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ISTITUTO PIEMONTESE PER LA STORIA DELLA RESISTENZA
E DELLA SCOIETA' CONTEMPORANEA

Chiaroscuri
faces of Liberation
Italy 1943-1948

 

The definitions of ‘chiaroscuri’ as ‘relief in light and dark of the same colour’ or ‘Chiaroscuri della vita’ the alternation of pleasures and pains, describe perfectly the different shades of human experience resulting from the struggle for Italy’s liberation from its totalitarian regime.

Whilst standing firmly on the ground that liberation from Fascism and Nazism was essential, the photo exhibition doesn’t shirk from presenting images that tell a critical and questioning story - as chiaroscuri – thereby raising long term issues. What happened in Italy in the 1940’s has a number of similarities to current war, invasions, and ‘liberation’ processes and therefore sheds light on present day conflicts. It is within the chiaroscuri, the differing grades of light and dark of the liberation process, that we have a chance to perceive something of the complexities of the whole picture.

The Chiaroscuri Exhibition is not a systematic historical account of the liberation in Italy, nor is it a political account of the change from the totalitarian regime to a free democracy. We have called it ‘Chiaroscuri: Faces of Liberation’ because it is essentially about the human face, of individuals, families, groups and communities – and the different tones and shades of meaning that the liberation process generated in personal terms on each of them whether Italians (fascist and non-Fascist), liberators from different countries of the world or German soldiers. The chiaroscuri images capture moments in what became everyday events in the context of the long process of liberation.

Editorial limitations

Only a limited selection of the 3000 or more photos we’ve collected can be shown. This doesn’t lessen the value, integrity and significance of the individual images in this collection, neither does it lessen the contribution and sacrifices made in the cause of liberation that are not represented here. It is inevitable, however that there will be a number of people who will be sad , disappointed or even angry that their particular experience and that of their friends, family, comrades, village, town, or region are not specifically represented within the exhibition. You are not forgotten. We are mindful that we can only touch in the briefest of ways on the enormity of what the liberation process brought in its darkest nights as well as in its brightest days.

The task of remembering and conveying the realities as they were and as they became rather than coloured by revisionist adaptations 60 years later, is a continuing battle that becomes increasingly difficult as the years go by. The search for ‘truth’ and ‘the whole truth’, never ends but these images taken during the period of the Liberation process may help us to find some further understanding of the innumerable accounts and sometimes confusions that exist, and discern some of the personal effects, costs and meanings of bringing and establishing ‘liberation’ in Italy between 1943-1948

How to view the photos

Come with us on a journey – whilst you may experience some familiar landmarks, our route follows paths that will bring surprises and fresh insights. The photos taken during the long liberation process tell individual stories along the way and give critical insight into the impact of the liberation process on the lives of ordinary people who were caught up within it, by choice or accident - adults and children, civilians and individual combatants of all colours, Allies, Partisans, Fascists and Nazis. Our journey takes you along paths of juxtaposed images drawing attention to particular dilemmas, dichotomies and problematics, spotlighting differing concurrent ‘realities’.

Today photography, television and the world-wide web increasingly bombard us with dramatic pictures of world conflict, war and disasters. One consequence is our difficulty in seeing the true nature of these events afresh, deadening conscience through over-familiarity with similar subject matter.
To gain the greatest insight into the stories these Chiaroscuri images tell, we ask you to look with a critical eye beyond the obvious, first impressions of the images and to question both the moment it was taken and the context of that moment for all involved. Also - who took the photo, why and what is the likely relationship between the subject and the cameraman? Answers may be not be apparent or straight forward but attempts to consider these questions will bring us nearer to an understanding of events which have changed all our lives.

Photos Photographers and Cameras

It’s often forgotten that cameramen put their lives on the line in order to get pictures of the action. Images that are here today and inform us so vividly about what it was like to be there at the time, are due to their skill and determination. The Military Cameramen often went on ahead of the troops to be in position when the troops arrived. They were extremely vulnerable because, as one British cameraman said “the only thing I had to shoot with was my camera”. For example, due to the fixed focal length of the standard issue Super Ikonta 532/16 camera lens with which the British AFPU (Army Film and Photographic Unit) was equipped, the cameramen had to go unarmed into the very centre of the action in order to get a picture. Often the only light available would be the gun flashes of the artillery.. Some photographers spoke of the camera being a psychological protective barrier between themselves and the reality of the moment.
The German military official camera was the Leitz Leica 3C with interchangeable Elmar lenses. The quality and flexibility of use that the Leica’s varied focal length lenses provided is more than evident. The American troops had a range of cameras with different lenses and formats. The Super Ikonta used by the British was much derided by professional photographers yet did a remarkable job under the worst of conditions. It had no waterproofing (other than a soldier’s makeshift sticky tape) yet produced striking pictures in the rain and sea of mud in which the troops were bogged down for mile upon mile behind the Gothic Line and as well as being frozen in the snows as they fought their way through the mountains.

The second world war established the role of the war photographer in a new way with photojournalists being accepted on the front line by the military. Names now famous such as Robert Capa, Werner Bischof, David Seymour, Tino Petrelli and Tullio Farabola presented us with moving glimpses of the liberation process that remain classic to this day. Their photojournalism clarified, questioned and accused, it reported and documented the ‘human face’ of the conflict in a different way from the images taken by the military. The camera lens now established itself as a key witness in the affairs of liberation.

Understanding the inside picture : questions of value, truth and propaganda

The primary task of military or partisan photography was to capture images, often stereotypical, that would support the work of the troops or resistance and which were used for propaganda purposes either at the time or post war, sometimes with reconstructions. Images were taken showing the strength and victory of the combatants, their courage, resilience, and good character, to help create both individual heroes and heroic countries, of whichever side.

Given that newspapers took their own view points regarding the events of 1943-48, individual concerns inevitably influenced the choice of images to which the photojournalists were instinctively drawn – the plight of refugees, the poverty of orphaned children, the devastation of villages etc.

Each photographer, whatever their ideological alignment, brought a vital contribution to our understanding of these years. The inestimable value of these photographs is that they are contemporaneous glimpses - time-capsules which we can now see, study and question in depth.

In our search for photographic verité, as well as ‘liberation verité’, we have selected images from Italian, British, American, Swiss and German archives, to bring together different types of portraiture that touch on the breadth of human experience during the years of the long liberation.

We try to determine the purpose of each image: who took it and why, what it shows and doesn’t show. It is important, however, to also look beyond these constraints to let the photo speak to us in different ways, to discover what else the photo can reveal. It is in finding these ‘hidden’ revelatory moments that we get a sense of the other realities, beyond the intentions of the photographer and beyond our own expectations, of the ways in which lives were touched and changed by the events of 1943-48. This can be seen particularly clearly in our selection of images of children. The intended subject of these photos is often the adults not the child, but the photos are at their most striking when you find the child in the image and metaphorically stand in his or her shoes. The world of the often traumatic and long felt experiences of children in the liberation process is to be found here.

The problem of posed photos

We have chosen as far as possible actuality images which are not posed but which attempt to capture the reality of particular moments as they happened. It is inevitable in this period, especially considering the limitations of the cameras and the cumbersome gear that the Allied military photographers carried round with them, that a number of photos would be posed. This doesn’t necessarily falsify or mean that the story of what’s happening in them is any less real though some would be purposely set up for propaganda purposes. Some posed pictures carry poignant meaning while others simply lack it. We include some apparently posed images in the exhibition because of their individual significance.

The significance of post-war photos

Our chiaroscuri images continue after the official end of the conflict in 1945.
It was inevitable that the cost of liberation and its aftermath would continue for years. There were of course great benefits and joys which people experienced immediately but we know too that it’s impossible for a country to get back on its feet quickly after major bombing. It is another aspect of the chiaroscuri that amidst the new-found joy, the continuing plight of those struggling to survive, gets forgotten after the atrocities and headlines have gone.

The Power of the Image

Images of conflicts, wars and terrorism impinge on us in deeply affecting ways. How many of us in every country in the world think of the same images at the mention of Vietnam, Hiroshima, Tiananmen Square, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, 9/11? They remain in the mind and emotions for years. We must be glad of these pictures and of the photographers who took them because such images must stay with us as powerful reminders of our potential in the starkest chiaroscuri of all – the banality of evil and the banality of good.

The power of the photograph is also realised in its absence from world events. As Susan Sontag points out, “one would like to imagine that the American public would not have been so unanimous in its acquiescence to the Korean war if it had been confronted with photographic evidence of a devastation of Korea, an ecocide and genocide in some respects more thorough than those inflicted on Vietnam a decade later. But […] the public did not see such photographs […] No one brought back photographs of daily life in Pyongyang to show that the enemy had a human face.”

In conclusion

We hope that our images will raise questions by revealing individual stories within the big picture of Liberation and thereby encourage further reflection.

Carol Jefferson-Davies
2005