Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Flash mobs

This piece was written to coincide with a lecture on social documentary photography by Ram Rahman. That was a while back, but since it was one of the more interesting stories I'd meandered into, I thought I'd post it anyway.

Rome, 1958. An Armenian dancer called Aïché Nana does an impromptu striptease at a high-society party. Terni, 1958. A large crowd gathers after word spreads that children have seen the Virgin Mary. Rome, 1960. Anthony Steele, husband of Swedish starlet Anita Ekberg, tries to assault a member of the press who was attempting to take their photograph.

Ask a keen cineaste about the link between these images, and they’ll reply that all of them correspond to scenes from Frederico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, a legend of Italian cinema which won the Golden Palm at Cannes in 1962 and had Fellini nominated for the Best Director Oscar. This is not wrong, but it’s only half the story. The real link is a man less well-known, a tabloid photographer named Tazio Secchiaroli. In a lecture on social documentary photography at The Attic this fortnight, photographer and Fellini-lover Ram Rahman talks about how Secchiaroli’s snaps of Rome’s high-society scandals served as inspiration for the much-lauded 1960 film.

“The still photograph, if you’re looking at it in its deepest sense, can be like the language a novelist uses – a visual novel, if you like,” Rahman said, explaining the importance of the photograph as social document. It’s unlikely that many at that time would have seen that quality in the photographs shot by Secchiaroli and his compatriots. Much like today’s Page 3 snaps, they were just good, salacious fun. But Fellini recognised potential for building a film around this profession and its ethical compromises. The central character in La Dolce Vita, a morally flexible reporter played by Marcello Mastroianni, was in some ways a stand-in for Fellini – an observer, detached from the scene, and an outsider to Rome.

Mastroianni’s partner in the film, though, had the more lasting contribution. A high-society photographer based on Secchiaroli, his name – Paparazzo – was adapted to describe a new profession, the paparazzi. According to Rahman, Fellini almost cast Secchiaroli himself for the part, but then went with Walter Santesso. The real-life Paparazzo went on to do the stills for the film, and later established himself as a still photographer much in demand at Rome’s Cinecittà studios (at one point, becoming the personal photographer to Sophia Loren).

Rahman plans to juxtapose photographs from his collection with scenes from La Dolce Vita, to illustrate how keenly art was imitating life in Fellini’s film. The director spoke with many photographers and used their stories to create scenes like the suicide of Marcello’s friend and the climactic “orgy” sequence. Anita Ekberg’s romp in the Trevi fountain, one of the movie’s iconic scenes, was based on a real-life incident. Rahman also pointed out that Ekberg had been photographed in “situations of scandal and confrontation” by Secchiaroli years before the movie was made (a fact that’s unlikely to have escaped Fellini’s attention). The style of the tabloid photograph even dictates the way some scenes are framed. A number of stills from the movie, Rahman said, could easily be substituted with samples of the photojournalism of the time.

Rahman’s talk will also zoom out to the broader story of social documentary photography. He will discuss his own work in this field, as well as the diverse styles of Sunil Janah, Walker Evans, Manuel Alvarez Bravo and Brassai. We recommend watching La Dolce Vita beforehand, but in case you’re strapped for time, just bring along page three of the day’s newspaper.

Below: A Tazio photograph recreated in the movie; Anita Ekberg, on and off screen

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