Palermo Mon Amour
I was in Turin recently and whilst there visited two photography exhibitions that were very different.
I’m a big fan of Letizia Battaglia and I knew that her work was part of an exhibition called Palermo Mon Amour (Palermo My Love), which also included work by Enzo Sellerio, Franco Zecchin, Fabio Sgroi, and Lia Pasqualino.
The story is of Palermo through the post war years up to the late 1980s as seen and experienced through the eyes of these visual storytellers.
Anyone familiar with the history of Palermo and its association with the mafia will not be surprised to hear that violence is a common thread running through the decades. Even in Enzo Seller’s 1950s images there is a hint of what it to follow in the image called ‘Shooting’ which is of a group of young boys pointing guns in firing squad fashion at a friend with his arms raised against a wall. It’s an image that is saying this is the generation that will destroy us.
Fifteen years later Battaglia is photographing the murdered victims of mafia killings, the pain suffered by families and indignation of the mafia bosses at being arrested for their crimes. Franco Zecchin was photographing at the same time as Battaglia and captures that same aspects of Palermo life also – death, birth, religion and inequality.
In Fabio Sgroi’s images from the 1980s we start to see the people of Palermo reacting against the mafia and the violence they are inflicting. We see images of protest, police, arrests and trials. In a series of images Sgroi has captured a man dressed (and looking very like) Mr Punch, we see a priest asleep at the premier of the Godfather Part III film, these are almost saying ‘we’ve been fools for too long and now we’re bored of the mafia and want rid of them’.
The exhibition concludes the story with the generation of the 1980s dancing and partying. The poverty is still there and generations have been damaged but there is at least optimism.
The second exhibition was of Dorothea Lange’s ‘Tales of Life and Work’, which focussed primarily on her work as a member of the Farm Security Administration, when she was employed to document families who were moving across the US towards California in search of work during the 1930s.
Her career started in San Francisco as a portrait photographer who then started to photograph the homeless and raise awareness of the growing issue of poverty. Injustice and inequality became the drivers of her work thereafter.
In one image that I hadn’t seen before, which is from a series of images on the ‘General Strike’, she frames a smartly dressed police officer standing with his back to a group of protestors who are waving placards that include the text ‘against imperialist’ and ‘hitler’s nazis’, which appears to sum up her opinion of the police force.
The images from her years with the FSA are just extraordinary; moving, poetic and yet full of contradictions. The optimism and ambition of some families with aspirations to build homes and gain longterm employment sits in juxtaposition with those already weary of living off low wages in exchange for demanding labour.
The highlight is Lange’s famous Migrant Mother or Pea Pickers Camp as it was originally called. What is interesting is seeing the prints from the film that led to the iconic image that we all know. This sequence of photographs tells us something about being a documentary photographer. Lange started photographing quite far away, framing the woman in her tent and we can clearly see that she moved closer once the woman trusted her and that led to the portrait that we are all familiar with.
Taking these images would have taken some time, Lange used a Graflex Press Camera, which used a 4×5 negative and would have been unwieldy to carry around.
What did I learn?
Both exhibitions were about storytelling. One was about the story of a place through the eyes of different photographers and the other was the broader story of one photographer from her early days as a portrait photographer to her campaign against the treatment of Japanese-Americans during the 1940s who were imprisoned in internment camps for fear they were working against America.
Both exhibitions were about people, place and time, one documented a journey from hope to fear and then to optimism. The other was more cynical. Whilst Lange did photograph hope, the volume of work clearly symbolises the oppression of the state and the interests of big business over the people. In Palermo we saw the interests of the mafia being crushed by the will of the people. In the US we saw the people crushed by the interests of commerce and profit.