Lisetta Carmi, I Travestiti Dalida, 1965–67

“I was interested in people, the lives of human beings, especially the poor,” the photographer Lisetta Carmi once said. Born in Genoa, Italy, in 1924, Carmi died in July at the age of ninety-eight in Cisternino, a small town in Puglia. She was an interpreter of humanistic photography in a literal sense. An artist who changed the history of Italian photojournalism, she exposed the public to discomforting social realities of marginalized communities. But in Le cinque vite di Lisetta Carmi (The Five Lives of Lisetta Carmi), a book about her life by Giovanna Calvenzi, the chapter devoted to photography is a mere eighteen-year parenthesis, from 1960 to 1978. The other phases of her existence, described in the 2013 biography, are no less fascinating.

Lisetta Carmi, I Travestiti, 1965
Lisetta Carmi, Genova, Il Porto, 1964
Lisetta Carmi, Genova, Il Porto (The port), 1964

Born into a Jewish family, Carmi was forced to drop out of school at age fourteen due to the racial laws introduced by the Italian Fascist regime in 1938. She had already begun studying piano at the conservatory in Genoa, and that was her sole focus until 1943. Returning from exile in Switzerland, she became an esteemed concert pianist, performing successfully in Italy and abroad. But Carmi’s musical career soon came to an end. In June 1960, protestors in Genoa called a general strike against the Italian Social Movement, the neo-Fascist party. The young pianist also wanted to participate, but her teacher, Alfredo They, warned her about the possible consequences. “He told me that if they broke my hand, I would no longer be able to play,” Carmi recalls in her biography. “But I replied that, if my hands were more important than the rest of humanity, I would have stopped playing.” She joined the protests.

Carmi encountered photography by chance. A Jewish musicologist and friend, Leo Levi, invited her to accompany him on a research trip in Puglia, and she brought along a camera of little worth. Upon her return, she had nine rolls of film developed. Her friends responded enthusiastically: “They look like Cartier-Bresson’s photos.” It was enough to convince her to make photography her profession.

Lisetta Carmi, Erotismo e autoritarismo a Staglieno (Eroticism and Authoritarianism), 1966
Lisetta Carmi, Erotismo e autoritarismo a Staglieno (Eroticism and Authoritarianism), 1966

By 1962, she was working as a still photographer at the Teatro Duse, a theater in Bologna, and later collaborated with Grazia Neri, Italy’s first photo agency, shortly after it was founded in 1966. Her most powerful series from this period focuses on the port of Genoa, where her images reveal the dockworkers’ squalid working conditions. At the same time, Carmi was photographing the Monumental Cemetery of Staglieno, famed as an open-air museum of sculpture. She focused her lens on statues of plump gentlemen alongside nude women, of wives in reverence to their husbands, of contrite and obedient children. “I despised what many sculptures depicted, because of the stereotype of the fearful woman, dependent on men, but I was also struck by the ability of those, still living, to design their own tombs,” she told Giovanna Calvenzi. Carmi published the images in a book titled Erotismo e autoritarismo a Staglieno (Eroticism and Authoritarianism in Staglieno).

Lisetta Carmi, I Travestiti, 1965–70

Carmi is most remembered for I Travestiti (Transvestites), a book from 1972 that brings together her images of people who lived in the alleyways in the heart of Genoa and were often forced to support themselves through sex work. The work was seen as scandalous in Italy. The photographs show something far removed from the conformist, self-righteous imagination. Carmi had earned their trust, and they had revealed themselves with generous nonchalance. Today I Travestiti is a collector’s item, although at the time of its publication, bookstores wouldn’t display it.

Lisetta Carmi, <em>I Travestiti</em>, 1965–70″>
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Lisetta Carmi, I Travestiti, 1965–70

But Carmi’s masterpiece is a lesser-known series. These are twelve shots of Ezra Pound, taken on February 11, 1966, at Sant’Ambrogio, a village in the northern Italian region of Liguria. The poet had taken refuge there in his final years, and Carmi arrived with a journalist who wanted to interview him. They knocked on the door of a small house. Writing in L’ombra di un poeta. Incontro con Ezra Pound (A poet’s shadow. Meeting Ezra Pound, 2006), Carmi describes him as skeletal and disheveled—even ghostly: “I photograph him but he seems to me like an apparition, like someone who lives in a closed world, a world we cannot enter, I am almost afraid that the strength lying within him might be unleashed, the terrible strength and lost desperation that shine in his eyes. And instead, Pound continues to ignore us, turns and goes back in the house. He didn’t say a word, we just looked at each other: we have encountered the shadow of a poet.” The same year, Carmi received the Premio Niépce per l’Italia, the Italian division of the prestigious French prize founded in 1955, for these images. The jury included Umberto Eco, who stated: “The images of Pound shot by Lisetta say more than anything that has ever been written about him, his complexity and extraordinary nature.”

Lisetta Carmi, Ezra Pound, 1966
Lisetta Carmi, Genova, Il Porto (The port), 1964
All photographs © Martini & Ronchetti and courtesy Archivio Lisetta Carmi

Carmi’s career as a photographer ended as it had begun: unexpectedly. In 1978 she decided to establish an ashram in Cisternino on the advice of Haidakhan Babaji, a spiritual leader she had gotten to know in India two years earlier. She never picked up a camera again, but she often talked about her images and what had made them possible. In 2011, she told Calvenzi: “The ultimate reality does not allow itself to be captured by words. The ultimate experience can be communicated only with silence.” Her words are a lesson about life but also photography.

Translated from the Italian by Marguerite Shore.