Mario Giacomelli: A Sunday kind of love

“The Theater of Snow” (1984-86), by Mario Giacomelli. Gelatin silver print. The J. Paul Getty Museum, gift of Daniel Greenberg and Susan Steinhauser

Local color in black and white

“Mario Giacomelli: Figure/Ground,” by Virginia Heckert (Getty Publications, 160 pp., $24.95 paper)

by Bondo Wyszpolski

Mario Giacomelli (1925-2000) lived his entire life in the Italian coastal town of Senigallia, in the Marche region along the Adriatic Sea. He opened a print shop in 1950, bought a camera in 1953 and then a second camera—a Kobell with a Voigtländer lens—a couple of years after that. The print shop kept him occupied six days a week, but Sundays were for taking pictures. Despite these apparent limitations (he was also self-taught) his photographs eventually reached an international audience.

“Awareness of Nature, No. 471,” by Mario Giacomelli; negative 1979; print 1981. Gelatin silver print. The J. Paul Getty Museum, gift of Daniel Greenberg and Susan Steinhauser

For Giacomelli, photographs bore silent witness to our lives, and he compared them to notebooks. Some of the best descriptions of him and his ideas come from his granddaughter, Katiuscia Biondi Giacomelli, who says that her grandfather’s sense of ecstasy “did not come from the realistic depiction of the object, but from being able to enter, through photography, ‘under the skin of the real’ (as he put it), where the dictates of stereotype are secondary to the free expression of the unconscious.” Or, as she continues, “For Giacomelli, to photograph was to create a space in which to realize an introspective ritual leading to abstraction and poetry.” (and actual poetry as well, which Giacomelli wrote)

The book’s author, Virginia Heckert, writes that “Giacomelli understood that graininess, movement, and high contrast could do more than simply provide a veneer of abstraction; they could also heighten the power of images.” She also points out that “His preference for grainy film and high-contrast paper resulted in bold, geometric compositions with deep blacks and glowing whites.”

When I read those lines I thought of the Italian Neorealist filmmakers of the postwar years, Vittorio De Sica, Roberto Rossellini, and even Federico Fellini’s early work. In part because of the landscape itself, parched and stark under a baking sun, as well as the hand-to-mouth existence of many of the people in Giacomelli’s shots, one may think of the Mexican photographers Graciela Iturbide and Manuel Álvarez Bravo. This certainly isn’t Pictorialism, let’s put it that way.

“The Theater of Snow” (1981-84), by Mario Giacomelli. Gelatin silver print. The J. Paul Getty Museum, gift of Daniel Greenberg and Susan Steinhauser

But whether any of the above artists had a profound influence on Giacomelli is hard to say. Stephane Brigidi, a photographer himself who became something of a liaison between Giacomelli and his North American audience, says that Giacomelli was influenced by Giorgio Morandi and Alberto Burri. One can certainly see Morandi’s influence in the early still lifes, which is almost exclusively what Morandi is known for, all of them with subdued tonality. Burri on the other hand was an abstract painter, in the Tachisme and Arte Povera styles. One may need to stretch it a bit to see a through-line to Giacomelli, as one could just as well find examples of his work that crosses paths with Henri Cartier-Bresson. The big difference between these two, though, is that (excepting a trip to Lourdes in France) Giacomelli photographed close to home whereas Cartier-Bresson went all over the world to make his pictures.

Serial photographer

The catalogue, and the forthcoming show, can be traced to the generosity of Daniel Greenberg and Susan Steinhauser, longtime benefactors to the Getty of their photographic collections. “Mario Giacomelli: Figure/Ground” is a survey of 110 works, with about 90 slated to go on view, and all of them donated by this philanthropic husband-and-wife couple. Mr. Greenberg, however, passed away on Feb. 23 of this year, just after the book went to press.

“Scanno, No. 52,” by Mario Giacomelli; negative 1957-59; print 1981. Gelatin silver print. The J. Paul Getty Museum, gift of Daniel Greenberg and Susan Steinhauser

Despite the ample amount of images, this isn’t a retrospective of Giacomelli’s life work but rather what the collectors admired and sought and also what was available for them to acquire. As Greenberg says in an interview conducted last August, “To be straightforward, it is not the collection of my dreams. There are more than forty stunning, great pictures that I was never able to find. For example, I never had a chance to get any of the pictures of the lovers, a group that would have shown a more emotional, intimate side of Giacomelli.” Still, as anyone with a basic familiarity of the photographer’s work will realize, it’s not at all a bad survey, and there are many fine pictures here.
For the most part, Giacomelli created numerous series, some of which he left open-ended for several years. A case in point is “Hospice/Death Will Come and It Will Have Your Eyes,” which was begun in 1954 and didn’t conclude until 1983. It focused on the residents of an old people’s home (or what we might euphemistically call an assisted living facility). The “Scanno” series (1957-59) was comprised of images taken in the town of that name, some 270 miles south of Senigallia. One of the pictures, the so-called “Scanno Boy,” has become a classic, perhaps iconic image. Greenberg called it “Cartier-Bresson’s ‘decisive moment,’ Italian style.” John Swarkowski included it in his 1973 book, “Looking at Photographs: 100 Pictures from the Collection of the Museum of Modern Art.”

“Young Priests, No. 71,” by Mario Giacomelli; negative 1961-63; print 1981. Gelatin silver print. The J. Paul Getty Museum, gift of Daniel Greenberg and Susan Steinhauser

Most of the Scanno pictures are in stark black and white, and that’s largely the case as well with “Young Priests/I Have No Hands That Caress My Face” (1960-63), a series of young priests in the seminary of Senigallia. Despite the visual austerity, it’s actually a joyous and life-affirming series, with lots of goofing around in the snow. “The Good Earth” (1964-66) documents a multigenerational farming family, and sometimes—as with the “Scanno Boy”—there’s one distant figure who seems to pop out, like those Renaissance paintings of yore when one person turns to look directly at the viewer.
Apart from its graininess that’s now almost a grittiness, “Metamorphoses of the Land” (1958-80) depicts landscapes that seem somewhat illogical. Plowed furrows veer sharply left, right, up and down. Manipulated in the darkroom? Maybe. Probably. But it’s that poetic merger of figure and abstract dancing together cheek-to-jowl that makes for a compelling and sometimes dizzying image. “Awareness of Nature” (1976-80) looks down on plowed fields from overhead, from a friend’s airplane, and there’s a visual washboard texture to most of the works.

“I Would Like to Tell This Memory” (2000), by Mario Giacomelli. Gelatin silver print. The J. Paul Getty Museum, gift of Daniel Greenberg and Susan Steinhauser

The late work, and “I Would Like to Tell This Memory” (2000) was made the year of Giacomelli’s death, tends towards the surreal with isolated objects, props, people, etc, almost randomly dispersed across the image. This disconnectedness is somewhat disturbing, as if the wheels are coming off the cart. “This series,” Heckert says, “is a meditation on melancholy, loss, and the passage of time.” In a way, it seems like a coda to that earlier body of work, “Hospice/Death Will Come and It Will Have Your Eyes.” But the image that may fit best for a final statement relates to a poem by Francesco Permunian called “The Theater of Snow.” It’s a picture of an empty rowboat pushed to the extreme foreground with the sea immediately behind it, and bisecting the photograph in the center is the horizon line. The dark sky fills the top half of the work. It’s not far off—just minus two figures with their backs towards us—from a Caspar David Friedrich painting. Time, the journey, journey’s end; it’s all right here.

Mario Giacomelli: Figure/Ground is scheduled to be on view from June 29 through Oct. 10 at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. More at getty.edu. ER

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Written by: Bondo Wyszpolski

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