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Photographing Work: Factories on Film

In our look at how the art of photography and the world of Pirelli have come together on many occasions, our “Stories” section has naturally examined the work of factory photographers. The opportunities offered by having the camera explore production departments and reveal them to the outside world were the subject of much debate in the second half of the twentieth century. Pages and pages devoted to “factory stories”, as seen through the eyes of the great photographers of the time, appeared, for example, in Pirelli magazine. Other documents in our Historical Archive also show how work and workers were captured by photographers’ lenses very early on.

Luca ComerioWorkers Leaving the Pirelli Factory in Milan, 1905: a name, a place, and a date that together form an authentic icon of the “world of Pirelli”. Now restored and preserved at our Foundation, the giant photograph was taken by the great Milanese filmmaker-photographer, who was commissioned by Pirelli to represent its industrial power at the Milan International world’s fair in 1906. More than two thousand faces of men and women outside the gates of the first factory in Via Ponte Seveso are shown looking up at a man armed with a camera and magnesium flash, who immortalises them as symbols of an industrial revolution in the making. In other words, a factory photograph as a tribute to a manufacturing force already in place. This is also the concept that inspires the photo reportage made inside the Bicocca workshops in 1922 to celebrate the Pirelli Group’s 50th anniversary. In the gigantic Farrel calendering machines from America subdued by men in overalls, and in the machines that dominate these sepia-coloured portraits, we can sense the full significance of the relationship between man and machine.

The post-war period and the 1950s introduced a new industrial renaissance, but the shots taken by the Dutch master Arno Hammacher, in the newly opened Pirelli tyre factory in Settimo Torinese, perfectly capture the concept of “know-how”. Here, hands take centre stage: hands that know the secrets of rubber, hands that control a vulcaniser, hands that can bend machines to the will of man. This culture is investigated in many articles that Pirelli magazine devoted to the mid-twentieth-century industrial boom, through its director at the time, the “poet-engineer” Leonardo Sinisgalli. Times change – from the industrial renaissance to the structural crises of the 1970s – but the inquisitiveness of photographers seeking the “human” side of the factory never varies: two young photographers, Enzo Nocera and Gianfranco Corso, made their own personal photo reportages for the company house organ Fatti e Notizie between 1973 and 1977. Strictly in black and white, they were authentic picture-investigations into the meaning of work, with all its contradictions, problems, and prospects. Their factory portraits also became solo exhibitions of a changing Italy.

And on the subject of changing factories, the view of another great poet of images cannot be neglected, for in 1985 Gabriele Basilico’s shoot – also in black and white – captured and forever preserved the moment when, with the official launch of the Bicocca Project, the Milano Bicocca district began its transformation into a new urban organism. This passion for telling the stories of people, factories, and work “from the inside” is still as alive as ever. Carlo Furgeri Gilbert has worked with the Pirelli Foundation ever since it was set up in 2008, creating photo reportages at its factories around the world, from the one in Breuburg, Germany, to those in İzmit, Turkey, and Slatina, Romania. A fine example is Furgeri Gilbert’s wide-ranging shoot that portrayed the creation of the new Industrial Centre in ​​Settimo Torinese, the Factory 4.0 of the future. Another story of the civilisation of men and machines.

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