Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 5, 2015
Sarah Patricia Hill and Giuliana Minghelli, eds. Stillness in Motion: Italy, Photography, and the Meanings of Modernity Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2014. 400 pp.; 8 color ills.; 133 b/w ills. Cloth $80.00 ( 9781442649330)

Sarah Patricia Hill and Giuliana Minghelli’s edited volume, Stillness in Motion: Italy, Photography, and the Meanings of Modernity, is the latest contribution to a growing body of English-language scholarship on photography in Italy. As Hill and Minghelli state in their introduction to the volume, their goal is to reveal something of “the current global culture of the image” (4) within the triangulation of Italian identity, photography, and modernity. Although not intended as a national history, the book nonetheless makes a claim for the particularity of the Italian case, arguing that Italy’s relationship to both photography and modernity has historically been tense and ambivalent. Although it provides a useful introduction to many of the major protagonists of photography in Italy, some of the contributing authors are more successful than others in connecting the Italian situation to a global history of photography in the modern period.

Following an introductory chapter, the book’s ten case studies are organized in loosely chronological order and placed within four thematic groupings followed by a final section of primary documents. Each chapter is well illustrated in black and white, supplemented by a separate section of eight color plates. These images range from anonymous cartes de visite and war albums to some of the most iconic photographs associated with photography in Italy. These include Luigi Ghirri’s Rimini (1985), in which tourists wander around a Lilliputian theme-park landscape comprised of miniature monuments; Tazio Secchiaroli’s early paparazzi photograph of a provoked Anthony Steel and sultry Anita Ekberg emerging from a car in 1950s Rome; and chilling hostage Polaroids taken by Italy’s Red Brigade of the kidnapped former prime minister Aldo Moro. This visual material both enhances the book’s case studies and contributes to a larger narrative tracing photography’s presence in Italy.

Individual sections highlight both the central themes of the book and its theoretical perspective, which is informed by social history and a keen interest in the materiality of photographs. These thematic sections include: National Beginnings and Modernist Fears; Modern Memory Objects: Social Histories of the Photograph; Photography and the Acceleration of Modernity: Reality-Commodity-Violence; and Critiques of Modernity: Stillness, Motion, and the Ethics of Seeing. The titular conceit, “stillness in motion,” which is echoed in many of the chapters, plays on photography’s distinct temporal slippage: a photograph both stops time and renders a past moment perpetually present. Metaphorically, stillness is also used here as shorthand for Italy’s perceived timelessness and even backwardness, as well as for the scholarly endeavor proposed by the editors: “an ethical slowing down of our perception and engagement with the world and its visual afterlife” (6). This ethical approach concerns itself foremost with how individual subjectivities intersect with Italian identity through and at the level of the singular photographic image.

Roberta Valtorta’s chapter (written with Hill and Minghelli) serves as an extended background, beginning with the start of the nation in 1861, or the year “a concept of ‘national’ photography was born” (30). Pointing to the simultaneous development of photography as a medium and of the Italian nation-state, the authors argue that modernity came late to Italy, which explains the slow acceptance of photography as an artistic medium in the fledgling country. This introduction establishes a critical weakness at the foundation of the project, namely that although photography’s relationship to modernity is the central theme, “modernity” remains ill-defined in the book. Speaking to precisely this problem, the editors write of the photographer Franco Vaccari: “His career embodies a peculiarly Italian path to late modernity that should be understood not in terms of Italian ‘belatedness’ but of cultural difference that challenges the dominant model of postmodern conceptualism and affirms a plural modernity that disrupts any easy centre-periphery dichotomy” (322). Although seemingly aware of the potential for the Italian case to challenge some of the field’s ingrained assumptions, the editors and authors ultimately rearticulate a familiar narrative.

The introductory chapters thus foreground the book’s case studies against the backdrop of a weak Italian nationalism and resultant unstable identity; they also provide a useful overview of Italy’s key intellectual debates surrounding photography. In particular, in their introduction Hill and Minghelli argue that the codified image of Italy as a place ready-made for the camera’s eye prefigures the postmodern condition: that of a world composed of images, itself a simulacrum. The final texts—an essay by Marina Spunta that explores Ghirri’s engagement with these ideas in writing and photographs, and primary documents by the semiotician Umberto Eco and Vaccari—provide prescient meditations on photography’s role within mass media, myth-making, and collective memory that enhance the book’s theoretical underpinnings.

While the history of photography in Italy has been a neglected topic, the editors of Stillness in Motion do not choose to fill this gap by conducting a comprehensive survey. Their interrogation of the historical factors that have accounted for this neglect finds its most satisfying answer in chapters devoted to debates on photography within Italy’s intellectual communities. For example, Maria Grazia Lolla focuses on the ways in which photography reflected ambiguous attitudes toward peasants among nineteenth-century social scientists and writers associated with the literary movement verismo. In doing so, she highlights the significance of Italy’s scientific and publishing communities to promoting photography from an early date. Barbara Grespi traces a transnational network of artists, writers, and photographers in the postwar period, thereby linking the U.S. documentary tradition to Italian photography and Neo-Realist cinema. Her approach, which is rigorously attentive to its historical sources, reveals a web of complex and multidirectional influences that resulted in a distinctly Italian cinematic genre. Both chapters focus on networks over individual authors, revealing photography’s importance to Italy’s major intellectual movements.

The chapters this reader found most engaging situate their specific case studies within a wider context, be it of transnationalism, the avant-garde, or global photographic practices. Among them, Minghelli’s essay on the Futurist mistrust of photography will be of particular interest to many historians of photography. Unlike contemporaneous avant-garde movements that embraced camera technology, the leading practitioners of Futurism eschewed it. Addressing this conundrum, Minghelli argues that photography’s unique temporality challenged the Futurist project of forward acceleration toward a radically altered future. The Bragaglia brothers’ experiments embody this dilemma. Their posed studio photographs froze time, and thus ultimately re-presented a nineteenth-century vision of the world that was at odds with the Futurist enterprise. Here, the exceptionalism of the Italian case produces a greater understanding of the medium and its relationship to modernity.

The authors’ ethical approach rests upon the materiality of the photographs under discussion. This methodology aligns with a larger trend in the history of photography toward object-oriented studies that identify the emotional and physical traces embedded in the photograph during its creation and circulation. Robert Lumley’s chapter, for example, focuses on how the filmmakers Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci Lucchi’s intimate interactions with reused film stock become the basis for their own ethical practice. The form, meaning, and empathic impact of their films rely on viewers experiencing the film’s facture, thus bringing a photographic quality to the fore within the cinematic.

The cross-disciplinary backgrounds of the book’s various authors offer a multi-dimensional perspective on photography’s role in Italian culture. The majority of the book’s contributors—who reside in Italy, the United States, the United Kingdom, and New Zealand—come from the fields of literary, cultural, and Italian studies rather than art history. Their expertise is reflected in the range of media covered, from illustrated periodicals, poems, and novels, to television and film. This approach is exemplary of the recent cultural turn in Italian studies, which has brought renewed interest in visual culture to the forefront of historical research. Hill’s own chapter, for example, deftly examines the veritable explosion of photography’s presence across genres in the postwar period, from paparazzi photographs and personal snapshots to films by Antonioni and Fellini and the writing of Italo Calvino and Pier Paolo Pasolini. For Hill, photography was a means through which Italians both participated in and negotiated the chaotic commodification of culture during Italy’s economic miracle.

At times, however, a lack of grounding in art-historical methodology and especially photography’s historiography limits the wider value of some of the book’s case studies. For example, Luca Cottini’s essay on World War I soldiers’ portraits and war albums does not engage with the history of photography’s abundance of excellent scholarship on albums and snapshots. As a result, Cottini fails to distinguish the significance of local Italian practices within larger considerations of individual and national commemoration.

Georgia Alù’s chapter, on the other hand, repeats the well-established concept of the photography studio as a place of self-fashioning. For Alù, the photography studio offered Italian immigrants a space in which to construct a distinct immigrant identity, and ultimately to reconnect with family back home through the resulting portraits. Her analysis of individual images does not, unfortunately, bear this out, since she makes little distinction between the cartes de visite she presents and average examples of the period. In fact, one might question what is at stake for the author in classifying these immigrant photographs as Italian. Perhaps in this case the photography studio might better be read as a borderless zone, with the lack of specificity in the photographs functioning as an analogue to the immigrant experience.

Many of the book’s authors make a claim for Italian exceptionalism, but fall short of demonstrating what it might reveal about photography as a medium of global modernity. For example, there is no chapter devoted to photography during the Fascist period, since, the editors explain, it has been extensively covered elsewhere. While this may be true, it is hard to imagine a period more immediately relevant to the book’s purported goal than the Fascist era. What might be learned about photography as both avant-garde art form and medium of mass communication when considering how both of those aspects flourished in the context of a totalitarian Italian state?

Hill and Minghelli ask the reader to slow down, to look closely, and to reconsider the photographic image of Italy in light of that nation’s idiosyncratic modernization. Despite their claims to pursue a different kind of history, the outcome is a national history of photography, one of many produced within the last fifteen years. Perhaps the most important critical reappraisal to arise from that scholarship has been the impetus toward examining local practices within the context of transnational networks and global genres. While the book’s introductory chapter and several individual case studies would be useful to a wider audience looking to learn more about the history of photography in Italy, the majority of the book will be relevant only to specialists. In trying to account for a neglected history, Stillness in Motion inadvertently isolates Italian photography from the larger field.

Beth Saunders
Curator and Head of Special Collections, University of Maryland Baltimore County