A week ago I (Clarissa) had the chance to visit the exhibition Fotoromanzo e poi... in Reggio Emilia, Italy. The exhibition ran from April 20th to July 19th 2018 at the Spazio Gerra and was organized on three floors. The first floor struck the visitor with beautiful images, large-sized and high-quality photographs printed from old photo-novel negatives. It also showed how to create the layout of a photo-novel page and, at a light table with pages of old photo-novels without text, visitors could put into practice what they had just learned and use tracing paper to write their personalized text.
The second floor highlighted a brief history of the phenomenon of the photo-novel, with among others, panels on film-photo-novels, novels adapted into photo-novels, civic photo-novels, photo-novels and politics, christian photo-novels, and video material. It also showcased photographs from the Federico Vender Archive.
The third floor told the story of Cesare Zavattini's relationship with the photo-novel and exhibited one of his photo-novels, La Colpa. Next to the photo-novel from the 60s, it presented a brand new Instagram photo-novel realized specially for this exhibition, #NESSUNACOLPA. There was also an interactive section where visitors could be thrown back in time and enjoy reading photo-novels in an old hair salon.
I was lucky enough to be guided through the exhibition by Elisa Savignano and to sit at one of the exhibition's vintage sets with Stefania Carretti for a short talk. Find below, with my many thanks to the curators for their kindness and availability, the transcription of our talk, both in translation (English) and original (Italian).
(CC = Clarissa Colangelo | SC = Stefania Carretti)
CC: Why did you decide to organize an exhibition on photo-novels? What inspired and motivated you?
the two photo-novels; narratively, one is the sequel of the other and the link is the female protagonist of La Colpa who reappears in this Instagram photo-novel 50 years later as a sort of guardian angel to #NESSUNACOLPA’s protagonist. Around this original core of the exhibition, we then created a more historical section that informs the visitors on the general history and evolution of the photo-novel. Especially for this section we worked with Silvana Turzio, a long-time photo-novel researcher. We also collaborated with the Mondadori Foundation, which allowed us to access their material and realize a very complete photographic section – we are in the context of a photography festival after all – where we picked and showed iconic images that highlight the main themes of the classic period of photo-novels, particularly on Bolero Film, a magazine that was born in 1947 and that published photo-novels every week up until the late 70s/beginning of the 80s.
SC: First of all it’s important to know that this exhibition takes place in the context of a photography festival called Fotografia Europea 2018. In previous editions we organized exhibitions that analyzed photography as connected to other media – for example we organized various exhibitions on photography and music. This year we were interested in exploring the relationship between text and image, and so we thought of the photo-novel. We then discovered an interesting connection between the photo-novel and Cesare Zavattini, an eminent citizen born in Luzzara, in the province of Reggio Emilia, who left his archive to the Library Panizzi of Reggio Emilia. We knew that Zavattini dealt with publishing and with illustrated magazines, that with his dynamic nature he gave birth to many comics and that he was somehow at the origin of the birth of photo-novels. Moreover, he always tried to maintain a good bond with the readers and especially with the female readers of these women’s magazines, drawing inspiration for his scenarios from their stories, dreams and frustrations. We tried therefore to understand specifically what his role has been in the birth of a genre that turned out to be the most influential editorial phenomenon of the postwar period. We found some interesting letters: the correspondence with Mondadori indicated Zavattini as the author of various topics and scenarios of photo-novels. At the Zavattini Archive of the Library Panizzi of Reggio Emilia we found one of these scenarios and that was in fact the starting point of this exhibition. The core section of the exhibition revolves around Zavattini’s relationship with Mondadori and his collaboration for the magazine Bolero Film during the postwar period, when he helped conceiving stories that had a relevant societal impact and that linked back to his work for the cinema, thus highlighting his neorealist approach. We analyzed the photo-novel called La Colpa (“The Fault”), written by Zavattini under the pseudonym Cesare Altieri and published in episodes in Bolero Film in 1962 – then also translated in French. We tried to see whether and how this language, this medium of the photo-novel, of the image and the text could have, today, a re-birth through new communication tools and in particular through social media. We took up the challenge and made a photo-novel for Instagram. It is titled #NESSUNACOLPA (“No Fault”) and it is conceived as the sequel of Zavattini’s early-60s photo-novel, which we had found extremely relevant because the story begins with a sexual assault and touches upon the issue of either condemning the rape or keeping it a secret. We tried to imagine how a photo-novel of today would deal with the same theme: if in the past the fault was considered as shared between the perpetrator and the victim, who was deemed complicit to the crime, we thought that today in a changed social context the victim could be freed of any fault and express her #metoo. This social theme is the connection between
CC: Concerning Instagram, about a year ago an episode of Il Testimone (a TV program aired on Italian television) drew a parallel between photo-novel and its success in the 50s/60s and Instagram nowadays. Do you also see this common thread that connects the popularity of the photo-novel to that of Instagram?
SC: Absolutely. One of our starting points was the thought: “Nowadays photo-novels are on Instagram.” The stories are no longer fictive, but based on our own everyday life – or we could argue that everyone somehow creates a fiction of themselves. Anyways, the way photography is used accompanied by text on Instagram is very similar to the photo-story, which came before photo-novels, and to the photo-novel itself. When we made #NESSUNACOLPA, we noticed that it attracted quite a following. The most interesting thing was that other users tagged us and really understood the analogy between the photo-novel and Instagram. I think this is a moment when, through social media, many hybridizations of communication tools are explored. For example, in the exhibition there is a video clip titled Vorrei essere pensiero (“I would like to be thought”) by Il Fingitore, that reinterprets the photo-novel, with static images where some small parts move like GIFs. Unaware of this video, that’s also how we created our photo-novel: using static images and every now and then small movements like GIFs. This coincidence made us realize that many experimentations exist and that the photo-novel is somehow the direct ancestor of all this.
CC: Photo-novels, even when they were extremely popular, have always attracted very negative judgement. Was the decision to talk about photo-novels in the context of a photography festival positively accepted or did this choice raise criticism?
SC: The choice was very well approved of, maybe because much time has passed and the phenomenon became appropriate to be showcased in museums. Today the photo-novel is seen in a sort of nostalgic and detached way, not with annoyance or shame; it became history. So the exhibition is regarded as a “vintage exhibition” that truly engages visitors because not only does it tap into their childhood memories, it also sheds a different light on a genre that has always been considered low-brow and popular in a derogative sense. It is obvious that photo-novels mixed relevant societal themes with the stereotypes of the romance genre. Read years later, there is certainly the frivolity and romance, but also the history of the country – in particularly I refer to Italy – because it truly mirrored all of the changes that occurred not only in fashion, but also in society, politics and customs. It touches upon important social themes. For instance in the 70s, themes such as contraception, divorce and homosexuality, are tackled… but in a very light way, as only magazines can do. Back when photo-novels were published, this was considered harmful for the people by intellectuals both rightist and leftist, with very few exceptions like Zavattini. Already in the 60s Zavattini understood the photo-novel not as a genre, but as a medium that, in the hands of an author or of someone with a message, could turn into something different than the romantic story.
CC: A striking element of the exhibition is that it not only highlights the main themes of the photo-novel, but that, being in the context of a photography festival, it showcases in large format and very high quality photographs printed from old negatives that truly capture how beautiful and detailed these photos are.
SC: Yes, particularly in the 50s and 60s you can see a great attention to details, a real mastery in the usage of photographic techniques and an extremely cinematic capability in using the lights, which leads us to believe that the teams working on the production of photo-novels consisted of highly qualified professionals. I am saying “leads us to believe” because there are no full credits on photo-novels, so it is extremely difficult to know for sure who were the lighting directors, the directors, and so on. But it is obvious that especially in the first years the attention to details was remarkable. And that’s precisely what we wanted to highlight. The photographs in the photo-novels were printed in small size and on paper of poor quality, so the quality that we found in the negatives couldn’t come to light. Printing them in a large size draws attention to the fact that, from a photographic point of view, these are photographs of a high level of quality. In later years this quality tends to diminish as photo-novels become a mass phenomenon and the necessity of producing more and more stories has a negative impact on the quality and composition of the images.
CC: That is certainly true, but I think that, even when they had to produce many images, they still had to figure out how to overcome certain obstacles such as the need to make many photos in a short time and with a limited budget, so it is very interesting to try and understand how they worked on the production side in a time when the camera wasn’t digital and posed more issues – such as lighting – than it does today.
SC: Yes, here we see that cinema certainly lent professionals to the photo-novel.
CC: And vice versa.
SC: Absolutely. The photo-novel has also provided a training ground for many professionals.
CC: As today is the last day of the exhibition, do you already have information on the number of visitors and their feedback?
SC: We have had approximately 13.000 visitors, which is a good result for us considering that we are a small provincial museum. Their feedback has been enthusiastic. As you can see from the guestbook, visitors left great comments, many reminiscing on their childhood and the time when they discovered photo-novels at their aunt’s house or would read it in secret because their parents didn’t approve. The photo-novel in Italy is truly something that was read and known by everyone, even by those you wouldn’t take for photo-novel readers, and by many more men than what it is usually thought. Most believe that it was a feminine pastime, but we actually have many witnesses of the fact that it was read both by women and men.
CC: And through Instagram did you manage to engage a younger audience as well?
SC: Yes, this was a discovery also for many youngsters. As I mentioned before, the fact that the photo-novel is used in musical clips by very young authors testifies to the fact that the photo-novel is being rediscovered as a genre and as a storytelling tool.
CC: Come mai una mostra sul fotoromanzo? Da dove è partita questa idea e qual è stata la motivazione che vi ha spinto a realizzare questa mostra?
SC: Innanzitutto va detto che questa mostra si svolge nell’ambito di un festival di fotografia, Fotografia Europea 2018. Nelle precedenti edizioni abbiamo proposto mostre che cercavano di indagare la fotografia in rapporto ad altri media – abbiamo fatto per esempio diverse esposizioni sull’immagine fotografica collegata alla musica. Quest’anno ci interessava il rapporto tra immagine e testo. Abbiamo così pensato al fotoromanzo. Poi abbiamo scoperto un nesso che lega il fotoromanzo alla figura di Cesare Zavattini, un illustre Reggiano, nato a Luzzara, nella provincia di Reggio Emilia, che ha lasciato il suo archivio alla Biblioteca di Reggio Emilia. Sapevamo che Zavattini si era occupato di editoria, di rotocalchi e che con la sua indole vulcanica aveva dato vita a tanti fumetti e che fosse stato in qualche modo alle origini anche della nascita del fotoromanzo. Inoltre è stato sempre molto attento al rapporto con i lettori e soprattutto con le lettrici dei questi rotocalchi femminili, attingendo direttam