Alfredo Camisa

Urban Alphabet A

1957, printed 2005

Not on display

Alfredo Camisa 1927–2007
Original title
Alfabeto Urbano A
Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper
Image with white border: 404 × 305 mm
Mounted: 610 × 510 × 5 mm
Accepted under the Cultural Gifts Scheme by HM Government from Massimo Prelz Oltramonti and allocated to Tate 2015


Urban Alphabet comprises sixteen black and white photographs that were taken by Italian photographer Alfredo Camisa between 1955 and 1961 (Tate P13644P13659). Each one depicts a letter of the alphabet that Camisa found in signage in the urban or suburban landscape. Some are shot straight-on – with all extraneous details and clues to context removed – while in others Camisa allowed more information into the frame, such as propped-up bicycles, or stacks of building materials piled next to buildings. While people do appear in some of the images, their presence is secondary to the form of the letter. The clearest example of this can be seen in Urban Alphabet S 1959 (Tate P13657), in which a man has paused to look directly into the camera, confronting it head-on, but Camisa has shifted the camera’s focus away from him and onto the large letter S behind him. The high contrast and strong tones of the images in Urban Alphabet are typical of Camisa’s practice.

Urban Alphabet is also characteristic of Camisa’s preference for working in series and focusing on a single subject. He treated the project as a game, describing it in his notes as ‘a hobby … that has accompanied me on my photographic journey’. He did not keep a record of the precise locations he shot in, but in his notes on the series he explained the common thread in the places he chose to photograph and the appeal they had for him:

the attraction to the suburbs for the ‘squalor’ (in pictorial sense at least) … the sense of desolation, cold and sadness they emanate, for that aura of ‘old’ they bring with them … the places I’ve always loved: the suburbs, the desolate interiors, the old signboards, and those crafts doomed to extinction. If I had continued to take pictures, I would have certainly given great space to the so-called ‘industrial archeology’.
(Alfredo Camisa, ‘Project for Urban Alphabet’, unpublished, date unknown, translated by Marta Camisa, the artist’s granddaughter 2014.)

This interest in the neglected and overlooked is evident in the details that he chose to focus on in the images, such as hand-painted signs, creeping weeds or broken windows. Each photograph can thus be seen as the result of a different formal exercise, in which the photographer experimented with cropping and use of contrast to draw attention to these details.

Camisa finished making Urban Alphabet in 1961, the year that he made the decision to withdraw from photography altogether on the basis that to pursue it any further he would need to become professional and work on commission, something that he was not willing to do. Although he made a very small number of test prints of Urban Alphabet at the time he took the photographs, it wasn’t until 2005 that he returned to his contact sheets of the project to select the best images, which he then printed properly for the first time. Despite only being active as a photographer between 1953 and 1961, Camisa was central to the development of photography in Italy in the period following the Second World War. Like many others, he was self-taught, having trained as a chemical engineer. He purchased his first camera upon graduating but his real involvement in photography began in 1955 in Milan, where he moved to take a job at Agip, an oil company, and began to take photographs in his free time while on trips to locations including Europe and North Africa that he undertook as part of his work. Among his best-known bodies of work are a series on market stalls taken in Sicily, and portraits of actors backstage in Piccolo Teatro, a theatre in Milan. Like Piergiorgio Branzi (born 1928), also represented in Tate’s collection (see Tate P13639P13643), Camisa was accepted into the formalist avant-garde photography group La Bussola in 1956 but became more fully involved with its later incarnation La Misa, a group more moderate in its approach whose members tended to balance formal concerns with vernacular subject matter. Camisa was careful to avoid labelling his work and particularly wished to distance it from associations with realism or neorealism, preferring instead the terms ‘formalist-realist’ or ‘lyrical-realist’ to describe it. In 1959 he wrote, ‘I search for subjects with strong tones and I like to emphasise these when printing … This search for strength in tones is not a passing whim. For me it has the precise function of a personal interpretation of a subject and in demanding this I am well aware that it robs my pictures of reportage.’ (Quoted in Norman Hall, British Photography Yearbook, London 1960, p.41.)

From 1955 Camisa’s work was included in exhibitions across Italy within the context of photography groups and prizes, as well as in solo shows (beginning with Impressions of Sicily in 1955), and the weekly magazine Il Mondo regularly ran his images (albeit uncredited). In 1959 his work was included in two important exhibitions overseas: Photography at Mid-Century, George Eastman House, Rochester, New York, and the third of the three seminal Subjectif Fotografie exhibitions curated by Otto Steinert that toured from Germany. Camisa’s contribution also existed in the form of critical essays and correspondence and he was a keen writer and vocal presence in the photography community.

The photographs in Tate’s collection were purchased directly from the artist by Massimo Prelz Oltramonti, one of the foremost collectors of twentieth and twenty-first century Italian photography, from whose collection they have been gifted to Tate.

Further reading
Germano Celant (ed.), The Italian Metamorphosis 1943–1968, exhibition catalogue, Guggenheim Museum, New York 1994.
Viewpoints: Italy in Black and White, exhibition catalogue, The Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art, London 2005.
Italian Photography 1930–1970s, exhibition catalogue, Manezh Central Exhibition Centre, Moscow 2007.

Emma Lewis
November 2014

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