Fotografia: the first review of photography in Italy

The 1943 Domus almanac presented the first complete survey of Italian photography. Designed to assert the art and technique of Italian photographers, it also challenged myths of foreign supremacy in the field.

Editoriale Domus published the almanac, Fotografia. Prima rassegna dell'attività fotografica italiana [Photography. First review of photography in Italy], in February of 1943. Gianni Mazzocchi, director at the time, presented it thus: "with the publication of this volume, I wanted to confirm the artistic and technical maturity of Italian photography. It is the first time that such a complete review has been published in Italy and this documentation of the art and technique of our photographers will also serve to remove an enduring prejudice regarding foreign superiority in the field of photography. Since 1928, Editoriale Domus [...] has contributed to spreading modern Italian taste [...]".

Edited by Ermanno Federico Scopinich, with Alfredo Ornano and Albe Steiner, the almanac opens with an essay by Scopinich, Considerazioni sulla fotografia italiana [Considerations on Italian photography], followed by 171 photographs by 114 authors, all listed at the end of the volume without biographies. It includes essays by Alfredo Ornano Tecnica di ripresa e riproduzione nella fotografia a colori [Photography technique and reproduction in color photography] on the advantages of the Agfacolor procedure — introduced in 1936 — applied to the small format, and by Federico Patellani Il giornalista nuova formula [The new formula journalist], a true manifesto for Italian photojournalism. The layout and graphics were by Albe Steiner. The articles in Italian and German indicate that the volume was also distributed in Germany (on the eve of the collapse of fascism); in particular, Ornano's piece promoted the role of Agfa, the German company that probably supported the publication of the almanac.
Domus Almanac 1943, <em>Fotografia. Prima rassegna dell’attività fotografica italiana</em> [Photography. First review of photography in Italy]. Left, photo by Riccardo Moncalvo. Right, photo by Bruno Stefani
Domus Almanac 1943, Fotografia. Prima rassegna dell’attività fotografica italiana [Photography. First review of photography in Italy]. Left, photo by Riccardo Moncalvo. Right, photo by Bruno Stefani
However, photographs make up most of the volume and are often printed full-page in black and white or color, organized by theme or formal motif in order to stimulate comparison and contrast. "The works presented in this almanac," says Scopinich, "represent the selection of several thousand photographs and many are inspired by a sense of modern art, which in photography means [...] antirhetorical, unconventional, and in any case, far from the romanticism that has afflicted, and still partially afflicts, the prevailing taste found in many exhibitions and publications [...]. At least three generations have taken photographs of grazing sheep, reflections of sunsets over a lake, ubiquitous nuns with their habits in the wind, convinced that only subjects of this kind were suitable for "artistic" interpretation without worrying about the world, or real life [...] But photography does not have to copy art [...] Enough with art at all costs [...], let photography create and exploit all of its optical and chemical means in the search for new expressions in form and color [...]."
Domus Almanac 1943, <em>Fotografia. Prima rassegna dell’attività fotografica italiana</em> [Photography. First review of photography in Italy]. Left, photo by Giulio Galimberti. Right, photo by Gualtiero Castagnola
Domus Almanac 1943, Fotografia. Prima rassegna dell’attività fotografica italiana [Photography. First review of photography in Italy]. Left, photo by Giulio Galimberti. Right, photo by Gualtiero Castagnola
In this almanac, they began to define the characteristics of "modern," as opposed to "artistic," photography (which today we might call "painterly" and present in the almanac with the work of Emilio Sommariva and Domenico Peretti Griva), asserting, however, that it welcomed "the best of Italian photography" which was not always consistent and tied to those characteristics. The "modern" made its way through several positions that were often contradictory — partially tied to pictorialism, but also to the topics discussed in the most advanced cultural debates of the 1920s and 30s. Among the cornerstones of the thinking in those years, Discorso sull'arte fotografica [Discussion of photographic art] by Gio Ponti should be cited. Published in 1932 by the magazine Fotografia , the essay marked photography's distance from painting affirming its linguistic autonomy, anticipating Scopinich's thesis and also implicitly recalling Moholy Nagy's thesis in Malerei Fotografie Film (1st edition, 1925), that was reiterated in the article "Su l'avvenire della fotografia , On the future of photography", which Moholy Nagy published in 1932 in Note fotografiche [Photography notes], founded in 1923 thanks to AGFA and directed by Alfredo Ornano.
Domus Almanac 1943, <em>Fotografia. Prima rassegna dell’attività fotografica italiana</em> [Photography. First review of photography in Italy]. Left, photo by Federico Patellani. Right, photo by Luigi Comencini
Domus Almanac 1943, Fotografia. Prima rassegna dell’attività fotografica italiana [Photography. First review of photography in Italy]. Left, photo by Federico Patellani. Right, photo by Luigi Comencini
Equally important was the Luci e ombre [Lights and Shadows] almanac published by Il Corriere Fotografico between 1923 and 1934, which progressively found space for "modern" photographers. In 1929, Luci e ombre opened with Commento [Comment] by Antonio Boggeri, a key figure in the graphics and photography renaissance; the article emphasized the "noble stylistic simplicity" of "new" Italian photography in relation to the international scene. Founder in 1933 of the Studio bearing the same name, Boggeri worked with Xanti Schawinsky, Max Huber and such young graphic designers as Bruno Munari and Erberto Carboni (later present in the Domus Almanac); Boggeri came to define a comprehensive approach to the problem of communications and new relationships between photography and graphics.
Domus Almanac 1943, <em>Fotografia. Prima rassegna dell’attività fotografica italiana</em> [Photography. First review of photography in Italy]. Left, photo by Enrico Peressutti. Right, photo by Mario Perotti
Domus Almanac 1943, Fotografia. Prima rassegna dell’attività fotografica italiana [Photography. First review of photography in Italy]. Left, photo by Enrico Peressutti. Right, photo by Mario Perotti
In the early 1930s, even the articles by historian and critic of the "modern" movement Edoardo Persico in La Casa Bella identified "modern" directions and experiences. Among these were the reviews of the 1931 book by Camille Recht on Eugène Atget; of Foto-auge , an anthology of European photographic production (with photographs by Atget, Man Ray, Max Ernst, Moholy Nagy, El Lissitzky); and of the Modern Photography anthologies, published by London-based magazine The Studio — a synthesis of the most interesting international production. In those same years, other magazines expanded their interests to photography, contributing to a new awareness. Natura [Nature], founded in 1928, showcased Italian and international photographic production (including Studio Boggeri). Galleria [Gallery], founded in 1933 by Mario Bellavista, kept alive the debate about what is meant by "modern" in terms of the aesthetics of photography in the column Tre concetti per fotografi moderni [Three concepts for modern photographers].
Domus Almanac 1943, <em>Fotografia. Prima rassegna dell’attività fotografica italiana</em> [Photography. First review of photography in Italy]. Left, photo by Antonio Boggeri. Right, photo by Luigi Veronesi
Domus Almanac 1943, Fotografia. Prima rassegna dell’attività fotografica italiana [Photography. First review of photography in Italy]. Left, photo by Antonio Boggeri. Right, photo by Luigi Veronesi
The 1943 Fotografia almanac assembled the energies and research of the most lively cultural milieus of the time and was the culmination of a process of processing the "new;" it was marked by uncertainty but also by opportunities for critical thinking about the specificity of the photographic language. There are many entries in the almanac from fields with strong creative and design-oriented tensions; among them, architects and graphic designers, also tied to advertising and film and who, more than the others, were bearers of a global vision that granted photography a pioneering role in relation to other disciplines.
Domus Almanac 1943, <em>Fotografia. Prima rassegna dell’attività fotografica italiana</em> [Photography. First review of photography in Italy]. Left, photo by Giuseppe Pagano. Right, photo by Bruno Munari
Domus Almanac 1943, Fotografia. Prima rassegna dell’attività fotografica italiana [Photography. First review of photography in Italy]. Left, photo by Giuseppe Pagano. Right, photo by Bruno Munari
Vito Latis, Carlo Mollino, Gabriele Mucchi, Ugo Sissa, Giuseppe Pagano and Enrico Peressutti showed great awareness of the autonomy of the photographic medium. Pagano, a central and tragic figure in Italian rationalism, took photographs ever since he curated the exhibition on rural architecture at the Triennale of 1936, refusing to use the images belonging to the Superintendency (and Alinari) for his investigations into the "Bel Paese." He was aware of the Bauhaus experience, even through reading Bauhausbücher , (like Peressutti who had visited the great exhibition Film und Foto in Stuttgart in 1929) and film culture which he promoted at a film club founded with Banfi, Peressutti, Comencini, Pasinetti, and Lattuada. This last figure, author in 1941of Occhio quadrato. 26 tavole fotografiche [Square Eye. 26 photographic plates] for Corrente editions, photographed the Milanese suburbs along with Comencini — also present in the almanac — with a perspective devoid of rhetoric. Unpopular with the Fascist regime, he was the harbinger of a new "realism."
Domus Almanac 1943, <em>Fotografia. Prima rassegna dell’attività fotografica italiana</em> [Photography. First review of photography in Italy]. Left, photo by Franco Grignani. Right, photo by Giuseppe Cavalli
Domus Almanac 1943, Fotografia. Prima rassegna dell’attività fotografica italiana [Photography. First review of photography in Italy]. Left, photo by Franco Grignani. Right, photo by Giuseppe Cavalli
The collaboration between photography and cinema lived in the debate that animated the field in such magazines as Cinema and Bianco e Nero [Black and White] but also in practices relating to documentary filmmaking and photo-journalism. In his essay in the almanac, Federico Patellani stated precisely that the experience of "new formula" photojournalism — as he had experienced it in his collaboration with the weekly magazine Tempo [Time] since 1939 — was subverting the relationship between photography and words by conferring a prominent communicative function on the image thus imposing the new taste spread by documentary film and newsreels.

Significant contributions to the almanac were made by amateurs and professionals like Vincenzo Balocchi, Giuseppe Cavalli, Mario Finazzi, Alex Franchini Stappo, Ferruccio Leiss, and Federico Vender who, after the war, livened up the two large photographic clubs La Bussola and La Gondola .
Domus Almanac 1943, <em>Fotografia. Prima rassegna dell’attività fotografica italiana</em> [Photography. First review of photography in Italy]. Left, photo by Federico Vender. Right, photo by Albe Steiner
Domus Almanac 1943, Fotografia. Prima rassegna dell’attività fotografica italiana [Photography. First review of photography in Italy]. Left, photo by Federico Vender. Right, photo by Albe Steiner
However, decisive importance was given to the world of graphics, with the presence in the almanac of Antonio Boggeri, Erberto Carboni, Franco Grignani, Bruno Munari, Remo Muratore, Marcello Nizzoli, Albe Steiner, and Luigi Veronesi. These were protagonists of the graphic and typographical renaissance in Italy since the 1930s, with the V Triennale of Milan in 1933, and the monthly Campo grafico [The graphics field], founded the same year by Attilio Rossi in Milan. The renaissance was also tied to photographic avant-garde experimentation included in the almanac with images by Veronesi, Grignani, Munari, and Muratore. These figures embodied the "experimental" tendencies toward abstraction in photography, which in Italy — but not in Germany — would also develop under fascism.
Domus Almanac 1943, <em>Fotografia. Prima rassegna dell’attività fotografica italiana</em> [Photography. First review of photography in Italy]. Left, photo by Carlo Mollino. Right, photo by Erberto Carboni
Domus Almanac 1943, Fotografia. Prima rassegna dell’attività fotografica italiana [Photography. First review of photography in Italy]. Left, photo by Carlo Mollino. Right, photo by Erberto Carboni


The most significant achievement of the experimentation involving graphics and photography, however, was that of Albe Steiner, responsible for the almanac's graphics and a leading figure in Italian visual culture since the mid-thirties. The continuous "contamination" among the fields of photography, graphics and design, also visible in the almanac, was reflected in its strong design-oriented dimension that enhanced the different languages — and had them interact — respecting their respective codes of expression.

The 1943 Fotografia almanac shows the entire range of the Italian experience, definitively closing the door on pictorialism and paving the way for the "modern" by rejecting preconceived ideas and placing particular emphasis on experimental practices and on the full technical and theoretical exploitation of the medium's possibilities. From then onwards, it would be a completely different story.

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