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EXCLUSIVE: Everyday USA, through a 1960s tourist's lens: Italian photographer's forgotten pictures of ordinary Americans are published after being found in his cellar after 50 years

  • Italian photographer Mario Carnicelli visited the US for the first time in 1966 after winning a photo contest 
  • The then-29-year-old took hundreds of photos of ordinary Americans on that trip and several trips afterwards
  • Mr Carnicelli was a freelance photojournalist for several Italian newspapers and magazines until he retired from photography in the early 1970s
  • He went on to run his own photo developing and printing business in Florence and his photos were stored and forgotten in his cellar, including the images he took in the US
  • Thousands of Mr Carnicelli's photos were rediscovered by curator Bärbel Reinhard, and the images of the US will be published in a new book, American Voyage, released this month

In 1966 on a busy street in Chicago, a small boy leans against a signpost and looks to the camera as a green bus marked 'INDIANA' passes by. The boy is wearing a bright blue sweater, jeans and black sneakers and he squints into the sun just at the moment photographer Mario Carnicelli snaps his camera and preserves the scene forever in a photograph.

This is just one of more than 100 images from different US cities in the 1960s taken by Mr Carnicelli, an Italian photographer. The images were only recently rediscovered after 50 years and are published for the first time in a new book, American Voyage.

At the age of 29, then-documentary photographer Mr Carnicelli, from Pistoia, Italy, had won first place in a national photography competition for his entry of a demonstration in his Tuscan hometown. The prize was a month-long trip to the US, where he captured the ordinary moments for Americans in their everyday lives.

'As soon as I arrived, I was immediately fascinated,' Mr Carnicelli tells 'I felt as if I was living in another dimension. I was captivated by the carefree spirit and the freedom that America offered with its mix of cultures and traditions. I was struck by the crowded streets and the decadent window displays and the people who crossed each other without ever stopping… For me, America appeared to have a face that was instantly translatable into images.' 

Italian photographer Mario Carnicelli was 29 years old when he visited the United States for the first time after winning a photography contest. He spent a month photographing the country and then returned to the US on several other trips.

When Mr Carnicelli (pictured in New York in 1966) returned to Italy after his first trip to the US, he showcased his photographs in an exhibition in Milan titled 'I'm sorry, America'

His new book says he named that exhibition because he 'felt almost like an intruder in a society completely new to him'. A group of construction workers are pictured giving directions in New York in 1966

He went on to become a freelance photojournalist who worked with several Italian newspapers and magazines and traveled around the world until he retired from photography in the early 1970s.

He adds: 'America is a state of mind. Telling it is easy and difficult at the same time. Behind that opulent face, it has many others; all of them true, all of them deeply meaningful.' 

The images also showed the sadness and loneliness juxtaposed with the American Dream from his European perspective. He realized America was far more complex than he had expected and, when he returned to Italy, Mr Carnicelli showcased the images in an exhibition in Milan titled 'I'm sorry, America'. His book says he felt he was trespassing in a place that was unfamiliar to him.

'Looking back now, it was as if I wanted to apologize for what I had recorded as a photographer,' Mr Carnicelli says. 'I did feel like an intruder investigating a new society at that time.'

After that first trip to the US, he returned to the US several times and photographed cities including New York, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Buffalo, Dallas and San Francisco.

He was able to capture men resting against a wall as they wait in line at a job center in Chicago, a man selling newspapers in New York, a trade union worker wearing a colorful hat and jewelry in Detroit, the impatient looks of people in phone booths at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago, people resting on benches at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC and Neo-Nazis demonstrating in Dallas.

'The images come very naturally,' he says. 'I did not have to look for them, they just showed up.'

Mr Carnicelli had decided to put his camera down to open his own photography business, where he developed and printed photos in Florence.

While he worked on his business, Mr Carnicelli's own photographs ended up being stored in his cellar for 50 years before they were rediscovered last year.

He closed his store back in 2010 and asked curator Bärbel Reinhard to look at the negatives he had tucked away. As she looked through the images, she found thousands of images from the '60s and '70s, including the ones he took of the US.

Mr Carnicelli's family ran a photography equipment business when he was growing up, so it wasn't a surprise that he started taking photographs himself. He went on to work as a freelance photojournalist for Italian newspapers and magazines including Panorama, Corriere della Sera and Il Giorno.

He traveled around the world for his work and even had several exhibitions of his work in the '60s and '70s. However, by the early 1970s, he decided to retire from photography and open a photo development and printing business in Florence, following in his family's footsteps.

Thousands of his photographs, including those he took on his visits to the US, were stored away in his cellar and forgotten for 50 years until they were rediscovered by curator Bärbel Reinhard last year. Mr Carnicelli had asked her, when he closed his shop, to look at his old negatives - eventually leading her to his captivating images from America.

In his cellar lay a hidden treasure, a foreign and fascinating world in black and white but also in exquisite color images, hundreds of stories and microstories of the sixties and seventies mostly set in Italy, but also in America,' Reinhard says in the book.

Now those images are being published and exhibited once again.

'I think the photos being published now gives them a particular flavor and a different perspective compared to when I took them half a century ago,' he says. 'I do not fool myself into thinking that people learn from my photographs. This is not possible. Photography is subjective, the image does not belong to who takes it, it belongs to the viewer who gives it their own interpretation.'

American Voyage, published by Reel Art Press, will be released this month. An accompanying exhibition at the David Hill Gallery in London opened on April 20 and will run through June 8.

02 May, 2018 Ann Schmidt