A Fashion Photographer and his “Jamaica”…in Milan
Art enthusiast Paul R Morrison makes an intriguing connection.
I am always on the prowl for new and interesting art exhibitions and was particularly intrigued by this one. It is a retrospective of the Milanese photographer Alfa Castaldi, and is currently being exhibited at the Galleria Carla Sozzani in Italy. What makes Galleria Carla Sozzani's current retrospective of Castaldi even more interesting is that it was inspired by his sojourn at Bar Jamaica in Via Brera, Milan. Having first opened its doors in 1911, Bar Jamaica became the bar of choice for journalists and artists in the 1950s and started holding art and photography shows long before anyone else thought of combining the arts with alcohol. It has been the muse for authors such as Bianciardi, author of La Vita Agra (The Bitter Life) and photographers like Castaldi, Ugo Mulas and Mario Dondero, who produced a number of photo essays on cultural and artistic events for magazines of the time. It is considered a true Milanese institution that has maintained much of its old dairy-store atmosphere.
Castaldi was considered amongst his peers as a "sophisticated intellectual", the consummate outsider during the time of intellectualism at Bar Jamaica in the 50s. He was a habitué of Bar Jamaica, where he met people who would later become the best photographers and authors of the time. He initially studied art history, which is quite evident in his photography which seems to have an academic approach. His wife, noted fashion writer and style icon Anna Piaggi, has been credited with introducing Castaldi to fashion photography. He and Anna collaborated on much of his work in Vogue Italia up until his death in 1995. In the eighties, for L'Uomo Vogue, he created the Company Style People, an interesting anthropological reportage of the genesis of the popular men's style. In addition, his quest for understanding has led to a somewhat behind-the-scenes perspective. His images challenge you to see the clothes and the designs from the inside, rather than as just something to be simply admired. Castaldi's career chronicles a rich history and journey that started in the 1950s. His works have included L'Uomo Vogue and Vanity, and he has also worked for Giorgio Armani, Fendi and Karl Lagerfeld.
To get a better understanding of the mind of Castaldi, I spoke with his son Paolo, who is also the curator of the exhibition and the archivist of Castaldi's work.
Paul R Morrison (PRM): Tell me a little bit about the exhibition.
Paolo Castaldi (PC): It's a retrospective on 40 years of photography by Alfa Castaldi, one of the main figures of Italian photography in the second half of the last century.
PRM: Why did you decide on this exhibition at this time, and why 10 Corso Como's Galleria Carla Sozzani?
PC: Since last year I felt a growing interest to rediscover Alfa's work. I imagine Carla sensed that and came up with the proposal. She was very close to Alfa when she was a fashion editor and magazine director. They worked together very often.
PRM: His photographic work spans a wide cross-section of design luminaries such as Giorgio Armani, Karl Lagerfeld and Fendi. He has worked with L'Uomo Vogue also. What would you say has been his most rewarding body of work and why?
PC: Alfa had his long moment of huge success in editorial and commercial fashion photography in the '70s, and that was surely very rewarding; but in strictly photographic terms I think he mostly enjoyed shooting the portraits of shepherds and farmers for L'Uomo Vogue at the end of the '70s.
PRM: In reading up on your father and the exhibition, several bloggers referred to the "Bar Jamaica" years as his most interesting work. Why is this so? And would you say that the interaction with other artists that used to frequent Bar Jamaica were also some key influences?
PC: Those pictures tell the story of a bohemian way of life. They are full of character and atmosphere and are emotionally very intense. The Bar Jamaica was the place in Milan where artists and intellectuals would mutually influence each other, spending hours and days discussing and reflecting on life, arts and culture. Money was not the main thing at the time.
PRM: Since the Bar Jamaica era was so interesting, any chance of a travelling exhibition to Jamaica, the island?
PC: Would love that!
PRM: You said in a previous interview that it's not necessarily about beauty, but more so an intellectual perspective. What did you mean by that?
PC: Fashion photography is a practice usually founded on the photographer's instinctual feelings about beauty. Alfa's photography was instinctual but his references to classical and contemporary arts were clear; this is what I mean by "intellectual perspective".
PRM: I feel it's not fair to talk about his body of work without mentioning Anna Piaggi, who was his muse in fashion photography. How did she inspire or influence him?
PC: I think Anna has been fundamental for Alfa just as Alfa has been fundamental to her. They constantly inspired and influenced each other, building a unique and lively experience.
PRM: You manage your father's archive of photographic work, which at last count was over 12,000. How is it currently being used?
PC: The archive is a source for magazines and publishers interested in that period of Italian fashion, design and culture. Alfa has been a privileged observer, photographing the main actors of the building of an "Italian Style", and his photographs now are historical documents of a period.
PRM: Thanks again for taking the time for this interview. I know how busy your schedule is, particularly as the exhibition draws to a close on March 30th. What's next in store?
PC: We're working on contacts to make the exhibition travel, but we will also present another smaller exhibition on Alfa's works on design and architects in May at the Design Library in Milan.
PRM: That's great; I'm looking forward to seeing it.