Exhibition: Lisetta Carmi

Curated by: Giovanni Battista Martini
Opening: 4.4.2018, 7 pm
Giovanni Battista Martini will be present.
Exhibition: 5.4. – 5.5.2018

© Lisetta Carmi, cortesi galleria Martini & Ronchetti, Genova; exhibition at foto-forum, 2018

Lisetta Carmi: The Desire to See, to Understand

Lisetta was born in 1924 in Genoa and she has much in common with that city: its level-headedness, for example, as well as a dry humour, a free spirit, and the marginal position that she continues to adopt although long since an illustrious figure on the contemporary scene.
For the exhibition at foto-forum Bozen, five themes were selected that happen by chance to pertain to Carmi’s native city; and they happen also to reveal to us that this photographer left little to chance, when observing reality; rather, her work is the outcome of an exacting and conscious intent.

© Lisetta Carmi, cortesi galleria Martini & Ronchetti, Genova; exhibition at foto-forum, 2018

One striking example is her photo reportage of the port of Genoa from 1964, which ranks among the best of the post-war period on the theme of work. The images capture the deep and unspoken discord between the city and its port. And they bear witness to the strength of the social and cultural identity of the Ligurian capital in the 1960s and 70s, which was typical of Italian society as a whole in that era.
The intense rhythm of the port was documented in a series of photographs of the site itself, with its wharfs, warehouses and ships – all formally impeccable compositions. But the primary focus, for Carmi, was the difficult situation of the dockworkers compelled to labour under inhumane conditions, dealing with phosphate emissions with no protective clothing or masks, and carrying backbreaking loads.
Carmi tells with amusement how she gained entry to the docks by pretending to be a dockworker’s cousin – she couldn’t have documented the place otherwise. ‘I wanted to show the terrible conditions under which the dockers worked. They had to climb onto the refrigerated ships and shoulder frozen animal carcasses. They toiled between the freezing temperatures of the cold-storage hold and the heat, with nothing to protect them. They used to wrap their bare feet in rags. And they worked long shifts, night and day.’ 1 The result was an exhibition organised by her friend Enrica Basevi, which, after opening at the Società di Cultura in Genoa, was shown in several Italian cities and ultimately in the USSR.

The extensive photographic ‘novella’ that Lisetta Carmi undertook within the transvestite community of the historical city centre of Genoa began on New Year’s Eve 1965, when she was invited with her friend Mauro Gasperini to attend a party organised by members of said community.
From that evening on, after taking her first few images, she shared many moments in the transvestites’ daily lives – their ways of dressing and putting on make-up, of cooking up a meal, or of earning a living with sex work. Driven by an unerring belief in the right of every individual to define their own identity, she entered into the most hidden intimacies with respect, understanding and love, without voyeurism, and with the goal of lending dignity to every recorded moment.
Following several failed attempts to find a publisher, the photographic novella finally took concrete form, helped along in part by the scientific work of psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Elvio Facchinelli, and, vitally, by the generous financial support of Sergio Donnabella: the meanwhile famous book I Travestiti (Transvestites) was released by the publishing house Essedi in 1972.
In this complex project, Carmi turned the classic photographic gaze on contemporary life. She was ahead of her time, pioneering a clear, trenchant and glossy visual idiom that put the controversial issue of gender identity firmly in the public eye in an era when it was spoken of only in scientific studies and debates.
Lisetta’s gaze is unmistakable in these photographs: at first it appears objective, but in reality it challenges conventions and bourgeois norms. It is this gaze entirely free of moral judgement that allowed her to enter into her subjects’ cloistered, secret world; and thus during the long years of heartfelt friendship, she was able to record their painful private lives without a trace of cheap sensationalism.

© Lisetta Carmi, cortesi galleria Martini & Ronchetti, Genova; exhibition at foto-forum, 2018

It was also in 1965 that the City of Genoa commissioned Carmi to document its hospitals. In the Galliera Hospital she photographed the birth of a child in a way unlike anyone before her. With sheer disregard for the usual rhetoric of childbirth, she positioned her lens frontally in order to capture with rigorous precision the various stages of delivery. These candid images truly pack a punch but that’s exactly what makes them so thrilling and unforgettable.

Fascinated by the extraordinary character of the Staglieno Cemetery she began in 1966 to photograph the monumental sculptures there, which the bourgeois elite of nineteenth-century Genoa commissioned from talented sculptors of the day as an enduring symbol of its own worldly riches and values. Her photographs capture both the striking sensuality with which sculpted nudes are often imbued as well as those funereal monuments whose more ‘true-to-life’ portrayals of prosperous patrons and their families emphasise bourgeois conformism. Carmi herself described her project as ‘…[a reflection] nightmarish in its honesty but fascinating too, of a particular lifestyle, a life repressed by the family and religious principles’ 2; and she gave it the title Erotismo e autoritarismo a Staglieno (Eroticism and Authoritarianism in Staglieno). It was first published in the renowned Swiss magazine Du in 1974 then in Bolaffi Arte in 1975.

In February of 1965 she portrayed the poet Ezra Pound in the village of Sant’Ambrogio perched above Rapallo. Their encounter unfolds on the threshold of his house and, as Carmi recalls: ‘…we arrived there unaware that he was alone in the house as well as ill. After we knocked, there was a long silence before he himself opened the door’. The encounter lasted precisely four minutes, during which the poet said not a single word.
The rapid sequence of twenty images the photographer shot while leaving the house depicts Pound’s slow movements in almost cinematic quality: how he remained on the threshold for a moment, then turned to go back inside before vanishing into the dark.
Back in the darkroom, Carmi tells, ‘…everything I had ever seen in Pound was in those photographs. Of the twenty images, I selected the twelve that most convincingly conveyed the impression he left on me. (…) Loneliness, despair, aggression, and a gaze lost in infinity; everything that is hard to put into words, the dramatic grandeur of the poet.’ 3
Broad circulation of this sequence and a huge press echo followed almost instantly: in 1966 Carmi received the prestigious Niepce Award . In February the following year the magazine Du used four of her photographs in an extensive feature on the poet. A few months after that, the artist and poet Magdalo Mussio curated the thirty-third issue of the avant-garde magazine Marcatre, which was founded by Eugenio Battisti, and devoted nineteen pages to her work.

Despite her desire to live now in retreat from the wider world, much has been written recently about Lisetta Carmi, about the sudden twists and turns in her fate, her meanwhile renowned five lives, and the steadfastness that kept them all on the same firm foundations. 4
‘I photograph in order to see, to understand’: these are words Lisetta has said repeatedly. And undoubtedly, the extraordinary empathy that guided her feet and gaze across the globe is her most characteristic trait. With her sincere and unconventional view of life, in a world dominated by injustice and oppression, she has lent a voice to those who had none.

Giovanni Battista Martini


1 Giovanna Calvenzi, Le cinque vite di Lisetta Carmi, Milano, Bruno  Mondadori Editore, 2013

2 Giovanna Chiti, Lisetta Carmi, Roma, Peliti Associati, 2013

3 Lisetta Carmi, Oltre i limiti del tempo e della visione, in L’ombra di un poeta. Incontro con Ezra Pound, ObarraO edizioni, Milano, 2005

4 Giovanna Calvenzi, Le cinque vite di Lisetta Carmi, Milano, Bruno Mondadori Editore, 2013