The photographer Letizia Battaglia is a living legend. For the past four decades, she has chronicled the crimes of the Mafia with fearless commitment, refusing to bow in the face of death threats, personal losses and her own advancing years.
Born in Palermo in 1935, Battaglia did not pick up a camera until she was 34 years old. By then, she was in Milan, a mother of three, and struggling to make a living as a journalist. Discovering that supplying images with her copy boosted her wages, she applied herself to the craft. Although her signature images of murder scenes earn her regular comparison with the American photographer Weegee, it is telling that she names Diane Arbus – who revealed our own shadow selves in her freakish subjects – as her greatest inspiration.
In 1974, Battaglia was called back to her home town by L’Ora, an anti-Mafia newspaper. For the best part of the next two decades, she would document Italy’s anni di piombo (years of lead), when the Mafia, spearheaded by the ruthless Corleonesi family, embarked on a killing spree that encompassed policemen, politicians and Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, two anti-Mafia judges who were among Battaglia’s closest friends.
The result is a chronicle of corpses that have seared themselves on to the collective Italian imagination. The anti-Mafia judge Cesare Terranova slumped in his car surrounded by a sea of crushed glass; the Palermo prostitute gunned down in her sitting-room; Battaglia’s shot of Giulio Andreotti, the country’s most ambiguous statesman, meeting the Mafioso Nino Salvo, which was used as prosecution evidence in the ultimately unsuccessful trial against the former prime minister.
In the past decade, as documentary photography clears itself a widening space in the art world, Battaglia has been feted by institutions such as Palazzo Grassi, François Pinault’s museum of contemporary art in Venice, and the Istanbul Biennial. Now she has her first show in the UK at the Open Eye Gallery in Liverpool, a not-for-profit space dedicated to photography.
Displaying images from the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s, the show not only does justice to Battaglia’s career as an anti-Mafia crusader but also reveals that she has journeyed deeper into the psychic topography of her country.
It is curated by Lorenzo Fusi, who was previously director of the Liverpool Biennial. Fusi was born in Sienna, and his Italian roots are crucial to this exhibition’s triumph. Only someone steeped in that country’s bittersweet stew of classicism and corruption would have had the acuity to open this show with a 30-strong sequence of 30cm x 19cm prints that include Battaglia’s deathly mise-en-scènes but also embrace portraits and images of Sicilian life. Deprived of titles and dates, with several no more than details from larger images, they form a gripping yet lyrical exposé of the seductive, infuriating conundrum that is Italy itself.
In the handsome couple posing self-consciously under vintage photographs of one or the other’s ancestors, we see the bourgeois yearning for bella figura at all costs. There is the whisper of Petrarch but also Pasolini in the ragazza sprawled in long grass in front of a crumbling temple. A just-bereaved mother reeling back with misery into a hemisphere of policemen is a bitter, contemporary twist on the Pietà.
Yet there is nothing mannered about Battaglia’s work. In the main galleries – where the prints are bigger and labelled – we see how, time and again, she and her Leica succeed in freeze-framing death with a grainy realism that is rightly raw and unromantic yet never less than dignified. At the moment of their passing – Terranova’s neck sagging against his blood-soaked collar, the prostitute folded gracefully over the arm of her chair – the intense humanity of Battaglia’s subjects demands that we rise up in fury at the injustice of their fate.
That empathy is what lifts her reportage into art. Alone on a sofa, the face of a woman whose son has just died is captured as it folds into what will clearly be an eternity of grief. An exhausted young mother, stoicism in every sinew of her drawn yet handsome features, hugs a baby with a bandaged hand while two naked toddlers scamper at her feet. Leonardo’s “Virgin of the Rocks” might spring to mind but the caption tells a very different story: this is a woman who was too tired to get up as her baby cried in the night and woke to find its finger bitten off by a rat.
It would be easy to judge but Battaglia doesn’t. Having deliberately made her home in the poorest district of the Sicilian capital, she knows the daily battles her neighbours face. Indeed, she has no illusions about her city’s chiaroscuro heart. A crucible of magnificence and decay – both human and artistic – Palermo’s violent present tense maps the bloody glories of its Spanish Baroque past. It is somewhere that it is always the best and worst of times.
Among the many Italian masters who might claim her as their heir, it is Caravaggio who makes the strongest case. Like Battaglia, the 17th-century painter was a magician of light and shade. He too sought out the dead and impoverished as models. (Battaglia’s corpses, encircled so often by operatic crowds of mourners, paparazzi and policeman, recall Caravaggio’s painting of the Virgin on her deathbed surrounded by a chorus of stricken followers. And her image of two filthy, naked feet, captured as their owner kneels on stone steps, picks up one of his favourite motifs.)
But most of all, what yokes this pair together is that they meet suffering with honesty, compassion and pride in their respective arts. Caravaggio, of course, believed that death would bring redemption. Curiously, the photographs of Battaglia, who is an atheist, leave one similarly hopeful.
Until May 4, openeye.org.uk
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