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The Observer

The racial divide in 1960s America is captured in a rediscovered image by Italian photographer Mario Carnicelli

When Mario Carnicelli landed in New York in 1966 and saw the city’s skyline, it brought to mind “Edward Hopper, Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront, the notes of Gershwin – it seemed as if Humphrey Bogart would appear at any moment from a side street,” he remembers. He had won a photography competition in Italy at the age of 29 and the prize was a trip to America. “It was a dream.”

Once there, however, reality intruded on this fantasy: the restaurants all produced the same nauseating smell and there was a sense of loneliness. “As a European, you imagined all this enormous wealth, but walking around there was also a lot of poverty.” Influenced by the humanist approach of New Deal photographers such as Dorothea Lange, Carnicelli focused his lens not on the skyscrapers but on what was happening at street level: on commuters, builders, shopkeepers, passersby.

This photograph, showing a man walking past a shop window full of white nurses’ outfits, was taken in the outskirts of New York. Malcolm X had been assassinated the year before and race relations were “practically nonexistent – you could see a clear difference in the way [African American and white] people acted”.

The moment was captured by chance. Carnicelli had been struck by the mannequins in the display when the man just happened to pass by, but, he feels, he “tells you everything with his eyes, his clothes, his way of moving. You understand immediately who he is, where he’s from, where he wants to go.”

Carnicelli retired from photography in the 1970s to run his own business and the images from the trip – depicting Chicago, Detroit, Boston, Dallas – lay untouched in a cellar for almost 50 years until they were discovered again last year by curator Bärbel Reinhard. When they were first exhibited in Milan in the 1960s, the working title was I’m Sorry, America. He explains: “I’m sorry, America, but this is how I saw you. I thought you’d be better than my dream. The dream remains, but my outlook was a critical one.”

American Voyage: Photographs by Mario Carnicelli will be on show from 20 April to 8 June at David Hill Gallery, London W1. A book of the same name will be published in May by Reel Art Press

14 Apr, 2018 Kathryn Bromwich