Posts Tagged ‘self-taught photographer

05
May
19

Exhibition: ‘Erwin Olaf’ at the Gemeentemuseum den Haag and Fotomuseum Den Haag / the Hague Museum of Photography

Exhibition dates: 16th February – 16th June 2019

Curators: Wim van Sinderen with the assistance of Hanneke Mantel (both of Gemeentemuseum Den Haag and The Hague Museum of Photography)

 

 

Erwin Olaf (Netherlands, b. 1959) 'Joy' 1985

 

Erwin Olaf (Netherlands, b. 1959)
Squares, Joy
1985
Gelatin silver print

 

 

As a storyteller, Erwin Olaf is a contemporary photographer whose work addresses most current concerns of the world – discrimination, gender, sexuality, taboo, climate change, reality, equality, power, racism, freedom of expression and democracy – through staged studio and outdoor photographs of incredible technical and visual skill.

The key to his work is the twist that he gives his cinematic, perfect worlds – the hidden crack in the facade, the unhinging of the link between reality and representation. These not so perfect worlds are often inspired by stories of the past, whether those stories may be present in the works of Vermeer, the still lives of the Dutch painters of the 16th and 17th century, Caravaggio, the Olympic Games of 1936, Norman Rockwell paintings, film noir, or clothes of the 1950s and 1960s.

The stillness and silence of the photographs subjects let the viewer examine the details of the mise en scène… the perfectly placed Coke bottle and apple, the shredded American flag in Palm Springs, The Kite (2018); the bandaged knee, the dripping ice cream in Rain, The Ice Cream Parlour (2004); and also admire the beautiful textures and lighting of the finished “product”, for Olaf’s aesthetic riffs on subverting theatrical performances and magazine fashion shoots.

Olaf let’s the viewer’s eye move without restraint across the terrain of the photographs, letting them soak up the atmosphere of his hyperreal tableau vivant. Both seductive and disturbing, his photographs challenge us to interrogate our own story – who are we, what do we really believe in, and what can we do to change prejudice and bigotry in a hostile world.

Dr Marcus Bunyan for Art Blart

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Many thankx to the Gemeentemuseum den Haag for allowing me to publish the photographs in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.

 

 

“What I want to show most of all is a perfect world with a crack in it. I want to make the picture seductive enough to draw people into the narrative, and then deal the blow.”

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Erwin Olaf

 

“In 1982, I saw an exhibition of Robert Mapplethorpe in Amsterdam that blew me off the socks. I just had a Hasselblad, I was inspired by his craftsmanship and the beautiful prints, and I thought: this is what I want too. In the series ‘Squares’ (1983-93) you clearly see his influence. I started asking people that I knew from the nightlife if they wanted to pose for me in my studio, which I had decorated in a squat of a friend. For example, the boy with the champagne bottle worked in the wardrobe of my favourite disco.”

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Erwin Olaf (excerpt from the book ‘Erwin Olaf – I am’)

 

“My earliest work reflects my life in that time. I was a moth – I really loved the nightlife. In the late seventies, the early eighties was a hedonistic period: Disco and the beginning of the punk, the sexual revolution. I loved watching people play with gender, the theatrical of the nightlife, all the roles they could take.”

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Erwin Olaf

 

“The camera offered me a possibility to enter a world that was not mine. I was able to hide behind the camera, but also be part of what I saw. As a photographer, you can look at people. You’re observing. I wanted to focus my gaze on groups that were outside the ‘normal’ society. One of my first photography assignments for school had as a theme ‘what’s normal?’. I still ask myself that.”

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Erwin Olaf (excerpt from the book ‘Erwin Olaf – I am’)

 

 

Gemeentemuseum Den Haag and The Hague Museum of Photography are to honour one of the Netherlands’ most famous photographers, Erwin Olaf (b. 1959), with a double exhibition. Olaf, whose recent portraits of the royal family drew widespread admiration, will turn sixty this year – a good moment to stage a major retrospective. The Hague Museum of Photography will focus on Olaf’s love of his craft and his transition from analogue photojournalist to digital image-maker and storyteller. Olaf will himself bring together some twenty photographs by famous photographers of the past who have been a vital source of inspiration to him. Gemeente Museum Den Haag will show non-commissioned work by Olaf from 2000 to his most recent series, including the work he produced in Shanghai and his most recent series Palm Springs, on display for the first time. Olaf will be showing his photography in the form of installations, in combination with film, sound and sculpture.

 

Erwin Olaf – Palm Springs: behind the scenes

 

Erwin Olaf (Netherlands, b. 1959) 'First Aids Benefit Club Flora Palace Amsterdam, I' 1983

 

Erwin Olaf (Netherlands, b. 1959)
First Aids Benefit Club Flora Palace Amsterdam, I
1983
Gelatin silver print

 

Erwin Olaf (Netherlands, b. 1959) 'First Aids Benefit Club Flora Palace Amsterdam, II' 1983

 

Erwin Olaf (Netherlands, b. 1959)
First Aids Benefit Club Flora Palace Amsterdam, II
1983
Gelatin silver print

 

Erwin Olaf (Netherlands, b. 1959) 'Squares, Pearls' 1986

 

Erwin Olaf (Netherlands, b. 1959)
Squares, Pearls
1986
Gelatin silver print

 

Erwin Olaf (Netherlands, b. 1959) 'Chessmen, XVII' 1988

 

Erwin Olaf (Netherlands, b. 1959)
Chessmen, XVII
1988
© Erwin Olaf
Courtesy Hamiltons Gallery, London / Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York

 

 

“Chessmen was inspired by a chance meeting with my former photography teacher at the School for Journalism. A few years after I graduated there, I met him on the street. When I showed him my work in my studio, he said, “Say, would you like to publish a book?” He had recently taken over a publishing house for a pittance. The only problem was that I didn’t have enough work for a book. “Oh,” he said, “you only need sixty-four pages. And if you leave a page white next to each photo, you will need thirty-two photos. “At home I thought about it while listening to the radio – a chess program was just going on. At one point the presenter said: “This is an attacking game with thirty-two pieces. A war game. “I knew immediately: I’m going to make chess pieces. Those few words on the radio were all I needed; I had a clear picture in mind. Earlier I had been thinking about how I could do something with the theme of power. Power is something weird. Why do people abuse their power? Or why do you want it? Why do some people allow others to exercise power over them? From those questions came the idea of ​​a power game and the people who play it. ”

Erwin Olaf (excerpt from the book Erwin Olaf – I Am)

 

Erwin Olaf (Netherlands, b. 1959) 'Chessmen, XXIV' 1988

 

Erwin Olaf (Netherlands, b. 1959)
Chessmen, XXIV
1988
© Erwin Olaf
Courtesy Hamiltons Gallery, London / Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York

 

Erwin Olaf (Netherlands, b. 1959) 'Blacks, Esmeralda' 1990

 

Erwin Olaf (Netherlands, b. 1959)
Blacks, Esmeralda
1990
© Erwin Olaf
Courtesy Hamiltons Gallery, London / Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York

 

 

“The Blacks series is largely inspired by Janet Jackson’s album Rhythm Nation 1814. In one song, she sings: “In complete darkness we are all the same / It is only our knowledge and wisdom that separates us / Don’t let your eyes deceive you.” A few years earlier I had been hitchhiking to Paris and southern France, together with a friend with an Indonesian background. I was admitted without problems in all kinds of clubs, but they refused him at the door. At that time I became much more aware of the fact that the amount of pigment in your skin can have serious consequences. So when I heard Janet Jackson sing, I thought: this is my theme. I can create a group of people where everyone is equal.”

Erwin Olaf (excerpt from the book Erwin Olaf – I Am)

 

 

Journalistic training

Erwin Olaf was studying journalism in Utrecht in the 1980s when, having noticed that he was unhappy, one of his lecturers pressed a camera into his hands. ‘I loved the thing right from the word go,’ says Olaf, ‘the weight, the cool metal in my hand. It felt so natural. And when I took my first photographs, I knew I had found my calling.’ Olaf began taking journalistic photographs of theatre performances, worked for progressive magazines and volunteered for COC Nederland (which represents LGBTI interests). In his early work Olaf often depicted the human body quite graphically, breaching the restrictions on sexuality, the body and gender. He describes himself at that time as an angry adolescent, though his taboo-breaking work was highly significant in terms of visual freedom in the Netherlands.

 

Early work at The Hague Museum of Photography

The exhibition at The Hague Museum of Photography will start with his early work. Chessmen (1987-88) was one of Olaf’s first non-commissioned series, which came about when he was given the opportunity to produce a photobook. He had to fill 32 pages and he wanted to focus on the theme of power. He had heard an item on the radio about chess, a game of war consisting of 32 pieces. Olaf portrayed the game in a series of provocative images, featuring visible genitals, small half-naked people with kinky attributes, and extremely fat women in bondage outfits. The series did not go unnoticed. He received criticism for it, but also the Young European Photographers Prize.

 

Skill

Another early series shows the engagement that has remained important throughout Olaf’s career. Blacks (1990) is based on a song by Janet Jackson with the line, ‘In complete darkness we are all the same. It is only our knowledge and wisdom that separates us’. The series reflects Olaf’s battle for equality, and also his technical skill. In these baroque portraits, literally everything is black as coal, yet Olaf managed to give the images a rich tonality, both with his camera and in the developing process. A self-taught photographer, he has shown himself to be a master, not only of old-fashioned darkroom processes, but also of new techniques that have emerged in rapid succession since the digital revolution. He did pioneering work with Photoshop in the famous series Royal Blood (2000). Thanks to this new technique, he is even better able to experiment to his heart’s delight in his staged photography.

 

Sources of inspiration

Besides his own work, at The Hague Museum of Photography Erwin Olaf will be bringing together some twenty photographs by photographers who are his most important sources of inspiration, ranging from a vintage still life with roses by the late nineteenth-century photographer Bernard Eilers to self-portraits by Robert Mapplethorpe and Rineke Dijkstra. The work of these photographers inspired him, made him look in a different way at his own artistic practice, or pushed his photography in a new direction. By showing these pictures alongside his early work, which is imbued with his love of his craft, Olaf will give visitors to the Museum of Photography an idea of what has shaped him as a photographer.

 

Gemeentemuseum Den Haag

The exhibition at the Gemeentemuseum will begin, even before the entrance to the galleries, with the life-sized installation Keyhole (2012). The exterior has two long walls with panelling above which framed photographs hang, as in a classic interior. But visitors can watch two films through the keyhole in the doors on either side of the installation. It will be immediately apparent that the Gemeentemuseum is highlighting a new development in the work of Erwin Olaf. Here, he is going one step further, presenting his photography in exciting combinations of film, sound and sculpture.

 

Social engagement

Erwin Olaf’s work has always been highly personal and socially engaged. The clearest influence on the development of his work has been the events surrounding 9/11. Since then, the bombastic, baroque staging of his previous work has made way for more vulnerability and serenity. This has produced images that are very popular with the public: highly stylised film scenes staged perfectly down to the smallest detail, often bathed in light as if they were paintings, with an uncomfortable underlying message. As in the series Rain (2004), which appears to capture the moment between action and reaction after a shocking event. The series Grief (2007), shot in a 1960s setting, is about the first moment of response, the first tear.

Recent events are also reflected in Olaf’s work. He made the Tamed & Anger self-portraits (2015) in response to the Charlie Hebdo attack. In other works he addresses issues like the position of the individual in a globalising world, the exclusion and stereotyping of certain groups of people, and taboos associated with gender and nudity. The exhibition at the Gemeentemuseum will thus afford a glimpse inside Olaf’s turbulent and sometimes dark mind. A visit to the exhibition will be like wandering through his head.

 

Palm Springs: final part of a triptych

Erwin Olaf’s most recent series, Palm Springs (2018), will premiere at the exhibition in the Gemeentemuseum. It is part of a triptych about cities undergoing change, the other two parts being Berlin (2012) and Shanghai (2017). The Berlin series was produced in a period when dark clouds were gathering above Europe. It highlights Olaf’s concerns about freedom of expression and democracy, and the transfer of power from an older to a new generation. Shanghai is a hypermodern metropolis in China with a population of 24 million. The series made in this city explores what happens to the individual in an environment like this. In Palm Springs, Olaf again focuses on topical issues. One of the key themes is climate change, though at the same time the images also recall the America of the 1960s. In a beautiful series of portraits, landscapes – this was the first time Olaf had photographed landscapes – still lifes and filmic scenes he refers to issues like teenage pregnancy, discrimination, religious abuses and polarisation. The series tells the story of people withdrawing into gated communities as reality invades their paradise.

 

Photographs of royal family

A very special addition to the double exhibition will be Erwin Olaf’s photographs of the Dutch royal family. As part of the exhibition at the Gemeentemuseum he will bring together many of the photographs that the Government Information Service commissioned him to take of the royal family. He also took the picture that the family used as a Christmas greeting last December. ‘I’m proud of the royal family,’ says Olaf, ‘because they are a binding factor in a democracy that is sometimes very divided. I’m happy to be able to contribute to that.’

 

Successful artist

The double exhibition will show how Erwin Olaf has developed from angry provocateur to one of the Netherland’s most famous and popular photographers. His work now features in the collections and exhibitions of museums the world over, including China, Russia, The United States of America and Brazil. In 2008 The Hague Museum of Photography showed his Rain, Hope, Grief and Fall series. In 2011 he won the prestigious Johannes Vermeer Prize, and in 2018 the Rijksmuseum purchased almost 500 photographs and videos by Erwin Olaf.

 

Biggest retrospective to date

Together, the exhibitions at the Gemeentemuseum and the Museum of Photography will constitute the biggest retrospective of Olaf’s work ever staged, spanning the period from the early 1980s to his most recent work. In the words of Erwin Olaf: celebrating 40 years of visual freedom.

The double exhibition has been curated by Wim van Sinderen with the assistance of Hanneke Mantel (both of Gemeentemuseum Den Haag and The Hague Museum of Photography), and has come about in close collaboration with Erwin Olaf and his studio.

Press release from the Gemeentemuseum Den Haag [Online] Cited 04/05/2019

 

Erwin Olaf (Netherlands, b. 1959) 'Royal Blood, Di, †1997' 2000

 

Erwin Olaf (Netherlands, b. 1959)
Royal Blood, Di, †1997
2000
© Erwin Olaf
Courtesy Hamiltons Gallery, London / Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York

 

 

“I made the Royal Blood series to celebrate Photoshop as the new craft. I wanted to make something that was clearly fiction and would be impossible without Photoshop. A theme that was in the air at the time was that violence was suddenly identified with glamor. I never understood why criminals, even murderers, have fans. People worship them! And every cinema is chock full of people watching violence every week. I wanted to expose the attraction of blood, violence and celebrity – that live fast, that young ideal. Now I could no longer do this type of work. The emotion behind it has disappeared – I have already told that story. But it remains an important part of my legacy.”

Erwin Olaf (excerpt from the book Erwin Olaf – I am)

 

Erwin Olaf (Netherlands, b. 1959) 'Rain, The Ice Cream Parlour' 2004

 

Erwin Olaf (Netherlands, b. 1959)
Rain, The Ice Cream Parlour
2004
© Erwin Olaf
Courtesy Hamiltons Gallery, London / Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York

 

Erwin Olaf (Netherlands, b. 1959) 'Hope, The Hallway' 2005

 

Erwin Olaf (Netherlands, b. 1959)
Hope, The Hallway
2005
© Erwin Olaf
Courtesy Hamiltons Gallery, London / Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York

 

Erwin Olaf (Netherlands, b. 1959) 'Berlin, Freimaurer Loge Dahlem, 22nd of April, 2012' 2012

 

Erwin Olaf (Netherlands, b. 1959)
Berlin, Freimaurer Loge Dahlem, 22nd of April, 2012 [Masonic Lodge Dahlem]
2012
© Erwin Olaf
Courtesy Hamiltons Gallery, London / Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York

 

Erwin Olaf (Netherlands, b. 1959) 'Keyhole #6' 2012

 

Erwin Olaf (Netherlands, b. 1959)
Keyhole #6
2012
© Erwin Olaf
Courtesy Hamiltons Gallery, London / Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York

 

Erwin Olaf (Netherlands, b. 1959) 'Shanghai, Huai Hai 116, Portrait #2' 2017

 

Erwin Olaf (Netherlands, b. 1959)
Shanghai, Huai Hai 116, Portrait #2
2017
© Erwin Olaf
Courtesy Hamiltons Gallery, London / Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York

 

Erwin Olaf (Netherlands, b. 1959) 'Palm Springs, The Kite' 2018

 

Erwin Olaf (Netherlands, b. 1959)
Palm Springs, The Kite
2018
Courtesy Hamiltons Gallery, London / Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York
© Erwin Olaf

 

Erwin Olaf (Netherlands, b. 1959) 'Palm Springs, The Family Visit - Portrait I' 2018

 

Erwin Olaf (Netherlands, b. 1959)
Palm Springs, The Family Visit – Portrait I
2018
© Erwin Olaf
Courtesy Hamiltons Gallery, London / Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York

 

 

Gemeentemuseum Den Haag
Stadhouderslaan 41, 2517 HV Den Haag

Opening hours:
Tuesday – Sunday 10.00 – 17:00

Gemeentemuseum Den Haag website

Fotomuseum Den Haag
Stadhouderslaan 43
2517 HV Den Haag

Opening hours:
Tuesday – Sunday 11.00 – 17.00
The museum is closed on Mondays

Fotomuseum Den Haag website

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28
Aug
16

Exhibition: ‘Roberto Donetta Photographer and Seed Salesman from Bleniotal’ at Fotostiftung Schweiz, Winterthur, Zurich

Exhibition dates: 28th May – 4th September 2016

 

I have found a hidden gem in Roberto Donetta. He has become one of my favourite photographers, this seed salesman from Bleniotal, who died in obscurity and poverty in 1932.

His photographs are like no other that I have seen. There is a directness to his photographs that is deceptively disarming, and humour as well. His theatre is the the theatre of life: the archaic life of his compatriots in the Blenio Valley. If you look at his work on the Roberto Donetta Archive website the landscapes and ambiguous object photographs are interesting, but it is in the genre of portrait photography that he really excels. This was his passion, photographing people.

Somehow, it seems as if the person being photographed has forgotten that the camera was there, as though it has disappeared from view. As the press release observes, “the people did not dissimulate [to disguise or conceal under a false appearance], indeed it’s almost as if they forgot that someone with a camera was watching, so self-engrossed do they look, serious, at one with themselves.” At one with themselves but also at one with being photographed, which is very unusual. There is little affectation here.

The details of the photographs are fascinating. The placement of the figures in Female Workers in Front of the Chocolate Factory Cima Norma for example, where the left two sitting figures have their legs crossed in the opposite direction while both rest their face in their hands, a central figure, and then two figures interlocked as in an infinity symbol looking at each other. The ‘line’ of the photograph changes from one height to another. We observe that Donetta stages his photographs with infinite care, even when there is a blank wall behind the sitter. In Family Portrait, Bleniotal there is a gorgeous touch, as the mother holds the arm of the boy on the left hand side and gently rests two fingers on his other hand. Donetta’s photographs are full of these familial and human observations.

In Group of musicians in front of a building all the men have cigarettes hanging from their mouths, even as they stare directly, unflinchingly into the camera lens. In Humoristic scene, Bleniotal the man holding the tongs can hardly suppress laughing as the theatrical photograph is being taken. Kittens or toys are held in hands while protective arms wrap around shoulders. Here are the precursors to the work of Diane Arbus, in their honesty and straight forwardness: in its modernity Children with Toys, Bleniotal even reminds me a little of Arbus’ Identical Twins, Roselle, New Jersey, 1967. And then there is the use of temporary backdrops, to imitate the upmarket studios of larger towns: “Donetta did imitate the decorative aesthetic of the late 19th century professional studios: he transformed interior or outdoor spaces into improvised studios by, for example, hanging up fabrics or carpets as backdrops and placing objects like chairs or tables with vases of flowers in the foreground. His portraits are carefully composed and arranged, look uncontrived, calm and archaic.”

Despite their deceptively simple nature, there is a mysterious quality to Donetta’s photographs which is enhanced through the use of these portable backdrops. The fabric backdrop and sheet to the left in A wedding couple staged in front of a cloth obscures a rock wall; the idyllic scene behind the boy in Portrait of a Boy, Bleniotal hides an earthy, rudimentary stone wall (and note the figure at the top of the image, holding the backdrop up); in Family Portrait, Bleniotal the hastily hung sheet has been decorated with leaves and branches; and in Untitled [Portrait of a women] a plain concrete wall acts as the backdrop even as a) the women looks out of the image not towards the camera; b) the eye can escape down the left hand side of the image and c) there is a ghost-like figure at the very right hand side of the image standing in what I presume is a doorway. The frontality of his photographs is also very powerful: in Untitled [Portrait of a man] the man looks like he is wearing his Sunday best jacket replete with bow tie. His legs are spread on the chair, the jacket looks to big for him, is stiff and unforgiving, his workers hands rest in his lap and he stares quizzically out of the image: calm, accepting, himself. In Portrait of Cesarina Andreazzi Lazzari, Bleniotal we (again) notice the textures in the image – the stipple, the concrete, the rocks – and then Cesarina’s stubby, dark hands clutching a bunch of flowers and a book, reminiscent of the dirt under the finger nails and dark features of the peasant boys that appear in the work of Baron Wilhelm von Gloeden.

Above all these are honest, direct and engaging photographs. You can think of Lewis Hine, Jacob Riis, Eugène Atget, Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange and all the FSA photographers, Diane Arbus and others, and yet they don’t come close to the modern/archaic aesthetic of this man. These photographs are a pilgrimage into a past that has long disappeared. But these faces, these people and their lives, still resonate long after they have passed. I was so moved by these photographs I was in tears the other night when I was constructing this posting, studying the intimate details of these images. That means a lot to me.

Dr Marcus Bunyan for Art Blart

PS. I usually don’t publish photographs without title and date but in this instance, to gather together as many Donetta images as possible, I have published them when I have found good quality images on the internet. I believe that in this instance it is very worth while.

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Many thankx to Fotostiftung Schweiz for allowing me to publish some of the photographs in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.

 

 

Roberto Donetta

 

Roberto Donetta
Untitled
Nd
© Fondazione Archivio Fotografico Roberto Donetta, Corzoneso

 

Roberto Donetta

 

Roberto Donetta
Untitled
Nd
© Fondazione Archivio Fotografico Roberto Donetta, Corzoneso

 

Roberto Donetta

 

Roberto Donetta
Untitled
Nd
© Fondazione Archivio Fotografico Roberto Donetta, Cortonese

 

Roberto Donetta. 'Female Workers in Front of the Chocolate Factory Cima Norma, Dangio-Torre' Nd

 

Roberto Donetta
Female Workers in Front of the Chocolate Factory Cima Norma, Dangio-Torre
Nd
© Fondazione Archivio Fotografico Roberto Donetta, Corzoneso

 

Roberto Donetta. 'Family Portrait, Bleniotal' Nd

 

Roberto Donetta
Family Portrait, Bleniotal
Nd
© Fondazione Archivio Fotografico Roberto Donetta, Corzoneso

 

Roberto Donetta. 'In Sonntagsgewand: men in the Torre village come together for bowling' Nd

 

Roberto Donetta
In Sonntagsgewand: men in the Torre village come together for bowling
Nd
© Fondazione Archivio Fotografico Roberto Donetta, Corzoneso

 

Roberto Donetta. 'Untitled [Basket maker], Bleniotal' Nd

 

Roberto Donetta
Untitled [Basket maker], Bleniotal
Nd
© Fondazione Archivio Fotografico Roberto Donetta, Cortonese

 

Roberto Donetta. 'Family Portrait, Bleniotal' Nd

 

Roberto Donetta
Family Portrait, Bleniotal
Nd
© Fondazione Archivio Fotografico Roberto Donetta, Cortonese

 

Roberto Donetta. 'Untitled [Group Portrait], Bleniotal' Nd

 

Roberto Donetta
Untitled [Group Portrait], Bleniotal
Nd
© Fondazione Archivio Fotografico Roberto Donetta, Cortonese

 

Roberto Donetta. 'Group of musicians in front of a building, Bleniotal' 1900-1932

 

Roberto Donetta
Group of musicians in front of a building, Bleniotal
1900-1932
© Fondazione Archivio Fotografico Roberto Donetta, Cortonese

 

Roberto Donetta. 'Untitled [Group of men], Bleniotal' Nd

 

Roberto Donetta
Untitled [Group of men], Bleniotal
Nd
© Fondazione Archivio Fotografico Roberto Donetta, Cortonese

 

Roberto Donetta. 'Three girls in the break from work in the fields under a tree' 1900-1932

 

Roberto Donetta
Three girls in the break from work in the fields under a tree
1900-1932
© Fondazione Archivio Fotografico Roberto Donetta, Cortonese

 

Roberto Donetta

 

Roberto Donetta
Untitled
Nd
© Fondazione Archivio Fotografico Roberto Donetta, Cortonese

 

Roberto Donetta

 

Roberto Donetta
Untitled
Nd
© Fondazione Archivio Fotografico Roberto Donetta, Cortonese

 

Roberto Donetta. 'Humoristic scene, Bleniotal' Nd

 

Roberto Donetta
Humoristic scene, Bleniotal
Nd
© Fondazione Archivio Fotografico Roberto Donetta, Cortonese

 

Roberto Donetta. 'Humoristic scene, Bleniotal' (detail) Nd

 

Roberto Donetta
Humoristic scene, Bleniotal (detail)
Nd
© Fondazione Archivio Fotografico Roberto Donetta, Cortonese

 

Roberto Donetta. 'Four Children in Leafs, Bleniotal' Nd

 

Roberto Donetta
Four Children in Leafs, Bleniotal
Nd
© Fondazione Archivio Fotografico Roberto Donetta, Corzoneso

 

Roberto Donetta. 'Four Children in Leafs, Bleniotal' (detail) Nd

 

Roberto Donetta
Four Children in Leafs, Bleniotal (detail)
Nd
© Fondazione Archivio Fotografico Roberto Donetta, Corzoneso

 

 

Roberto Donetta (1865-1932) from Ticino is one of Swiss photography’s great outsiders. He managed to survive as a travelling photographer and seed salesman, and upon his death left almost 5,000 glass plates which were preserved merely by chance. These capture the archaic life of his compatriots in the Blenio Valley, which at the time was totally isolated, and the gradual advent of modern times in a precise and sensitive way. Over a period of 30 years and in an era of great change, Donetta became a unique chronicler. At the same time, he saw himself as an artist who – self-taught – experimented freely and knew how to master his medium. His pictures are penetrating and humorous, cheerful and deadly serious – be they of children, families, wedding couples, professional people, the harsh everyday-life of women and men, or of the photographer himself. The Blenio Valley as a microcosm: with Donetta the mountain valley becomes the stage for a great Theater of the World. The exhibition will display about 120 works from the Donetta Archive, many of them on show to the public for the first time ever.

Roberto Donetta was born in Biasca on 6 June 1865. It is not known where he spent his youth. Towards the late 1870s his family most probably moved to Castro in the Blenio Valley, as his father had got a job there as a military functionary. An official register entry on the occasion of his marriage to Teodolinda Tinetti indicates that Roberto Donetta certainly lived in the valley as of 1886. He is registered there as “contadino”, a farmer, which he most likely never was. In 1892 he opened a small grocery shop in Corzoneso, but he had it for only six months. In 1894 he went to London to work as a waiter, returning just 15 months later, sick and exhausted. He then became a hawker and travelled into the most remote corners of the whole valley selling vegetable and flower seeds. As of 1900 he lived in the “Casa Rotonda” in Casserio, part of the Corzoneso municipality. He and Teodolinda meantime had seven children, one of whom died at the age of one. It was around that time that Donetta began to be involved with photography. Apparently Dionigi Sorgesa, a sculptor from Corzoneso, introduced him to the profession and also rented him a camera. Now Donetta was not only a seed merchant but also the valley’s photographer.

A Constant traveller

After turbulent quarrels about the use of their sparse income, he and his family separated in 1912: his wife and children left him in the direction of Bellinzona in search of more lucrative work. Only the youngest son, Saul, remained with his father. On 6 June 1913, his 48th birthday, some of Donetta’s belongings were seized and, for a couple of months, he had no camera, which was a great worry to him: “Not to be able to work for a period of nine months – that severed my connection with my art and made me totally destitute.” Donetta spent the years after the First World War in great solitude, constantly on the road throughout the valley. From 1927 onwards, some of his photographs were published in one of Switzerland’s first illustrated journals, L’Illustré, issued by Ringier.

On the morning of 6 September 1932, Roberto Donetta was found dead in his home. All his photographic equipment was confiscated and auctioned so as to pay off his debts to the municipality. The glass plates, however, were all left untouched. In the mid-1980s Mariarosa Bozzini rediscovered them in Corzoneso.

Between tradition and modernity

Donetta’s personality was full of contradictions. On the one hand, he expressed considerable interest in all the phenomena associated with the advent of modern achievements, such as photography. On the other hand, he was decidedly conservative when it came to the cohesion of the family or his close links with nature. The latter prevented him from leaving the valley to look for more secure work in town. He lamented the constant changes associated with road building and new railway lines, which he did not see as a blessing for the valley. In his capacity as a photographer he succumbed to the fascination of the modern, yet at the same time he expressed a deep respect for long-standing traditions and rituals.

Roberto Donetta’s passion was undoubtedly for portrait photography. The self-taught photographer not only exhibited an astonishing technical mastery in portraying people, but was also able to give free rein to his creativity – despite the fact that this particular field of photography was strongly influenced by the conventions and expectations of his clients. His numerous portraits of children are remarkable. With children he was well able to live out his delight in composing, his talent in staging small scenes. He took the young people seriously, and they in turn were his accomplices, becoming involved in his idiosyncratic ideas.

The chronicler and his style

Throughout his life Donetta accompanied life in the valley, taking commissioned photographs of the inhabitants and the representatives of the different professions, as well as of various events: a visit by a bishop, the arrival of a carousel, a flood, a fire, the construction of a railway line or a bell tower. He was also present at life’s rituals, the transitions from one age group to another, from one social group to the next, or else the prominent fixed points in the year’s cycle, be they secular or ecclesiastical: festivals, weddings, funerals, processions, outdoor church services, these were inconceivable without “il fotografo”. Donetta made photography an important part of those rituals, and over the course of time the photographer was as much a part of the valley as the parson was of the church. This is surely the source of the quality of his photographs: the people did not dissimulate, indeed it’s almost as if they forgot that someone with a camera was watching, so self-engrossed do they look, serious, at one with themselves.

The improvised studio

As Donetta did not have a studio of his own, he travelled the whole valley to take his portraits and produced only small modest prints in postcard format (ie. 7 x 11 cm), which he occasionally stamped with his initials. Often the only ornamentation was an oval vignetting or rounded edges. He regularly delivered the commissioned photographs late because, in order to save chemicals, he only developed his films infrequently. After his rounds as a seed merchant, he then struggled with his business correspondence late into the evening. His works differ greatly from the elegant, classic, gold-edged cards that people could have done those days in the city studios without long waiting periods.

Yet in his own way Donetta did imitate the decorative aesthetic of the late 19th century professional studios: he transformed interior or outdoor spaces into improvised studios by, for example, hanging up fabrics or carpets as backdrops and placing objects like chairs or tables with vases of flowers in the foreground. His portraits are carefully composed and arranged, look uncontrived, calm and archaic. Because of the long exposure times, he was concerned to eliminate chance and spontaneity as far as possible.

In addition to this, he also experimented, or simply took photographs for himself: still life, stormy scenes, cloud formations, strangely shaped cliff or tree outlines. These photographs impress us by their modernity and originality and testify to an inquisitive man with an interest in aesthetic issues.

Press release from Fotostiftung Schweiz

 

Roberto Donetta. 'For the photographer, he briefly interrupts his work: A chef in Bleniotal' Nd

 

Roberto Donetta
For the photographer, he briefly interrupts his work: A chef in Bleniotal
Nd
© Fondazione Archivio Fotografico Roberto Donetta, Corzoneso

 

Roberto Donetta

 

Roberto Donetta. 'Untitled [Boy and girl]' Nd

 

Roberto Donetta
Untitled [Boy and girl]
Nd
© Fondazione Archivio Fotografico Roberto Donetta, Cortonese

 

Roberto Donetta

 

Roberto Donetta. 'Children with Toys, Bleniotal' Nd

 

Roberto Donetta
Children with Toys, Bleniotal
Nd
© Fondazione Archivio Fotografico Roberto Donetta, Corzoneso

 

Roberto Donetta. 'Roberto and Linda Donetta with Their Children Brigida and Saulle' 1905-1910

 

Roberto Donetta
Roberto and Linda Donetta with Their Children Brigida and Saulle
1905-1910
© Fondazione Archivio Fotografico Roberto Donetta, Corzoneso

 

Roberto Donetta. 'Roberto and Linda Donetta with Their Children Brigida and Saulle' (detail) 1905-1910

 

Roberto Donetta
Roberto and Linda Donetta with Their Children Brigida and Saulle (detail)
1905-1910
© Fondazione Archivio Fotografico Roberto Donetta, Corzoneso

 

Roberto Donetta

 

Roberto Donetta. 'A wedding couple staged in front of a cloth' Nd

 

Roberto Donetta
A wedding couple staged in front of a cloth
Nd
© Fondazione Archivio Fotografico Roberto Donetta, Corzoneso

 

Roberto Donetta. 'Portrait of a Boy, Bleniotal' Nd

 

Roberto Donetta
Portrait of a Boy, Bleniotal
Nd
© Fondazione Archivio Fotografico Roberto Donetta, Corzoneso

 

Roberto Donetta. 'Killing of a pig, Bleniotal' 1900-1932

 

Roberto Donetta
Killing of a pig, Bleniotal
1900-1932
© Fondazione Archivio Fotografico Roberto Donetta, Corzoneso

 

Roberto Donetta. 'Family Portrait, Bleniotal' Nd

 

Roberto Donetta
Family Portrait, Bleniotal
© Fondazione Archivio Fotografico Roberto Donetta, Corzoneso

 

Roberto Donetta. 'Untitled [Portrait of a women]' Nd

 

Roberto Donetta
Untitled [Portrait of a women]
Nd
© Fondazione Archivio Fotografico Roberto Donetta, Cortonese

 

Roberto Donetta. 'Untitled [Portrait of a man]' Nd

 

Roberto Donetta
Untitled [Portrait of a man]
Nd
© Fondazione Archivio Fotografico Roberto Donetta, Cortonese

 

Roberto Donetta. 'Portrait of Cesarina Andreazzi Lazzari, Bleniotal' Nd

 

Roberto Donetta
Portrait of Cesarina Andreazzi Lazzari, Bleniotal
Nd
© Fondazione Archivio Fotografico Roberto Donetta, Corzoneso

 

Roberto Donetta. 'Portrait of Cesarina Andreazzi Lazzari, Bleniotal' (detail) Nd

 

Roberto Donetta
Portrait of Cesarina Andreazzi Lazzari, Bleniotal (detail)
Nd
© Fondazione Archivio Fotografico Roberto Donetta, Corzoneso

 

Roberto Donetta. 'Self-portrait of Roberto Donetta with hat and a photo album in hand, in front of a wall, Bleniotal' 1900-1932

 

Roberto Donetta
Self-portrait of Roberto Donetta with hat and a photo album in hand, in front of a wall, Bleniotal
1900-1932
© Fondazione Archivio Fotografico Roberto Donetta, Corzoneso

 

 

Fotostiftung Schweiz
Grüzenstrasse 45
CH-8400 Winterthur (Zürich)
Tel: +41 52 234 10 30

Opening hours:
Daily 11 am to 6 pm
Wednesday 11 am to 8 pm
Closed on Mondays

Fotostiftung Schweiz website

Roberto Donetta Archive website

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Dr Marcus Bunyan

Dr Marcus Bunyan is an Australian artist and writer. His art work explores the boundaries of identity and place. He writes Art Blart, a photographic archive and form of cultural memory, which posts mainly photography exhibitions from around the world. He holds a Dr of Philosophy from RMIT University, Melbourne, a Master of Arts (Fine Art Photography) from RMIT University, and a Master of Art Curatorship from the University of Melbourne.

Marcus Bunyan black and white archive: ‘Mask’ 1994

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