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Un Paese (1955) and the Challenge of Mass Culture

Maria Antonella Pelizzari
Cet article est une traduction de :
Un Paese (1955) et le défi de la culture de masse

Résumé

Un Paese (1955) is an exceptional case in the history of photography as the first ever-significant photo-book published in Italy, the result of a trans-cultural collaboration between two renowned authors, the American photographer Paul Strand and the Italian screenwriter Cesare Zavattini. The history of this book is well known in the Italian literature, and the image on the cover, “The Family,” has become iconic, encapsulating the vision of the American master vis-à-vis a timeless “Old World.” The translation of the book in English (Aperture, 1997) has allowed the American reader to understand its narrative, but Un Paese remains still marginal in the scholarship on Strand. This essay sets out to explain the creation of the book and the authors’ personal and political motivations. Paul Strand stated clearly his target of finding a community in Italy that would match “the portrait of a village” he had sought out in the United States. Zavattini, the screenwriter of The Bicycle Thief, had theorized neo-realism as a narrative strategy that would allow him to engage with the everyday. As he was approached by Strand, Zavattini suggested Luzzara, his hometown, as a possible place where his theories and Strand’s vision could be verified. The essay describes the results of this important partnership and raises one critical question regarding the political significance of this photo-book in the climate of postwar Italy and the Marshall Plan. Was Un Paese a vehicle of communication with the common people it sought to represent, or was it rather a creative exercise, separate from the mass culture of its time?

Texte intégral

The author wishes to thank Sally Stein, for her suggestions at an early stage of the manuscript; the staff at the Archive at the Center for Creative Photography, Tucson, Arizona, the Zavattini Archive in Rome, and the Getty Research Institute, where the Newhall Archive is conserved; and Amanda Bock and Peter Barberie, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

  • 1 Paul Strand and Cesare Zavattini, Un Paese (Turin: Giulio Einaudi, 1955).
  • 2 Zavattini’s letter to Giulio Einaudi on February 28, 1952, where he states: ‘Cinema becomes a book’ (...)
  • 3 Regarding the discussion on regionalism in postwar Italy, see Maristella Casciato, ‘Neorealism in I (...)

1Un Paese, the first ever significant photobook in Italy, was launched in April 1955, by a left-leaning publisher in Turin, Giulio Einaudi.1 It was coauthored by the American photographer Paul Strand and the Italian screenwriter Cesare Zavattini. Un Paese was the first volume of a new series, titled Italia Mia, where Zavattini, renowned for films such as Shoe­shine and The Bicycle Thief, intended to bring his neorealist credo, based on the everyday life of common people, into an editorial project centred on photography.2 The spirit of the series, and of this book in particular, reflected a much broader involvement on the part of postwar intellectuals towards a rediscovery of the country through regional narratives. Un Paese focused on Luzzara, Zavattini’s hometown by the Po River, and this title effectively conveyed the double notion of ‘a village’ and ‘a country.’3

  • 4 Strand presented his film at the International Congress of Cinema in Perugia in September 1949, fol (...)
  • 5 Strand discussed the ‘portrait of a village’ in a letter to Beaumont Newhall on May 2, 1958, Newhal (...)
  • 6 For an exploration of these ideas, see Alfred Haworth Jones, ‘The Search for a Usable American Past (...)
  • 7 Strand’s letter to Beaumont Newhall, May 2, 1958, Newhall Archive (note 5). Regarding Strand’s liai (...)

2Strand, who had relocated to France in 1949, was introduced to Zavattini through Virgilio Tosi, a film critic who was familiar with Strand’s political engagement through his recent film Native Land (1942).4 Despite the linguistic barrier and the obviously different cultural background, the two artists shared a fascination with the ordinary lives of small communities. Strand cultivated a pet project called ‘a portrait of a village’5 – a subject that was quintessentially American, initially conceived during his trip to New Mexico in the early 1930s, and inspired by Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology and Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. His first photobook, Time in New England (1950), was an effort to identify the traditional features of his culture in a region where he recognized values of endurance and democracy;6 La France de Profil (1952), coauthored with the poet Claude Roy, was the beginning of his journey into postwar rural communities, as he had fled the United States, pressured by the attacks of Senator McCarthy’s anticommunist politics, and determined to plant ‘the American seed’7 elsewhere. Strand’s meeting with Zavattini – an intellectual who viewed his own country through the microcosm of a village – encouraged him to translate his own values of small town America into a foreign land.

3Un Paese became a potent vehicle for these two artists to express something close to their heart through the voices and faces of villagers living in a peripheral Italy. But what was that ‘something,’ and how was it communicated to the society at large? This essay brings a new critical perspective to the current literature about this book, interrogating its reception at the level of mass culture, and studying the artists’ goals vis-à-vis the political and economic ferment of postwar reconstruction and the Cold War.

  • 8 See Cesare Zavattini and Gianni Berengo Gardin, Un Paese vent’anni dopo (Turin: Einaudi, 1976); Ste (...)
  • 9 See P. Costantini, Strand (note 4); E. Gualtieri, Paul Strand (note 2).
  • 10 Sarah Greenhough, Paul Strand: An American Vision (Washington: National Gallery of Art, 1990), 47; (...)

4In Italian historiography, because of this book, Luzzara has become a legendary site, revisited twenty years later by photographer Gianni Berengo Gardin, and, more recently, by Stephen Shore.8 Historians Paolo Costantini and Elena Gualtieri have celebrated Strand’s crucial contribution to postwar photography, sifting through the dense correspondence between Strand and Zavattini and other significant friends, such as the Newhalls and Tosi.9 More recently, Antonella Russo has looked at book reviews at time of publication, revealing a great divide within the local photographic circles. On the American side, Un Paese was translated by Aperture in 1997; nonetheless, it still lacks critical study and recognition. Back in 1972, the retrospective at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1972 included the Italian portfolio, while Maren Stange’s critical anthology on Strand before and after his departure from the United States gave a marginal place to Un Paese, and Sarah Greenough’s retrospective on the occasion of Strand’s one hundredth birthday made a brief remark about the formal quality of those portraits, identified as ‘the heart of Strand’s statement.’10

  • 11 Stephen Gundle, Between Hollywood and Moscow: The Italian Communists and the Challenge of Mass Cult (...)

5My reading of this photobook draws inspiration from scholars in Italian cultural studies who have examined the shifting politics of this country during the 1950s and have noted a disconnect between the intentions of left-wing intellectuals promoting neorealist films, such as The Bicycle Thief, and the response of a mass audience prone to popular entertainment and modern consumer culture. As Stephen Gundle has explained, ‘the problem of communication, of the search for an appropriate language that would allow a real and fruitful exchange between intellectuals and workers, was one of pressing importance within the left.’11 Similar concerns apply to Un Paese, resulting from a cross-cultural dialogue between a neorealist writer and an American émigré sympathetic to Communism. Was this photobook a vehicle of communication with the common people it sought to represent, or was it rather a creative exercise, imbued with its authors’ idealism, but distant from the actual needs of the workers?

The ‘Dynamic Realism’ of The Family

  • 12 See Strand’s letters to the Newhalls on November 19, 1953, Newhall Archive (note 5): ‘I put the boo (...)

6The montage of Un Paese resembles a film, with a sequence of eighty-eight photographs masterfully selected by Strand,12 and a text that features the unvarnished words of the villagers telling their stories. Zavattini writes the introduction in the first person, retracing the genesis of the book and his personal involvement. Two establishing shots of the River Po lead smoothly into Luzzara as, in the text, a local man describes the intimate experience of travelling across this landscape, watching a glowing sunset, and listening to roosters and chickens. The serene countryside, the objects of craft and labour, and the portraits of these people, fatigued and proud, convey a mystery that only their words can uncover. Strand’s camera renders these effigies a-temporal. The workers, farmers, and artisans, are symbols, rather than real persons.

  • 13 See Jean-Claude Gautrand, ‘Looking at Others: Humanism and Neo-realism,’ in The New History of Phot (...)
  • 14 John Berger, ‘Painting or Photography?’ Photography Annual, 1964: 8.

7The Family, the group portrait on the cover, is a striking tableau that with the grace of its painterly composition connotes peaceful solidarity. Anthologized in many histories of photography as symbolic of ‘the dignity and nobility of simple people’ immersed in Italy’s rural traditions,13 this photograph has been praised by John Berger, a Marxist humanist, as emblematic of Strand’s moralizing and anticapitalist values. In particular, Berger drew a comparison between the force of this portrait and Louis Le Nain’s sober representations of lower classes: ‘Le Nain pointed out the simplicity and the moral superiority of peasant life to an elite fed on the rhetoric and the coarse opulence of the court art of Louis XIII. Paul Strand emphasizes the austerity and simplicity of lives lived today, to a public fed on advertisements and the hypocrisies of our affluence.’14

  • 15 Strand’s letter to Nancy Newhall, Nov. 19, 1953, Newhall Archive (note 5): ‘This book covers almost (...)

8Strand achieved this balanced composition in progressive steps, focusing on the elderly mother sitting alone in front of her domestic threshold, and trying a few other arrangements and individual portraits. In a letter to Nancy Newhall, he identified The Family as his first large group portrait,15 a culmination of his social and formal concerns.

  • 16 Milton W. Brown, Photography Yearbook, 1963: n.p., cited in Paul Strand: En el principio fue Manhat (...)

9Earlier models for this picture can be traced to ‘sacred conversations,’ organized around a symmetrical axis with the Virgin Mary at the centre, or else to Caravaggio’s sensuous depictions, illustrating the barefoot figures of the have-nots. The art of Piero della Francesca, Strand’s favourite painter, is revealed by the vigorous presence of the sculptural bodies, bound to the land. Milton Brown, art historian friend who had accompanied Paul and his wife Hazel on an initial tour of Italian art in 1952, had remarked on the similarity between these two artists: ‘The serene grandeur, the peasant robustness transformed into patrician dignity, the real transmuted into the ideal, the ordinary in man and the transitory in nature converted into eternal symbols … like Piero, Strand has created an art which is still but not silent… which is complete, positive, and timeless.’16

  • 17 Paul Strand, ‘Stieglitz: An Appraisal,’ Photo Notes, July 1947, reprinted in A Visual Studies Repri (...)
  • 18 See Sarah Greenhough, Alfred Stieglitz: The Key Set, vol. 1, 1886–1922 (Washington, National Galler (...)

10This photograph can also be viewed as Strand’s homage to his American mentors, Alfred Stieglitz and Lewis Hine, who had greatly influenced his social awareness as a photographer. One particular early portrait taken by Stieglitz in Venice in 1894 had caught Strand’s imagination, and during the Photo League years he had gone back to ‘the unforgettable photograph’ of ‘the Venetian boy, whose tattered clothes sharply emphasize[d] the fineness of the head, the deep eyes of the hurt child.’17 It is thus tempting to think that Stieglitz’s romanticized record of poverty inspired Strand’s Italian journey. ‘I dislike the superficial and the artificial, and I find less of it among the lower classes,’18 Stieglitz had stated in Venice; similarly, Strand sought to find a peasant world and reconstitute a preindustrial purity he could no longer grasp in his own country.

  • 19 Strand’s letter to Beaumont Newhall, Newhall Archive (note 5), May 2, 1958.

11Initially, Strand familiarized himself with vernacular sceneries that resembled landscapes and architecture he had encountered on earlier trips in Mexico, New Mexico, and Gaspé – fishing villages in the northern region of Liguria, the flat and sunny Adriatic coast, the fertile countryside of Umbria and Tuscany, and the traditional dwellings in Southern Puglia and Sicily. Then, at Zavattini’s suggestion, he visited Gaeta, a picturesque town on the sea between Rome and Naples, but he soon turned away from it as he experienced horrific signs of war and social destitution, the debris of bombed-out buildings, people living in desperate conditions among these ruins, and mothers begging Hazel to save their poor sick babies.19 The poverty of Gaeta kept him from looking directly at people’s faces. He focused on shrines, doorways, storefronts, and balconies of the town and made only one portrait of a woman in profile, pensive and distant, covering her mouth with her hand, ignoring the camera.

  • 20 See William Alexander, Film on the Left: American Documentary Film from 1931 to 1942 (Princeton: Pr (...)
  • 21 Report delivered by Paul Strand, International Congress of Cinema, Perugia, September 24–27, 1949, (...)

12In opposition to these bleak sights of social defeat, Strand sought out locations where he could extract dynamic expressions. His pro-union film Native Land (1942), directed with Leo Hurwitz, and his commitment to Frontier Films – a branch of the Photo League – strived for social change in America, and his move to countries like France and Italy (and earlier to Mexico)20 were bound to the vital presence of Communist parties struggling for workers’ rights; it was for this spirit of resilience, rather than a feeling of human surrender, he was seeking out. In September 1949, as Native Land was released in Perugia, Strand gave a speech where he assessed his belief in ‘dynamic realism as truth which sees and understands a changing world and in turn is capable of changing it, in the interest of peace, human progress, and the eradication of human misery and cruelty, and towards the unity of all people.’ On this occasion, he noted his appreciation for a neorealist film such as Open City because ‘it contained a great heroic solution, the resolution of resistance in action, by the people, in the interest of all people.’ He had similar considerations for Paisan, Four Steps in the Clouds, and Shoeshine, which showed ‘a passionate and tender concern for the lives of simple people, the circumstances of their daily life and struggle.’21

  • 22 Paul Ginsborg, A History of Contemporary Italy: Society and Politics 1943–1988 (New York: Palgrave (...)
  • 23 This investigation was directed by the anthropologist Franco Cagnetta, see Giuseppe Pinna, ed., Fra (...)

13Strand needed guidance to find locations that would respond to this aesthetic and moral call, as indeed, the level of poverty in Italy was still very high in the early 1950s, and the spectacle of misery seen in Gaeta existed in many other regions. As Paul Ginsborg reports, ‘in 1951, the elementary combination of electricity, drinking water and an inside lavatory could be found in only 7.4 per cent of Italian household.’22 Such difficult conditions were often reported and discussed by the Communist press, emphasizing the ineptitude of the Italian government. In 1948, the Christian Democratic Party had prevailed over the Communist PCI, and in turn, had strengthened the alliance with President Harry S. Truman in the Cold War. During this time, the Left conducted numerous socioanthropological investigations, in an effort to prove the dire social conditions covered up by the Christian Democrats. In 1956, Franco Pinna, a photojournalist working for Communist magazines such as Vie Nuove, had recorded the poverty in the Roman borgate, where precarious shacks had been built against the Aqueduct Felice to house those displaced from bombed areas as well as immigrants seeking work in the city.23 In 1951, Vie Nuove had published a critical commentary against the populism of De Sica-Zavattini’s film Miracle in Milan (released in that year, staged in a shantytown on the outskirts of Milan). As the cover image and caption explained, shacks still existed in Milan as well as in Rome. The protagonist of De Sica’s film, Brunella Bovo, was shown holding the miraculous dove from the movie, while in the background a miserable mother and child stood by a precarious dwelling.

  • 24 P. Ginsborg, A History of Contemporary Italy (note 22), 201.

14Against these existing social conditions, Luzzara represented a Communist haven in the fertile region of Emilia-Romagna. As the hotbed of partisan Resistance between 1943–44, this area had remained the ‘Red Belt’ of central Italy. Palmiro Togliatti, head of the PCI, had described this zone as idyllic in comparison with the rest of the country: ‘The torpor which seems to reign elsewhere disappears here …; on the faces of the men and women riding their bicycles that fill your streets one seems to note a pride and satisfaction which are absent elsewhere. One feels that this mass of people is tied to a productive activity that interests and absorbs them.’24

  • 25 Strand’s letter to Newhall, on June 12, 1955, Strand Archive, Center for Creative Photography.
  • 26 See David Forgacs and Stephen Gundle, Mass Culture and Italian Society from Fascism to the Cold War(...)

15Strand’s photographs exude similar positive impressions of communal life. The distant view of the lively market shows a vibrant group of men and women happily chatting, shopping, and leaning against their bicycles. His modernist close-ups of agricultural produce – the worker holding a wheel of Parmesan) – enhance the pride of these workers, while the framing of vernacular shapes and their geometry – the straw hats stacked in their factory – are a sincere tribute to Luzzara’s neat material culture. The juxtaposition of symbolic objects and portraits, explored in his earlier photobooks, reappears in these pages, as in the case of a tranquil woman farmer with hands crossed on her lap, shown side by side a photograph of a wall with a climbing vine and two milk tanks turned upside down in a V-shape that mimic her position. A similar harmony permeates The Family, with the mother appearing to Strand as ‘a pillar of serene strength,’25 the presence of the bicycle a sign of relative prosperity,26 and the momentary relaxation of the five young men suggesting activity rather than passive indolence.

  • 27 Zavattini spent one week in Luzzara in April 1953, and Strand made about two hundred photographs du (...)
  • 28 Paul Strand, ‘An American Exodus,’ Photo Notes, March-April 1940, reprinted in A Visual Studies Rep (...)

16Halfway through the book, below her portrait, Anna Spaggiari-Lusetti reveals the story of her life: a tragic one, due to the loss of her husband who was beaten by Fascists, and the sacrifices of raising eight sons and three daughters. She describes the trauma of sending her sons to war, the happy family reunion in 1946, and the struggles of living under a low wage as a sharecropper. These stories open the enigmatic picture on the cover to a new understanding, giving a name and an identity to this symbolic group; they also knit together Zavattini’s presentation, where the name of Valentino Lusetti is first introduced as the farmer who acted as interpreter of Strand and facilitated the compilation of interviews and data. Contrary to its appearance, this book was constructed from a distance, with Valentino contributing to give names and stories to many of the villagers.27 The formula of direct reportage had appealed to Strand since the Photo League years, when he had reviewed An American Exodus: A Record of Human Erosion (1939), a photobook where Dorothea Lange and Paul Schuster Taylor had set out ‘to weld photographs … with an additional element: words they had heard spoken by some of the people’ encountered out west. He saw a striking parallel between this structure and that of ‘a documentary film, in the relation between commentary, dialogue, and the photographic images.’28

17In the case of Un Paese, this process was not immediate and direct; Zavattini was rarely onsite to record the stories, and Strand’s photographs were incorporated into a book narrative only later. Valentino was an essential go-between, as he spoke English, which he had learned as a prisoner of war in Nevada and Ohio, and knew every single person in Luzzara. Ironically, he was perceived as a potential spy, possibly American or Russian, because of his role of native informant for Strand, an American Communist in exile. His assistance became fundamental, and a snapshot taken by Hazel of his family – with Valentino behind the mother – testifies to the work behind the scenes – that of a member of The Family, facilitating Strand’s pictorial logic, and that of Strand’s wife, careful in noting who was who. The hypothesis that Valentino stood in front of his mother and brothers, and possibly engaged with them, while Strand orchestrated this shot, is quite plausible, and further justifies the immense pride of this portrait – a timeless image of endurance, set apart from existing political tensions and intrinsic war losses.

The Neorealism of ‘Italia Mia’

  • 29 See Guido Conti, ‘Cesare Zavattini direttore editoriale: Le novitá nei rotocalchi di Rizzoli e Mond (...)
  • 30 Cesare Zavattini, ‘Some Ideas on the Cinema,’ in Film: A Montage of Theories, ed. Richard Dyer MacC (...)

18As Strand may have been thankful to Zavattini for helping him find a location where he could validate his belief in ‘dynamic realism,’ Zavattini acknowledged that he had been able to rediscover his own roots through Strand. The desire to ground ones creative work in a native landscape was intrinsic to postwar literary life, as already suggested. With Un Paese, Zavattini had the opportunity of revisiting an earlier project; in 1928, as a young journalist, he had featured Luzzara in a special issue of the local newspaper Gazzetta di Parma with the stories he had gathered locally.29 Following the war trauma, Zavattini embraced neorealism as a moral task aimed to recompose a shattered world through a systematic attention to each tiny aspect of the everyday. For Zavattini, the main issue for neorealism was ‘how to give human life its historical importance at every minute.’30 He remained faithful to this point throughout his creative life, becoming the most coherent theorist of a cinema of ‘fact,’ happening in real time, shot on location, and casting non-professionals.

  • 31 See D. Forgacs and S. Gundle, Mass Culture (note 26), 111.
  • 32 Zavattini defined this formula as ‘a cinema of encounters.’ See Cesare Zavattini, ‘A Thesis on Neo- (...)

19He applied these ideas to film, as a close collaborator of Vittorio De Sica, and remained interested in reaching out to a wide range of people through the popular press. In 1950, working for the illustrated magazine Epoca, he created a popular column titled ‘Italia domanda’ (Italy asks), where the readers were invited to send short journalistic essays with questions posed to experts in various fields, and were thus given the opportunity to voice their opinions. The column was successful, accounting for 80 per cent of sales of Epoca.31 In a similar spirit, in 1951 Zavattini envisioned the film project ‘Italia mia’ as a journey across the country interviewing people and building episodes from those direct encounters.32

  • 33 See Silvana Cirillo, ed., Cesare Zavattini: Una, cento, mille lettere (Milan: Bompiani, 1988), 168– (...)

20Following an unsuccessful approach with De Sica, Zavattini brought the project to the attention of Roberto Rossellini, who had some experience with cinematic travelogue. His Paisan (1946) had a similar structure – in six episodes it traced the partisans’ Resistance and the movements of the Allied troops through the peninsula. Rossellini was familiar with the quiet scenery around Luzzara as the last episode of his film was shot by the Po Delta. Nonetheless, the collaboration with Zavattini did not succeed, as Rossellini focused on a new film, Voyage in Italy (1953), where Ingrid Bergman performed an existential, and no longer neorealist, kind of journey.33

  • 34 D. Forgacs and S.Gundle, Mass Culture (note 26), 133.

21But the reasons ‘Italia mia’ did not work out as a film, aside from these false starts and contrary creative egos, were bound up in a profound change in Italian politics and in legislation that had caused an impasse in neorealist cinema. In 1949, the Christian Democratic Party had enacted the ‘Andreotti law’ (Giulio Andreotti was then undersecretary of state) that forced a severe censorship against films with controversial subjects and a dark social side. As David Forgacs has summarized, this law, active until 1954, ‘favored three developments: industrial expansion, depoliticization, and Americanization.’34 Consequently, the American film industry turned to Cinecittà studios to create Hollywood blockbusters, such as Quo Vadis, while other producers started collaborations with Italian directors, launching the season of so-called ‘Hollywood on the Tiber.’ De Sica’s Indiscretion of an American Wife, produced by David O. Selznick and based on a shorter version of Zavattini’s script for Stazione Termini (an episode originally conceived for ‘Italia mia’) was a hybrid combination of neorealist motifs, shots around a busy central station, and of Hollywood appeal, with an American housewife (Jennifer Jones) and her Latin lover (Montgomery Clift).

  • 35 S. Gundle, Between Hollywood and Moscow (note 11), 45.
  • 36 Ibid., 62. See also Ennio Di Nolfo, ‘Intimations of Neorealism in the Fascist Ventennio,’ in Re-vie (...)
  • 37 P. Strand and C. Zavattini, Un Paese (note 1), 31.

22Concurrently, Hollywood took over Italian cinema theatres, and in 1949 American films accounted for 73 per cent of box office sales.35 As a response to this mass consensus, the Communist Party attempted to mobilize and direct public opinion towards an art that was deemed more engaging and less banal. For example, when The Bicycle Thief was relaunched, after a rather disappointing release, the screening was heavily supported and publicized by the PCI.36 In the photographs in Un Paese, the only visible trace of film entertainment in the market square of Luzzara is a poster of a dubbed Gone with the Wind, stuck on the same wall with PCI electoral posters. One presumes that Zavattini’s films must have been screened in the newly formed film club where, as a villager says, ‘difficult films’ were projected,37 but it is clear from this photograph that American acculturation had spread everywhere, including this stronghold of Italian Communism.

  • 38 See Francesco Faeta, ed., ‘Il sonno sotto le stelle: Arturo Zavattini, Ernesto de Martino, un paese (...)

23Zavattini, a firm believer in the active role of photography as a social document, also partnered with Guido Aristarco, noted Marxist film critic and editor of Cinema Nuovo, in the commission of photo-essays for this magazine. The dates of this engagement, between 1954 and 1956, attest to the impact of Un Paese on Zavattini’s involvement with Italian photographers. Excerpts from Un Paese were included in Cinema Nuovo, as a further indication of the vitality of neorealism in photography, and as an example to follow. Most of these essays were depressing, showing social tensions, areas of deprivation, and the still visible wounds of war. Zavattini’s young son, Arturo, featured in one of these, recording the village of Tricarico, another microcosm lying in the remote region of Lucania, and a territory already described in horrific terms by Carlo Levi in Christ Stopped at Eboli. These records were part of a larger anthropological reconnaissance under the scientific guidance of Ernesto De Martino, who conducted a study of the indigenous culture of southern peasants collaborating also with Franco Pinna. Zavattini Jr. created a compelling reportage; inspiring a gradual absorption, he holds his personal judgment and, in line with his father’s credo, observes the details of these people’s humble lives.38

24Aristarco’s editorial mandate for the documentary essays in Cinema Nuovo was to highlight the country’s fractures and marginal worlds, in opposition to the escapism of mainstream media. Magazines like Epoca, Tempo, Oggi, L’Europeo had reached a genuine mass audience of 500,000 readers by 1955 and, together with comic books and fotoromanzi (illustrated weeklies presenting rose-tinted literature), broadcast the dream of a better life. Unable to gain this favour with the press, left-wing intellectuals commented:

  • 39 Lucio Lombardo Radice, ‘Cosa leggono i lavoratori,’ Vie Nuove, no. 17, November 1946: 8, cited in S (...)

25‘The worker who reads the rubbish biography of a soccer star, the typist in the tram who avidly devours a novel about a secretary who marries the boss, and the worker who is distracted by infantile stories of adventure or whodunits are motivated by the desire to escape for a moment from their own poverty and worries, to transfer onto “heroes” and “heroines” their own gnawing wish for a richer and more interesting life.’39

26Zavattini, who had previously collaborated with these media, turned away from them and embraced Aristarco’s neorealist recovery. His text in Un Paese allowed problems and frustrations to emerge. Young women expressed the wish not to get married to a farmer, and children asked to go to school instead of minding the geese. The rosy communal life, the workers’ cooperatives, and the joy of agriculture were interspersed with comments about unemployment, the need for local industries, hatred that poor villagers experienced against the rich, and old people’s fears of dying anonymously in a hospice. In a series of school diaries collected at the end of the book, observations about bees, flowers, and children’s games were intertwined with concerns from jobless parents and the wish to have a new shiny car. If cinema were in crisis, as Aristarco and Zavattini well understood, the photobook suggested a potential new vehicle to voice social concerns.

The Reception of Un Paese

  • 40 Letter from Lusetti to Strand, June 12, 1955, Strand Archive (note 25).

27In June 1955, soon after the release of Un Paese, Lusetti sent a letter to Strand where he described the villagers’ eager response and their access to the book at the local library. ‘It is a good book for communist propaganda,’ he wrote, but ‘there is a bad thing: the book is too expensive.’40 The cost of 3,000 lire corresponded to an average used bicycle – an annual salary ranged between 30,000 and 40,000 lire. If the content appeared ‘communist’ for its focus on the working classes, the book was financially not accessible to them.

  • 41 A. Russo, Storia culturale della fotografia italiana dal Neorealismo al Postmoderno (note 27), 154.
  • 42 See Italo Zannier’s review in Foto/Film, published in E. Turner, ed., Paul Strand (note 10), np.
  • 43 A. Russo, Storia culturale della fotografia italiana dal Neorealismo al Postmoderno (note 27), 159.

28But for whom was Un Paese? When the book came out, Zavattini organized a press conference in Rome, with participation by enlightened colleagues – Giulio Einaudi, Luchino Visconti, Italo Calvino, Sibilla Aleramo, and Ernesto De Martino, among others.41 After the launch, the reviews of the book ranged from strong praise of Strand’s ‘stark, virile realism’42 and consideration as an important lesson in Italian photography, to criticism towards the self-referential and celebratory vision of this American master, who had shown a world that did not correspond at all to a growing capitalist society – this from Ando Gilardi, a committed Marxist writer and photographer. Along this same line, which saw a great discrepancy between Strand’s vision and the ‘real’ Italy, Un Paese was criticized for manufacturing a neorealism to appeal to the American reader. Giuseppe Turroni, a well-informed film and photography critic, considered the book a tardy revival of the ‘neo-realist season’43 – something passé in the mid-1950s. The divergence between Strand’s large format photography (using a Deardorff 8x10 view camera, a Graflex 5 x 7, and in some cases, for a few distant views of the Luzzara market, a Rectaflex 35 mm) and Zavattini’s spontaneous and sketchy writing was also criticized. As for the novelty of a photobook, questions arose about its authorship, and how to evaluate it in regard to words and pictures.

  • 44 Cesare Zavattini, ‘1958: Quattro chiacchiere con gli italiani fotografi,’ in Lo sguardo critico: Cu (...)

29Following this collaboration, Zavattini teamed up with the photographer Luigi Crocenzi, the founder of the Centro per la Cultura Fotografica (CCF) in Fermo, Marches, in 1954. On several occasions, Zavattini spoke in favour of the creation of photobooks that would document the country through photographs and interviews,44 but despite all these efforts, Italy’s photographic culture did not produce any other comparable publications through the 1950s or 1960s. Paradoxically, if the photobook seemed a reasonable compromise for a film industry that was finding it increasingly difficult to produce socially engaged works, most intellectuals did not seem to grasp, nor embrace, this new format.

  • 45 On April 25, 1958, Zavattini called Un Paese ‘our fortunate and unfortunate book’ due to the failur (...)
  • 46 Walter Rosenblum’s letter to Strand, on October 10, 1949, Strand Archive (note 25).
  • 47 Beaumont Newhall and Nancy Newhall included The Family in their Masters of Photography (New York: G (...)
  • 48 Edward Steichen contacted Strand on November 4, 1955, to exhibit his recent photographs in Diogenes (...)

30Financially, Un Paese was a failure. The high cost of production, an essential condition for Strand, rendered its marketing difficult. One thousand copies were printed but not many were sold, discouraging the publisher from adding new titles to the series. The attempts to translate Un Paese to French and English also failed.45 Overseas, Strand was recognized as ‘a prophet’ by his friends,46 and The Family was incorporated into the canon of photographic masterpieces collected at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and published by Beaumont and Nancy Newhall.47 Nonetheless, The Family was not included in Edward Steichen’s blockbuster exhibition The Family of Man (1955), but was selected for another Steichen exhibition Diogenes with the Camera (1956) that featured other fine art prints by Walker Evans, August Sander, and Manuel Alvarez Bravo.48

31Most certainly, Strand and Zavattini had been able to achieve a project that responded to their aesthetic beliefs, but the social and political context surrounding their work was not conducive to commercial success. This fine publication was less accessible to the villagers than a film or the illustrated magazines at the local newsstand, and its idealistic view of the nobility of simple people clashed with the reality of Italy’s poor population, still living in shacks, and of a growing class of readers enticed by glossy media. While Strand was celebrated in New York for a few iconic pictures that summed up a timeless ‘Old World,’ the Italian consumer population dreamed of having the new Fiat Seicento, which had been launched the same year as Un Paese, and advertised in bright colours on the cover of Epoca. The villagers of Luzzara existed in-between the nostalgia of a disappearing world and the desire of a shiny new life, and their serene faces clashed with Italy’s turbulent visual culture – a culture that surfaced only marginally in Strand and Zavattini’s serene microcosm of communal life.

Notes

1 Paul Strand and Cesare Zavattini, Un Paese (Turin: Giulio Einaudi, 1955).

2 Zavattini’s letter to Giulio Einaudi on February 28, 1952, where he states: ‘Cinema becomes a book’ – published in Storia culturale della fotografia italiana dal Neorealismo al Postmoderno, Antonella Russo (Turin: Einaudi, 2011), 151. Several film directors were involved in the series: Alessandro Blasetti (Rome), Luchino Visconti (Via Emilia), Edoardo De Filippo (Naples), Alberto Lattuada (farmers in the Po Valley), Mario Soldati (railway workers), Giuseppe De Santis (love in Italy), Michelangelo Antonioni (Termini railway station). See Elena Gualtieri, ed., Paul Strand. Cesare Zavattini. Lettere e immagini (Bologna: Edizioni Bora, 2005), 13-14.

3 Regarding the discussion on regionalism in postwar Italy, see Maristella Casciato, ‘Neorealism in Italian Architecture,’ in Anxious Modernisms: Experimentation in Postwar Architectural Culture, eds. Sarah Williams Goldhagen and Réjean Legault (Montreal: Canadian Centre for Architecture, 2000), 25–53.

4 Strand presented his film at the International Congress of Cinema in Perugia in September 1949, following the European release at the International Film Festival of Marianske Lazne in Czechoslovakia. See Paolo Costantini, Strand: Luzzara (Milan: CLUP, 1989), 12. See also Virgilio Tosi, ‘Paul Strand: Per un centenario mancato,’ Fotologia, no. 16–17, Fall-Winter 1995: 6–17.

5 Strand discussed the ‘portrait of a village’ in a letter to Beaumont Newhall on May 2, 1958, Newhall Archive, Getty Research Institute: ‘In 1932, after three summers in Taos, the thought came to do such a book there. It could have been very interesting – for there were still around some of the old timers – cattle runners, early settlers in Taos – and of course the Indians and Mexicans – an extraordinary community.’

6 For an exploration of these ideas, see Alfred Haworth Jones, ‘The Search for a Usable American Past in the New Deal Era,’ American Quarterly, December 1971: 710–24.

7 Strand’s letter to Beaumont Newhall, May 2, 1958, Newhall Archive (note 5). Regarding Strand’s liaisons with the Communist Party, see Mike Weaver, ‘Paul Strand: Native Land,’ The Archive, no. 27 (University of Arizona, Center for Creative Photography, 1990).

8 See Cesare Zavattini and Gianni Berengo Gardin, Un Paese vent’anni dopo (Turin: Einaudi, 1976); Stephen Shore, Luzzara (Rubiera: Linea di confine della provincia di Reggio Emilia, 1993).

9 See P. Costantini, Strand (note 4); E. Gualtieri, Paul Strand (note 2).

10 Sarah Greenhough, Paul Strand: An American Vision (Washington: National Gallery of Art, 1990), 47; Evan Turner, ed., Paul Strand. A Retrospective Monograph (Millerton, NY: Aperture, 1972); Maren Stange, ed., Paul Strand: Essays on His Life and Work (Millerton, NY: Aperture, 1990). See also Catherine Duncan and Ute Eskildsen, Paul Strand. The World on My Doorstep (New York: Aperture, 1994). An additional book on Strand’s European work is Calvin Tomkins, ed., Paul Strand. Sixty Years of Photographs (Millerton, NY: Aperture, 1976). In 2010, the Philadelphia Museum of Art made a commitment to acquire the core print collection of the Paul Strand Archive, through gifts and purchases. When the acquisition is complete the Museum’s Paul Strand Collection will include nearly 4,000 of his prints.

11 Stephen Gundle, Between Hollywood and Moscow: The Italian Communists and the Challenge of Mass Culture, 1943–1991, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2000), 40.

12 See Strand’s letters to the Newhalls on November 19, 1953, Newhall Archive (note 5): ‘I put the book together in about two weeks without text, which is still to be written;’ letter on July 16, 1955: ‘We worked with Einaudi’s art editor and book editor … of course we had set the picture montage long before.’

13 See Jean-Claude Gautrand, ‘Looking at Others: Humanism and Neo-realism,’ in The New History of Photography, ed. Michel Frizot (Köln: Könemann, 1998), 617.

14 John Berger, ‘Painting or Photography?’ Photography Annual, 1964: 8.

15 Strand’s letter to Nancy Newhall, Nov. 19, 1953, Newhall Archive (note 5): ‘This book covers almost every sort of thing I have ever done – everything except machinery. … There are some new things – double, triple portraits, and one with six people – a family.’

16 Milton W. Brown, Photography Yearbook, 1963: n.p., cited in Paul Strand: En el principio fue Manhattan, Rafael Llano (Fundación Pedro Barrié de la Maza, 2008), 578.

17 Paul Strand, ‘Stieglitz: An Appraisal,’ Photo Notes, July 1947, reprinted in A Visual Studies Reprint Book (Rochester, Visual Studies Workshop, 1977), 8.

18 See Sarah Greenhough, Alfred Stieglitz: The Key Set, vol. 1, 1886–1922 (Washington, National Gallery of Art, 2002), xviii–xix. On Stieglitz’s problematic identification with the lower classes, see Allan Sekula, ‘On the Invention of Photographic Meaning,’ in Photography in Print: Writings from 1816 to the Present, ed. Vicki Goldberg (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1981), 452–73.

19 Strand’s letter to Beaumont Newhall, Newhall Archive (note 5), May 2, 1958.

20 See William Alexander, Film on the Left: American Documentary Film from 1931 to 1942 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981). On Strand’s political engagement in Mexico, see Clément Chéroux, Henri Cartier-Bresson/Paul Strand: Mexique 1932–1934 (London: Steidl, 2012).

21 Report delivered by Paul Strand, International Congress of Cinema, Perugia, September 24–27, 1949, published in Photo Notes, Spring 1950, and reprinted in A Visual Studies Reprint Book (note 17), 8–9. See also Mike Weaver, ‘Dynamic Realist,’ in M. Stange, Paul Strand (note 10), 197–207.

22 Paul Ginsborg, A History of Contemporary Italy: Society and Politics 1943–1988 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), 210.

23 This investigation was directed by the anthropologist Franco Cagnetta, see Giuseppe Pinna, ed., Franco Pinna: Fotografie 1944–1977 (Milan: Federico Motta Editore, 1996), 302. G. PinnaCon gli occhi della memoria. La Lucania nelle fotografie di Franco Pinna, 1952-1959. Catalogo generale dei provini (Trieste: Il Ramo d’Oro editore, 2002); forthcoming German edition, with contribution by A. Rieder, C. Domini, and J. Pisapia (Rome: Archivio Franco Pinna editore, 2012). My thanks to D. Forgacs for sharing this image.

24 P. Ginsborg, A History of Contemporary Italy (note 22), 201.

25 Strand’s letter to Newhall, on June 12, 1955, Strand Archive, Center for Creative Photography.

26 See David Forgacs and Stephen Gundle, Mass Culture and Italian Society from Fascism to the Cold War (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007), 13: ‘In the late 1940s and early 1950s … the bicycle developed, through a social trickle-down process, into a mass means of transportation.’

27 Zavattini spent one week in Luzzara in April 1953, and Strand made about two hundred photographs during that spring. In the fall, he sent a selection of one hundred images to Zavattini, with a detailed list numbering each portrait and giving names, occupations, and additional notes about the locations. It was such a list, carefully organized by Hazel, which helped Zavattini and Lusetti to set up the interviews, which were strung together by May 1954. See A. Russo, Storia culturale della fotografia italiana dal Neorealismo al Postmoderno (note 2), 153, for the chronology of the book production.

28 Paul Strand, ‘An American Exodus,’ Photo Notes, March-April 1940, reprinted in A Visual Studies Reprint Book (note 17), 2. On Strand’s involvement with the Photo League, see Mason Klein and Catherine Evans, The Radical Camera: New York’s Photo League, 1936–1951 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011).

29 See Guido Conti, ‘Cesare Zavattini direttore editoriale: Le novitá nei rotocalchi di Rizzoli e Mondadori,’ in Forme e modelli del rotocalco italiano tra fascismo e guerra, ed. Raffaele Berti and Irene Piazzone (Milan: Monduzzi Editore, 2009), 416.

30 Cesare Zavattini, ‘Some Ideas on the Cinema,’ in Film: A Montage of Theories, ed. Richard Dyer MacCann (New York: Dutton, 1966), 221. On the shifting definitions of neorealism see David Forgacs, ‘The Making and Unmaking of Neorealism in Postwar Italy,’ in The Culture of Reconstruction: European Literature, Thought and Film, ed. Nicholas Hewitt (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989), 51–56. See also Noa Steimatsky, Italian Locations. Reinhabiting the Past in Postwar Cinema (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008).

31 See D. Forgacs and S. Gundle, Mass Culture (note 26), 111.

32 Zavattini defined this formula as ‘a cinema of encounters.’ See Cesare Zavattini, ‘A Thesis on Neo-Realism,’ in Springtime in Italy: A Reader on Neo-Realism, ed. David Overbey (Hamden: Archon Books, 1978), 70.

33 See Silvana Cirillo, ed., Cesare Zavattini: Una, cento, mille lettere (Milan: Bompiani, 1988), 168–76.

34 D. Forgacs and S.Gundle, Mass Culture (note 26), 133.

35 S. Gundle, Between Hollywood and Moscow (note 11), 45.

36 Ibid., 62. See also Ennio Di Nolfo, ‘Intimations of Neorealism in the Fascist Ventennio,’ in Re-viewing Fascism: Italian Cinema, 1922–1943, ed. Jacqueline Reich and Piero Garofalo (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2002), 95.

37 P. Strand and C. Zavattini, Un Paese (note 1), 31.

38 See Francesco Faeta, ed., ‘Il sonno sotto le stelle: Arturo Zavattini, Ernesto de Martino, un paese lontano,’ in Fotografi e fotografie: Uno sguardo antropologico (Milan: Franco Angeli, 2006), 113–39. See also Cesare Colombo, ed., Lo sguardo critico: Cultura e fotografia in Italia 1943–1968 (Turin: Agorá, 2003).

39 Lucio Lombardo Radice, ‘Cosa leggono i lavoratori,’ Vie Nuove, no. 17, November 1946: 8, cited in S. Gundle, Between Hollywood and Moscow (note 11), 38.

40 Letter from Lusetti to Strand, June 12, 1955, Strand Archive (note 25).

41 A. Russo, Storia culturale della fotografia italiana dal Neorealismo al Postmoderno (note 27), 154.

42 See Italo Zannier’s review in Foto/Film, published in E. Turner, ed., Paul Strand (note 10), np.

43 A. Russo, Storia culturale della fotografia italiana dal Neorealismo al Postmoderno (note 27), 159.

44 Cesare Zavattini, ‘1958: Quattro chiacchiere con gli italiani fotografi,’ in Lo sguardo critico: Cultura e fotografia in Italia 1943–1968, ed. Cesare Colombo (Turin: Agorá Editrice, 2003), 63–64. See also my book, Maria Antonella Pelizzari, Photography and Italy (London: Reaktion Books, 2011), 106–9.

45 On April 25, 1958, Zavattini called Un Paese ‘our fortunate and unfortunate book’ due to the failure in the sale and translation. Initially, Strand had hoped that the book would be a joint publication with the Guilde du Livre and Einaudi, as French and Italian editions. The book was printed in rotogravure by Amilcare Pizzi, Milan, on April 2, 1955. It is notable that by 1955, when prints by Minor White would range between $5 and $10, Strand asked $100 to $125 for a photograph. See Helen Gee, Limelight: A Memoir (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1997), 87.

46 Walter Rosenblum’s letter to Strand, on October 10, 1949, Strand Archive (note 25).

47 Beaumont Newhall and Nancy Newhall included The Family in their Masters of Photography (New York: G. Braziller, 1958), and in the 1964 edition of Beaumont Newhall’s, The History of Photography, from 1839 to the present day (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1964). In a recent auction at Christie’s (1999) The Family sold for $184,000 (US).

48 Edward Steichen contacted Strand on November 4, 1955, to exhibit his recent photographs in Diogenes with a Camera, Strand Archive (note 25). He had selected fourteen prints from Un Paese, and The Family was one of them.

Pour citer cet article

Référence électronique

Maria Antonella Pelizzari, « Un Paese (1955) and the Challenge of Mass Culture », Études photographiques, 30 | 2012, [En ligne], mis en ligne le 25 juin 2014. URL : http://etudesphotographiques.revues.org/3483. consulté le 24 octobre 2017.

Auteur

Maria Antonella Pelizzari

Maria Antonella Pelizzari is Professor of Art History in the Department of Art at Hunter College, and the Graduate Center, City University of New York. She is the author of Photography and Italy (London: Reaktion Books, 2011), translated as Percorsi della fotografia in Italia (Milan, Contrasto, 2012), and has curated the exhibition Peripheral Visions: Italian Photography in Context, 1950s-Present (Hunter Art Gallery, 2012), with a book published by Charta. She has been associate curator of photography at the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA) in Montreal, where she organized the exhibition and edited the book Traces of India: Photography, Architecture and the Politics of Representation (Montreal and New Haven: CCA and Yale Center for British Art, 2003).

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