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Mario Giacomelli was born in Senigallia, Italy, on 1 August 1925. By the age of thirteen, he had taught himself the fundamentals of painting, dropped out of high school and begun working at a printing shop as a typesetter, becoming fascinated in the process of creating and dismantling the world of words and images. He also painted, and was a secret car racing enthusiast. He became fascinated with bits of wire in the walls at his shop and decided to teach himself the foundations of photography in order to photograph them.
The Second World War inflicted a heavy toll on the region surrounding Giacomelli’s hometown, Senigallia. Moved by this, he set about documenting both the local landscape, and rural people in their small farming communities – often with an emphasis on the old, the sick and the poor. His photographs were often desolate, ridden with natural scars and interesting impurities. Obsessed with disturbing themes of loneliness and death and quickly establishing a distinct style, he employed intense contrasts to conjure up dream-like, poetic settings. To help achieve this he applied manipulative techniques in the darkroom, adjusting the amounts of light by means of ‘burning’ and ‘dodging’.
Giacomelli’s work maintained the strong themes that were bound up in his childhood and he began to travel, scouring the Italian landscape for subjects to photograph. It was during this time in Scanno, an Italian city that had also preoccupied Henri Cartier Bresson, that Giacomelli produced one of his masterpieces, Scanno Boy (1957). The picture depicts a small group of women walking towards the camera in the foreground with only one figure in focus: a lone boy walking with his hands in his pockets in the middle ground of the photograph.
On the birth of Giacomelli’s son, who was tragically born disabled, the family visited France for a brief period. They travelled to Lourdes, a site of great spirituality and renowned for healing, where Giacomelli produced some amazingly powerful and emotional images.
In 1960, Giacomelli was commissioned by the Catholic Church to document the lives of local priests. Giacomelli worked on the project entitled No Hands Caress my Face, better known as the Pretini series, which is an almost performance-lead body of work taken in the seminary of Senigallia and later shown at Cologne Photokina in 1963. He applied both a blurred and candid feel to this project and by the end of 1961, Giacomelli had created a body of work that is often seen as his most celebrated and revered.
It was at this time that John Szarbowski, the Head of the Department of Photography of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, bought some of Giacomelli’s prints of Scanno, and published one in his book entitled Looking at Photographs: 100 Pictures from the collection of the Museum of Modern Art.
He died on 25 November 2000 in the town of his birth, after a long battle with cancer.