Pub­lic works

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts - Bron­wyn Wat­son

Lo non ho mani che mi ac­carezzino il volto (There are no hands to ca­ress my face) (Pre­tini), 1961-63, printed 1985. Col­lec­tion Queens­land Art Gallery. Gift of Bradley Strz­elec through the Queens­land Art Gallery Foun­da­tion 2010. Do­nated through the Aus­tralian gov­ern­ment’s Cul­tural Gifts Pro­gram. On dis­play Gallery of Mod­ern Art, Bris­bane, un­til Novem­ber 5, as part of Light­ness & Grav­ity: Works from the Con­tem­po­rary Col­lec­tion.

IN 1960 Ital­ian pho­tog­ra­pher Mario Gi­a­comelli was com­mis­sioned by the Catholic Church to doc­u­ment the lives of the young priests who lived in the Vescov­ile sem­i­nary of Seni­gal­lia in cen­tral Italy. Gi­a­comelli spent sev­eral months liv­ing with the priests and from that residency he pro­duced a se­ries of pho­to­graphs that shat­tered the stereo­type of sem­i­nary life by re­veal­ing a sur­pris­ingly play­ful side to the lives of the priests. He cap­tured the young priests in a se­ries of dy­namic poses in the snow where they throw snow­balls or hold hands and play ring-a-ring-a-rosie around one of their col­leagues.

It was Gi­a­comelli’s work­ing prac­tice to fa­mil­iarise him­self with his sub­jects be­fore he pho­tographed them. He con­sid­ered his pho­tog­ra­phy not doc­u­men­tary re­al­ism but po­etry and so the per­sonal re­la­tion­ships he formed be­fore tak­ing a pho­to­graph were es­sen­tial to his work.

His pho­to­graphic se­ries at the sem­i­nary, ti­tled Lo non ho mani che mi ac­carezzino il volto (There are no hands to ca­ress my face) is con­sid­ered his most cel­e­brated work. Also known as Pre­tini or Lit­tle Priests, the pho­tos were pur­chased by New York’s Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art for its per­ma­nent col­lec­tion but there is a rare op­por­tu­nity to see the Queens­land Art Gallery’s own se­lec­tion.

The ti­tle of Gi­a­comelli’s se­ries is taken from a poem writ­ten in 1948 by Fa­ther David Maria Turoldo, the gallery’s cu­ra­to­rial man­ager, poem is about the as­cetic soli­tude of re­li­gious life and the lack of phys­i­cal con­tact, Gi­a­comelli has jux­ta­posed the con­tent of the poem with his pho­to­graphs, which dis­pel our ex­pec­ta­tions of a sober sem­i­nary life.

Gi­a­comelli, who died in 2000, has been ac­claimed as a key fig­ure of 20th-cen­tury pho­tog­ra­phy. He de­vel­oped a very per­sonal style of bold com­po­si­tions, in­volv­ing strong con­trast be­tween the whites and blacks and us­ing a very slow shut­ter speed so that the fig­ures are of­ten slightly blurred.

‘‘ Gi­a­comelli also hand-printed all of his pho­to­graphs to get the ex­act con­trast he wanted,’’ Weir says. ‘‘ For in­stance, the snow be­hind the priests is com­pletely whited out and this be­comes this al­most mag­i­cal space where they could be play­ing ring-a-ring-arosie in the air. He also of­ten used a high cam­era an­gle to give a quite ethe­real feel­ing to the works as well.

‘‘ This im­age is so lovely and play­ful and very striking. There is a sense, I think, that he crys­tallises both some­thing spir­i­tual, in the sense of the fig­ures be­ing al­most suspended in mid-air on this white ground, but it is a spir­i­tu­al­ity that has a play­ful­ness in it. There is a sense of the pos­si­bil­ity of joy and to­gether- ness be­ing a part of what is oth­er­wise re­garded as an aus­tere sem­i­nary life.’’

Gi­a­comelli, who was born in 1925 in Seni­gal­lia, came from a very poor fam­ily. He wanted to be a priest but his fam­ily dis­cour­aged him. In­stead, af­ter fin­ish­ing pri­mary school at 13 he went to work in a printer’s work­shop. At the shop, he found some pho­tog­ra­phy jour­nals, taught him­self pho­tog­ra­phy and even­tu­ally ac­quired his first cam­era which, ac­cord­ing to an in­ter­view with fel­low pho­tog­ra­pher Frank Hor­vat, he used all his life.

‘‘ I have had this cam­era, still the same one, since I started tak­ing pho­tos,’’ Gi­a­comelli said. ‘‘ It has lived with me, shared many mo­ments of my ex­is­tence, both good and bad.

Ge­latin sil­ver pho­to­graph on pa­per, 40cm x 32cm

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