While many equate Italian neorealism with post-World War II cinema, still photography — images of lower-class life in an Italy damaged by and recovering from years of bombings and fascism — also is part of the neorealist picture.
“NeoRealismo: The New Image in Italy, 1932-1960,” an exhibition at Museo Italo Americano in San Francisco running through Sept. 15, looks closely at neorealist photography’s history and humanity.
The show contains more than 100 black-and-white photographs taken by more than 50 artists — many of them unknown on our shores (and nearly all male) — in the straightforward, documentary neorealist style. It was organized by Admira, Milan, and curated by Enrica Vigano.
Unlike neorealist cinema, neorealist photography began not after the fall of Benito Mussolini, but during his fascist reign, according to text on the wall at the exhibit’s opening. At a time when illiteracy was widespread, the dictator used photographs to present a positive image of his regime.
Mussolini addresses a crowd of avid supporters in one image from this period. In another, he walks by a row of mothers with babies in strollers (families with five or more children received special benefits). Images of squalor were censored by the regime.
The exhibit’s ensuing sections explore post-World War II Italy as both a devastated and a resilient nation, and as a culturally diverse land.
Areas of focus include ethnographic surveys that photographed regions and their specific cultures all over Italy, with the aim of building an inclusive Italian identity.
The less-modernized southern localities were of particular interest, inspiring photographs of subjects ranging from a Sicilian wedding to witchcraft rituals.
Another exhibit section contains photojournalistic projects published in magazines and newspapers at a time when the public was hungry for truthful information. Another is devoted to photography clubs, whose members intensely discussed the medium.
It all adds up to a trip through mid-20th-century Italy, neorealist style, via a wide range of informative and striking pictures.
Photographs documenting Italy’s 1948 elections capture that historic moment, while Sante Vittorio Malli’s “When Snow Means Bread” (1956) illustrates hardship with its image of men walking down a road, carrying shovels.
Regional vibes and human character abound in Nino Migliori’s 1959 image of locals at a night cafe in Emilia-Romana and in Piergiorgio Branzi’s “Piazza Grande in Burano” (1957), which features a young Venetian having an acrobatic moment.
Other memorable pictures of everyday life include selections from Mario Cattaneo’s “Alleys in Naples” series (1951-58) and numerous portraits of poor workers — fishermen, machinists, a seamstress — who, like similarly unglamorous figures in neorealist cinema, convey an affecting down-to-earth dignity.
Posters of neorealist films, including “La Strada” and “Bicycle Thieves,” complement the photographs.
IF YOU GO
NeoRealismo: The New Image in Italy, 1932-1960
Where: Museo Italo Americano, Fort Mason, Building C, 2 Marina Blvd., S.F.
When: Noon to 4 p.m. daily except closed Mondays and to 8 p.m. Thursdays; through Sept. 15