Lisetta Carmi: Identities

20 Sep-17 Dec 2023

Estorick Collection Of Modern Italian Art
London N1 2AN


The Estorick Collection presents the first museum show in the UK of work by ground-breaking Italian photographer Lisetta Carmi (1924-2022), whose imagery is currently receiving renewed attention.

Always motivated by a profoundly humanistic spirit, Carmi focused her attention on marginalised sectors of society, such as the working-class and trans communities of her native Genoa. In addition to being striking works of art in their own right, Carmi’s images are also important socio-political documents exploring significant, yet often overlooked, aspects of Italian life and culture. Lisetta Carmi: Identities runs from 20 September until 17 December 2023.

Born into a middle-class Jewish family, Carmi was forced to leave school as a consequence of the Racial Laws introduced by Italy’s Fascist regime in 1938 and fled to Switzerland with her family. She went on to enjoy a short but successful career as a concert pianist, but in 1960 abruptly changed direction and decided to devote herself to photography.
Carmi is best known for sensitively chronicling the lives of those who belonged to Genoa’s trans community during the 1960s. She stated: ‘[These individuals] (or rather my relationship with them) helped me to accept myself for what I am: a person who does not live according to a role. Observing [them] made me understand how everything that is masculine can also be feminine, and vice versa. Obligatory behavioural models do not exist outside of an authoritarian tradition that is imposed upon us from childhood.’  The photographs she took resulted in a highly controversial volume of images that was published in 1972 and went on to become a cult classic. This show features around 30 of these works, also including those in colour, recently rediscovered in the house in Puglia where Carmi retired in 1979 to devote herself to yogi meditation.
Much of Carmi’s photography addressed the social problems associated with labour and experienced by the working classes. The exhibition includes photographs drawn from her studies of the port of Genoa, where she posed as the relative of a docker to photograph the harsh conditions endured by the camalli (labourers). She also documented the city’s Italsider steelworks, highlighting the danger of industrial production, and undertook several visits to Sardinia, where she photographed the first women to be employed in the island’s cork industry. She also visited countries such as Israel, Venezuela, Mexico, India, Afghanistan and giving voice, with her images, to those who had none.
In the light of Carmi’s death last year, this exhibition represents a timely consideration of her pioneering work.