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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Charlotte Jansen

Lisetta Carmi: Identities review – radical photography reveals Italy’s outsiders

Carefully observed, quietly sensational … Gilda, Genoa, 1965-67. By Lisetta Carmi.
Carefully observed, quietly sensational … Gilda, Genoa, 1965-67. By Lisetta Carmi. Photograph: © Martini & Ronchetti Courtesy Archivio Lisetta Carmi

She was an accomplished concert pianist who later became a devoted yogi, but Lisetta Carmi is best known for the 18 years she spent taking photographs. Her carefully observed, quietly sensational pictures had a subtle power to them: they reckoned with Italy’s traditional, patriarchal society.

Carmi’s piercing humanism is the focus of this concise, lucid exhibition at the Estorick Collection. Neatly organised into two rooms are images from Carmi’s two most important bodies of work. The first draws together a selection of black and white images from three series, taken between 1962 and 1976, of workers at the Italsider steel mill in Genoa, the cork factory at Calangianus, Sardinia, and of stevedores working on the shipyards at Genoa’s port – an area of the city usually closed off to women (Carmi pretended to be a relative of a docker to gain entry).

I Travestiti, Genoa, 1965.
Haptic intimacy … from I Travestiti, Genoa, 1965. Photograph: © Martini & Ronchetti Courtesy Archivio Lisetta Carmi

The resulting images situate Carmi within the left-leaning social documentary genre of the time, but also as one of very few women to photograph such scenes. Her intersectional concerns with labour, class and gender punctuate the pictures – at Calangianus, Carmi captured the first women to be employed in the factory. These images and the Italsider pictures convey a more distant, documentarian vision of the life of labourers, unfolding a silent, distant drama.

Carmi was born in 1924 in Genoa, the coastal capital of Liguria and a constant subject in her work. In 1938 the family fled Italy so that Carmi could continue her education – prohibited for Jewish people under Mussolini’s racial laws. When the family returned from exile in 1943, Carmi toured Italy and abroad as a pianist. But in 1960, after taking part in anti-fascist protests in Genoa, Carmi felt compelled to turn her hands to a new, more directly political pursuit – photography.

Carmi’s first job as a photographer was at Genoa’s theatres, and these pictures play with the magnificent scale of industry and the geometry of its machinery, with the smoke and sparks serving to micrify the human figures. They are not astonishing as works of art – Carmi only picked up the camera a few years before taking them – but they lay the groundwork for understanding Carmi’s determination to show the unseen, and to humanise the marginalised.

Humanising the marginalised … Genoa, Port, 1964.
Humanising the marginalised … Genoa, Port, 1964. Photograph: © Martini & Ronchetti Courtesy Archivio Lisetta Carmi

Here there are also the beginnings of introspection; as a Jewish woman in a Catholic, male-dominated society, Carmi’s own struggles with her identity seem to come to the fore at times. In one image, the camera looks down voyeuristically at a solitary male figure, who stands in a pit of toxic phosphate, shirtless, holding a spade in a meditative pose. He is covered in the powder, which hangs in a filmy layer between Carmi and her subject. While it exposes the dangers of the worker’s conditions, it is not without desire – sexual, perhaps, or seeking a sense of freedom, embodied in men.

From the brutality of the human battle with machines, the second room of the exhibition looks inside, into the homes and lives of another closed-off community in Genoa, in Carmi’s most famous series I Trasvestiti. Black and white and colour images – only discovered and printed in 2017 – are presented as an evolution of the social and political interests expressed in Carmi’s industrial images.

I Trasvestiti began in 1965 after Carmi went to a new year party hosted by a member of the LGBTQ community. Carmi became a friend and confidant to many, including some who were sex workers (then referred to as “trasvestiti”), and continued to photograph them for the next six years. She visited their homes in the historic centre of Genoa, a secluded network of narrow alleyways and tall buildings and once its Jewish ghetto, where many of the pictures were taken. This was a subversion of their visible, public life on the streets, where they were sought out as the subjects of secret desires.

Photographing her subjects at home lends the pictures a haptic intimacy and, unlike the dour conditions of the labourer, the interiors would have been familiar to any middle-class Italian of the time – reproductions of Bronzino paintings and religious iconography, elaborate Venetian-style furnishings and ornate wallpaper.

A sense of joy and complicity … I Travestiti, Genoa, 1965-70.
A sense of joy and complicity … I Travestiti, Genoa, 1965-70. Photograph: © Martini & Ronchetti Courtesy Archivio Lisetta Carmi

Some of the pictures are defiantly dignified. Resembling fashion editorials, they celebrate a quintessential Italian style – on bodies that would not have been celebrated in any mass media. There is a sense of plangent joy and complicity in the pictures – remarkable given that cross-dressing and gender reassignment were then illegal in Italy.

Lisetta Carmi: Identities is the first institutional exploration in the UK of the late Italian artist’s work – Carmi had been working on the exhibition until two weeks before her death last year, at the age of 98. Interest in her work has been slow burning. Indeed, in 1978, Carmi gave up photography completely to devote herself to yoga, setting up an ashram in a traditional trullo in Cisternino, Puglia, following the teachings of Haidakhan Babaji.

It’s not difficult to see why interest in her work has grown, however. Although the styles have dated, Carmi’s images feel bold and ahead of their time – including depictions of nude transexual bodies that are still seldom seen in major institutions.

Outside the confines of patriarchy, Carmi saw the possibility of alternative identities, of an alternative society. Photography was a conduit for Carmi, but the pictures provided a step towards understanding and embracing the world and her place in it. As she said of her involvement with the LGBTQ+ community: “It helped me accept myself for who I really am – a person who lives without a role.”

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