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Reframing Italian America Photo Exhibit Depicts How New Immigrants Refashioned Themselves in Early 20th Century

-- These Historical Images Are in Stark Contrast to Jacob Riis’s Depiction of Tenement Life; On View at Calandra Institute in Manhattan Through Jan. 8, 2016 --

NEW YORK, July 30, 2015--Reframing Italian America brings to light 23 historical photographs selected from the Bernard Titowsky Collection. Consisting of more than 200 items, the collection belonging to the Queens rare-book dealer and librarian was donated to the John D. Calandra Italian American Institute by his son, Michael Titowsky. The exhibition will be on view Monday–Friday, 9 am to 5 pm at the Calandra Institute, 25 West 43rd Street, 17th Floor, in Manhattan. A catalog with 41 photographs, as well as essays by Dominique Padurano, Joseph Sciorra, and actor John Turturro, will be available for purchase.
The photos were chosen for the diversity of their settings and for their importance as “social documents of Italian immigrant life,” writes Dr. Sciorra, Calandra’s director for Academic and Cultural Programs. The fields represented cover commerce, education, religion, artistry, and labor—from manual workers such as sandhogs working on the tunnels of Penn Station in New York City, to male hat-makers and female garment workers, to artisans such as finishers at the Roman Bronze Works. Professionals are represented as well, including newspaper editors, presidents of banks, and factory owners.Roman Bronze Works-web.jpg

“These featured individuals and the collective they create in group shots are of an industrious, orderly, church-going, and socially engaged people,” Sciorra says. “These are markedly different depictions of Italian immigrants than we find taken by others of the era such as social reformer Jacob Riis, whose muckraking work on New York City’s impoverished Italian slums oscillates between the ‘exoticizing distance’ of the picturesque and the ‘stark racially othering’ of the destitute.”         
An interesting aspect of the collection is the representation of Italian immigrants in cities and towns not associated with Italian immigration, such as Alderson, Oklahoma; Bessemer, Alabama; Laredo, Texas; Omaha, Nebraska; and Savannah, Georgia.
Most of the immigrants in these photos posed for the camera and maintain a formal public persona, aware that the very occasion of a photograph is a special one. Some of the laborers, who may have posed in a studio, suggest a sense of satisfaction and pride. At the same time, the subjects are shown engaging in work that has shaped the U.S.: building rail stations and tunnels, founding schools and churches, providing needed services and goods. Thus they are displaying and representing themselves as Italian Americans as they refashion themselves in the process of transforming America.
A significant number of these prints are mounted on now-faded gray paperboard and captioned with meticulous and ornate calligraphy, presumably part of a previous exhibition. Sciorra and Rosangela Briscese, assistant director for Academic and Cultural Programs, speculate that the photos might have been created and/or collected for the “Italiani all’Estero” (Italians Abroad) expositions sponsored by the Italian government from 1892 to 1911 in cities like Genoa, Turin, Milan, and Rome. Such expositions demonstrating the achievements of Italians abroad were a means by which Italians could explain to themselves the hemorrhaging of citizens by the millions a few decades after the formation of the nation-state (1861).
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Please note: The Calandra Institute will be closed Fridays through the week of August 3, 2015.
The primary purpose of the John D. Calandra Italian American Institute of Queens College, headed by Distinguished Professor and Dean Anthony Julian Tamburri, is to foster higher education among and about Italian Americans. In so doing, the Institute serves as an intellectual and cultural center by stimulating the study of Italian Americans through its research, scholarship, public programming, media outlets, counseling services, and study abroad—ultimately bringing together a community of scholars who can focus on and enhance the Italian-American experience both within and beyond the Italian-American community.


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