Paola Agosti/When photography is memory

Interview with the italian photograher who in over forty years of professional activity, has documented the great female achievements and the social and political transformations of Italy and the world.

How did your career in photography begin? And what was it like for a woman to work in photography at that time?

My career started by chance. After attending the Arts High School and, for a brief period only, the Fine Arts Academy in Turin, the city where I was born in 1947, in 1968 I moved to Rome where I found a job as apprentice in a graphic studio. I was appointed to the darkroom and I met lots of photographers.

Among others Augusta Conchiglia from Milan, who at that time had already worked at the Piccolo Theatre of Milan as stage photographer. So we decided to work together, offering photographic services in different theatres. We got to collaborate with the Sistina Theatre and that’s how I started. It was the Seventies and I divided my time between my “survival” job as stage photographer and the one that stirred my passion – photojournalism – which was connected with social, political and day-to-day issues. In the beginning there were no other female photographers, especially in the political enviroment, but there were very combative and competitive male ones. In the end this atmosphere made me a little bit intolerant of this kind of job. I myself have actually never felt my being a woman as a limit. However, working with women among the most combative fringes of the feminist movement, as I did some years later, wasn’t simple either. They were quite reserved unapproachable and almost sectarian, sometimes not so well-disposed towards those who wanted to document and report information.

Your work testified to far-reaching changes, and created actual reportages on remarkable social, political and ideological themes. For example, how did your work on the feminist movement begin?

The project on feminism comes from a specific request I received from Savelli, a publisher based in Rome, who asked me to collect an high number of photographs on the feminist movement for a book in order to publish a book about the feminist movement entitled Riprendiamoci la vita. Everything started from this assignment. Though I didn’t join the feminist movement as a militant, I obviously photographed it as a sympathizer. But being classified as a strictly feminist photographer doesn’t often fit in with me, because in my opinion it partly underrates all the other photographic projects I made. First of all, this was a journalistic and documentary work for me. If  you can find a little bit of poetry and emotional involvement in it that can shine through and be felt, then I’m happy about it.

In fact you don’t seem to have felt such an affinity with the feminist movement.

No. I probably didn’t feel the need. Indefinitely indentified with women’s fights, which were indisputable to me. But my past experiences have a lot to do with my family, the feminine figures in it, the exceptional freedom I enjoyed, with the fact that the female figures in my family were respected as much as the male ones. On the other hand, I’m glad that those photos represent a documentation of that period. What impresses me the most today is the fact that when these photos are chosen by women much younger than myself, their gaze on “d’antan” feminism is focused on details instead on a more intimate and absorbed depiction, it is more attentive to what was happening in the collectives, in  family advisory centres, conferences, meetings at Casa delle Donne, among the editorial staff at Quotidiano Donna and Effe. Whereas, I would say that in my archive out of 22 thousand shots on the subject more than half show street demontrations full of placards and banners. I believe the content of banners and placards is one of the most creative moments of all 20th-century movements. In this sense feminism was really sensational: what those girls and women who took the streets created in that historical period is unique. That great creativity and common hope that animates the generations of the Seventies were amazing and one of a kind. We all believed in a much better future.

Feminist Movement Demonstration

Riprendiamoci la vita and La donna e la macchina are precisely two of your most important works on feminine identity. How did they come to you? What makes them alike and what makes them different? And above all what has changed today with regards to those urges of social and individual change?

These projects came from the decision to no longer follow themes related to everyday politcs. You have to think that being a current affairs photojournalist in an analogical period meant keeping up with daily events, rushing to the studio with films to develop, coming back to choose the proofs and, in a matter of a few hours and in a very strenuous city like Rome, trying to send the shots by the evening to Milan, where there was the editorial market that counted. Therefore, there was a moment in which I realised  not only that I couldn’t stand that pace anymore but I also couldn’t stand the competitiveness of the other photographers, almost all males and even quite aggressive, who didn’t care much about the fact that I was a young reporter and a novice. So, once I made that decision, I started to dedicate myself to different projects. And that’s when those works so connected with the female universe came to life: from Firmato Donna and its portraits of the 56 greatest italian female writers of the 20th century, to the long-lasting collaboration with Noi Donne magazine.

La donna e la macchina, instead, was a project culminated in a book, ispired by Henri Cartier-Bresson’s volume, L’Uomo e la Macchina. These experiences led me to discover a female side of Italy made up of the firts women to enter the big factories. I took pictures inside the northern factories, mainly in the north-west, inside Fiat, Olivetti, the textile firms and the woolen mills of the Biellese area. I’ve never felt exclusevely like a woman’s photographer, though. I dedicated to them a wide section of my photographic works, but those works didn’t follow the really precise desire of showing the female universe. I believe the female workers that I photographed had become emancipated through the job dimension. On the contrary, emancipation was not all the feminists were interested in. They were interested in going beyond emancipation, towards liberation. There was definitely a moment in the female movement of the big marches and demonstrations, where there was also the UDI, Italian Women Union, where women fought for common purposes. By contrast, current feminist struggles are very different. They undoubtedly have many things in common with the past. Anyway rights obtained many years ago are at the bottom of it, and we have to protect them and fight in order not to lose them. Today lots of girls have the belief these rights were acquired for once and for all and they don’t realise they could lose them at any time. The women I photographed were considered as pioneers in the Italian society of that period.

How pre-eminent was, or is, the photographic medium in defining a new centrality of the woman?

Very little. The woman- object model used in media and publicity is still dominant. And this too reminds me of the photos of feminists with placards saying “We are no longer the women of Carosello, with dresses and perfumes and nothing in the brain”. I recall an article of 2013 written by Laura Boldrini, then chairwoman of the Chamber of deputies: “As for women, I’d like their image to be protected. The current use of  women’s bodies in mass communication has no equal in the world.  From clothes, to yogurt, even cars, in Italy everything is sold exploiting the female image. An image that doesn’t represent us. We are reduced to bodies, not to individuals that work or think. I believe this is a damage to the country“. I agree with her line of thought and I always hope something will change. But it’s been almost fourty years since feminists shouted out their slogans regarding that but nothing seems to change.

Why?

Because in some way the image of this kind of woman sells more. I remember at that time the covers of magazines such as l’Espresso. Although they were higher-level magazines  the female image was, in my opinion equally humiliated. When I asked my photo editor friend “Why do you always print these kind of covers?”, she answered me, “Because they sell more”. That’s  capitalism, baby!

However, along your artistic path you have documented a model of woman that is more feminine, If you like, telling us of a reality that is different but just as relevant. Will you tell us about it?

Through the wonderful, almost twenty-year long experience with  Noi Donne, the UDI newspaper, I made contact with a certain female part of Italy not so declaredly feminist. In fact, it was made of the women who had been in the Resistance, had worked in the fields, lived the great emigration toward the North. A strong reality, extraordinary women that probably don’t exist anymore, but left me an unforgettable memory.

 

Calabrien woman with his langarolo husband at the window of their home in high Langa, february 1985.

Later, your iconographic reflection focused on representing a certain historical memory. How did this come to be? And what kind of reality did you come into contact with?

I would say that reading Il mondo dei vinti by Nuto Revelli was a professional turning point in some sense. I was actually dazzled by that book and therefore I decided that I would go over the same itinerary of the author. So, between the autumn of ʹ77 and ʹ78 I made six trips to the poor area of the province of Cuneo and I brought home four thousand shots from which through time  various books were born such as Immagine del mondo dei vinti, I testimoni, Il destino era già lì. But before starting Il mondo dei vinti, I had actually had some very beautiful and interesting opportunities to travel abroad, especially to Latin America. In 1970 this experience took me, among other things, to Allende’s Chile, thanks also to my meeting with the journalist Saverio Tutino, who had been a correspondent from Havana for seven years and knew the reality of Latin America very well. I made these first two trips with him and then, still with Tutino, I made other trips to Somalia and Mozambique, Portugal and Spain. Whereas in ʹ83 together with a photographer friend of mine Margaret Courtney-Clarke I made a long trip to South Africa, the South Africa of the apartheid, which was very interesting, but also terrible for the things I saw. Therefore I can say that I have also done some reportage outside Italy, while the choice to photograph the Piedmontese communities in Argentina was made between the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s, when the exhibition Il mondo dei vinti was held in Buenos Aires and I discovered that many Argentines have Piedmontese origins. From there the idea of working on the theme of migration, a completely different theme from the migrations we can imagine today. It was in fact a migration that had taken place between the end of the Nineteenth and the first half of the Twentieth century. In the beginning, I investigated the Buenos Aires community. Then I went to the so-called Pampa Gringa, the triangle between Rosario, Cordoba and Santa Fè, where there are villages called Cavour, Silvio Pellico, Nueva Torino, Piamonte, etc. They were communities where Spanish was spoken with a Piedmontese accent! Moreover, among them Piedmontese was the language of exchange. Their bond with their place of origin was therefore still very strong. This is the theme that the migrations of that time have in common, people who know they won’t go back and don’t have today’s technological means to communicate with those who stayed in their homeland. This is the source of that strong feeling of nostalgia, inherent in the Argentines themselves.

The past is a recurring theme in your work.

Yes, even though I consider myself a woman of my time, attentive to the present, I really like to  look at the past, but I don’t regret it. I like to enhance it, make it live again.

To what extent can your work can be considered autobiographical? And were there any male or female photographer who influenced you?

I believe that through their photos every photographer is somehow writinig their own autobiography. It’s the feeling I have when I look at my photos. The topics I dealt with in the 1970s, the women’s movement, workers’ struggles, major social changes, the liberation movements in the Third World, the end of fascisms in the First World, are all themes that belong to the ideals that animated my generation. And, consequently, they are part of my autobiography. Among the photographers who influenced me are the great masters I loved and who inspired me. For example, when I started photographing Il mondo dei vinti I knewn the american photographers at Farm Security Administration well, especially Walker Evans, who remains one of my idols and, of course, Dorotea Lange. Among the European photographers I also like August Sander very much. But above all I fell in love with Latin American photographers. Among them Martin Chambi, a Peruvian photographer active in the first half of the 20th century who worked exclusively in Cuzco, not far from Machu Picchu, and portrayed this society living enclosed by the mountains. More contemporary, even if he has now passed away, is the Chilean Sergio Larrain with his amazing book Valparaiso. Of course I have always been very interested in women photographers. In fact, in the early Eighties together with another woman photographer I had planned a research that was to be the subject of an exhibition on women pioneers of photography, starting from the Americans, to the English, up to the Germans. In that instance I discovered a Mexican named Mariana Yampolsky, a real revelation. And I got to know the wonderful work of Graciela Iturbide. Whereas, among the North Americans photographers I really loved the work of Eve Arnold, Helen Levitt, Inge Morath. But, many more would come to mind…

What do you think about the new technologies used in photography? To be more specific, these new tools seem to have broadened the boundaries of photographic language. Do you believe, for example, that by using these innovative forms of expression, women or in general the individual, can acquire the power to recreate their own image with a semantically freer look, regaining possession of their iconographic identity (as with the practice of selfie)?

As far as I’m concerned, my relationship with new technologies is, I would say, disastrous. Although I must admit that I happened to use the digital camera this year for a job I had been commissioned to do. And I used a digital camera and found it very convenient. So there was an approach, so I got closer, but I didn’t make the jump. It is a language that I struggle to make my own. Besides, I already said that I consider photography first of all as a form of memory, testimony to a past time. And by overlapping memory, the artifice that the digital medium affords you can often alter this relationship. I like to continue looking at proofs, prints, everything that is on paper. So, I don’t feel particularly attracted to these new languages.

I also believe that the so-called selfie practice is just an exaggerated form of narcissism that characterizes our time. When I started doing this job they weren’t called selfies but self-portraits. But I repeat, I just don’t consider me part of all that. In fact, when I’m in front of an audience I always name these conversations “An analogue photographer telling her story”. Besides, my archive is all analog. I absolutely don’t want to defend this way of making and storing photos, and I have total respect for “digital” photographers, but I belong to another era, and also due to my limits I have remained an “analogue photographer”.

Institutional conventions have often given little visibility to a large number of female artists, photographers or not, who on the contrary have contributed greatly to artistic movements, that is a given fact. So, how come there was (or is) a prejudicial restriction towards accepting the presence of great female artists?

This is a difficult question to answer. I honestly don’t see any particular difference between a female and a male eye. It is a questio I have been asked for about fifty years and to which I frankly found no answer. I wouldn’t want my photos to be displayed, or in any case valued and appreciated only because I am a woman. I would like them to be valued for what they are worth. Here, I remember that while I was putting together the material for the exhibition (which unfortunately was not put up) on women pioneers of photography, Eve Arnold, one of my idols, wrote to me that she had no interest in participating in this exhibition of women photographers because she considered herself a photographer and nothing else. Even if that answer left me uncertain at that time, it undoubtedly made me think…and I’m still dwelling on it!

Going over your long career again, has there never been a key moment, an assertive “Why not?” that you instinctively followed to pursue your goals? Or maybe you wanted to follow?

I believe that when you are very young you have a motivation inside, a desire to go against the tide, to rebel. Today, when I look back, I don’t think I was a rebel. But probably in some way I was, although I never rebelled against my parents. Also because they always supported me in my choices, especially in choosing such a different profession in a family where everyone was an intellectual. Let’s say that the breakaway, the rebellion were a sign of the times. There was a bit of conformism in this, too. In my job I have never felt the fact of being a woman as a limit. Towards the end of the Seventies, after years of tireless “working my way up the ladder”, when I used to photograph the political, trade union and economic affairs scene in Rome, everyday I felt that if I continued to be in that frantic circle, I wouldn’t have done anything interesting in the end. I wouldn’t have evolved professionally. At some point in my life I realized that I had to say stop to that dimension and after making this decision I left the job that allowed me to make a living. Thanks to Mondo dei vinti I developed a passion for ethnographic reportage. And that is where I was able to express myself better, beyond trends and limits, witnessing what has always interested me the most: to deliver the memory through images. To all this I still want to add a few words about the long series of portraits of men and women who crossed the Twentieth century: famous writers, musicians, scientists, historians, philosophers, painters, poets. Portraits that I started making in the 1980s (many of which with my photographer friend Giovanna Borgese) and then merged into various books published at the end of the last century, among which I like to remember Mi pare un secolo, published by Einaudi in 1992. And those who want to know more can visit my website www.paolaagosti.com.

 

Paola Agosti

Paola Agosti biography: born in Turin in 1947, independent photographer since 1969, in her career has accurately dealt with the female world and has dedicated various books to this subject, such as: “Riprendiamoci la vita” (1977) on the “hot” days of feminism, and “La donna e la macchina” (1983) about female work in the factories of northern Italy. She documented the end of peasant society in the poorest parts of Piedmont in “Immagine del mondo dei vinti” (1983) and the events of piedmontese emigration in Argentina both in Dal Piemonte al Rio della Plata and in “El paraiso: entrada provisoria” (1988). Moreover, she photographed, together with Giovanna Borgese, great protagonists of the European culture in the 20th century movements in “Mi pare un secolo” (1992). Her shots (some of which are part of permanent collections in different museums) have been displayed in Italy and abroad.

 
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