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Ferdinando Scianna, A Photographic Homecoming In Sicily

From portraits of world famous authors to pulsating religious rites in his hometown, Sicilian photographer Ferdinando Scianna has an expansive body of work. A major retrospective is on display now in two locations in Palermo.

Locals in Scianna's hometown of Bagheria (Ferdinando Scianna)
Locals in Scianna's hometown of Bagheria (Ferdinando Scianna)
Manuela Gandini

PALERMO - The straight line that leads from the sea to the central heart of Palermo is called Corso Vittorio Emanuele. And right now, along this picturesque avenue full of shops of souvenirs and miniature saints, rows of banners flutter in the air to celebrate the Sicilian photography master Ferdinando Scianna.

The photographer is back on his native island with a double exhibition, "Ferdinando Scianna e la Sicilia, da Porta a Porta", curated by Doretta and Laura Landino. Some 70 images of Sicily are displayed inside two spaces, the Loggiato San Bartolomeo and the Oratorio S.S. Elena e Costantino, at the opposite ends of the sprawling avenue, at Porta Nuova and Porta Felice (two of the thirteen doors of the ancient fortified wall).

We spoke with Scianna, 68, who is as well known as a chronicler of everyday Sicilian life, as he is as a globetrotting photojournalist for the Magnum agency.

"I think that mine is a permeable photography. It needs to be enhanced, accompanied by all the mental, ritual, literary, philosophical or existential experiences that can nourish it."

The best Scianna images offer an anthropological narration that reaches the depth of the human soul: you see it on those grainy images, both large and small black and white photographs, of the religious celebrations of his hometown of Bagheria.It is a pulsating river of humanity, compact and fearful, tender and superstitious, that parades down the narrow streets of the city.

"Moments that I like to remember are those, unfortunately all too rare, in which, perhaps beneath my home, the reality seemed to miraculously coalesce so that I could grasp a unique and meaningful moment."

A rising humanity

This is how reality, through his lens, becomes poetry. His photos show ancestral atmospheres, such as the solitary volcanic lava that brushes and burns the land. The motionless world of rituals comes to life in a context that emerges from the rubble of war to discover the existence of cinema. It is the great story of a rural, poor, violent, uneducated and sublime humanity that rises to its feet.

That beloved epic has also been told by legendary Sicilian writer Leonardo Sciascia, who in 1963 visited the first exhibition of the young Scianna. The author was so enthusiastic about the photographs that he left Scianna a note of congratulations.

A deep friendship was born between the two artists; and later, the author would write the text for Scianna's first book, Feste religiose in Sicilia, that was awarded the Nadar prize.

Scianna moved to Milan in 1966, where he began to work as a photojournalist and special correspondent for the weekly magazine l'Europeo. "I learned how to do the job thanks to all the criticism my work received," the photographer recalled. "The most frequent comment to the first pictures was, ‘What is this shit?""

For l'Europeo, he would travel everywhere from the musical festival in San Remo to Bangladesh for the epic floods. In the mid 1970s, the editor sent him to Paris, where he met legendary photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, and would become the first Italian photographer to ever join the Magnum agency.

For Scianna, photography is like writing with light. "It is both the world and you doing the writing," he says. His work is a place without hierarchies: an image that is reportage, artwork, advertisement. It may be the picture of misery, a garment worn by the top model Marpessa or the illuminated blindness in the portrait of Jorge Luis Borges. It can be dry land, sea, space, or the face of Martin Scorsese holding the picture of his mother in the woods. In these two exhibitions, Scianna tells about the blood ties between men, of the visceral and dramatic relationship between them, their land and God.

Read more from La Stampa in Italian

Ferdinando Scianna - Palermo - Loggiato San Bartolomeo and Oratorio S.S. Elena e Costantino - until January 22.

Photo - Ferdinando Scianna

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Photo of Palestinians walking in Gaza among the damaged buildings

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