Press photo archives are intrinsically characterised by heterogeneity and materiality. This makes them rich and vulnerable at the same time. These characteristics particularly become evident when press photo archives are interrogated, probed, read, and deciphered in between their material form, where the researcher has to work with folders on dusty shelves, and the volatility, flexibility and manipulation of the digital form. This article studies in particular this tension in a collection of photographs, newspapers, and original painted illustrations in the Matania Archive in Naples.
Ugo Matania (Naples, 1888-1979) was an artist-illustrator who worked for the English illustrated press in London in the 1910s and 1920s. In 1924, he was called back to Naples to join the editorial board of the newspaper Il Mattino, a position he kept until 1943. This newspaper published a weekly supplement, Il Mattino Illustrato, for which Matania produced cover illustrations and drawings to accompany articles. After returning from London, he first settled with his family in Villa Lucia and, from 1935 onwards, in the Villa Belvedere, both eighteenth-century villas in the hilly district of Vomero in Naples. In this period, Matania started to collect press photographs at the newspapers that employed him as an illustrator, using them as a practical archive or toolkit for his work as an illustrator.
In this archive, which has survived in its original state as an artisan workplace, the difficulty of finding specific images is endemic. You will be inevitably caught by the insatiability of the eye2 (fig. 1) and might even feel lost among the hundreds of ‘painted plates’ used for the covers of Il Mattino Illustrato, the ‘printed images’3 scattered on the pages of periodicals that Matania collection, or the photographic prints of the press agencies.
At the moment, the Matania collection is only available in a material form. Just a few press photographs in the collection have been digitised, mostly for marketing purposes or at the specific request of scholars. What kind of research would be possible if the archive – all of the photographs, newspapers, paintings, drawings, and sketches - could be consulted in a digital form and with the help of computational methods?
To find an answer to this question, this article analyses the Matania Archive in relation to four other press photo archives preserved in Naples. These archives are named after their founders/photographers - Parisio, Beuf, Carbone, and Troncone - and date back to the same time span: the 1920 to 1940s. These photo agencies primarily produced images for the widely-read local press of Naples. In recent years, the current owners and directors of these titles have started to preserve and reuse the images of the historical press agencies. However, in their present form, the photographs in the photo archives have only been available to a few interested persons and authorised researchers. Only in 2016 did the Italian Ministry of Education and Culture launch a census of photo collections and photo archives in Italy, which aimed ‘to identify, in a participatory way, the persons, institutions, and foundations which, for various reasons, hold photographic collections or archives, reporting information on the type, consistency and characteristics of the photographic materials stored (…).’4 Focusing on questions of conservation and accessibility, this article discusses the possible benefits and pitfalls of digitising these Neapolitan press photo archives.
Photojournalism in Naples during the interbellum
In the nineteenth and early-twentieth century, the medium of photography quickly gained a foothold in Naples: the city where inventor Macedonio Melloni had announced the invention of the medium in August 1839.5 In the nineteenth century, Naples became the home and workplace of several foreign professional photographers who set up ateliers and shops.6 At the end of the century, these photographers had been gradually replaced by small agencies of professional photographers from Naples and other Italian cities.7 They all came to meet the increasingly pressing needs of the daily and periodical press.8 During the interbellum, publishers and newspaper owners started to need more and more images and thus required a more systematic corporate organisation. It is therefore reasonable to place the origin of professional photojournalism, as well as the start of the constitution of these archives, in this period.9
In this article, I will focus on the archives of Matania, Parisio, Beuf, Carbone and Troncone. Although they differ in features and functions (as we will see below), they all functioned as shelters for photojournalism that could easily have been dispersed. And thus, it does not come as a surprise that they owe much of their identity to the context to which they belonged.
In the 1920s and 1930s, the main newspapers for which the respective protagonists worked, such as Il Mattino and Il Roma, did not yet have staff photographers and reporters, but they used professional photographers or agencies that sold their products, mostly on a commission basis, to one or more newspapers at the same time. In Naples, Beuf, Carbone, and Troncone were the most important agencies. With a few exceptions, such as Il Corriere della Sera, most newspapers did not maintain a photo archive in this period.10 As a result, this photojournalistic heritage has only been preserved due to the initiative of individual photographers and artists, or their heirs, as in the case of the Matania and Parisio archives (fig. 2).
The collections under scrutiny provide us with the opportunity to study the photographic archive not only as an object, but also as a source for photojournalistic practice and a method of accumulation. Containing thousands of pictures in total, we can only analyse the Neapolitan photojournalistic heritage by connecting and comparing the different archives to each other. Let us therefore start by analysing the main characteristics of each of the archives separately.
Main features and profiles of the Neapolitan archives
In 1924 Ugo Matania11 (Naples 1888-1979) was asked to come back to Naples from London to work as an illustrator-journalist for the newspaper Il Mattino. In fact, he succeeded his cousin Fortunino Matania, who had previously worked for the same newspaper.12 Matania immediately started to select and collect photographs of all kinds of local and international press agencies that he could use for his work as an illustrator. This section focuses exclusively on the part of the archive that connects the photo collection with the painted scenes in tempera or oil. Identifying the consistency and characteristics of this ‘mixed’ archive, it attempts to reconstruct its assembly methodology and, directly connected to this, the use of press photographs for pictorial purposes.
Between 1924 and 1943, Matania built an extraordinary archive of images as well as all kinds of magazines, newspapers, clippings, sketches, and drawings. Today, the archive can still be found in his home-studio, frozen in time. As such, it reveals how Matania constructed a parallel, complex world filled with iconic references and photo stories that would serve as his artistic toolbox. It should be noted that Matania continued a family business, which was started by his relatives Eduardo and Fortunino Matania and Alberto Della Valle: Eduardo’s brother-in-law. The three men had started the company in 1880, when they began working as illustrators for the national and international press and for publishers of novels and historical works.13
Matania supplied works of art to the editor of Il Mattino Illustrato (fig. 3) on a weekly basis. Only a couple of days before his deadline, he received his assignment in an envelope from the editorial office with an indication of the subject to be represented, including some photos provided by external photo agencies. After he created the image, the editorial staff added an explanatory caption and decided what the layout of the cover should be, whether to crop it or even to overlay it with a photographic clipping to reinforce the information. Only in some cases, if there was enough time, the artist was asked to retouch or modify the image.
The main concern of the artist-illustrator, especially when it came to the covers, was to visualise the news in the most efficient way and according to the practices of the English illustrated press that Matania had mastered in London during the First World War. He especially tried to follow the example of The Graphic, for which his cousin Fortunino worked in London, and The Sphere, which, between 1904 and 1926, published covers and illustrations by Eduardo, Fortunino and Ugo Matania (fig. 4). Ever since their first experiences in the field of illustration for Italian magazines, such as L’Illustrazione Italiana, from the 1880s onwards, Eduardo and Fortunino used photography in their work. During the first two decades of the 20th century, the use of photos as models for illustrations also became a common practice for Alberto Della Valle. Ugo Matania started to use photographs in his work during the Interbellum.
It is no coincidence that artist-illustrators like the Matanias were also called ‘special artists’, as they were asked to communicate something more than mere facts. Using their gift for versatility and speed, typical journalistic qualities, they had to provide ‘news in pictures’, working on and highlighting the emotional impact of the photograph. Essentially, the painter-illustrator had to be a sort of self-made director of the page, although forced to obey frequently to the requests by the publisher.14 Choosing and manipulating news photographs of political or celebratory events and simultaneously using life models (often family and friends), the painter-illustrator attempted to connect the real and fictional realms. Photography, real life, and painting: these were the essential ingredients that a ‘special artist’ had to combine in his practice.
It should be noted that, in the 1940s as a result of the expansion of photojournalism, the profession of special artist was close to being extinct. In 1946, in a letter from London to his cousin Ugo, Fortunino Matania wondered worriedly: ‘Will the illustrated newspapers still be printed, or will they no longer be printed? Will illustrators still be needed, or won’t they be needed anymore?’15 His concerns were not without basis. After the war, international press photography, filmed reportages, and the subsequent advent of a new medium, television, would reduce the field of action of the painter-illustrator, distancing him increasingly from photography.
The archive of Ugo Matania, which he created between the 1920s and the end of the Second World War, tells this history. The shelves are crammed with painted boards and stacked with folders of photographs, arranged by theme. Next to the cabinets, we find piles of printed copies of Il Mattino Illustrato, La Domenica del Corriere, L’Illustrazione del Popolo, La Tribuna del Popolo, as well as the new series of Monsignor Perrelli and the English periodical Union Jack, printed and produced for the allied forces in Naples during the last years of the Second World War. All these materials are accompanied by bound volumes of late nineteenth-century issues of Illustrazione Italiana and numerous scattered issues of The Sphere, the London magazine for which two generations of Matania artists had produced many illustrated pages, both in black-and-white and in colour.16
‘I quadri in copertina’ (the pictures on the cover) are thus preserved both as original paintings and in their printed form.17 However, this connection is only clear to those who look, browse, and consult all the material in the archive, stimulated by the intersections that the photographs, which have been kept in the archive, suggest. It is striking that all the photographs are ‘newsworthy.’ They show moments that fix the reader’s gaze and become detached from the historic event itself, despite being linked to particular facts.18
Another story concerns the Parisio Archive, which was set up by the photographer Giulio Parisio (1891-1967) in a very peculiar location: the Bottega di Decorazione under the arcades of San Francesco di Paola in Piazza Plebiscito in Naples (fig. 5).19 In 1928, Parisio founded the Bottega together with his friend, the architect, painter, and decorator Carlo Cocchia, as a futurist-inspired ‘House of the Arts.’20 In the Bottega, decoration and photography coexisted as ‘applied arts,’ under the banner of the interrelation between the arts.
During the First World War, Giulio Parisio was an aerial photographer and explorer, both especially futurist occupations. After the war, he devoted himself to photography in a wide range of applications, including avant-garde experiments. He embodies the figure of the photographer-artist, versatile and capable of a wide range of photographic applications, from ‘landscape photography to futuristic experiments, from industrial photography to investigative photo reportages on peasant labor, from artistic portraiture to advertising.’21 Appreciated by critics, he participated in exhibitions, published in specialised magazines, and received awards.22 Because of this, he appears more frequently in the historiography of photography in Italy than other Neapolitan photographers.23 Although he rejected ‘the concept of the “snapshot” as a mere documentation of events,’ he did not neglect his activities as a photojournalist (fig. 6). For Parisio, the image always had to be created, with particular attention to the artistic and aesthetic aspects. Therefore, it had to be enriched with special effects: ‘(...) the spectator had to be captured by some novelty and seduced by sensations that a mechanical representation of current events could not provide.’24
With great mastery of the photographic medium, Parisio continuously experimented in order to ‘overcome the boundaries that the medium [of photography] had imposed up to then,’ lingering on the study of light, searching for original shots, studying possible innovations in development and printing techniques, and even bending photography in a plastic and three-dimensional sense.25 His drive to connect various branches of arts was in line with the futurist aesthetic and cultural aim of the Bottega di Decorazione. The Bottega’s aspirations reached their zenith in the mid-1930s, when it was commissioned to design the Triumphal Arch for Hitler’s visit to Naples on 5 May 1938. The visit itself became an experience where photography, graphic design, and decorative staging were all closely connected (fig. 7).26 Working on the assignment, Parisio’s words revealed his practice: it was ‘the main road of journalism’ that led him to the art of photography and decoration. Faced with the challenge to design the triumphal arch, he could again rely on the dark room to proceed ‘straight on, to the open space.’27
Today, we can study Parisio’s practice in the rooms of his studio-gallery-workshop, which he built with Carlo Cocchia between 1926 and 1928. This workplace, where artists once met and exhibitions were organised, recently became a historical archive, hosting a considerable collection of around 70,000 negatives, including glass plates and films of different formats (fig. 8). Parisio also compiled logbooks and subject indexes, but unfortunately in a rather inconsistent and inhomogeneous way, indicating the photos sometimes by commission and sometimes by subject. Moreover, the dates are often missing or arbitrarily added later by his son in a copy of the register itself. The pages of the registers indicate the shelf numbers where the boxes with the negatives can be found, the format of the boxes, the numerical sequence of the negatives they contain, and a reference to the photographic subjects. After receiving funding, the archive has been completely inventoried and half of it has been digitised representing a cross-section of the photographer’s entire production.28 Only a few photographs can be seen online, on both the association’s website and in the ministry’s census file of photographic archives.29
Of the figure of Antonio Beuf (1891-1992) almost nothing was known until a small, but significant archive of negative plates and films emerged, kept in the attic by his heirs.30 Although nearly all the black and white prints were reduced to ashes, this small archive survived a bombing in 1943 which destroyed part of the building where Beuf worked and lived and where the plates are still kept today. The prints that survived are provided with a stamp, sometimes in elegant, embossed italics, with the photographer’s signature and address, or else, more simply, in blue ink: ‘Antonio Beuf – Photo Studio A. Beuf Chiaia 205 – Naples.’ The photographs provide a record of the main events in the city during the years of the fascist regime (including Hitler’s visit in 1938). However, they also show streets, squares, monuments, crude chronicles of the bombings in the 1940s, as well as personalities from political and artistic-cultural circles. Much of Beuf’s collection has been lost, not only due to the war events, but also as a result of the photographer’s disaffection with a profession that had become unrewarding under pressure of new editorial needs and technologies. The collection needs to be catalogued and deserves to be studied in more depth.
The Agenzia Carbone, which was founded in the years when photojournalism reached full maturity, established its first office right next to the editorial office of the city’s main newspaper, Il Mattino, in the Angiporto Galleria, a toponym derived from the adjacent nineteenth-century Galleria Umberto constructed from iron and glass. Its headquarters were subsequently moved to Via Chiaia 209, not far away from the Beuf photographic studio.
Its founder, Riccardo Carbone (1897-1973) (fig. 9), signed a contract with Paolo Scarfoglio, son of Eduoardo, the first director of Il Mattino, presumably between 1923 and 1924, and he consolidated this collaboration to last until the 1970s.31 In response to the great demand for his photographs, Carbone employed a large number of photographic collaborators. He also established commercial relations with other newspapers, respecting the ‘professional rule of not distributing the same image at the same time to different newspapers.’32 Carbone made the initial selection for the local newspapers from the photographs he or his collaborators had taken. However, eventually, the editorial staff of the newspapers always decided which photographs were published. Being concerned with the layout of the page, the editors also had ‘the right to crop those photos, where they deemed it appropriate, to the detriment, therefore, of the photographer’s creativity.’33
The establishment of Riccardo Carbone’s photo agency coincided with the advent of the rotogravure press in Italy, which not only enabled higher print runs but also allowed for a highly flexible and creative combination of image and text in the layout .3434 The main newspapers and their illustrated supplements were printed in rotogravure from the 1920s onwards. From that moment onwards, the expression rotocalco was also used for the illustrated press in Italy.35 These magazines, ‘reservoirs of photographic forms and models for a varied public,’36 aimed to reach a general audience of ‘reader-spectators’ who fed on truthful and international news as much as on sports, politics and culture.37
In 89 neatly numbered boxes, containing glass plates and original prints from the interwar period, a unique collection of photographs can be found that document the history and life of the city through a series of diverse events from the mid-1920s onwards (fig. 10). They include military manoeuvres in the presence of King Vittorio Emanuele III and Mussolini, Hitler’s visit to Naples in 1938, great military parades on the waterfront, the construction of new public buildings, as well as scenes of post-war destruction and starvation. Some of the subjects are easy to recognise, while others are hard to decipher. Fortunately, most of these riddles could often be solved by Renato Carbone, Riccardo’s son, who spearheaded the initiatives that preserved the agency’s surviving heritage. Partial autograph transcriptions of the subject by the photographer can be found on the back side of the prints. More importantly some handwritten notebooks, written by the agency’s founder himself, have been preserved and provide an index to the photographic assignments carried out, with precise indications of the date, place, and event depicted in the photograph, as well as the number of the box and the envelope in which it is stored.38
From the interbellum, about 4000 images (glass plates and prints) have survived the allied bombings of 1942-43. The bulk of the archive, however, is made up of 700,000 photographs, mostly negatives, from the 1950s to the 1970s, when Riccardo Carbone took over the agency. Today, the historical archive, established as the Riccardo Carbone Onlus Association in 2015, is located on Via Toledo 406. Only a small part of the archive, about 50,000 photos (both negatives and prints) mainly from the post-war period, has been digitised and is now available online.39
The initiator of the fervent photographic activities of the Troncone family was Roberto Troncone (1875-1947). After studying law, he joined the Italian Photographic Association in 1899. Being a reckless ‘cine-amateur,’ he could be found on the slopes of the erupting Vesuvius as early as 1906. The success caused by this enterprise encouraged him to found Partenope Films in 1908, in which his younger brothers Guglielmo (1890-1970) and Vincenzo (1887-1973) were immediately involved as well, not only as technicians and operators but also, in some cases, as actors. The Troncone brothers were active until after the Second World War and moved with ease between early cinematography and photojournalism.40
The establishment of Partenope Films in 1908 undoubtedly gave a strong impetus to the development of silent cinema in Naples, where it flourished particularly.41 The founding of the photo agency Edizioni Fotografiche Fratelli Troncone in 1926 resulted from this previous cinematographic experience. Using the simplified trademark Foto Troncone, the agency consolidated its position in the market of professional photojournalism that had become quite competitive in this period. For decades, the Troncone family provided newspapers such as Il Mezzogiorno, Il Roma, and Il Mattino with precise photographic records of urban transformation and social history, ranging from news, folklore, cultural and religious customs, entertainment, and sports events. They hunted for news and the best spot ‘to obtain faithful, up-to-date, unprecedented and personal images,’ of street demonstrations, popular festivals, social events, and the reality of working conditions in large factories in metropolitan areas, among others .4242 The authentic quality of their photographic output was particularly recognized in war photographs of the agency: ‘beyond the conventionality of Germany and fascist officers, the photographers capture with their camera a reality tragically jeopardised by the war, a multitude of people who have gradually lost their great but illusory hope in imperialist politics and find themselves in the daily struggle for survival instead.’43
The work of the Troncone brothers is, as stated in the afore-mentioned national census file, systematically documented in registers, in which all the events they recorded are catalogued in chronological order. The system shows that the Troncones were mainly interested in documenting news events. In 2000, around one million negatives, including glass plates and films of different formats, from the Troncone photo agency became part of the Parisio archive and are therefore kept on the same premises, in the portico of San Francesco di Paola and Largo Carolina in Piazza Plebiscito. After the Parisio studio/workshop had been transformed into a cultural association in 1995, the transition to a larger archive for photojournalism was felt by many to be an almost natural development. Nowadays, the Parisio and Troncone archives are crammed into the historical rooms of the Bottega di Decorazione, where they are protected by their status as a single cultural association. Although their historical background and professional approach to photojournalism differ greatly, these archives collectively benefit from the commendable initiative to safeguard them.44 At present, approximately 930,000 negatives by the Troncone brothers have been digitised but only a few dozen of these images have been published on the Parisio association website. In addition, a complete metadata overview of the digitisation is available in Excel files.
Only a highly desirable but not yet started in-depth study of all five archives, including their various additional components such as the cataloguing and classification system used, logbooks, tear sheets and existing correspondence, may shed light on the internal organisation of the agencies, their relations with clients (newspapers, magazines, advertising agencies, institutions) and as well as on their position in both the local and national field of photojournalism.
The press photo archive for artistic use
This section analyses in some detail the Matania Archive, which is both a photo archive and an artist’s home and studio at the same time, and thus differs in origin, composition, and use from the archives of the other press photo agencies discussed above. Ugo Matania, active as a painter-illustrator in Naples since 1924 and after 1942 in Milan and Turin (where he also collaborated for La Domenica del Corriere and L’Illustrazione del Popolo, and other publications), collected thousands of photographs, which, like many other similar archives, ‘preserve an infinite number of relations to reality.’45 These press photographs force the viewer to question directly what he or she sees, but provoke foremost a visual astonishment: ‘in the news-agency photographs,’ Roland Barthes wrote, ‘the fact, surprised, explodes in all its stubbornness, its literality, in the very obviousness of its obtuse nature.’46
The tone of Matania’s pictorial tableaux and the compositional choices he made follow a similar logic. In his creations, sensational events, such as accidents and disasters, entertainment and propaganda, war, bizarre everyday life events, politics and social news, devotional appearances, and historical re-enactments, all follow each other like a kind of gallery of art to browse. In all of Matania’s creations, we can see how the illustrator always remained a painter, who was expected to add something more, than the simple news, to a story.
When you compare the original artworks with the printed versions on the pages of Il Mattino Illustrato, which have also been preserved in the archive, Matania’s working method becomes visible. Comparing the original painting to the printed page, it becomes clear that the colours have been altered and the layout adjusted, which often displays a daring montage of photography and drawings. The captions at the bottom of the page anchor a peremptory and unequivocal meaning to the image. Moreover, the captions reveal the pointing finger of the chief editor to the illustrator-journalist who must be careful to respect the ‘finishing touches’ and ‘ensure that the drawing does not appear confused or sketchy.’47
The painting is in fact ‘on the cover’ and should not be considered separately from the verbal context, nor from any photographic references. Because the image does not always show a realistic reconstruction of the events depicted, the caption has to explain in detail and, due to the political context of the time, with often rhetorical and exalted tones of what the painter intended to illustrate. On the cover, the newspaper usually published the painting in its entirety and in the way the artist had interpreted the subject to be represented, albeit in compliance with the indications presumably given by the editorial staff. In some cases, the editors applied photomontage to strengthen the message they intended to convey of a given event or person. Thus, in addition to the caption, the photomontage sometimes compensated for the ‘shortcomings’ of the original painting. To prevent readers from dismissing the news too quickly, the captions are sometimes even accompanied by ellipses with an explicit call to ‘read the details on the second page.’48
The cover page that Matania created for Il Mattino Illustrato of the tragic accident of Queen Astrid of Belgium in 1935, is a good example of the use of photomontage. Matania portrayed the queen on her deathbed while – as the caption specifies – King Leopold is preparing to give ‘the last kiss on the forehead of his young bride.’ The illustrator draws the reader’s attention to a touching moment in the sad story, leaving out the details of the news. The news itself is depicted in the clipping of a photograph taken at the site of the fatal accident published on the bottom right of the printed page.49
The cover page showing ‘the empty cradle’ of the baby of the well-known American aviator Charles Lindbergh, who had been kidnapped at night by unknown criminals in 1932, provides an even more daring example of the use of photomontage. The parents’ anguish is reflected in the design of the cradle, for which Matania used his own children’s crib as an example, showing the still creased sheets and a teddy bear fallen on the ground (fig. 11). To reinforce the impact of the news explained in the caption, the painted illustration of the cradle has been placed, like a postage stamp, on a full-page photograph of the Lindbergh couple with their son, caught in a moment of serenity (fig. 12).50
These examples show that the meaning of a journalistic image on a printed page can only be properly assessed by comparing all available and relevant materials preserved in the archive. The images are evidently the result of a mix of composition, montage, comparison, and the occasional clash between verbal and visual expression.51 Between the didactic content of the caption and the journalistic quality of the photographs used, the illustrator tried to safeguard his limited space of operation. Although the caption is out of his reach, as they were the responsibility of the newspaper’s editorial staff, the photo of the event to be illustrated was in his hands. As a rule, the artist had free choice in the use of photographs, and in many cases, this certainly supported his creative work.
Thousands of photographs from both international press agencies and from the Neapolitan agencies previously discussed, crowd the shelves of the Matania family’s home and studio. They have been collected in folders, arranged by specific topics rather than by general main headings, as is the case in the photographic documentation departments of large newspapers.52 These topics include: animals (different species), persons (sovereigns, prelates, military men, portraits, expressive types, children, etc.), countries (distinguished by nation), disasters, wars, places and monuments, church services, crowds, landscapes and cityscapes, works of art, music, fashion and sports. Matania had an extensive photographic repertoire at his disposal, as these topics reflect a highly varied inventory of the themes that are important in international photojournalism.53
For Matania his archive served a specific task: consulting folders and single photographs by sifting forms, models, atmospheres, faces, clothing and behaviours as a source of creativity for the pictorial interpretation to be reserved for the printed page. The photos in the archive also show traces of use, namely the directions of the newspaper regarding the application of retouche and other explicit instructions to the typographer, such as the cutting out of profiles of figures, the highlighting of particular details, or the marking of these details by text.
The stamps and captions glued on the back of the photographs allow us to reconstruct the different origins and names of the press photo agencies that supplied the images. These include photographers employed by official national offices, independent reporters, and image suppliers representing international press agencies. Couriers delivered the photos to Matania as mere consumables or commodities. Some envelopes with the addresses of both the newspaper and the artist have been preserved.
Although the Matania archive was created as a site of creative practice and as an artistic device, it can similarly inspire research on several levels: into its own history, into the themes and subjects of the images, into other documents and objects in the archive, and into the individual photographers and specific agencies represented in the archive. Like ghosts, these photographers and agencies survive in the stamps and writings left as traces to be discovered and deciphered on the back of the prints. Next to the Neapolitan agencies mentioned above, particularly Beuf, Carbone and Troncone, we can also find Italian agencies in the Matania archive - the Istituto Nazionale LUCE, Alinari (Florence), Interfoto and AFI (Venice), Publifoto (Milan), VEDO, Porry-Pastorel, Morano Pis and Bruni (Rome) – and agencies that operated in the Italian African colonies: De Pretore, Luisopulo, and Parodi. Following the names of the international agencies in the archive, the researchers flew from New York to London, Paris, Berlin, and Zurich (fig. 13a and 13b). Even if you follow only one agency, you will visit many different places because international photo agencies have branches in different countries, as in the case for Keystone View Co (fig. 14a and 14b), Wide World Photos, and the Associated Press.54
Many of the photographs supplied by international press agencies were used by Matania for artistic purposes, as a direct source or, more generally, as an inspiration for hand-drawn journalistic illustrations. This type of work has generated a history of the daily practice of a journalist-illustrator whose workspace operated as a multipurpose place, reflecting models, ideas, and memories.55 The various pieces which make up his workspace and archive coexist due to reciprocal relationships in an unstable equilibrium, in a sort of ‘ecosystem.’56
Considering that an archive is not only a physical place but also a system that organizes and reflects a specific period, the Matania archive fully embodies this duplicity .5757 It is widely recognised, however, that the study of photographs cannot be extrapolated from the context they are preserved in: ‘the archive is in its materiality an autonomous and unique structure, not simply the sum of the single photographs that constitute it.’58
The Neapolitan archives and the state of research and censuses in Italy
The history of the archives under scrutiny here, their characteristics and internal dynamics, is a story that still needs to be told and reconstructed, as only a few features have been outlined in scholarly studies during the last twenty years.59 These historiographical directions have drawn attention to the problem, and consequently also that of the Ministry of Education and Culture, which has included these archives in the already mentioned national census of 2016.
The census gives a brief description of each archive or collection and of the individual photo collections that comprise them. Carried out according to national standards, the census created a single point to share, consult, and study photographic collections. As a result, it also increased the visibility of the individual archives, especially of those with fewer resources of their own.60 The initiative is highly commendable, considering that only a decade earlier the archives discussed in this article had never been studied in Italy.61 The census finally provided a space for the necessary information about the archives of Matania, Parisio, Carbone and Troncone, with the exception of Beuf’s archive, which was only recently (re)discovered by his heirs.
Obviously, the census of photo archives as separate entities is an important achievement, which nevertheless excludes the indexing, cataloguing and digitisation of the respective photographs, because this is left to the care of private individuals (heirs and non-profit cultural associations) and is therefore conducted partially and heterogeneously.
Digitising Neapolitan press photo archives: questions and perspectives
The Neapolitan press photo archives preserve visual documents that are strongly tied to a precise location. Because of this, one may wonder how they can help us see the photographic archive not only as an object but also as a reflection of a working method and collecting practice. The press photo archives in Naples can only tell a partial story, as long as that story cannot be reconnected to the places and contexts of reference and to the original vocation of photography as ‘applied art’ to the needs of the printed page. The varied identities of these collections reveal the reality of a photojournalism, which must be interpreted in relation to both its production methods and its use, distribution and preservation, and by consequence in relation to the (physical) contexts in which they belong. For this reason, the possible integral digitisation of photojournalism archives remains a problem to be assessed on a case-by-case basis, especially in relation to their contexts and considering the different parts of which they are made up.
To be sure, the digital and material realms are not simply interchangeable. As established by recent studies on digital collections, researchers should keep in mind that they are dealing with two different kinds of materiality.62 The physicality of the archive and its tangible presence provide an immersive physical context, while the virtual, digital space can open up new dimensions of research and the possibility of easily connecting the different parts that constitute the collection. Tiziana Serena argues that the ‘right place of photography’ lies in a space of ‘coincidence’ of production and communication.63 The press photo archives discussed in this article seem to exactly honour this space: press photo archives should be read and interpreted both in relation to their physical consistency and in their future virtual shape. If an archive cannot be described in its entirety, it can still be experienced, visited, questioned by the visitor, at the risk of getting lost.
In every press photo archive, the ferments of life coagulate in the image: the archive is an increasingly pervasive warehouse, its breeding ground being exhaustively the page printed in ink. The photo archives that preserve this heritage, hidden in the negatives and in the few silver gelatin prints that escaped various unfortunate circumstances, now seem detached from these pages, and yet they owe their entire existence to those pages.
The Carbone and Troncone archives, which have maintained the characteristics of a press photo agency, almost naturally suggest the following consideration. If these archives had kept not only the photographs but also the newspapers, periodicals, brochures, posters, playbills and other printed matter in which these images had been printed, published and disseminated, the circle of history could have been completed. But unfortunately, this did not happen.
Rather, the images in the Carbone and Troncone archives have been used mainly as simple, visual testimonies to retrace the history of places transformed by time and of people from the past. They present stories in images which were disclosed and promoted in the Storia fotografica di Napoli, a series of publications that tell the history of photography in Naples in chronological phases, showing the best photographs preserved in the archives that have been discussed so far. The Storia fotografica di Napoli is an ‘archive of images and events’64 that accompanies the reader in a close chronology of the social, political, and cultural events of the city. The city’s photographic history is basically told through the ‘pre-eminence of photographic visualization’65 and considers photography primarily as a ‘historical document.’66
A press photo archive should not only be useful for this purpose. It should also be approached and read as a complex whole, even though this is a difficult task. Arlette Farge correctly underlined ‘the impossibility of ever taking full possession of the archive,’ because of the risk of losing oneself in too many details.67 Browsing through the folders, the materiality of photography and the photo archive become tangible while fragments of history, laid down in the various subjects represented in the images, come to the surface just like the traces of use imprinted on the backside or in some acronym of their producers. However, the photo archive always primarily tells the private story of the person who has collected the images, acquiring them from a wide range of press photo agencies worldwide.
The attempts undertaken so far to read, interrogate and interpret the archives mentioned above might lead researchers to see digitisation as a solution to the bewilderment that these archives produce. At the moment, only some Neapolitan archives, such as Parisio, Carbone and Troncone, have been partially digitised, following mostly heterogeneous criteria. However, it is recommended that their digitisation also benefits the preservation of the physical material and should promote the accessibility of its metadata to researchers and historians as well as to publishers and commercial parties. It follows that linking photos and data in different archives can lead to new insights, and that applies especially to the Matania archive. Indeed, one of the interesting features of the Matania Archive is that it contains many photographs of the Neapolitan agencies mentioned, as well as many other photographs with a different origin in addition to many newspapers and magazines contemporary to the agency photographs.
The photographs, newspapers and painted illustrations in the Matania Archive are at present only available physically. The ‘archival impulse’ that generated this set of visual materials, created an indissoluble bond between the paintings, the original plates produced for the illustrations, the preparatory drawings, and even the objects that served as models, on the one hand, and the photographs collected in folders arranged by themes and the corresponding printed magazines, on the other hand.68 The Matania Archive is thus a kind of intermediate form that is located between the photo album, thanks to the sequential arrangement of the images allowing for the reconstruction of photo stories, and a drawer in which photos are stored in bulk.69 The archive was ‘born out of disorder’ and is provided with an ‘excess of meaning,’ like the archives described by Alette Farge where ‘the reader experiences beauty, amazement and a certain affective tremor.’70
Considering that ‘every photograph is a single case,’ the same is true of every other element in an archive.71 What applies to photography also applies to the other components of an archive: their mutual link and relationship are indissoluble and determine the archive’s identity.
The photographic part of the Matania Archive, which is not yet catalogued and digitised, could provide a field of experimentation in terms of preservation and use, where the physical approach of the old-fashioned atmosphere of the artist’s studio and its characteristics could meet the advantages that digital access to the photographic part of the collection would be able to offer. It would be even more interesting if the photographs in the Matania Archive could be digitally linked, for example in an integrated database, to the local archives Parisio, Beuf, Carbone and Troncone which, in their specific diversity, share - as we have tried to highlight - a common history.
The digitisation of every single image in these collections, including a digital reconstruction of the context to which it belongs, should make us reflect on the significance of the availability of such photographs on the web and on the modality of their consumption that safeguards ‘the spatial (and cultural) references to a symbolic order.’72
If we are convinced that ‘photographic archives preserve and guarantee access to the photographs as instruments, but also as objects of research,’ we must also be aware that ‘the physical context of an analogue photo archive is quite different from the context of a database that allows the online consultation of digital reproductions of single analogue photographs. (…) For research purposes it is not enough to guarantee access to single analogue photographs; it is the photo archive, with its structures and functions, that must be preserved as a place and also the object of all potential present and future scholarly investigations.’73
The archive is by definition a ‘reality in constant transformation and not a place where memory is crystallized.’74 That is to say, it is a complex ‘text’ and a problematic device.75 As for the photographic heritage, its enhancement also lies ‘in the details and in the ‘environments’ that surround the photographic object’ in the archive.76
Fairly unexplored press photo archives, such as those considered here, should be available for research in order to safeguard – also through digitisation – the material complexity of digital objects in relation to the physical, logistical and contextual materiality of which they are the expression. In this way, we can strengthen both the polysemy, the fabric of connections that characterises the images in the Matania Archive and in the other press photo archives, and the visualisation of history.77