Expelled from school at a young age by the Italian Fascist regime, Lisetta Carmi has concentrated her gaze on social issues for decades. A musical performer turned photographer, Carmi makes work that, though dismantling in theory, is sensitive in form: For the better part of the 60s and early 70s, Carmi chronicled the overlooked and the ostracized at a time of enormous social and political repression. She began first with the dockworkers of her hometown of Genoa, pretending to be one of their wives in order to document the scenes around them. Soon after, she moved to the Via del Campo to begin her most compelling series to date: arrestingly intimate portraits of city’s transvestites, a group considered outsiders by Italian society. Spanning seven years, the images—later published in her book “I travestiti”—view each subject in cinematic moments of suspended vulnerability.

Overlooked at the time, Carmi’s images are featured at the Fondazione Prada Milan in a new show curated by the artist Francesco Vezzoli. Titled “TV 70,” the exhibition explores Italian public television as a driving force for social and political change in three separate sections. The last, “Intrattenimento e Televisione” (“Entertainment and Television”), focuses on the female body as an object of both gaze and desire. There, Carmi’s images are shown beside the likes of other female artists. In advance of the opening, Vezzoli spoke with Roxana Marcoci, MoMA’s senior curator of photography, about Carmi’s inviting eye and clandestine influence.

Joshua Glass—What are some important themes that run throughout Lisetta Carmi’s body of work?

Roxana Marcoci—The idea of infiltration is critical. The images of “I travestiti” speak of a social milieu: the Jewish ghettos of Genoa, which is where the transvestites lived, worked, performed. The fact that she befriended them before taking their portraits is so interesting. There is a quote from Carmi that stayed with me. She said, “Thanks to them, I learned to accept myself. When I was a child I looked at my brothers, Eugenio and Marcelo, and I wanted to be a boy. I knew I didn’t want to get married, and I rejected the roles society assigned to women. The transvestites made me ponder over the right that we all have to determine our own identity. It took me a while, but I got to embrace the joy of being a woman.” It’s quite compelling that it was through these subjects that she began to understand herself.

Francesco Vezzoli—I haven’t heard this quote yet. In the exhibition, I call the space where Lisetta’s images are displayed “una femminilità ambita” (“the ambition to female identity”). On the other side of it is a room dedicated to Elisabetta Catalano, with the portraits of the most glorious Italian actresses. I call that “la femminilità acquisita.

The idea of infiltration is critical. The images of “I travestiti” speak of a social milieu: the Jewish ghettos of Genoa, which is where the transvestites lived, worked, performed.

Roxana—I’d say that Carmi was one of the first photographers to represent this new postwar type. The transvestite is a figure struggling to tweak authority to escape a conformist society. I think that this encounter freed her from the conformity of marriage, as she herself said, and of the dynamics of sexual machismo, which was so strong at the time. She was contesting the social hierarchies of patriarchy and cultural taboos, while working with Cesare Musatti, a well-known psychoanalyst. A few years ago, I did an exhibition of the work of Grete Stern, a German artist trained at the Bauhaus, who immigrated to Argentina. Interestingly, she did a whole series of photomontages for a feminist magazine called “Idilio,” and she too was working with a psychoanalyst to interpret women’s dreams. Like Stern, Carmi can be seen as a cross-figure in the history of photography and feminist psychoanalysis.

Francesco—“Feminist psychoanalysis,” I like that. Not just feminism.

Roxana—Yes, because her work gave birth to a new gender political discourse in Italy.

Francesco—I would add between brackets that Italy is a very Catholic country, which we must not forget.

Roxana—Very Catholic. And when you look at her pictures, there is a kind of mediation between the scenes represented and the symbology within the representation.

Francesco—It’s like the famous Nan Goldin of the Caravaggio.

Roxana—There is another picture, which is quite wonderful because of the almost maternal relationship between the transvestite and the doll she is holding, but also the theatricality of her pose.

Francesco—The story of the book that she published with these photos is amazing. It came out in 1972, and nobody bought it.

The story of the book that she published with these photos is amazing. It came out in 1972, and nobody bought it. 

Roxana—But also the book was—not precisely censored— but the booksellers didn’t want to promote it. It was kept under the rug?

Francesco—Yes. One day, this radical intellectual, Barbara Alberti, decided to buy all the books. All of them! She filled her house with all the copies; they became the table in front of the couch. Soon, you could only find the book for $3,000, $4,000 because of its rarity. She decided that—because this book had been so misunderstood— it should only be given out to intelligent people as a gift. Which I love. It’s part of the history. This woman, bourgeois, Jewish, super smart, belonging to a courageous family, courageous herself, makes a book. The book doesn’t sell. Another smart woman goes out, buys all the books, and decides to become—how can I say it—the surreal distributor. The abstract distributor of an intellectual object that is too radical to be bought.

Roxana—It speaks a lot about the kindred relationship between production and reception. In this case, it’s a society of women who make this happen.

Joshua—Isn’t it interesting, because the content is so humanizing, that it becomes such an elitist object. Do you think that plays a role in determining her relevance today?

Roxana—This exhibition will certainly bring her visibility.

Francesco—I’d like to think that above the intellectual power of the Fondazione Prada there can only be the power of communication. I am sure that this room with photographs will draw an enormous amount of attention. Not to forget that they are housed in the foundation of a woman who has redefined herself the idea of femininity through her own work. I am very happy that, after the woman who bought the books, I am able to show her work to as many people as possible.

Roxana—Given the theme of this exhibition, these pictures are also extremely cinematic. It seems that Carmi approached her subjects through a filmmaker’s lens, and in some cases, delivered an entire narrative into a single frame. Which brings me to the idea of what was happening at the time with Neorealist filmmaking, with, obviously, Luchino Visconti, Vittorio De Sica, and Roberto Rossellini. Despite her quietness, Carmi reworked some Neorealistic features of [Federico] Fellini, whose subjects were very flamboyant and who also faced censorship for some of his films such as “La Dolce Vita.” Like [Carmi for] her pictures, he was denounced as immoral because it was the first film to show gay subjects and transvestites. Or “Satyricon,” which was considered “a pre-Christian film in a post-Christian world.” [Pier Paolo] Pasolini’s political activism is important too in this context.

Francesco—Pasolini’s Catholic identity made him his own censor. If he were alive today, I would go to him right now and ask him about it, but I like this fil rouge that you’re drawing. In Fellini there is always a slightly cynical eye that I perceive less of in Lisetta. In her work, I see a more embracing gaze.

Roxana—I agree. Fellini constructs, while she empathizes with her subjects. There is a lot of intersubjectivity between Carmi and her subjects. And I think she made history, you know, because she is the first to document the LGBTQ community in Italy. That’s quite impressive, right?

Francesco—I mean, for a country like ours…[Laughing.]

Roxana—Carmi shot these pictures at the same time that Diane Arbus was making hers in New York, and the Swedish photographer Christer Strömholm was shooting his in the red-light district around Pigalle, in Paris. Carmi’s photographs are stylish, subterranean, and very humane. One senses an intimacy and vulnerability that also reminds me of Andy Warhol’s superstars at the Factory in New York in the late 1960s.

Francesco—Warhol, just like all those great figures, had his clan, the group of people that he assigned roles to not only in the movies but in real life, just like Fassbinder. Lisetta is a woman and has a different approach to the power scheme. She is more embracing over her girls. It’s less exploitative.

Joshua—Roxana shared this beautiful quote from Carmi about self-discovery through her work and, Francesco, you mentioned that you’ve been working on this whole exhibition for over a year now. I wanted to know if it has led to any sort of self-reflection or personal discoveries?

Roxana—You engage with the period of when you were born, right? It’s interesting that you start from your origins.

Francesco—Yes. Somebody at the press conference asked me, “Why 1970? You were born in 71.” And I said, “But my father and mother conceived me in 1970.” [Laughing.] What can I say? It was so much fun. For my own practice, I would have never guessed that curating an exhibition could be as much fun as making art.

Roxana—But you know why? It’s because in this you act like a director. Being a curator is just working with a larger crew, doing research, and organizing it in a way that is very artistic.

Francesco—Had I not done this, this conversation would not have happened. The only other dynamic would be the situation where I was explaining my work, which is the kind of thing that artists do all the time. Even when they are really pure, they are on some level trying to sell what they do. Here, I’m selling Lisetta Carmi.

Roxana—And it’s a dialogue that we both enjoyed.

Francesco—Grazie. Da vero. Da vero, da vero.

These images from Lisetta Carmi’s “I travestiti” can be seen in “TV 70: Francesco Vezzoli guarda la Rai” on exhibition at Fondazione Prada, Milan, May 9 through September 24, 2017, and was conceived by Francesco Vezzoli with the curatorial support of Cristiana Perrella.

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