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