13.07.2020 Does collection have a gender? History of Donata Pizzi’s collection

Giovanna Borgese “Le ragazze di Prima Linea”

Is the world of collection the world of men? The statistics are quite absolute, although they are not surprising if we know the pay gap between men and women – and the fact that collecting art is an expensive hobby. But collections can also be based on donations and purchases from flea markets (we’ll show them at the 20th Century Self-Portrait exhibitions and the Past is yours!). In such cases, the thickness of the wallet is no longer important, but while working on this year’s program, we again found men collectors rather than women. So maybe some sex is more likely to collect items?

Gender representation in the collection world is a topic for much research. Unfortunately (2020!), we will not be able to show an exhibition that was to comment on this topic. We will show the work of four men. The work of women accompanies Fotofestiwal in many other fields (including Futures Talent 2020 and the Open Program). Their voice also comments on the topic of this year’s edition. We recently published an article by Kora Kowalska about her unique collections from … the trash can. Today we are pleased to show the perspective of Donata Pizzi, a collector who dedicated her mission to the representation of Italian photography created by women. We invite you to read and we will soon present more materials – this time on the radio!

Why a collection of women photographers?

In 2014 I decided I had to do something for Italian photography. I had been working as a freelance photographer for years. Before that I had been an archivist for a weekly magazine (L’Espresso), later a picture editor (Giunti Editore), and I had been in charge of the office in Rome for an American photo library (The Image Bank, later Getty Images). I had lived with photography for so many years, producing it, buying it, selling it, and I noticed from the inside and experienced how little Italian photography was considered, studied and shown in Italy. The idea of assembling a body of works by Italian photographers began to grow in my mind. I started designing in my head what line could be aligning the pictures that I really considered important: I found out they were all by women.


Ottonella Mocellin, “La fine delle illusioni”, 2002

I was very impressed as a student in Milan in the 1970s by a groundbreaking exhibition by Lea Vergine “L’altra metà dell’avanguardia” in which the art critic grouped a number of female artists of the 20th century who had been forgotten and undervalued, and brought them back to life for the audience to understand.

Similarly, I considered this action could be done for photographers. The line was drawn and I started activating my project by calling on the studios of the artists that I already knew: I would expose the project and value their reactions. I would already have in mind the exact picture or series I was interested in, but the exchange with the photographers was always of crucial importance. Apart from those talks being entertaining, I value personal contact with the artist, and often this has resulted in new discoveries of other artists: I found solidarity and sorority more than often. I was particularly happy about this, as I remember a male gallerist warning me about the risk that certain female photographers might refuse to be part of an all- women collection.

The intention on my part was to avoid the danger of ending in a ghetto. I wanted the collection to have an impact on the public for the quality of the works presented: in the end, the fact that they were Italian, women, artists or photographers was of lesser importance.

Francesca Rivetti, “3305 Tin n°2 (Contact B/W Print, Pink Plastic Cup)”

Once I defined the “gender”, I proceeded to find the chronological line that suited the most what I had in mind: to describe the transformation that occurred in photography through 50 years. The first pictures I acquired were the ones by Lisetta Carmi shot in 1965, so I decided to use that date as the starting point of the project and to continue until 2015. That way, I would have 50 years to describe the changes in photography, but also in Italian history and in the role of women in our society. Now, I needed a place, a top public institution in order to be able to convey the works at the highest level. It is my opinion that photography still needs to be protected, curated and presented with scientific rigor, until we reach the final goal for this art to be shown not apart from but together with the rest of contemporary art.

Divided into five decades, the works I collected span from black and white traditional reportage from the 1960s to present-day 3D prints: I consider every single picture as an essential brick. However, I value the fact that curators have total freedom in making selections for different exhibitions. An example is from the first show at Triennale di Milano where Raffaella Perna superimposed onto the chronological line the four sections that we have referred to since then. The four sections define recurring themes and areas of research of the photographers and describe the times, political, sociological frames in which the works were produced.

Inside the Stories, 1965-1975

What do you think of Feminism?, 1975-1985

Identity and Relationship, 1985-1995

Seeing Beyond, 1995 to today


Giovanna Borgese “Le ragazze di Prima Linea” from the series “Un paese in tribunale, Italia 1980-1983”,

Inside the Stories

Between the 1960s and the 1970s Italian photojournalism changed: photo reporters began to be recognised as journalists and, above all, their work gained an element of radicalism and social engagement hitherto unseen. Indeed, in this period Italian photographers, male and female alike, documented with growing attention and an activist gaze the conflicts and upheavals in the country: the strategy of tension, the terrorism, the struggles of workers and students, the declaration of feminists, the conditions in mental institutions, the marginalisation of immigrants, the industrialisation and violent transformation of urban life, the feuds between clans and the crimes of the mafia, and, more generally, the social problems that until then had little coverage in the country’s press. Women’s contribution to this work of investigation and denunciation was crucial: some of the photo essays and books that had the deepest and long-lasting influence on Italian culture were the results of the activism of female photographers such as Paola Agosti, Letizia Battaglia, Giovanna Borgese, Lisetta Carmi, Carla Cerati, Augusta Conchiglia, Gabriella Mercadini and Lina Pallotta. They undertook the responsibility of bearing witness to difficult and uncomfortable stories forgotten by the general public in conviction that photography is an essential tool for changing the relationships of power and for restoring dignity to the disenfranchised and marginalised.

The documentary function of photography did not disappear with the transition from analogue to digital: many young photographers such as Simona Ghizzoni, Francesca Volpi, Elena Givone and Michela Palermo recognise in photography the most effective tool to tell hidden and difficult stories. Unlike the amateur and ephemeral quality of much of the photography online and in the current information industry, these authors prefer long shooting sessions and in some cases large- sized cameras, often shunning sensationalism in favour of establishing a rapport of empathy with the subjects featured, to avoid photography becoming a predatory act.

What do you think of Feminism?

The importance of the photographic medium in the denunciation and demystification of the typical sexism found in the representation of women, where the woman is the passive object of the male gaze, is the chosen battleground for the struggles of Italian feminism. Photography, with its unique adherence to reality, was a precious ally not only for documenting the battles for civil rights and social recognition fought by feminism, but also – and especially – for creating alternative models of representation, which take into account the age- old marginality of women, without accepting it or putting up with it as the natural state of things. What unites the works of photographers and artists present in the collection is indeed the activist and political use of photography conceived as a tool for depicting reality through a gendered gaze.

Marinella Senatore, “The new feminism”, 2016

For these artists, photography is a way of constructing relationships, exchange ideas and new strategies of female expression. In their hands the photographic medium is used to deconstruct the gender stereotypes in language and media communication, as well as to explore the connections between the body and the female identity, and to lay claim to the lived experiences, starting from the awareness that the “personal is political”.

Photographers in this section: Liliana Barchiesi, Bianca Menna/Tomaso Binga, Paola Mattioli, Marcella Campagnano, Verita Monselles, Libera Mazzoleni, Nicole Gravier, the feminist Gruppo del Mercoledì.

Identity and Relationship

The attention towards themes linked to identity and the body which characterises art and photography in the 1970s is found again in a different form in the works of the new generation of women artists and photographers who emerged in Italy in the 1990s. In this decade, and still more in the following one, we witness a widespread renewal of interest in photographic techniques that give centrality to the “start with yourself approach”, family history, daily life, emotions and individual memory,conceived as the crucial moment of relating to the other and with collective history. We start seeing a conceptual bent, the attention less focused on the formal and aesthetic aspects of the image and more on the mental and emotional resonance that the photograph excites. Artists prefer minor stories, more intimate and personal, often imbued with autobiographical elements. Photography, with its special capacity for evoking the past and causing distant emotions to re-emerge, is the privileged tool for representing the lived and complex nature of memory. Photographers in this section: Moira Ricci, Alessandra Spranzi, Paola De Pietri, Bruna Esposito, Martina Bacigalupo, Brigitte Niedermair, Anna Di Prospero, Erminia De Luca, Sofia Uslenghi.

Francesca Catastini, “Medusa” from the series “The Modern Spirit is Vivisective”

Seeing Beyond

The erosion of the boundaries between art and photography that begun in the 1970s with Pop Art and Conceptual Art, reached its full maturity in the 1990s and in the first decade of the new millenium, when the distinction between the two fields became blurred and the debate over the presumed battle between photography and art now has become an anachronism. There are many factors that contribute to the phenomenon: the progressive acceptance of photography in institutions and museums, the growing critical and theoretical attention to the state of the art, with the formation of the horizon of common interests and strategies in which the use of the theoretical, technical, material and above all visual aspects specific to photography has an essential weight. Photographers in this section: Marina Ballo Charmet, Monica Carocci, Gea Casolaro, Margherita Chiarva, Daniela Comani, Paola Di Bello, Martina Della Valle, Raffaela Mariniello, Beatrice Pediconi, Agnese Purgatorio, Luisa Rabbia, Sara Rossi, Rä Di Martino, Silvia Camporesi, Mariella Bettineschi.

As a whole, the experience of assembling the collection has been very satisfactory – because it happened at the right moment, I think. Quite incredibly, the idea hadn’t been considered, nobody competed for the pieces at auctions, the photographers themselves were incredulous, and quite obviously soon conquered. It helped a lot that a new generation of female curators and critics were now available, that was the crucial point: in retrospect I believe that hadn’t it been for that, we would have had to wait for longer still. I would call it a decisive moment, when things get together, new energies are released and new perspectives created.

Collecting works by women photographers has made me more aware of the many questions still unanswered, but at the same time I am convinced the exhibitions of the collection have empowered many, not only women, not only artists.

Alessandra Spranzi “Cose che accadono #12”

The impact the collection has is strong and powerful, and the reception of the project has been surprisingly rewarding for the years of study and research, but it is obvious we are still encountering resistance and denial: for these reasons it is crucial we keep trying being on the scene with the most striking works shown in the best venues. As in my career as a female photographer I find endurance the necessary virtue: next year, a show organised and curated by a male professional. Normalisation finally?
Let’s hope to be on the way.


Donata Pizzi – educated in Italy, in Political Science at Milano Università degli Studi, Donata Pizzi furthered her studies at John Cass School of Arts in London and West Surrey College of Art and Design, UK. Starting in 1980 Pizzi worked with photography and photographers as an archivist and picture editor for magazines and publishers; she was the head of the Roman branch of The Image Bank, later known as Getty Images. Subsequently she pursued a career as a free-lance photographer, working for international magazines and major Italian companies, producing books and exhibitions. Since 2014 she has built up a unique ongoing collection of Italian women photographers. Collezione Donata Pizzi has been shown at the Milano Triennale in 2016/17, the Palazzo delle Esposizioni in Rome in 2018, the Museo di Santa Giulia in Brescia in 2019 and the Fotografie Forum Frankfurt in 2020.


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