by Paolo Mattei
From Casarsa to the New York Metropolitan, from Friuli to the world: Elio Ciol has come a long way thanks to his photographs, and continues on his journey to this day.
Ciol was born in 1929 in a small town in the province of Pordenone, Casarsa della Delizia – an old town
deafened by the timeless sound of the bell, to use Pasolini’s words.
Ciol still lives there, but he and his works continue to travel around the world. Just recently, there were various itinerant exhibits in Russia promoted by Moscow’s Italian Institute of Culture and the Russian capital’s Art Biennial Foundation; in December 2012, his work was presented in Irkutsk, Siberia, for a show titled “The Face and Word”, which recorded 20,000 visitors in the first two months and later moved to Novosibirsk and Moscow. In 2013, some photos from the “Years of Neorealism” and “Etched Light” stopped in Ptuj, Slovenia, for the Art Stays Festival. “Etched Light” later reached the Archbishop’s Palace in Arles.
And there is more: between 2013 and 2014, the images of “Anima Mundi” were on tour in Slovenia, while this years it’s time for “Worshippers of the Cross. Armenia 2005” in Lugano, and “Years of Neorealism” was welcomed in Austria’s Pavelhaus Laafeld Bad Radkersburg, which also showcased Ciol’s set photographs from “Gli ultimi”, a movie by Vito Pandolfi and Father David Maria Turoldo, for which he worked as set photographer in 1962.
All in all, on top of appearances in a number of permanent exhibitions – New York’s MoMA and London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, to mention but a few –, Elio Ciol’s photographs travel on the tight schedule of an international “never-ending tour”.
The Friulian photographer is now back home, in the town where he first got interested in photography as a young boy. It was seventy years ago, in his father’s photo studio.
What did you dream about, when you learned the basics of photography as a child. Between film and darkrooms, did you imagine you would become a great photographer?
After over seventy years, it’s difficult to remember what I thought or dreamt about at the time. But no, I never could have expected that one day, my photographs would be presented in such important places in the world. At the time, I just focused on gradually learning how to develop film and print pictures in a darkroom. I was more attracted to the type of life my farmer friends had, because their activities in the fields changed every day and were flooded with infinite sunlight.
What made you want to capture reality on film?
I was fifteen years old when, in 1944, Italy was occupied by the German army. Our studio did what it could, and somehow stayed in business. In that period I found my first photography teacher, without ever having looked for one. He was a German doctor and officer, whose name I never knew. He taught me to see things through the photos he took of my town: places, settings, people’s faces. Luckily, he had his pictures developed at our studio: we printed everything that came out of his Leica.
What did you feel, seeing the images you were developing?
It was a jolt, as if a bell had gone off. I realized there was a way of looking at things that was not superficial and distracted, a way to observe them with all the weight of the reality they carried within. I discovered the toll of work and time on the faces of the elderly, carved by deep wrinkles I had never noticed before. The charm in the poverty of farmers’ life also revealed itself to me, through pictures taken at the right moment, under the best light to bring out people and things. They were images that stayed on your mind even as time went by, like the values in a special way of looking at the world. Those photographs taught me a lot.
How did go from there to international success?
In 1955, I dared to compete in New York’s “Popular Photography” contest: I won two awards, to the surprise of my town’s people as well as of the Italian press. In 1956 I tried again and won another award, and in 1957 three more of my photos were awarded.
You must have been proud…
Of course, it was an unexpected surprise. Indeed, my success abroad also interested the members of Venice’s “Gondola”, an influential photography club I had been accepted in only a few month earlier. In 1958, my picture of “A Countryside Girl” was showcased and published by “Photo Maxima – The Photographic Society of America” in Philadelphia… With my family and friends, I must admit I enjoyed these first international accolades very much.
Even after so many years, your photographs of Italy still have the same charm. Many portray inanimate subjects: architectures, countryside views, and villages often either wrapped in fog or covered in snow. How do you think they were able to maintain their expressiveness intact?
I think it depends first and foremost on the fact they are quite familiar subjects for most of us. We have encountered similar images over time, and now carry them as part of us and of our memories. Thus these photographs suddenly awake memories and emotions… and can move us, thanks to the composition of shapes – like “Shadows on the Meduna” and “Before the Thunderstorm” –, to the relationship between man and landscape – like “Heymaking in Carnia” and “The Tagliamento in San Giorgio” –, to the relationship between man and architecture – like “Basilica in the Fog” –, or, finally, to the representation of man in his own environment, like “Wool Seller” in Amalfi and “Growing Fast”, which I took in Palermo…
How do you feel looking at these photos?
I see them as a gift that my eyes gave me. A gift that I was able to share with other people’s eyes thanks to the professional skills I acquired.
What are you currently working on?
I am selecting and printing the photographs I took during my recent trips abroad, in order to divide them into thematic folders I intend to title “Memorie guardate” (“Watched Memories”). I am also preparing material for a possible collected works exhibition in some big city that might be interested in photography… but perhaps that is truly only a dream.