In 1967, Cornell Capa introduced the notion of photographer engaged with an exhibition, followed the following year by a catalog, both dedicated “to that photograph which requires personal commitment and interest in the human race”. Among those who practiced it, his brother Robert Capa, André Kertész, Leonard Freed and Werner Bischof. In 1974, the year Cornell founded the International Center of Photography in New York, his second book included Gordon Parks, Bruce Davidson, Marc Riboud, Ernst Haas and Roman Vishniac, among others. Photographers in the Capa group viewed photojournalism as a humanitarian mission, and dedicated themselves to it as an art. Their example set a standard for those photographers who, with their work, committed themselves as witnesses to the world.
Fabio Ponzio is certainly part of this tradition. Born in Milan in 1959, Ponzio worked in the 80s as a freelance photojournalist. A stay in Istanbul as a teenager had left him with a lasting impression: certain that he had glimpsed “the unconscious of Europe, his dark and profound soul”, he again let himself be attracted by the city and in 1987 he used it as a point of departure of an incursion, lasting twenty-two years, in the whole of Eastern Europe. Of this journey, nearly two hundred black and white photographs are collected in his first book East of Nowhere.
“Romania, 1998”, from the book “East of Nowhere” by Fabio Ponzio (© Thames & Hudson / © Fabio Ponzio).
© Fabio Ponzio
At the beginning, Pontius writes in his introduction, much of the territory he explored was beyond the Iron Curtain, along “roads leading to forbidden, unknown lands”, where the authorities were wary of foreigners, if not even hostile. Traveling by car, with “a sleeping bag, a tent, a gas stove, a Leica, three Nikons and 100 film rolls”, he skirted the big cities and spent most of his time in rural villages and workers in Albania, Armenia, Czechoslovakia, Turkey, Russia and Poland. Until in 1989, with the fall of the Wall and the overthrow of communist regimes, “everything has changed”.
Much of his book has been produced in this new world, in “an atmosphere of uncertainty and hope”. But there is no free zone between a before and an after, here; the mood remains gloomy and distressing, clouded by poverty. In the preface Herta Müller, Nobel Prize for Literature in 2009, writes that Romanians “expect nothing from life, not even to be able to survive”. Repression, superstition, corruption and fear have tormented all of Eastern Europe.
Pontius is sensitive to the trauma of these peoples and admires their resistance, “an elementary force that survives everything and draws strength from anything”. The photo above was taken in Romania in 1998 – there is no other information. If the girl, looking so composed, is celebrating her First Communion, she has been clearly instructed about the solemnity of the circumstance. Yet in his eyes there is a spark of determination that draws on the strength of which Pontius speaks. He is a well rooted angel, with his feet on the ground; even if its plastic roses will crack until they crumble, it will survive.
Vince Aletti is a photographic critic and curator. He lives and works in New York since 1967. Collaborator of “Aperture”, “Artforum”, “Apartamento” and “Photograph”, he was co-author of “Avedon Fashion 1944-2000”, published by Harry N. Abrams in 2009, and has signed “Issues: A History of Photography in Fashion Magazines”, published by Phaidon.
From Tips Clear Italia, n. 838, June 2020
Cornell Capa introduced the notion of the concerned photographer with an exhibition in 1967 and a catalog the following year, both dedicated “to photography which demands personal commitment and concern for mankind.” Among its practitioners were his brother Robert Capa, André Kertész, Leonard Freed, and Werner Bischof. In 1974, the year Cornell founded the International Center of Photography in New York, his second book acknowledged Gordon Parks, Bruce Davidson, Marc Riboud, Ernst Haas, and Roman Vishniac, among others. Capa’s cohort took up photojournalism as a humanitarian mission and practiced it as an art. Their example set a standard for working photographers who engaged with the world as witnesses.
Fabio Ponzio is clearly part of this tradition. Born in Milan in 1959, Ponzio worked for most of the 1980s as a freelance photojournalist, but a visit to Istanbul as a teenager had left a lasting impression. Convinced he’d glimpsed “the European unconscious; her deep, dark soul, “he was drawn back to Istanbul and in 1987, he used that city as a jumping-off point for what became a 22-year foray into the whole of Eastern Europe. Nearly two hundred black-and-white photographs from that journey are collected in East of Nowhere (Thames & Hudson), Ponzio’s remarkable first book.
At the beginning, Ponzio writes in his introduction, much of the territory he explored was beyond the Iron Curtain, down “roads that ran into unknown, prohibited lands” where the authorities were wary of, if not hostile to, outsiders. Traveling by car and supplied with “a sleeping bag, a tent, a gas stove, a Leica, three Nikons, and 100 rolls of film” he skirted cities and spent most of his time in rural villages and working-class towns in Albania, Armenia, Czechoslovakia, Turkey, Russia, and Poland. But in 1989, as the Berlin Wall fell and communist regimes began to topple, “everything changed.”
The bulk of Ponzio’s book was made in this new world, in what he describes as an “atmosphere of uncertainty and expectation.” But there’s no clear before and after here; the mood remains dour and anxious, shadowed by poverty. In her foreword, Herta Müller, the Romanian-born novelist who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2009, writes that Romanians “don’t expect anything from life, not even that they will survive it.” Repression, superstition, corruption, and fear have taken their toll on all of Eastern Europe.
Ponzio is sensitive to its people’s trauma and admires their endurance – “an elemental strength that survives everything and draws strength from everything.” The photograph above was taken in Romania in 1998 but Ponzio supplies no other information. If the self-possessed young girl in the picture is celebrating her First Communion, she’s clearly been instructed in the gravity of the occasion. But there’s a spark of determination in her eyes that taps into the strength Ponzio describes. She’s an earthy, grounded angel; even if her plastic roses crack and crumble, she will survive.