Aug 252015

In search of Cartier-Bresson in Basilicata

ITALY. Basilicata. Pisticci. 1951. (original caption)

ITALY. Basilicata. Pisticci. 1951. (original caption)

Four years ago, we visited the small city of Matera in southern Italy.  It was just after Christmas and the hotel where we stayed was barely at fifty percent capacity.  All of the other visitors were Italian.  It had the feel of being on the outskirts, possibly forgotten in comparison to the other Italian hot-spots.  But that was exactly why we wanted to visit Matera.  Out of curiosity, I had asked my Italian teacher what he thought of going to Matera for a week.  He said, “A WEEK?! For what? I’d go for a maximum of 2 days, there is nothing to do there.”

Cartier Bresson in Basilicata from Magnum Photo

Cartier Bresson in Basilicata from Magnum Photo

Against all sense and advice, we went and loved it.  My grandmother was born in Ferrandina, only twenty minutes from Matera, so maybe the city is in my blood, but it is an extraordinary place.  Unique in its architecture, food, and most of all, the people.  I’ve made so many amazing friends there, I could not imagine life now without Matera.  Fast forward four years and the city was awarded Unesco European Cultural Capital for 2019, there are now over twenty hotels when there used to be only two (about a decade ago), and the sassi are slowly coming to life again.  While many people are strictly focused on Cuba as a before and after, there are still some major treasures to be found in Europe.

Cartier Bresson in Basilicata from Magnum Photo

Cartier Bresson in Matera, Basilicata from Magnum Photo

While I was there on my first trip, I was reading Assouline’s biography of Cartier-Bresson.  HCB took a few trips through the region of Basilicata in the 1950′s and 1970′s.  There were a few images from his series that stood out in my mind.  One of them was of an odd set of stairs and an ecstatic little girl running up to his lens.  Maybe it is my background in construction that led me to the staircases, but one day I found the exact stairs.  Magnum Photo credits the picture as being taken in Pisticci.  But this is not true, not that I care much about the caption.  Magnum has millions of photos and far be it from me to start offering online corrections.  I find it more compelling just to make the mini-discovery on my own by heading out for a walk with a camera.

Matera, Italy © Adam Marelli

Matera, Italy © Adam Marelli

On a recent trip back, I wanted to take a photograph before the place changed.

After World War II many of the families were forcibly moved out of the sassi (what is not the historical center.)  By the 1970′s the sassi were all but abandoned.  So the little girl in the picture could still be alive, but I have not found her yet. That will be part 2 of the saga.

If you like Cartier Bresson and have not read this book, Id highly recommend it. Henri Cartier Bresson by Pierre Assouline

If you like Cartier Bresson and have not read this book, Id highly recommend it. Henri Cartier Bresson by Pierre Assouline.

Do you have any before and after pictures that you have discovered while traveling?  Tell us about it below…




 Posted by at 8:36 pm

  8 Responses to “In search of Cartier-Bresson in Basilicata”

  1. Adam,

    I first went to Matera over 30 years ago. I did so because of a book, Carlo Levi’s “Christ stopped at Eboli”, which recounts his time of exile in Matera during World War II. It presents the most amazing picture of life there, the place and its people. It was so compelling that I travelled from Australia just to see this amazing place.

    I’m sad to hear that it is becoming a tourist attraction, although I can see why. For anyone who can’t get there, and for all those who do, I can not recommend Levi’s book enough. In the same way that a picture can be worth a thousand words, a few carefully composed words can be worth a thousand pictures.



    • Paul,

      Great recommendations…I’ve enjoyed both the book and the movie. The movie helps out with some of the visuals of the city.

      The city is still great, not exactly Disneyland yet. Matera is working on maintaining its history without turning over completely to tourism. It is something that lots of cultural spots around the world are dealing with. And its a discussion I’ve been having with the city too.

      We wish them the best as they move forward.


  2. Wow! Loved this article Adam. I was just curious if the area was damaged during WWII and why they never tried to rebuild the area sooner.

    • Hi Gary,

      There was damage to the area during WW2. Some of the people I’ve met said that the Nazi’s had come through looking for people who the locals hid in the caves (sassi.)

      A curious thing about the city is that the local stone is actually quite soft so the rebuilding from either age or damage has not been as long as in other parts of europe.

      The reason that they did not rebuild sooner, well…its complicated. I will post a video from the owner of the hotel, who does a good job of explaining it a bit.


  3. Awesome to find the spot where that image was taken amongst the maze that is Matera. It is such a wonderful place, why wouldn’t you go back. It is an absolute dream for photographers of almost any genre. Keep up the great work Adam best wishes Murray

    • Hi Murray,
      Indeed, Matera is a maze. I’ve tried to walk on every street at least once and last year I found 3 new ones. I love the challenge though.
      Thank you for the kind words.

  4. I love finding places where old photos, that I’ve enjoyed, were made and seeing how much they’ve changed. In this case, it hasn’t changed as much I’d expect, which is great. Very interesting.

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