On the day I interview photographer Gianni Berengo Gardin, Italy is behaving like the little girl with a curl – either very, very well or horribly. Milan is in chaos because of a transport strike and my iPhone has been pick-pocketed at the train station. On the upside, the spring sun is a balm and my organic gelato tastes heavenly.
When I arrive at the 19th-century palazzo where Berengo Gardin lives and works, the exuberant greeting of his dachshund Nina suggests that Jekyll rather than Hyde awaits me. “You’re not frightened of dogs, are you?” Berengo Gardin, on his knees to scoop Nina up, has a gruff voice in character with his sturdy shoes and chunky sweater. When he straightens, to reveal broad shoulders, a grizzled beard and weathered face, he reminds me of an off-duty mountaineer.
I follow him up a twisty staircase to his rooftop studio. En route, signed drawings by some of his country’s finest modern artists, including Emilio Vedova and Giuseppe Santomaso, flag up the photographer’s place at the heart of 20th-century Italian culture.
If anyone has captured his country’s capricious psyche, it is Berengo Gardin. Now in his 84th year, he has spent more than half a century documenting Italian mores, from Olivetti factory workers to Sicilian gypsies and the protests of 1968. In the 1970s, when he turned his Leica on the inmates of psychiatric institutions, his testimony of cruelty led to more humane legislation. Equally impressive is his achievement in revealing something rare and true about Venice, that most overexposed of cities.
Today, his oeuvre numbers a staggering 250 books and has won him numerous prizes, including a World Press Photo award. Among Italy’s cultivated classes, he is a household name. Yet in Britain and America Berengo Gardin is virtually unknown. Our interview has been prompted by a forthcoming display in London at Prahlad Bubbar’s Cork Street gallery, which is better known for exhibiting Indian miniature paintings. It is the first time Berengo Gardin has shown in Britain since 1975, when Bill Brandt included him in his seminal landscape show at the Victoria and Albert Museum.
The Cork Street exhibition was born out of a family connection. “We have known Berengo Gardin for 30 years,” explains Bubbar, whose stepmother was Italian. When Gardin visited India to photograph rural communities, he stayed at the Bubbars’ home. Published in 1980 in a book called India of the Villages, those photographs, together with a selection of his Italian images, form the backbone of the show. “His images of India are timeless, full of humanity and kindness,” observes Bubbar.
Berengo Gardin’s empathy is part nature, part nurture. He was born in Liguria in 1930, to a Venetian father and a Swiss mother, who, he says, instilled in him a sense of social justice: “She was a feminist before anyone knew what feminism was.”
He first picked up a camera in the mid-1940s. By then, the family had moved to Rome. When the German occupiers ordered the citizens to hand in their cameras, recalls Berengo Gardin, “I went out to take photographs just because I liked to disobey!”
Like all young Italians at the time, he had little choice but to join the Fascist youth movement. But he realised the party was an abomination when, en route to a rally, his troupe leader descended from the bus to beat up a road worker who refused to salute him. “That’s when I understood how violent fascism was.”
When the war ended, the family moved to Venice. “At first I was a dilettante photographer, taking shots of sunsets and old ladies.” Revelation occurred with a parcel of books from an uncle in America that included work by the great documentary photographers Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange. As he gazed at farmers reduced to gaunt despair by the Great Depression, Berengo Gardin found his calling. “It was the first time I realised that photography could tell stories that mattered.”
In Venice, he became part of a vibrant, avant-garde arts scene that included Peggy Guggenheim, Vedova, Santomaso and the composer Luigi Nono. “To grow up there connected you into an extraordinary culture,” Gardin remembers, before adding sadly: “Today Venice is a violated woman.” One of his most recent assignments, from La Repubblica newspaper, was to photograph the giant cruise ships that are threatening the city’s social and environmental balance.
Boosted by commissions from Olivetti and Fiat, Berengo Gardin became fascinated by the subject of work. The result is a body of images that maps the toil on which modern Italy was built. From a young factory worker adrift in an ocean of machines to the man with a ruler-straight spine carrying huge loaves on a plank across his shoulders through a Basilicata village, these pictures remind us, whatever the nature of our labour, of our collective soul. “I have always been close to the working classes,” he concurs. “Once they were exploited to the maximum. They still are to an extent, although now at least there are unions.”
Although Cartier-Bresson is his hero – “an exceptional man, revolutionary” – rarely does he follow the Frenchman’s advice and photograph a moment so decisive it catches the breath. “I don’t like to take photographs that are eclatante [obviously striking],” he says. His fidelity to black and white is of a piece with this sentiment. “Colour creates disattenzione,” he declares.
In both Venice and India, that lucid, monochrome eye comes into its own. By depriving us of those territories’ dazzling skins, he obliges us to observe what lies beneath. His most renowned image of Venice was taken in 1960, on a vaporetto with mirrored doors so that the passengers are trapped in a mosaic of reflections. Simultaneously mundane – the travellers are ordinary commuters – and exotic, it captures the paradox of a city trapped in an excess of representation.
His India is devoid of clichéd feasts of colour; instead we notice the cordial smile of an outdoor barber as he sets his knife to a customer’s neck; the daily misery suffered by a woman worker up to her waist in mud; the sculptural stillness of a figure sitting on a hammock in an empty room because, explains a deadpan Berengo Gardin, “at night there are snakes on the floor”.
Unlike so many images tainted by pity or romanticisation, Berengo Gardin’s photographs capture the way in which his subjects see themselves. “Even the poorest people have dignity,” he observes. Important too is his predilection for a wide-angled lens, which he owes to William Klein’s photographs of New York. “If I take your face now in close-up, that could be interesting. But if I take it with a wide-angle, I will narrate your context.”
This is his gift to a female inmate of a Gorizia mental asylum. Hunched and nervous, she crosses an exercise ground empty save for benches, leafless trees and a sinister row of blankets hung on the wall. Alone, vulnerable yet curiously free, she is an enigma, and that mystery is what makes us see her not as a mad woman but as a human being.
Asked what advice he would give to a novice, he replies: “Don’t go to photography school. They will just teach you about the technique of photography, not the culture.” Instead, he advocates studying the masters. “You need to understand why Cartier-Bresson took photographs in a different way to Klein or Lang.”
What does he make of digital technology? He is appalled, he replies, to see a generation locked on to a glass screen. “It’s slavery. It’s a deprivation of freedom.” And with that, it’s time to take Nina for a walk.
‘The Sense of a Moment: Gianni Berengo Gardin’, Prahlad Bubbar Gallery, London, April 11-May 23, prahladbubbar.com