An Italian photo cavalcade

PHOTOGRAPHY / It would be almost fifty years before Paolo di Paolo's daughter found the pictures his father had taken and confronted him with his hitherto unknown past as an (Italian) celebrity photographer.

The discovery of the Italian photojournalist Paolo di Paolo’s unknown images of, among others, Pier Paolo Pasolini are at the centre when film director Bruce Weber portrays the photographer di Paolo’s life.

The image cavalcade the film opens with quickly reminds me of one of the author, poet and filmmaker Pasolini’s self-portraits. In the foreground, you can see a young and well-dressed boy un fiore in bocca, a flower in the mouth, and the background, a farmer. While the boy with the flower in his mouth alludes to the innocent youthful love Pasolini experienced along the dikes in the Friulian countryside, the farmer refers to the lost peasant and dialect culture close to him and which came to characterize his artistic work. It is hardly coincidental that it is precisely this iconic portrait di Paolo’s photographs of Pasolini evokes memories, for the two share more than the same name. They were almost the same age, and like Pasolini, di Paolo moved from the countryside to the city, more specifically to Rome, when Italy, in a few years, went from being an agricultural society to becoming an industrialized country. There they both made a living from the fifties and into the sixties by working for the weekly newspaper Il mondo – sometimes together, others separately before the newspaper was closed down in 1966. Then Paolo, like Pasolini, withdrew to the countryside – Pasolini to his medieval tower in Viterbo, di Paolo to his hometown of Larino in southern Italy. After a few years as a portraitist of film and society people as well as of ordinary people on the street, the self-taught photographer and 3philosophy student put the Leica camera on the shelf for good, while Pasolini continued to write until he was killed in 1975.

Anna Magnani. Con Cane Nero Circa 1955
Anna Magnani. Con Cane Nero Circa 1955

Gallery The Museum of the Louvre

It would be almost fifty years before the daughter Silvia di Paolo found the pictures his father had taken and confronted him with his hitherto unknown past as a photographer. It was not just socially realistic pictures that the well-dressed di Paolo took in the years 1954-1966. He quickly gained a foothold with the Italian cultural elite, and it is above all these pictures, together with those he took of Anna Magnani and Pier Paolo Pasolini, which are central to Weber’s documentaries.

Like many, director Weber has a penchant for la dolce vita. Growing up in Pennsylvania in the fifties and sixties, he and his family went to the movies to watch European movies every other Sunday. Weber quickly put his love on all things Italian, not least actors like Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni. This youthful love was revived when in 2016, he stumbled upon Paolo di Paolo’s pictures of actors and film directors at the gallery Il museo del louvre, in the Jewish quarter of Rome.

The gallery, which is run by a bookstore and gallery owner, Giuseppe Casetti, is a place I have returned to several times. Until 2014, there was only one picture of Pasolini hanging there. Then, in 2016, it was surrounded by several of di Paolo’s portraits of Pasolini. In this one photograph, Pasolini stands at the foot of Monte Testaccio, the potsherd mountain, a stone’s throw away from the non-Catholic cemetery – where di Paolo has also taken pictures of him at the grave of the founder of the Italian Communist Party, Antonio Gramsci. In the foreground you can see a well-dressed and serious Pasolini. In the background, on top of the mountain, a cross. The photo is not only one of the best portraits taken by Pasolini but an important point of reference when Weber, in his interviews with the now 97-year-old Paolo di Paolo and his family, evokes memories of a lost time.

Anna Magnani, circeo Con Cane La Sole
Anna Magnani, circeo Con Cane La Sole

Fine-tuned images in black and white

Paolo di Paolo’s fine-tuned images in black and white drive this film forward. This is how it works better as a film archive than as a documentary. Di Paolo was one of the most influential photojournalists of his time, but we do not know why he chose to put the camera on the shelf for good. He admittedly gave up at the top when Il mondo was closed down, and the paparazzi culture took over Italian photojournalism – but unfortunately, we do not know more about this. The director instead interviews di Paolo and his closest – wife, children and grandchildren – but also the Italian producer Marina Gicogna and gallery owner Giuseppe Casetti about di Paolo’s paintings.

In parallel with Weber rediscovering adolescence and her love for Italy through di Paolo’s pictures, her daughter Silvia di Paolo took the initiative to exhibit her father’s pictures. First at the gallery Il museo del louvre in 2016, later at MAXI – the museum of modern art in Rome – in 2019. On the way there, the then 94-year-old Paolo di Paolo had the pleasure of trying his hand as a fashion photographer for Valentino again.

Without this film taking the huge leaps that could have made it anything more than a depiction of a photographer’s life in pictures, Paolo di Paolo’s many unique pictures are well worth a meeting with the film itself.

This article originally appears in Norwegian via NY Tid

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Camilla Chams
Camilla Chams
Chams has previously translated Pasolini's book of poems Asken's poet into Norwegian and is a research fellow at the University of Oslo.

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