Luzzara, a small town on the banks of the River Po in the Emilia-Romagna region of northern Italy appears to be an unremarkable place but, in 1953, Paul Strand collaborated with the screen writer Cesare Zavattini to photograph it.
According to Peter Barberie (1) Strand had been inspired to photograph a single community by the work of Edgar Lee Masters and Sherwood Anderson who had written about small American towns but by 1953 Strand had exiled himself from the USA in response to Senator McCarthy’s campaign to root out communists. Although he had never joined the Party he was, according to Fraser MacDonald (2), a committed communist and after leaving America he searched for small communities to photograph that reflected his social and political views.
His study of Luzzara, as published in 1955 under the title Un Paese (a village), should be considered in the context of both his political views and the search for a place that expressed the sense of community that he was searching for. Before finding Luzzara he had already photographed in France, Puglia and Sicily and attempted a similar project in Gaeta, a town between Rome and Naples. Maria Antonella Pelizzari (3) suggests that he was horrified by Gaeta which had been severely damaged during the war and was far from having recovered; mothers begged his wife-to-be Hazel to help their sick children and unable to face photographing the inhabitants he instead turned his camera on the architecture of the town. (i)
From Strand’s perspective Luzzara had a number of advantages; firstly it was Zavattini’s home town but perhaps more importantly it was part of the Italian “Red Belt”, an area of central Italy that had a long history of subscribing to left wing political views (5), it had been a centre of Partisan activity in 1943 and 1944 and had emerged from the war unscathed. Pelazzari argues that Strand saw in its people an expression of the values that he associated with small-town America and that his photographs “exude positive impressions of communal life”.
John Berger recognised that Strand “consistently (took) a left political position” (6) and that these views directed his approach to photography. At an aesthetic level, Berger sees in Strand elements of the romantic Soviet socialist tradition, an argument supported by Parmesan from the Un Paese series. Berger argues that Strand’s approach was the antithesis to the Decisive Moment, his moment was the flow of history.
The book was the first photo book ever to be published in Italy and was well received in Luzzara although eyebrows were raised at the price, which was the same as a bicycle, and whilst it is now a collectors item, it was not successful in its day.
Having lived in a similar town, albeit five or six hours drive to the south and fifty years later, I am intrigued by Strand’s political motivations and how these are reflected in his photographs.
The Family is perhaps the best known photograph from this series. It is interesting at a number of levels. It is first and foremost a perfect example of what Peter Barberie refers to as Strand’s “painstaking approach” (1: p8) and John Berger calls “deliberate, frontal, (and) formal” (6); working with cumbersome Deardorff 8 x 10 and Graflex 5 x7 cameras he was not interested or equipped to take candid shots; the composition is highly considered to show Anna Spaggiari-Lusetti as someone that Strand saw as “a pillar of serene strength” (3). The family depicted is Valentino Lusetti’s, Strand’s interpreter and fixer during his five week stay in Luzzara, and shows him with four of his brothers as well as his widowed mother.
One wonders whether there is a dividing line between the posed portrait and a staged tableaux; Stand’s search for the perfect aesthetic and his deliberate approach results in some of his portraits crossing that line and appearing as staged as Jeff Wall’s cinematography. Perhaps this sense is created when multiple subjects share the frame but that doesn’t explain the staged feeling of Parmesan with its stylised Soviet poster aesthetic.
On considering the detail of the Lusetti Family my eyes are drawn to the lack of shoes; only Anna Spaggiari-Lusetti is wearing full shoes and one brother wears slip on sandals. Has Strand asked them to remove their shoes? Does he intend the bare feet to connote poverty? If so, it is unconvincing, the feet are clean and undamaged, not the feet of people who are generally barefoot. The bicycle is a strong compositional feature, suggesting that the family were better off than many in 1950’s Italy but it is also a honest working man’s mode of transport, not the effort-less travel of a wealthier man’s motor car which gives it a political connotation, and as if to confirm its importance within the composition the wheel shape is repeated above the door and over the right shoulder of the mother.
It is notable that three of the brothers look away from the camera; the one to the right, in a waistcoat, necktie, wide brimmed hat and baggy trousers looking more Texan cowboy than Italian farmer, looks down thoughtfully; the brother in the doorway is unnaturally posed side on, looking straight as his mother and the one to the left of the door looks out of the frame. Only one, along with his mother, engages directly making him seem the most confident, perhaps their personalities are in some way described by their posed gazes.
It would be wrong to say that I take issue with the few photographs that I have seen from from Strand’s series; it is a beautifully constructed piece of reportage, but I sense that Strand like many liberal artists who subscribe to the ideals of communism is in some way idealising and as a result patronising his subjects. Bear in mind that he had travelled far and wide in France and Italy to find a town that lived up to his expectations, a place that, in Pelizzari’s words represented a “serene microcosm of communal life” (3) (i).
One suspects that Strand had a idealistic view of not just communism but of the working man. In the same way that Victorian photographers and writers had portrayed the “noble savage” in both Africa and America, Strand was searching for the nobility of the working classes. His mentor and fellow modernist Alfred Stieglitz had said of his own work in Venice in the 1890’s “I dislike the superficial and the artificial, and I find less of it among the lower classes” (3) In 1936 Strand was a founding member of the Photo League, an exhibition and educational facility that according to Carolyn Stuart “became a centre of debates about advanced photography” (7) but that was eventually blacklisted (ii) in 1947 because of its supposed links with Soviet communism. It appears certain that the League, if not actively linked to Soviet sponsored organisations, attracted photographers with left wing political views and Strand had studied under Lewis Hine, a documentarist following a reformist agenda, whose most significant work portrayed the ordinary working man and woman as heroic figures. These unconnected details appear to be clues to Strand’s mindset and suggest that he subscribed to the idea of subjective documentary, an approach that had been much discussed by the League.
I see in Un Paese a romanticised and highly subjective view of 1950’s Italy, a town selected for its historic ties to a very Italian form of communism and people photographed to represent Strand’s notion of a communal society, a notion that brought together his perception, also romantic in nature, of small-town American values with a worker’s state in a place that he could observe and photograph but with whose inhabitants he could only communicate through an interpreter.
I see his portraits as tableaux in which he stages his vision of a socialist community with the subjects unknowingly being directed to act out parts that were often some distance from the reality of their existence and that may not have described their own political views. Even if Luzarra was the “hotbed” of communism that Pelizzari describes it is worth noting that the Italian Communist Party never won an election and eventually merged with the Italian Socialist Party to form the Popular Democratic Front in 1948. It remained in opposition to the Christian Democrats for the next forty years. In my experience the Italians love the concept of communism but are very careful to avoid experiencing its realities.
Notes on Text
(i) The year after working in Luzzara he and his wife spent three months in the Hebridies, a project that resulted in the publication of Tir a’Mhurain (Land of Bent Grass). The fact that their visit coincided with a secret survey by the British Government to assess South Uist as a potential American missile site caught the FBI’s attention. It probably didn’t help that Tir a’Mhurain was printed behind the iron curtain in Leipzig; a decision that resulted in the US Government banning “the book unless imported copies bore an obvious stamp ‘Printed in Germany, USSR occupied’ – a stipulation to which they knew Strand would never consent.” (4)
(ii) It is unlikely that Luzzara was even representative of post war Italy, a country that had been ravaged by the cronyism of Musollini’s fascists, occupied by their erstwhile allies and the stage for a long drawn out invasion by the allies and a fighting retreat by the German army. What the German’s hadn’t stolen or destroyed the allies had bombed or shelled. The Italians had become spectators of a war fought on their own doorstep.
(iii) In 1947 President Harry S. Truman signed an executive order requiring all federal civil servants to be screened for “loyalty” . The reasonable grounds for determining an employee to be “disloyal” were if hey we’re found to have “membership in, affiliation with or sympathetic association” with any organization determined by the attorney general to be “totalitarian, Fascist, Communist or subversive” or advocating or approving the forceful denial of constitutional rights to other persons or seeking “to alter the form of Government of the United States by unconstitutional means.” (8) The declared purpose of maintaining what was to be called the “Attorney General’s List of Subversive Organizations” (AGLOSO) was to provide guidance for federal organisation to determine their employees loyalty but in keeping with the laws of unanticipated consequence the AGLOSO soon became seen as an official blacklist. Any organisation so listed was “severely damaged or destroyed”. (8)
(1) Barberie, Peter (2014) Aperture Maters of Photography: Paul Strand. Philadelphia: Aperture
(6) Berger, John (1967) Understanding a Photograph. London: Penguin Classics
(2) MacDonald, Fraser (2015) Paul Strand’s intimate and rich Hebridean images bought for Scottish gallery (accessed at The Guardian 29.5.16) – http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/scotland-blog/2015/jul/22/paul-strands-intimate-and-rich-hebridean-images-bought-for-scottish-gallery
(3) Pelizzari, Maria Antonella (2012) Un Paese (1955) and the Challenge of Mass Culture (accessed at Etudes photographiques 29.5.16) – http://etudesphotographiques.revues.org/3483#text
(4) MacDonald, Fraser (2015) Paul Strand’s Hebrides: subtle, sensitive with a dash of Marxist steel (accessed at The Guardian 29.5.16) – http://www.theguardian.com/uk/scotland-blog/2012/sep/20/scotland-photography-paul-strand
(5) Barbieri, Giovanni (2012) The Northern League in the ‘Red Belt’ of Italy (accessed at GLA.AC 29.5.16) – http://www.gla.ac.uk/media/media_264090_en.pdf
(7) Stuart, Carolyn (2014) Book Review, “The Radical Camera: New York’s Photo League, 1936-1951,” eds. Mason Klein and Catherine Evans (accessed at Academia 30.5.16) – https://www.academia.edu/23634911/Book_Review_The_Radical_Camera_New_Yorks_Photo_League_1936-1951_eds._Mason_Klein_and_Catherine_Evans
(8) Goldstein, Robert Justin (2006) Prelude to McCarthyism: The Making of a Blacklist (accessed at the USA National Archives 30.5.16) – http://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/2006/fall/agloso.html