He’s in his eighties now. He has a long memory; has seen all that is good at first hand, but has witnessed the evil our world can produce as well. He remembers, during the rule of dictator Mussolini, he was, like every young man, forced to join the Fascist youth movement. He sadly recalls being on a bus heading to a rally when he observed his troop leader stop it and hop off. His reason – to thrash an older man, a road maker. His crime – the poor fellow had failed to offer up a salute as the bus passed. The great man had had his first taste of what the male of the species is capable of. This distaste for the incident lives with him to this present day. It never sat well – doesn’t now.
Although so much was out of his control he still, even so, drew a line in the sand and took a risk during this time when he was living in Rome. An edict was issued late in the war by Italy’s Nazi occupiers. All citizens were to hand in their cameras. He refused to give up his – and he continued following his passion openly, in defiance.
For a time he also lived in Venice and he feels that today, in his visits there, he is witnessing another violation. This time the victim is the city of canals itself. With sadness he watches the giant cruise ships pull up in the lagoon to disgorge their passengers. The liners despoil the fragile environmental balance, the punters the social one. He considers those tramping over the city a travesty and recently completed an assignment for a national newspaper, capturing his moments in time to reinforce his view.
Although he is a revered doyen of his art in Italy, outside of that nation he is not widely known. It was through a kiss that I attained my first knowledge of Gianni Berengo Gardin, from up in the ether. It drew me in to investigate him further. I thought it was a timeless image, stark in its monochrome. As I discovered – he rarely uses colour. I suppose, if one looked closely at the garb of the two lost in love, it would date the image to the past. The framing of the couple by the colonnade captivated. Cyberspace was not backward in coming forward with a plethora of information when I googled GBG’s name. He’s obviously a camera-smith of immense repute for Italians.
These days he calls Milan home and during a forty year period as a professional has taken over a million and a half pictures. The negatives are all stored in his studio. He has published 250 books, only ten of which are in colour. And don’t get him started on the evils of digital photography. He cites Dorothea Lange, Robert Doisneau (famed for another kiss) and Henri Cartier-Bresson as his inspirations. And in turn, his impact has been similarly huge. One of his volumes, co-produced with a psychiatrist, dealing with the vicissitudes and treatment of souls with mental illness, was directly responsible for changing the laws on the issue in his home country.
Before, during and immediately after the war he used his camera, as we all do, to take pretty sunsets and the images of our loved ones posing. It was a book sent to him by an American relative that changed his life. It was on the work of Lange, photographing victims of the Dust Bowl. Immediately he sat up and took notice. He now knew the power his own camera could possess. In his work on mental asylums, as well as in India, her influence is palpable. His subjects are people living with abject misery, but always there is dignity in the way he portrays them.
Born in Liguria in 1930, this image-maker is part Swiss and lived in that country for a while. As far as his education in the art is concerned, he is entirely self taught. He reckons schools of photography can teach the mechanisms, but never the soul. He was first published in Il Mondo in 1954. This magazine championed his photo-essays in the early years of his career. Stern, Vogue, Time, Le Figaro and others followed suit. The Touring Club of Italy was a prominent supporter for years; his product illustrating numerous of their guides for all over Europe. Automobiles feature strongly in his oeuvre as a result. Other notable contributions to the culture of his country were books on employees who laboured for signature firms such as Alfa Romeo, Fiat, Olivetti etc. Another tome throws a light on gypsy culture and then there are those on the great cities of the peninsula, lovingly reproduced.
His abode is a 19th century palazzo, occupied as well by his beloved dachshund Nina. His studio contains only one of his own images. Gracing the walls instead are the works of contemporary Italian artists, particularly drawings. But regarding the picture that first bought me into his orb – the smudged birds in the foreground, the two hidden faces in the embrace – it all made me wonder. Was it truly a fleeting moment in time, with me now for the rest of my years on a wall in the man-cave. For all I know he may have posed it, but I like to think not. In it there is, no doubt, a story worth speculating on.
An on-line gallery = http://www.dailymail.co.uk/travel/travel_news/article-3606488/Disappearing-world-Gianni-Berengo-Gardin-s-breathtaking-images-50-years-photography-document-Europe-s-industrialisation-capture-magical-moments.html