Fondazione Ansaldo

Fondazione Ansaldo

The Photo Library

The Ansaldo Foundation photograph library is a unique archival experience in Italy in terms of its originality, size and continuity. Work began, indeed, as far back as 1980 as the ‘Photographic Material Section’ of the then Archivio Storico Ansaldo historic archive (today Fondazione Ansaldo) on an exemplary activity to safeguard and exploit historic industrial photographs considered a cultural asset.

This initiative was ahead of its time if you consider that in those days collections of photographs were not considered prestigious or of archival relevance, and indeed it took until 1999 with the Consolidated law on cultural and environmental assets before photographic sources were finally included as cultural assets in Italy.

The initial goal of the photo library was to recover surviving photographic documentation: complex company histories, and more generally an almost complete lack of attention by companies up to that time towards their history had unfortunately caused significant losses, in many cases irreparable, of Ansaldo's photographic heritage. Despite this, the photo library was able in a short time to put together a significant collection of over 25,000 original pieces, largely silver glass plate negatives. With the passage of time, the actions aiming to collect, preserve, reorganise and make publicly available the company's photographic documentation was progressively extended to the companies in the Ansaldo Group, its subsidiaries and associates; finally in 2000, consistent with the wider mission of the Ansaldo Foundation as a combined economic archive, the decision was made to involve other significant players in the Genoan and Italian economic world.

Today, around 400,000 original works consisting of plates, film, prints, slides and albums are conserved in the photo library. These images document the activity of hundreds of businesses, above all industrial, and entire production chains from the second half of the 19th century onwards, but it is also possible to illustrate other important aspects such as transformations in technology, labour organisation and the industrial landscape. It is a collection of archives, in part still to be discovered, which draws the attention of academics, cultural players, students, publishers and the mass media; an archive heritage in constant growth thanks to significant numbers of citizens, ex-employees and their families whose contributions have taken on a cultural, civil and human significance which goes far beyond their material dimensions, whether they be photographs, albums or entire collections.

With the growth of interest in the 1980s in archival documentation produced by business, with the opening of a growing number of historic business archives to the public and with the key topics concerning their protection and exploitation coming of age, industrial photography also took its place in the common consciousness. In this sense, the Ansaldo photo library plays a key role both with its institutional activities and by creating publications and exhibitions; the initiatives which have taken place over the last 30 years are too many to be summarised here. We shall limit ourselves to the first, in 1980, with the portfolio ‘Fotografie/Photographs 1890-1926’ containing a selection of fifteen photographs focusing on, as the presentation text mentioned, primarily workers, and the last, ‘Scatti di Industria. 160 anni di immagini dalla Fototeca Ansaldo’ from November 2013, composed of a thousand images variously enlarged or converted into multimedia formats; this exhibition was seen by around 20,000 people, and met with widespread acclaim. Even more important, however, is the contribution in archival and cultural terms which the Ansaldo photo library has been able to make over time. In this case, too, we shall limit ourselves to just two examples, albeit particularly significant ones: the multimedia application ‘Videodisco’ of 1986 -1988, and the international convention of 1989 held on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of Daguerre's invention.

In 1986, with a photographic heritage consisting of 150,000 items which was increasingly difficult to manage with the tools and methods of the time, and faced with growing demand to view them, the most advanced computer and digital technology was introduced. This was the ‘Videodisco’ project: an initial selection of over 35,000 historic images was made over three years of work, filed and stored on optical discs 30 cm in diameter. This made it possible in just seconds to display (but not, at the time, print) one or more images by individual or combined search of over 2,000,000 keywords taken from the catalogue cards associated with the photographs. It was, at the same time, both a database of images and a sort of audiovisual guide to almost a century of Italian industrial activity. It was the first digital application in Italy in the field of preserving and managing business history.

The second example dates back to April 7 and 8 1989, when the International convention entitled “Fotografia. Dallo specchio del reale alla perdita di identità” took place in Villa Cattaneo dell’Olmo, site of the Ansaldo Historic Archive. Organised by Luca Borzani, Luigi Giraldi, Alessandro Lombardo and Giuseppe Marcenaro, 26 academics took part in the event. It was the first event organised in Italy on this topic, and also the most important in terms of the topics chosen and the quality of the speakers. Academics from the fields of photography, writing, history and archiving took part. These included Arturo Carlo Quintavalle, Italo Zannier, Luciano Tamburini, Fernando Tempesti, Marina Miraglia, Ando Gilardi, Peppino Ortoleva, Licinio Sacconi, Lucio Bollati, Edoardo Sanguineti and Gillo Dorfles. Specialists also flew in from abroad, for instance Peter Galassi, director of photography at ‘Moma’ in New York City, and Jean Claude Lemagny, head curator of photography at the National Library in Paris. The event took on the complexities and manifold meanings of the photographic image, combining different languages, skills and experiences.

Active in every area of the field – from acquiring new photographic documents to restoring the media most threatened by chemical and physical degradation, to serving the public – the photo library wishes to make the most of the economic, communications and organisational opportunities offered by the web and the latest digital technology. The project entitled “La memoria come risorsa”, set in motion by the Ansaldo Foundation in 2010, is a step in this direction. Within the wider goal of safeguarding the archival and documentary evidence produced over time by Finmeccanica, the substantial photographic collections present in the approximately 100 companies in the Group will be recorded, described and in part made available digitally over the company Intranet.


Archives and Collections

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