013

Seminar review by Francesca Issatt

Italian photography has been criticised for being primitive. But is it actually a case of cultural delay, or rather of cultural difference? About a month ago, Dr. Nicoletta Leonardi delivered an eye-opening lecture about urban planning and photography in 1960s and 70s Italy. Held in the PHRC as part of the Centre’s postgraduate lecture series “Research Seminars in Cultures of Photography”, Dr. Leonardi’s talk investigated the roots for the perception of Italian photography in association with outdated conceptual frameworks, and recontextualised it in relation to the cultural and political circumstances that were prevalent in Italy during that period.

Having just completed writing a book that explores these issues in depth, Dr. Leonardi focused her lecture on the visual work of one photographer who used images to subvert the political regime in Italy of the second half of the twentieth century. Mario Cresci trained and worked in a number of different visual disciplines. Having graduated from the Venice School of Design he was employed by a council in southern Italy to help to materialise a new housing project. Around this time, the south suffered greatly from emigration; a new generation of southern Italians appears to have preferred to move away from the rural part of the country to the cities of the north. Working as part of a collective of architects, sociologists and other artists, Cresci and his colleagues used participatory planning and active citizenship to involve the senior generations of local southerners in the process of urban innovation, with a view to developing the south of Italy and making it more appealing to the younger generation who held modernisation in high esteem. Cresci used photography to communicate complex ideas about design and renovation to the local people of south Italy, most of whom could not read, write or speak any languages other than the particular local dialect.

More specifically, Dr. Leonardi described a photographic series that Cresci made, consisting of group portraits of families captured in their homes. Cresci asked them to present to his camera other images of their families and share with him information about their ancestors, family identity, their past, as well as about their desires for the future. This helped the local people see their place in history and to fully realise as well as articulate what social needs they wished this housing project to fulfill. Active urban planning also helped the local community to resuscitate their self esteem. Furthermore, it assisted them to understand what they could do to secure a better future for themselves and their families.

The history of photography is often filtered through an Anglo-American perspective and in association with the study of image aesthetics. In this respect, it was refreshing to learn from Dr. Leonardi about a photographer who is not so well known outside of Italy, and whose use of photography has not been confined to “white cube” spaces. Her discussion of Cresci’s work highlighted the significance of photographs as material objects that hold the potential to participate in wide social processes, beyond the domain of visual aesthetics, and actively challenge as well as reshape prevailing political circumstances. Dr. Leonardi explained with much clarity how the value of photographic images differs from one culture to another and why photographic practices that do not conform to common, canonical aesthetic conventions must not be excluded from the study of photographic histories or labeled as primitive.

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