Lisetta Carmi was born in 1924 into a middle-class Jewish family in Genoa. She initially studied music, and became a fairly successful concert pianist. But in 1960, she turned her attention to photography. Although her career in this field lasted only eighteen years, it yielded a major body of work.
Carmi saw photography as an important tool of political activism and anthropological investigation. Her most important photo series include L’Italsider (1962), which shows the interiors and exteriors of steel mills; Genova Porto (1964), focused on the theme of labor; and Erotismo e autoritarismo a Staglieno (1966), which explores a historic cemetery in the Staglieno district of Genoa. She also took twelve famous portraits of Ezra Pound, as well as portraying subjects such as Lucio Fontana, Leonardo Sciascia, Edoardo Sanguineti, Alberto Arbasino, Sylvano Bussotti, and Jacques Lacan.
The Centre d’Art Contemporain Genève is pleased to present an exhibition in two parts (from May 3 to June 16, and from June 20 to August 25) highlighting two series of works—I Travestiti (1965) and Genova Porto—which testify to the artist’s sensitivity to the workers’ world and their cause.
One of her most controversial series, from which a large selection of photos will be presented in the first part of the exhibition, was I Travestiti, shot in Genoa in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It is an intimate, deeply sensitive meditation on gender identity. Due to the honesty of its gaze and empathy with its subjects, this photo essay—like her other series centered on work and on marginalized communities—has prompted comparisons with photographers such as Christer Strömholm and Nan Goldin.
As the artist wrote in 1972: “It is true that transvestites disguise themselves, but this is by necessity. It nevertheless takes courage to do what they do, and to face the often dramatic and violent consequences. Many of them have no alternative for employment: as men, they look too feminine, and as women, they run into the obstacle of being listed as male on their ID. They must deal with incredible loneliness, because society both seeks them out and isolates them, forcing them to live in what are basically ghettos (in Genoa, their neighborhood is actually the former Jewish ghetto); it is afraid of seeing itself reflected in them. It uses them, pays them, judges them, willfully ignoring the fact that they are human beings. But I think when we judge others we are almost always judging ourselves: what frightens us in others is something in ourselves. And we always react by insulting the part of ourselves that we reject” (Lisetta Carmi, quoted on the back cover of I Travestiti, Essedì Editrice: Rome, 1972).
Lisetta Carmi was the first to photograph the LGBTQ community in Italy. Gender identity was a taboo subject in Italian society, which at the time was deeply Catholic and highly conservative. But Carmi was bewitched and fascinated by this ostracized community. The photographer presents her subjects in a natural, friendly, familiar way that lets their humanity and inner beauty shine through, depicting prostitution from a new angle. Forming close friendships with the people she portrayed and following them around in their everyday lives, she managed to normalize the idea of a man putting on makeup in front of the mirror, donning a skirt and stockings, and becoming a woman.
Lisetta Carmi’s photographic investigation was also to some degree a path of introspection and personal discovery, linked to the experience of being a woman in a deeply sexist culture. As she herself wrote in regard to I Travestiti: “The trans community taught me to accept myself. When I was little, I would look at my brothers Eugenio and Marcello and long to be a boy like them. I knew I would never marry, and couldn’t accept the role that was expected of women. These transvestites helped me understand that we all have the right to decide who we are.”