On New Year’s Eve 1964, Lisetta Carmi was invited to a party in Genoa. A former concert pianist who was four years into a new career, Carmi was not yet well known as a photographer, although she had a reputation in her home city for her recent series, ‘Genova Porto’ (Genoa Port, 1964), for which she had pretended to be a local docker’s cousin to gain site access and then documented the harsh conditions under which they worked. The party was for Genoa’s clandestine community of male-to-female cross-dressers and transsexual women, who mostly lived in the former Jewish ghetto of the Via del Campo neighbourhood in the city centre. Some of them worked at the docks by day and cross-dressed by night; one provided Carmi with this exclusive invitation, trusting her to depict them sensitively.
Carmi spent the next few years taking photographs of the group, moving to the city centre to be closer to them. She did not ask them to pose for her images, preferring to show them going about their daily lives – dressing and putting on make-up, cooking and dining together or (in some cases) earning a living through sex work. Rather than exhibit them, Carmi chose to collect her inquisitive photographs into a book, I Travestiti (The Transvestites), which was published in November 1972. Accompanying the images were texts by the renowned psychoanalyst Elvio Fachinelli, who helped her find a publisher (Essedi Editrice) for a project that not many people wanted to touch. Fachinelli’s interviews focused on the participants’ educations and family backgrounds, including how much their families knew about their gender identities, but the process was far from easy: he even had to ask Carmi to sit in on the conversations after the interviewees started kissing him and pulling his trousers down.
The earliest stirrings of the Italian LGBT movement were occurring as Carmi was documenting Genoa’s gender-variant community, yet she found that booksellers were as reticent as publishers about her work. Asking around, Carmi discovered that the few shops who had agreed to stock the book kept it under the counter. Writer and journalist Barbara Alberti rescued I Travestiti: she bought every copy, quietly distributing them to ‘intelligent people’ who would not baulk at the subject matter. Carmi never attempted to reprint I Travestiti, but now, almost 50 years later – at a time when trans and non-binary people are far more visible, if not accepted, across the Western world – and 35 years after she gave up photography, these images are finally being exhibited, most recently at Galerie Antoine Levi in Paris, the Centro Pecci in Prato and the Museo di Roma in Rome.
Carmi’s portraits are intimate and empathetic, giving the subjects a rare chance to reveal themselves: sometimes literally, as in the photograph of an unnamed transvestite hitching up her skirt to expose the top of her stockings, or another pulling down a part of her dress to reveal her breast, the lighting and angle (most likely deliberately) making it impossible to tell if she is a cross-dresser or transsexual. The important thing, which Carmi manages to convey, is her subjects’ mixed feelings: not about their gender identities, but about the joy of finding a time to express it, and about capturing it in a photograph that will record a moment that cannot be permanently lived, at least not without painful social consequences. Such bittersweet emotions frequently spring from loneliness, but Carmi was careful to portray something often absent from early representations of trans women: a sense of community. Her subjects are seen helping each other with their dress and make-up, smiling and hugging one another, tenderly expressing their love for each other in their bedrooms, or enjoying the embrace of a man.
In one especially striking image, the transvestite who adorned the original cover of Carmi’s book holds up a framed photograph of herself as a man; only her distinctive nose reveals that she is the same person. Several pictures subtly bring in another contrast: between religious conservatism and self-expression. They may not directly reference the Biblical passages that forbid a man to wear women’s clothing, but the images of Christ and other holy figures above some of the transvestites allude to a powerful system of oppression. If such contrasts feel like tropes or clichés now, they did not at the time – very few people had thought to collect images of cross-dressers or transsexual women, except to illustrate sexological texts that were barely known beyond their professional circles. The conditions for such individuals were similar everywhere, with many people feeling the schism between their male and female identities in isolation or being ostracized for coming out. Carmi, to her credit, did not employ the before-and-after canard used in so many transsexual narratives, and certainly did not give in to voyeurism or sensationalism, which helps explain why her work has aged so well.
One new revelation that has emerged from the recent exhibitions of Carmi’s work is her use of two cameras: a black and white one, with which she took the photographs in I Travestiti; and one that captured colour images, rediscovered by the manager of Carmi’s archive, Gianni Martini. The shadowy monochrome pictures emphasize her subjects’ night-time existences, hinting at a sense of marginality, but the colour ones feel less melancholic and far more playful. The influence of postwar Hollywood glamour on Carmi’s subjects – many of whom named themselves after actors and singers – also becomes more obvious, notably in the photographs of Cristina, a transsexual woman with an astonishing blonde beehive, thick black eyeliner and mascara, sat on her bed in stockings and a mauve nightdress that matches her lips. In the fullness of their colour and divorced from Fachinelli’s accompanying texts, I found it easier to connect emotionally with these women, placing them amongst my trans foremothers and wishing I could have spoken to them about their lives and identities. In an interview, Martini told me that only one was still alive and able to visit the recent exhibition, but many of Carmi’s subjects had maintained a friendship with her beyond the end of the project and were grateful that their existences had been marked in a way that – we can only speculate – those of so many other trans people were not.
I was unable to talk to Carmi about her photographs – she is now 95 years old, quite deaf and does not leave the small village in Puglia where she lives – but, in a previous interview, she stated how she wanted to be a boy, like her two older brothers, when she was growing up, and that she did not wish to fulfil the social convention for young women by getting married. Her guiding principle for I Travestiti was very simple: she felt that everyone should have the right to express themselves as they wished. Having been expelled from high school when Benito Mussolini passed the racial laws against Italian Jews in 1938, forcing her family into exile in Switzerland until the end of World War II, Carmi knew the huge personal cost of discrimination and had developed a strong sense of empathy: like many in Italy after the collapse of fascism, she supported the Communist Party for a time. She got into photography when she brought a camera on a trip to record the ancient songs of Puglia’s Jewish community and found that people were impressed by her images.
Carmi’s practice was incredibly varied: she took pictures of Provo – a group of left-wing artists and activists from the Netherlands who staged non-violent insurrections against the Dutch authorities in 1967 – and reported from the Troubles in Northern Ireland in 1975. As well as chronicling the travestiti, Carmi took many portraits of noted figures, such as the artist Lucio Fontana, the filmmaker Joris Ivens and the poet Ezra Pound – notorious for his vocal support of fascism after he moved to Italy in 1924. Despite having begun her photographic career in reaction to an exhibition of fascist-era art in 1960, Carmi felt appalled by the US military’s decision to keep Pound in a steel cage for three weeks after he was arrested for treason when American troops found him in Pisa in 1945. Twenty years later, she sought to depict the humanity that lay beneath Pound’s poetry (which she held in great esteem) rather than the inhumanity behind his politics, but Pound, by then in his early 80s, was no longer speaking. Carmi did not need words: she knocked on his door, spent four minutes taking 20 photographs of the writer in his dressing gown, then left. The images show Pound looking startled, haunted, regretful and yet calm; they end with him turning away. Other journalists only saw a doddering old man and felt they had wasted their time; Carmi’s series won the prestigious Prix Niépce for Italian photography.
After meeting a guru in Jaipur in 1976, Carmi founded an ashram in Cisternino three years later and retired from photography altogether in 1984. Her images of Pound may have remained famous, but her portraits of the previously voiceless trans women of Genoa deserve to be far better known – slowly, the world is starting to see the same humanity in them, and people like them, as did Carmi.
Main image: Lisetta Carmi, I Travestiti, Genova (The Transvestites, Genoa), 1965, photograph. Courtesy: © the artist, Galeria d'arte Martini & Ronchetti, Genoa, and Galerie Antoine Levi, Paris
Juliet Jacques is a writer and filmmaker based in London, UK. Her most recent book, Trans: A Memoir, was published by Verso in 2015. She co-hosts Suite (212) on Resonance 104.4fm, which looks at the arts in their social, cultural, political and historical contexts.
First published in Issue 8