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Those Southern women who express the world The Castle of Otranto hosts “Il Sud e le donne”, 30 photos in black and white by Ferdinando Scianna, on show until 30th September.
Bellucci, Cucinotta, some models and other, unknown, women. But no prima donna attitudes or erotic fantasies: Scianna’s women are “people”
by Pietro Marino
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Otranto. Alcuni scatti della mostra di Scianna

In the splendid frame that is the Castle of Otranto, the austere black and white photos by Ferdinando Scianna speak of the women of the South. There are thirty images, from various times, places and occasions, from the eighties to the present day. Two popular cinema stars, icons of Mediterranean beauty, Monica Bellucci and Maria Grazia Cucinotta, prevail, and there are also several models with improbable names. But these are not backstage snaps or elaborate poses – they don’t evoke erotic fantasies or dreams of glamour. Neither has the photographer lurked like a Roman paparazzo to spy on their private lives. Scianna has, simply, met them. As they come out of Tripoli Café in Martina Franca, wander around the trulli in Alberobello, walk past the Petruzzelli theater, lazily soak up the Mediterranean sunshine or stop for a moment to gaze at the display of a Sicilian fishmonger’s – perhaps channelling Sofia the pizza chef or Lollobrigida the soldier.

But there isn’t any anthropological research or social criticism in these photos by Scianna – or at least not any more. Like when he was a boy he recorded the rural life of his town, Bagheria (images we saw three years ago for the photographic exhibition on the theme of “Frontiers”, the event curated, as it still is, by Oscar Iarussi) or like when he used to come down from Milan to take pictures of the religious festivals in Sicily for a Bari publisher, Diego De Donato. “That society doesn’t exist anymore” he told me in 2006, when I interviewed him on one of his frequent visits to Bari. But that doesn’t mean that the Sicilian photographer has given up describing the world. He can’t, because “that is what photography does”, he repeats, mantra-style (following Cartier Bresson who wanted him at Magnum). “I take photographs of people”, he added, almost with pride.

And these women are “people”, almost always in close-up, and so in the style of portraits. With the clear, essential energy of vision – the iconic intensity – which is characteristic of Scianna (the word art, he insists, must be carefully avoided). Alone, but not isolated from the world or indifferent to its mutations. People who acknowledge their roots and identity in the new qualities of modern, bourgeois life; like the photo (used as a logo in Veluvre’s project) in which a girl in a pop dress with an image of a peasant Madonna poses with familiarity between two old country men with their hats askew as in Vittorio Bodini’s verses. It is the acknowledgement of generational and cultural contaminations that confer sentimental continuity to the meaning of life. The same sense of familiarity with which the sensuous beauty of Maria Grazia and the pensive beauty of Monica moves among the everyday spaces and the ancient stones, blends with the presences that the photographer captures here and there, behind a curtain or against a door, with the peaceful calm with which young, ordinary women face the photographer’s gaze. But without fear or coyness. “Frank faces which are no less impenetrable for that” as Vito Amoruso – authoritative friend of Scianna – comments, in the intense text of commentary at the exhibition. In his ironic understatement fuelled by the secular moods of fellow Sicilian Leonardo Sciascia, the photographer has said he was pleasantly surprised and gratified by the reading that the expert from Bari made in the key of “ visionary images of the heart, caressed shadows of his imagination”.

Like Roland Barthes, Scianna might object that photography is always “a photo of something”. Or of someone. But he can’t deny – in fact he underlines – that photographers, think while they see. Thus, they make (Duchamp-style?) “an act of choice”. And the choice of thought suggested by this exhibition situated at the center of events that invite us to get to know – before others – the South, can also be found in a remote image insinuated amongst the photos of the living: the icon of the girl in a bikini who emerges from the Ancient Roman mosaics in Piazza Armerina. She approaches us holding a victory palm in her hand, the same serene offering of grace of her present-day friends, the stubborn challenge of the Southern women to shrug off time and certainties.

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