When interior design began to develop as a widespread fashion among the elite of the new emerging bourgeoisie in Italy, Carla De Benedetti was taking her first steps as a photographer specialized in this field. She was the only woman in Italy, and probably in the whole world, among the few professional photographers in this sector. These were the rapidly thriving years of the post-war period, the initial years of that decade blessed by fortune, the fabulous sixties, which are still recalled as symbolic of the abundance of research and innovative proposals, for the visionary instinct that translated the present into a speculative future, for the wealth of creative opportunities. Opportunities also for the new propertied class open to anything new, even to the point of revolutionizing their own houses and interiors to emphasize their position as the acknowledged ruling class, in a manner that was explicit and undeniable. Without this undeclared need for consecration, it would be difficult to understand the sudden outburst of magazines dedicated to interior design which began during that period; new magazines in addition to the illustrious publications well consolidated in architectural circles, like those cornerstones Domus and Casabella, which in spite of their focus on interior design, principally aimed straight for the true heart of a project, architecture with a capital A.
It was for the pages of Casabella that Carla De Benedetti began her apprenticeship as a photographer (at that time the editor was Ernesto N. Rogers, who had been one of her mentors at the Milan Politecnico Architectural faculty). Fresh with the experience gained from a post-graduate course for young talent at the Kunstgewerbeschule in Zurich, she studied techniques, while learning to refine her perspective, observing and photographing twentieth century architecture. Her initial photographic work was dedicated to architectural portraits, documenting with sharp precision, the best design projects of the time, seen more through the eyes of an architect than those of a reporter, and for this reason her work was very popular with the project designers. But as the desire for more rational and customized housing began to attract architects and clients in a progressively more rigorous search for more striking projects, the photographic attention of Carla De Benedetti made a decisive move toward home interiors, using her own personal perspective — composed of shots that enhanced the depth and the more significant elements of the space — and with this move her work began to take on its inimitable style.
Generally, at that time, photographers dealing with interiors limited their work to the purely documentary, with neutral portraits, almost always in black and white, aimed at enclosing the whole space within a wide-angle lens frame; the result was an image full of information, but often lacking in any charm and needless of the fact that because of its very nature, the human eye needs to sort through and then choose one or more details on which to focus. If under normal conditions the focus is influenced by personal passions or preferences, in the case of an interior architectural project the capacity to understand the choices of the project is an aspect which helps to read the intrinsic value of what is to be captured in the photograph. These are aspects that Carla De Benedetti was able to understand, in spite of her young age. Her great adventure began, backed up by specialized studies and a sensitivity based on innovative perception, capturing images of interiors, ready to travel all over the world hunting for new architecture to describe and new architects to win over with her personal artistic vision.
Naturally Italy was her first research project territory, also because half-way through the sixties she started to work for two leading magazines renowned for their quality ( Abitare and Casa Vogue) both of which, and more than any other, approached the subject of social innovation based on lifestyle, in interior design. Many other magazines, both in Europe and abroad, recognized Carla De Benedetti's role as a trail blazer among photographers in that field, and contacted her to document projects destined for publication. At that time in Italy, the furniture design industry was undergoing an amazing period of dynamic creativity, and alongside this industry full of constant revelation there was an exponential growth trend among a public interested in the new ideas proposed by these designers. This led to the consequential proliferation of original and inventive interior design projects — often custom-made for the client like a haute couture creation — and which seemed designed simply to attract the photographer's lens. Thus began a mechanism of ideas travelling back and forth, and synergies which have now become part of the natural order of things today, part of our everyday lives, where interior decorating and design, like fashion, have become a commodity available to everybody, or almost. At that time, this phenomenon had only just begun to emerge, this moment of innovation and research was without a doubt far more remarkable and in a certain sense, with a far greater measure of originality.
Unconsciously aware of it, because she was guided more by her instinct than by mathematical reasoning, the photographic documentation of that phenomenon led Carla De Benedetti to compose a unique fresco that swept through decades right through to the present day, even though the period between the sixties and seventies was perhaps the most representational and the most intense. It is fascinating to perceive in her photos, the first genetic mutation of Italian homes, when the bourgeois interiors of the beginning of the century, mainly based on fine furniture and paintings, but almost always antiques, were influenced by the modernist style: as can be seen in certain projects by Albini-Helg, where free standing room dividers with a technical aspect create sequences of unexpected spaces, at the very least surprising, with the combination of modern design furniture in traditional interiors or in the imposing rooms of ancestral homes (see the lessons taught by Gae Aulenti, architect and designer). Within the research into a new spatialism, recalling the vogue for all that was futuristic during those years, design alternated with the inclination towards aesthetic asceticism, which reached the peak of success in the nineties under the "minimalist" label, and the grafting of strong colours following in the wake of the Pop Art movement, (Nanda Vigo was without equal in always inventing new ideas). Interior decoration became a laboratory for aesthetic experimentation and artistic research, that often crossed the line of excess, even reaching the extreme of a single unique colour for every detail in the home, for mini apartments carved out vertically. to give the impression of many rooms in only a few square metres (like the solutions invented by Joe Colombo), but also when the designer of the moment submerged walls, floors, tables and sofas in a sea of black or brown, almost transforming the space into a neutral pit of modernity, as extreme provocation for fanatics of the latest craze.
ln all these cases, and in other collections of the documentary work by Carla De Benedetti the essential link is represented by her search for the unusual and her love of experimentation, also thanks to a myriad of new architectural studios that sprang up at that time, challenging each other and drawing up new projects, not only to attract the most sought-after clients with money to spend, but above all to become a reference point in an aesthetic and (behavioural) social revolution, aimed at designing the profile of a new world to live in, extraordinary and progressively more original, more in harmony with the cultural changes under way at that time. In order to follow this phenomenon in step with the movement, Carla De Benedetti took part in the general game of invention, experimenting with innovative perspectives and filming techniques, that gave the interiors a more scenographic spontaneity, where the emotion is more important than the actual description.
Those who worked with her during photo shoots will recall the almost obsessive care taken in filtering windows, one at a time with orange gelatine, to give the natural light an artificial effect, and to act as a support for the powerful tungsten spotlights... not to provide a mere description, but to create a scene and to give the scenography a specific sense and meaning. Playing with artificial light meant placing emphasis on the different sequential strata within the space and therefore to enhance the various architectural elements of the interiors, to highlight the main point of view. In other words, inviting the viewer of the photo to select the most significant aspects of the environment in the photograph. Much like the way, in a film or a novel, authors use their art to guide their public toward the most important aspect of the story. Following the same principle, Carla De Benedetti uses the potential of the objective, not to describe all the available space, but to emphasize and enhance the main lines that develop within the frame: the objective is therefore used in the same way as a technical drawing instrument.
ln this play of re-invention of space, shadow also takes on an important role, because as well as defining the elements that attract the eye, they also give a glimpse of the various prospects as they penetrate further into the story. Occasionally figures appear in her photos, as if they were inanimate profiles on the set of a domestic theatre, but they are deliberately placed to indicate proportion in relation to the whole scene: sometimes there is even a subject in the foreground, on the lower right hand side of the photo, that paradoxically exalts the space in the background. Or, in order to attract attention (a trick often used today), pictures are taken from a cat's eye view, with the camera placed on the floor, to suggest a completely new perspective, and generally to highlight some architectural element, or even a piece of furniture or an object, which only from this unusual viewpoint, become interesting, and yet would be simply boring if seen from another level.
It is the vision, all those elements that transform a photographer into an author, that give the photos of Carla De Benedetti that special appeal. The ability to fascinate even the least competent viewer, whereas for professionals and photography enthusiasts, her work becomes a lesson in quality. To leaf through the pages that follow is not simply a trip back into the creative history of Italian interiors between the sixties and seventies, but also an opportunity to discover the perspective of a "First Lady" of Italian photography, who with her travel and architectural reportage, have for years made an admirable contribution to the Italian cultural tradition.
Giovanni Odoni - Interiors '70 (introduction)