Italy has always fascinated artists. Like so many other European photographers of the 1960s, French photographer Bruno Barbey got into his VW Beetle and headed for the Boat. He was in his early twenties, not yet the famous Magnum photographer. They dreamed of Italy in black and white, of Pasolini, of Visconti. Fellini was at the height of his art and his cinema La Dolce Vita had just won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1960.
His Leica M2 in hand, Barbey arrived in a country divided in half. Some even said there were two countries in one: in the North, a rebuilt, bourgeois Italy, where “people went to the movies, to concerts, to bars, and well-dressed young people politely stood in line. Even at the stadium, supporters celebrated a goal in a pack and a draw,” writes Giosuè Calaciura in his introduction to Italian lessons by Bruno Barbey, published by Delpire & Co.
“In the South, even though the war ended two years earlier, reconstruction was slow. It still lags behind. Children raced around the jeeps left behind by the Americans and played hopscotch by tracing the numbers with a stone in residential courtyards.”
Bruno Barbey knew how to capture the initial contrast between the two Italys. His black and white images reveal the gaze, the attitudes and the emotions of Italians. “The ability to portray the Italians in their reality of the condition is rare. Hypocrisy—a mania and a national vice—has always ruled the day: Italians prefer to show themselves to be different from what they are,” Giosuè Calaciura notes, assuring that Barbey’s photographs are “a document of truth.”
The photographer fully immersed himself in the country. In the North he was a Northerner; in the South, a Southerner.
Portraits of well-dressed men and women in Milan and Rome, posing for the photographer, sometimes leaning against beautiful cars, follow more rural images of children making faces in the streets of Sicily or Naples. Then there is Genoa, a city apart, with its red light district.
People’s gaze is often aloof in the South, mischievous in the North, but Bruno Barbey also knows how to capture the nuances, as in this photo taken on a madhouse in Sicily where we see a couple who are generous to the photographer smile. But maybe it’s the wonder of love, like Bruno Barbey’s love affair with Italy.
Bruno Barbey, Italian lessonsDelpire and co., €42, 184 pp.