The Photographic Historical Society of Canada

Not Paved With Gold
Vincenzo Pietropaolo
Program date: February 20, 2008

Vincenzo Pietropaolo
Vincenzo Pietropaolo

Maierato, Calabria
Maierato, Calabria

Not Paved with Gold
Not Paved with Gold

Torn Image
Torn Image

Bocce
Bocce

Cement Work
Cement Work

Garment Trade
Garment Trade

Strike
Strike

Fourteenth
Fourteenth

Bower
Bower

Lambs
Lambs


Angel

Resting
Resting

Parade
Parade

Lessons
Lessons

Student
Student

 

Vincenzo was born in the village of Maierato in Italy’s southern province of Calabria. His family moved to Toronto when he was twelve year old and he grew up in this city. He learned photography while in high school and for seventeen years after university he was part of the city’s planning department. He left the planning department to follow his dream of becoming a documentary photographer.

Tonight’s presentation is based on his sixth book (published in 2006) - which features his earliest photographs taken in the 1970s to document Toronto’s Italian immigrant community in it’s day-to-day activities at home and at work. The book “Not Paved With Gold” is an engaging collection of memories from Toronto’s recent past. Ironically the photographs he took in the needle trade factories of Spadina Avenue document a seldom recorded time in businesses that have since succumbed to cheap third world imports.

Vincenzo began his talk with a brief biography and a quote on the immigrant experience of a century earlier in New York City, recorded by Richard Gambino in his 1974 book on Italian Americans “Blood of my Blood”:

It was an old superstition. sometimes half believed by the simplest emigrants, that the streets in [America] were paved with gold. When they got here. they learned three things: first, that the streets were not paved with gold; second, that the streets were not paved at all; and third. that they were expected to pave them. (Terry Coleman, as quoted in Blood of My Blood, by Richard Gambino)

Vincenzo noted that photography is a powerful language and his photographs are about his truth. Ten people would have ten stories after viewing the same scene - no one right story, just ten different views. He gave an example from John Berger’s and Jean Mohr's book "A Seventh Man" of how illegal immigrants traveling from Portugal across Spain into France in the 1970s used photography to keep their guides honest. A portrait photo was torn in two. Half was given to the guide. The immigrant mailed his half home from his new city. The guide brought his copy to the family and if the two torn pieces matched, the guide was paid. They understood the power of photography.

He was given good advice to photograph his own family and community first. The young question their identity and this advice helped Vincenzo learn his identity. In the 1970s, people showed interest if you had a camera - today they show interest if you do not have a camera. The camera was a ticket to get in to private places, but it was also a shield - one had to shoot the photograph, then step out and become a witness.

When he was starting out in the 1970s, it was difficult to get his photographs accepted by publishers and art galleries. Today, the same photos are in the National Archives and in private and corporate collections. The reluctance was in part due to his subjects being working class Italians, not artists. Vincenzo paraphrased Tom King’s film title “I’m Not The Indian You Had in Mind” (Mr King is a Aboriginal People’s advocate, English professor at the University of Guelph, and creator of CBC’s radio comedy series “The Dead Dog Cafe”). In the 1970s the documentary photograph’s immediacy had a powerful political effect - three decades later the photos are historical rather than political.

When his publisher, Between the Lines, of Toronto, was ready to go to print with “Not Paved With Gold”, Vincent travelled to the printing plant in Manitoba. There, he monitored the printing, signing off on each plate after inspecting the print quality and contrast. After sign-off, the first printing of some 1,600 copies began. The cover shot, taken at Toronto Island during the annual CHIN picnic is very strong. It was taken with a 50 or 35 mm lens, requiring a close relationship between the subjects and the photographer. Vincenzo exercised his artistic eye in choosing the landscape perspective and positioning the exposure to include the youth to the left of the couple.
He mentioned that after the book was published he was invited to a celebration by the family of the elderly couple as their honored guest.

The slides showed many of the pictures from “Not Paved with Gold”, each with Vincenzo’s delightful commentary and explanation of the photograph. He mentioned at one point that in 1839 when the earliest photographic process was sweeping the world, that some people did not believe that a process created by man - the daguerreotype - should be better than pictures created by the hand of man - a creation of God. A report published in Leipzig at the time added the observation that since the Daguerreotype had been invented in France “only the French could be so blasphemous”.

 

Following are some pictures from the book along with Vincenzo’s commentary:

Bocce. The immigrants brought along familiar things from home. In the 1970s people drove to Buffalo for pizza (I first ate pizza in 1956 or 7 on a trip to Chicago with a friend). In one picture a group of men are playing a game of Bocce in Earlscourt Park. The Italian game is now popular in North America.

Cement Work. In this photo a TTC Red Rocket waits patiently on College Street for the cement finisher to wave it on. “... the streetcar was forced to stop and wait for him. All his life he had been used to waiting for others.”

Garment Trade. Vincenzo visited factories along Spadina with his camera. Some managers welcomed him, others didn’t because they were afraid of what the camera could witness. Here you see Portuguese and Italian immigrant girls operating weaving machines that have long disappeared from Toronto.

Strike. Not all photos were of happy events. This shot was on a strike line in Toronto. The group weren’t fighting for money. It was for a safer working environment and the right to unionize. Moments before this picture, the serious faces broke into laughter after someone made a joke, then they became serious again.

Fourteenth. These are workers on the fourteenth floor of the Harbor Castle hotel. In 1973, a photographer could wander a job site. The big challenge was gaining the confidence of the workers who suspected the stranger was an inspector. Eating lunch with the men and chatting eventually gained their confidence and the pictures soon followed.

Bower. The act of raising a garden bower in the midst of a snow storm on the first day of spring caught Vincenzo’s eye. The church ghosted by the storm adds to the picture’s charm. This bower was placed in St James park in 1983.

Lambs. This picture illustrates the serendipity of documenting life. Vincenzo was framing the scene of a church lawn with statues stored in preparation for a coming display. Suddenly the elderly lady walked into the scene adding a sense of humour to the photograph.

Angel. Another humorous shot. A little girl, dressed as an angel for an italian religious festival, plays with a large balloon while a group of nuns face the other way and chat. In front of them is a sign announcing a Bingo.

Resting. In a quiet moment during a community festival at Grace and College, an elderly lady rests her feet by a tree ignoring the men and children behind her.

Parade. Religious parades always have a big turnout in little Italy. This photo was taken at one of the annual Good Friday processions showing the crowd and the bier and cross at Grace street in 1971.

Lessons. A strong image of commitment being made to an adopted country. Learning English in an ESL class at the West End YMCA on College Street in 1973.

Student. A young girl writing in her note book at St Lucy’s public school on Clinton Street in 1972, that she “has come a long way”.

Pergola. In the sixties and seventies original galvanized water pipes were being replaced with copper in many of Toronto’s older houses. The old pipes were often turned into grape arbours long before recycling or found objects became fashionable. Here Vincenzo shows grapes being harvested on such a pergola a bit further north in North York.

Wine. September is time for wine making in the Italian family. Crates of grapes arrive and soon become home-made vino. Vincenzo chose to take this photo by natural light with grainy high speed film to capture the dark contrasty feeling of working at night in the garage under the glare of a bare incandescent light.

Weekend Magazine. Cover of one of the many magazines that published Vincenzo’s photos. This shot appears on the “Not Paid with Gold” book cover.

Vincenzo wrapped up with some very personal images: A postcard picture of the ship Queen Frederica passing the Statue of Liberty on its way to New York. This postcard was on the kitchen wall in Maierato for a few years before the family travelled by the Queen Frederica to America (ie. the New World), landing not at New York, but at Halifax. In his passport picture he is with his mother and siblings. In those days it was customary to include the children with their mother on one passport and the father alone on a second passport. And finally a picture of roof tops and the local church in Maierato.

During the Q&A after the presentation, Vincenzo told the audience his 1970s photos were taken with a Canon FT using 50 mm to 28 mm lenses. He later switched to a Leica. Normal and wide angle shots were exposed on a best guess while he used a spot meter for exposing distance shots.

Today, as a freelance photographer, he still has his darkroom but he has gone digital, returning to the use of a Canon DSLR. For tonight’s presentation, Vincenzo scanned prints of the images in the book, removing scratches and dust with his computer. His next project gives him gives him a real challenge in communicating. He is recording the lives of autistic and Down’s syndrome children and their families.

For more background on Vincenzo and these images, pick up a copy of “Not Paved with Gold”. I did.

Pergola
Pergola
Wine
Wine
Weekend Magazine
Weekend Magazine
Queen Frederica
Queen Frederica
Passport
Passport
Maierato
Maierato

 


This page was designed in Dreamweaver CS3 on an iMac running OS X 10.5 (Leopard). Unless otherwise noted, images on this page were taken with a Sony F828 digital still camera and subsequently adjusted in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom V1.3 and Photoshop CS3. Presentation images are ©2008 by Vincenzo Pietropaolo and may not be used with out his permission. Contents and all other images are ©2008 by the Photographic Historical Society of Canada and may be used freely provided the source is clearly indicated. Copies of photographs displayed during this presentation may not be used without the copyright holder's permission. Contact PHSC at info@phsc.ca if you would like more information on the items discussed on this page.

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