“Venezia ’79 La Fotografia”

“Photography’s first major convocation.” “The largest cultural photographic gathering in the history of the medium.” “Venezia ’79 La Fotografia” : 4,000 photographs by 500 photographers, 26 exhibitions, 45 master workshops, 14 lectures and two symposia. By the fifth day, exhausted, you asked yourself why you were not more thankful. The next day there was still Sam Wagstaff’s collection and the Stieglitz show to see. But seeing became strabismal in the face of 4,000 photographs, especially when so many were worth looking at. You shuddered at the thought that half the shows had been eliminated, and asked yourself just who did this? Why did they do it? Would anything remain after it was dismantled? And why the polemics?

The answers to these questions are perhaps as provocative as the 26 shows themselves, for they reveal the fundamental differences in photographic technique, criticism and philosophy that exist between the U.S. and Italy, differences that arise from diverse historical, political and economic standpoints. The debate is heated, at times unruly. And it concerns the other visual arts as well.

The gargantuan affair was conceived several years ago by Cornell Capa, director of New York’s International Center of Photography. Seeking to extend the center’s activities, he traveled to Venice and discussed the idea with the UNESCO office. (Why Venice? Because it is the most photographed city in the world—one equipped with the exhibition space and tourist superstructure needed to host such a mega-mostra.) UNESCO, which had previously organized “Danze ’75,” liked the idea. The Municipality of Venice was then invited to take care of the practical aspects, like finding the $800,000 to pay the bills.

This was the major diplomatic hurdle to overcome. The city of Venice is Communist-run and therefore hypersensitive to any kind of American initiative, and the leftist intellectuals who dominate the Italian art scene have to be dealt with. The “package deal,” as some critics later termed it, included shows by Weston, Stieglitz, Lewis Hine, Bresson, Arbus, Robert Frank, Weegee, Eugene Smith and Robert Capa. As “artistic directors” I.C.P. had proposed a strongly American program, and though they had given the Commune of Venice the task of preparing the Italian exhibitions, the latter still felt used as a “rooming agency.” The “technical difficulties” Capa referred to in organizing such a colossal show—disputes over insurance, shipping, humidifiers, etc.—were described by Franco Miracco, director of exhibitions for the city, as “trench warfare.” But underneath these logistical skirmishes was an ideological conflict that was never confronted.

Since the fall of Fascism, Italian politics has been stumbling leftward, shifting esthetic attitudes with it. Croce’s idealism, his esthetics of pure intuition and lyricism untainted by historical concepts, gave way to Marxist materialism and an esthetics of socio-historical derivation. The writings of neo-Marxists such as Benjamin, Lukács and Marcuse further defined the new philosophy that felt its explosive impact in the 1968 disorders. Attempting to replace the “vertical” hierarchy with a “horizontal” collectivity, Italian intellectuals attacked all forms of authority from “the establishment” to the family structure. The word “Masters,” then, in the thematic title of the Venice show (“Masters and Trends in 20th Century Photography”) was anathema to the “democratizing” Left. It wants no one-man shows, but didactic shows, no Art with a capital A, but “means of communication,” no beautiful images to hang on gallery walls, but images with a social message to print in newspapers.

The U.S., on the other hand, is a deeply romantic nation that has not yet lost its belief in myths, its veneration of heroes, its faith in individualism. The free enterprise system has made Art a big business, of which photography has become an unquestioned part. In America critics do not hesitate to include beauty and greatness in their vocabulary.

Although the polemicists admitted to the deplorable state of photographic education in Italy, they seemed to have missed the most important aspect of “Venezia ’79”: its value as an historical survey. To reject monographic shows for thematic or didactic inquiries into the medium is futile if people are unaware of its initiators and groundbreakers. “Venezia ’79”: was not intended for the elite group of photographic conoscenti, but, ironically, for “the masses.” From Atget to Arbus, they learned the technical and stylistic potentials of the camera developed over a century, each lesson taught in a personal and intimate way.

The collective and thematic exhibitions of “Venezia ’79” had the least to say and should have been shut down completely, making the show less of an endurance test. “Hecho en Latino America,” first exhibited last year in Mexico City, consisted of 300 images served up by more than a hundred photographers, each outdoing the next in kitsch, cliché and social comment. The Japanese, renowned for their technical and expressive virtuosity, were never made to look so mediocre as in the show curated by Shoji Yamagishi, director of the Tokyo Museum of Art.

It was inevitable, looking at “Images des Hommes,” prepared by the Belgian group “IMAGES,” that one should recall “The Family of Man.” Among the 22 European photographers shown were Kertesz, Brassaï, Sudek and Sander, who would otherwise have been unforgivably absent from Venice, but the exhibition lacked the natural coherence and intense vision that Steichen provided in a much larger show. “Fleeting Gestures,” assembled by William Ewing, is a lengthy peregrination across a century of dance, with works by some 100 photographers as diverse and distant as Eadweard Muybridge and Garry Winogrand. When first exhibited at I.C.P. in New York it was a pleasant passeggiata, but seen in the image-choked labyrinth of the Biennale’s pavilion, it became a tedious marcia longa.

The most impressive and talked-about show was Lewis Hine’s, whose work was previously unknown in Italy. The extensive exhibition, first arranged by Naomi and Walter Rosenblum for the Brooklyn Museum in 1977, followed Hine’s penetrating documentation of child labor, Ellis Island immigrants, “Men at Work” and the construction of the Empire State Building. To the many Italian disciples of the late Giuseppe Cavalli, a photographer and critic who insisted on separating documentary from artistic work, Hine came as a revelation. In Hine, message and technique blend into an expression of profound humanism unsurpassed in the history of photography. Perhaps only Eugene Smith could be compared. Smith’s show and Robert Capa’s were placed alone in the Palazzo Fortuny. Smith and Capa were two different photographers, but their preoccupations with loss and suffering, and the pain which both encountered in life, made their proximity meaningful.

The opportunity for comparing all of these masters only a few steps apart, each with a substantial number of original prints, was one of the most stimulating aspects of “Venezia ’79.” Bresson’s decisive moments, his sweeping space and choreographic qualities, beside Robert Frank’s quiet presence, his meditations, his pauses between moments. Wonderful too, the juxtaposition of Diane Arbus and her declared favorite Weegee: their mutual fascination in the grotesque and the estranged, Arbus as empathetic participant, Weegee as compulsive voyeur.

The abandoned salt warehouses, where Venice’s pigeons reside, served as the precarious site of three contemporary shows, U.S., Italian and European. The 12 American photographers (Uelsmann, Metzker, Eggleston, Friedlander, Dotter, Cosindas, Helen Levitt, Michael O’Brien, Robert Heinecken, Manual, Robert Adams and Bruce Davidson) were represented primarily with the older work that made them famous. Ray Metzker showed his new series “Pictus Interruptus,” large blurry white shapes that block out the rest of the focused image. They are thought provoking but visually less exciting than the earlier work from which they grew.

Of the twelve Europeans, only three are worth mentioning: The Czech Joseph Koudelka, who works in the manner of Bresson but in a more relaxed provincial style; Joan Fontcuberta, a Spaniard who works in a Surrealist vein; and the Dutch Michel Krzyzanowski, whose arresting series explore the figure of the photographer himself in an anonymous and ephemeral passage through life and death to memory.

The Italian contemporary show was unreasonably large, considering that half of it was reportage or paparazzi work of the ’40s and ’50s. Italian photography is in search of an identity, which perhaps explains the inconsistent and fragmentary quality of the exhibition. The political and ideological turmoil of the last 50 years has left photographers uncertain of what direction to take. If anything it has left them with strong political concerns that express themselves in highly enlarged documentary images that shun the painstaking printing techniques used in the States. The Italian photographer works more informally than his American counterpart, tapping his intellect more than his heart.

Among the exceptions are Mimmo Jodice and Gianni Berengo Gardin, who both presented at “Venezia ’79” a set of powerful images of psychiatric patients. Roberto Salbitani is another noteworthy photographer who is exploring the incongruous potentials of semiology. But the most original photographer/painter working in Italy today is Paolo Gioli, who builds his own pinhole cameras and uses Polaroid film backs to which he applies silk, pencil and paint. The collage effect makes the image work on numerous levels in a mixture of colors and symbols that shows an affinity with the work of Paul Klee. His ghostly portraits are bordered with smaller images and marked over with lines and numbered designations that seem inspired by free associations drawn from the portrait. One might call them psychological pictographs.

As an epilogue to “Venezia ’79” many of the shows will travel to Turin and then in December to Paris. Venice, too, will continue to use the Palazzo Fortuny, where all the workshops were held, as a permanent center for photographic studies. Electa Editrice has become the first Italian publisher to edit a series of photographic monographs, beginning with the major shows that came to Venice. So despite the elephantine proportions, and a rather shaky thematic framework, “Venezia ’79” has had a powerful impact on Italy’s awareness of the art of photography. This was I.C.P.’s primary goal. In describing the show’s founding principles, Cornell Capa quoted Lewis Hine’s photographic credo:

There were two things I wanted to do.
I wanted to show the things that had to be corrected.
I wanted to show the things that had to be appreciated.

With two such noble ends, one is reluctant to call “Venezia ’79” anything but a success.

George Tatge