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Bruno Barbey’s Italy, or Two Countries in One

Les Italiens, published by Delpire & Co., brings out Bruno Barbey’s Italian images from the 1960s.

Italy has always fascinated artists. Like so many other European photographers of the 1960s, the French photographer Bruno Barbey climbed into his VW Beetle and headed for the Boot. He was in his early twenties, not yet the renowned Magnum photographer. They dreamed of Italy in black and white, of Pasolini, of Visconti. Fellini was at the peak of his art, and his film La Dolce Vita had just won the Golden Palm at Cannes in 1960.

Venice, Veneto, 1962 © Bruno Barbey / Magnum Photos
Venice, Veneto, 1962 © Bruno Barbey / Magnum Photos

His Leica M2 in hand, Barbey arrived in a country split in half. Some even said there were two countries in one: in the North, a rebuilt, bourgeois Italy, where “people went to the movies, to concerts, to bars, and well-dressed youngsters politely stood in line. Even at the stadium, fans celebrated a goal in suit and tie,” writes Giosuè Calaciura in his introduction to Les Italiens by Bruno Barbey, published by Delpire & Co.

“In the South, even though the war had ended two years earlier, reconstruction was slow. It is still lagging behind. Children chased around the jeeps left behind by the Americans, and played hopscotch by tracing the numbers with a stone in residential courtyards.”

Palermo, Sicily, 1964 © Bruno Barbey / Magnum Photos
Palermo, Sicily, 1964 © Bruno Barbey / Magnum Photos
Naples, Campania, 1966 © Bruno Barbey / Magnum Photos
Naples, Campania, 1966 © Bruno Barbey / Magnum Photos

Bruno Barbey knew how to capture the start contrast between the two Italies. His black-and-white images reveal the gaze, the attitudes, and the emotions of Italians. “The ability to portray the Italians in their reality of the condition is rare. Hypocrisy—a mania and a national vice—has always ruled the day: Italians prefer to show themselves other than the way they are,” notes Giosuè Calaciura, assuring that Barbey’s photos “are a document of truth.”

The photographer fully immersed himself in the country. In the North, he was a Northerner; in the South, a Southerner.

From Rome, Lazio, 1964 © Bruno Barbey / Magnum Photos
From Rome, Lazio, 1964 © Bruno Barbey / Magnum Photos

Portraits of well-dressed men and women in Milan and Rome, posing for the photographer, sometimes leaning against beautiful cars, follow more rural images of children making faces in the streets of Sicily or Naples. Then there is Genoa, a city apart, with its red-light district.

People’s gaze is often aloof in the South, mischievous in the North, but Bruno Barbey also knows how to capture the nuances, as in this photograph taken on a merry-go-round in Sicily where we see a couple generously smiling at the photographer. But perhaps this is the miracle of love, like Bruno Barbey’s love affair with Italy.

Genoa, Liguria, 1966 © Bruno Barbey / Magnum Photos
Genoa, Liguria, 1966 © Bruno Barbey / Magnum Photos
Naples, Campania, 1966 © Bruno Barbey / Magnum Photos
Naples, Campania, 1966 © Bruno Barbey / Magnum Photos

Bruno Barbey, Les Italiens, Delpire & co., €42, 184 pp.

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