Arts Curriculum

Photography from the 1930s

These investigations have the aim of making the science of photography cross over the border more and more into pure art, and of automatically encouraging its development in the field of physics, chemistry, and war. —“Manifesto of Futurist Photography,” 1930, co-written by Tato15


Photography from the 1930s

Tato (Guglielmo Sansoni), Fantastical Aeroportrait of Mino Somenzi (Aeroritratto fantastico di Mino Somenzi), 1934. Photomontage, gelatin silver print, 24 x 18 cm. Rovereto, MART, Archivio del ’900, Fondo Mino Somenzi © MART, Archivio del ‘900

As early as 1913, Futurist leaders were exposed to attempts to analyze and synthesize movement using photography (known as photodynamism). While F. T. Marinetti (1876– 1944) recognized photography’s potential to contribute to Futurism, Umberto Boccioni (1882–1916) rejected it, fearing that its mechanical vision of motion might degrade the Futurist vision for painting. For more than fifteen years, the possible synergy between Futurism and photography was thus blocked.

Then, in 1930, Tato (1896–1974) and Marinetti signed a “Manifesto of Futurist Photography” that opened the way to Futurist photographic experimentation. Tato was a rebellious artistprovocateur and autodidact who had done commercial graphic work such as publicity posters, advertisements, and book jackets. Tato loved live performance and absurdity. In 1920, he conducted his own funeral in Bologna (which led to his arrest) to be reborn as “Tato, the Futurist painter.” Like his life, his photography had much in common with Dada and Surrealism.

Tato’s photographic work dealt with the Futurist concept of simultaneity through the transparency of objects and the transfiguration of the real. He said he sought to achieve “a new reality which has nothing in common with reality.”16 His techniques included multiple exposures and the superimposition of photographic negatives. He even envisioned architectural and commercial applications for these techniques such as sequential photographs showing a laxative moving through a body.

Tato’s portraiture layered multiple symbols of the subject’s personality to express his or her “state of mind” or psychology. In his selfportrait, he used a propeller and an engine to represent his passion for flight. In Fantastical Aeroportrait of Mino Somenzi (1934), he portrayed a fellow Futurist and aviation enthusiast by superimposing multiple negatives and photograms to depict a moving propeller floating over Somenzi’s image.

15. Maria Antonella Pelizzari, “Futurist Photography: Tato and the 1930s,” from Italian Futurism, 1909–1944: Reconstructing the Universe, exh. cat., ed. Vivien Greene (New York: Guggenheim Museum, 2014), p. 295.

16. Pelizzari, “Futurist Photography: Tato and the 1930s,” p. 297.

Tato (Guglielmo Sansoni), Fantastical Aeroportrait of Mino Somenzi (Aeroritratto fantastico di Mino Somenzi), 1934. Photomontage, gelatin silver print, 24 x 18 cm. Rovereto, MART, Archivio del ’900, Fondo Mino Somenzi © MART, Archivio del ‘900


Ask students if they have ever taken a photograph of someone. Did their photograph say something about the personality or interests of their subject? How?

Show: Fantastical Aeroportrait of Mino Somenzit, 1934

  • What do students notice about this photograph?
  • The artist, Tato, said he wanted to capture the “state of mind” and psychology of the subjects in his portraits. Ask students what they think they can guess about the subject’s psychology or “state of mind” based on the image.
  • This is a portrait Tato made of a fellow Futurist, Mino Somenzi (1899–1948). Somenzi was a radical who believed in the political power of art and aviation. In 1920, he wrote and distributed a document that exhorted citizens to demolish the bourgeois establishment, to “smash to pieces all altars and pedestals” and to destroy the power of “banks, beards, and prejudices.”17 Do students see these aspects of him in the image? What else could Tato have done to give us the sense for these parts of Somenzi’s life and beliefs?
  • To make this photograph, Tato superimposed multiple negatives and photograms, images produced without a camera by placing an object on photosensitive paper and exposing it to light. How do Tato’s techniques give us a sense of the subject in a way that straightforward photographic techniques cannot?


Tato (Guglielmo Sansoni), Fantastical Aeroportrait of Mino Somenzi (Aeroritratto fantastico di Mino Somenzi), 1934. Photomontage, gelatin silver print, 24 x 18 cm. Rovereto, MART, Archivio del ’900, Fondo Mino Somenzi © MART, Archivio del ‘900

  • Futurist photography shared many techniques with Dada and Surrealist photography, including the use of photograms. For this activity, show students images of photograms made by artists such as Man Ray. Then demonstrate the process to them by placing objects on photographic paper and exposing the paper to light. They should experiment with the process. How do different objects create different kinds of shapes or opacity?

    Tell students that they are going to create abstract portraits using the photogram technique. They should bring in objects they want to use to represent the subject of their photogram portrait. Remind them that since these are abstract portraits, they do not have to include the likeness of the person they are depicting. They can simply suggest that person’s “state of mind,” as Tato put it.

    As a low-tech alternative to this activity, students can use collage to create abstract portraits by creating silhouettes of objects with construction paper and gluing those down. These silhouettes will abstract the images and mimic the effects of photograms.
    Visual Arts
  • Early on, Futurists such as Anton Giulio Bragaglia (1890–1960) wanted to use photography to analyze and synthesize movement through photodynamism. Painters, Bragaglia wrote in “Futurist Photodynamism” (1911), could use photodynamism to invoke “intermovemental stages.”18 In the 1930s, to publicize some performances, Futurists photographed dancer Giannina Censi in poses that she employed in a dance whose movements mimicked airplanes (aerodanza).

    For this activity, students will use photography to try to capture movement. First ask them: Which techniques, if any, have students used in the past? Which techniques can they imagine using? If possible, make a program such as Photoshop available to students. If not, give them access to a printer and photocopier in order for them to create final products using multiple images. Reflect on the techniques students have used. Which aspects of movement did they capture and how?
    Visual Arts
  • Students can explore how photographs can capture movement with recent technological innovations by creating animated .gifs with multiple photographs. First, they should create digital files of drawings, sculptures, or photographs. Next, they can use a free website to create their .gifs (for instance, Students also can import photos from Flickr or Picasa accounts or convert a YouTube video. Which aspects of movement did the .gifs capture? How have recent technological innovations affected our perceptions and representations of motion?
    Visual Arts

18. Anton Giulio Bragaglia, “Futurist Photodynamism,” trans./ed. Lawrence Rainey, from Modernism /modernity 15, no. 2 (2008), The Johns Hopkins University Press, p. 371.

Italian Futurism, 1909–1944: Reconstructing the Universe related terms and additional resources

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