Milan was changing before our eyes. It was a rapid, unstoppable revolution, with its baggage of humanity on the way. He brought with him silent pains, little happiness and great hopes. I wanted to understand the meaning of this change. And in those years, the 1960s, the Pirelli skyscraper represented the most powerful symbol of that modernity and of an anthropological and cultural revolution. Uliano Lucas, thinking back to his image of the emigrant under the Pirellone, speaks with a firm and at the same time passionate voice. On the other hand, he was a witness and narrator of that transformation with the form of writing he has always frequented and which has two special ingredients: light and time.

Uliano Lucas, photojournalist profession, but also a historian of photography, seventy-eight years carried lightly, belongs to those authors (now increasingly rare) who believe in photojournalism as an instrument of testimony, civil commitment, but above all an opportunity for knowledge. His gaze is a critical reflection on the present and which over time has been transformed into a historical document, a still image of an era. So, today that Pirellone turns 60, it is natural to reflect with him on the deeper meaning of that image, remembering the day he took the photo, the atmosphere of that time, and also what Milan has become today, thinking about promises kept and broken promises.

Uliano Lucas in a shot by Fabio Bussalino

There is no doubt about one thing: that photo is a sociological manifesto. The immobile man, the gaze towards the observer, as if to question our consciences protected by well-being. He is wearing a poor dark raincoat, a hat that resembles a beret, he has the suitcase in his left hand, while, supported with difficulty on the shoulder, there is a box fixed by adhesive tape: the (authentic) image of the emigrant, as well as the great films of Neorealism have it imprinted on our minds. But Lucas’s photo has something more that makes it unique: behind that man, in that first bewildered contact with Milan, the powerful and elegant symbol of modernity, of the solidity of a country immersed in the miracle of the boom, stands out.

Youth of the Student Movement in Piazzale Accursio, photo by Uliano Lucas, Milan, 1971
Youth of the Student Movement in Piazzale Accursio, photo by Uliano Lucas, Milan, 1971

The image brings together two opposite worlds and becomes a metaphor for a city which offers everyone the opportunity of social redemption, of an economic affirmation. An opportunity symbolized precisely by that skyscraper designed by Gio Ponti: for everyone, the Pirellone. He was a Sardinian, he came from Olbia, Lucas recalls about the emigrant immortalized in the shot. He didn’t know where to go, he had a crumpled note with an address in the far southern suburbs. So I went over and helped him. I never liked stealing photos. I have always wanted to talk, know, share the thoughts of those I intended to portray. So I told him that I had been in the military in Sardinia and after a few steps together I asked him if I could photograph him. I used a wide angle: a 21mm. Two rolls. I wanted to unite the man and the skyscraper. For me and for all the Milanese, the Pirellone was a symbol, like the Rinascente or the Torre Velasca. But if the Rinascente and the Torre Velasca were symbols of the bourgeoisie, the Pirellone, for us who had seen it grow little by little since 1960 (completed in 1964, ed), with its architectural beauty, was above all the symbol of capitalism, of the supremacy of the economy. The portrait of that man in his first impact with Milan is the image of an anthropological trauma.

Anyone who personally knows Uliano Lucas knows that there is no distinction between his work as a photographer and his vision as a counter-current intellectual, a man allergic to rules, rebellious and free. His own biography traces his character: after the expulsion from a school for the children of partisans, the sixteen-year-old begins to frequent the Jamaica bar, a celebrated meeting place for artists, poets, photographers and journalists. His university is there, in Brera, a few steps from the Academy. Training? The meetings and interminable discussions with Lucio Fontana, Piero Manzoni, Mario Dondero, Carlo Bavagnoli, Nini and Ugo Mulas, Luciano Bianciardi, Remo Muratori, Giancarlo Iliprandi, Nanni Balestrini …

Literature, art, photography, politics have always been one thing for him. And from here we also understand his way of photographing: That image is part of an extensive reportage. For weeks I walked around the Central Station. I wanted to understand. It seemed important to me to tell about that humanity that from the South came to Milan in search of work. Until that September morning with the leaden sky. It was 1968. We clearly felt that the country was changing: there was the theme of emigration, that of workers’ struggles, of work and then there was also a sexual revolution, of art, of music … Think of the Beatles in Milan… In short, there was a palpable need for transformation in the air. The conservative world was about to be upset, thankfully. And the city had to be revealed, told. I had imposed this on myself.

In the movie The bitter life, based on the novel by Luciano Bianciardi and interpreted by Ugo Tognazzi, the protagonist to avenge the death of the miners from Grosseto wants to blow up the Pirellone, where the headquarters of the mine owners resided. a cinematic fiction that increases the symbolic value of the Pirellone. At that time the headquarters of Montedison, owner of the mines in question, was located in the building where today there is the American consulate. Curiously, that palace was also designed by Ponti. Bianciardi embodied a different form of emigration, the intellectual one. Just think of journalism: how many Neapolitan, Sicilian and Parma journalists are there in the Milanese newspapers? We were all in Jamaica, there was no age difference and there was a solidarity that is unthinkable today. Just as an example, mixing with someone like Giangiacomo Feltrinelli was normal. Then he didn’t come again because everyone was asking him for money. And Lucas smiles amused.

I remember a man looking out the door. Candidly he tells us: “I am a poet and I come from Sicily”. The next day he had already found work. Other years, other worlds: the cultural industry was looking for intelligence. There was an energy full of utopias, fantasy and commitment. But above all we confronted each other, we also fought fiercely. And all together we grew up. Milan was then a free port. this is the wealth of Milan, it has always been: also thanks to the contribution of many southerners. Already in 1946 a kind of Free Republic founded on culture was formed in Milan. In those years they frequented the trattorias and cafes of Brera Guttuso, De Santis, Lizzani, Pontecorvo, Murialdi, Dova, Crippa, Quasimodo, not to mention all the others who remained in the shadows.

Other memories: There were the small rites: the inaugurations of the galleries, the avant-garde, the Piccolo Teatro. Of course, it can be discussed and Giorgio Strehler’s productions on Bertolt Brecht made me laugh, but there was a great cultural richness. Also thanks to captains of industry who had understood. There were very few, of course, but just think of Pirelli for its extraordinary and innovative graphic production….

What remains of that Milan today? Lucas warns: I answer with a question: where have you ever seen a painter like Lucio Fontana buying avant-garde works, by unknown young painters like then Castellani, Manzoni, Nanda Vigo? They were young artists and he supported them… There was the desire and the idea to change. I say this without rhetoric. Milan was a city where solidarity prevailed, essentially reformist with a very Catholic socialism, which spread a new myth and a different slogan of acceptance: “You are southern, but you want to work. And then it’s fine with me ”. It must be said that out of the myth of the commander he was born in panetun life was very hard and no one has ever told about it except some director, like Olmi, or Visconti in Rocco and his brothers.

The eyes of those who know how to look: I can only speak as a photographer: I see that in all these years many things have changed. New rights have been affirmed: of workers, of women, of the family. Anthropologically changed the inhabitant of the city. All that was the myth and history of the industry shattered and led to a dissolving of certainties, bringing fear. Many pacts have been broken, of human stories and encounters: the family has dissolved, the political parties have dissolved. Skip the trade unions, skip everything. And human relations have failed. Only finance and money remain. What Tognazzi said about it remains The bitter life: i day, i day, i day. Everything was monetized: friendship, intellectual thinking, life. And relationships between people have become very difficult. Even in the communication system, in journalism, in publishing. If you want to live in Milan you must have a very high income. Milan is a city that does not allow you to live in freedom of thought. Today there is a system of individualisms in which the real interest is one: to make money.

Something, however, is saved: There are pockets of resistance and also an idea of ​​solidarity: I am thinking of the Milan of these days and of the lines for bread. I am thinking of the increasingly dramatic inequality that our society is experiencing. But I also think of the scene of a singer, Fedez, who hands out envelopes with a thousand euros on board a Lamborghini. So I’m going to reread Dickens: and I wonder where the dignity has gone? The ostentation of wealth really annoying and in this case just out of place. What do we have to do? Are we going back to paternalistic charity, to pietism? Let’s go back to the nineteenth century ?. Of course, everyone has their own idea of ​​solidarity, and everyone has to do their part, of course. Lucas continues: I am simply a photographer and I have tried to give faces to the invisible. Think about it, photography can be a powerful tool of denunciation: remember Lewis Hine who revealed the exploitation of child labor in the American economy. This is to say that there is one thing we all have to defend. The right to social achievements, the rights of every single person, the right to their dignity. Let’s not forget: Milan is a city yet to be discovered. All to tell.

The carreer. The power of a dreamer in reports and books

Dean of Italian photographers, Uliano Lucas (Milan, 1942) made reportage documenting the youth protest, street protests, immigration, industrialization, the devastation of the territory, conditions in prisons and psychiatric hospitals. Note also his war reports and dedicated to the struggles for democracy. Lucas has exhibited his images in the most important museums of the country, in solo exhibitions but also in group shows such as The road, the struggle, the love (with works by Letizia Battaglia and Tano D’Amico) which was held in Fermo until last October 4th. The book production from 1965 to today is also very large: the last book by Uliano Lucas Dreamers and rebels. Photographs and thoughts beyond the sixty-eight (Bompiani, 2018)

December 23, 2020 (change December 23, 2020 | 21:37)

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