Cesare Colombo – The eye of Milan: “Photographs 1952-2012”

Milan, Via Montenapoleone, “The last delivery men”, 1957 © Cesare Colombo“
by Daniela Tartaglia

Here is a photographer who (…) wanders invisibly among the cosmopolitan crowd and captures the vanity,
dream, happiness and intimate drama of the faces (…) focusing on psychological investigation,
away from the stereotypes applied by “photojournalists”.
(Ugo Zovetti, 1957)

Thinking back on the great exhibition that the Municipality of Milan dedicated to Cesare Colombo – hosted until 25 October in the Sala Viscontea of the Castello Sforzesco – I remembered the words that the neo-realist photographer Ugo Zovetti used, already in 1957, to describe the work of the colleague and friend.

Words that, reported in the beautiful catalogue of the exhibition by Silvia Paoli, curator of the Civico Archivio Fotografico, are accompanied by countless testimonies of admiration and esteem by colleagues, critics and intellectuals with whom Cesare Colombo came into contact during his career. A long and distinguished list: Giulia Veronesi, Giuseppe Turroni, Italo Zannier, Guido Bezzola, Ezio Croci, Mario Pannunzio, Romeo Martinez, Antonio Arcari, Tranquillo Casiraghi, Giancarlo De Carlo, Piero Chiara, Michele Provinciali, Italo Lupi, Franco Grignani, Petr Tausk to name a few, all agree in recognizing the Milanese photographer with a very precise authorial profile as well as a remarkable awareness of the philosophical and linguistic problems of photography.

Milan, Via Melchiorre Gioia, test for a portrait, 1961 © Cesare Colombo

Complex personality and animated by an extreme curiosity towards the world of visual communication, Cesare Colombo had in himself various skills and great professionalism: photographer but also critic, organizer of exhibitions, teacher of history of photography, expert in communication and advertising graphic designer, consultant of great companies for the reorganization and enhancement of large photographic archives, lively and generous animator of debates and conferences. To understand his pioneering approach to the historical side of photography, just think that the first exhibition and monograph of a historical investigation curated by him dates back to 1969 and it’s dedicated to Francesco Negri, a photographer active in Casale Monferrato at the turn of the century.

Cesare always accompanied his competences and organizational efficiency  with an extreme willingness to interface with others, because intellectual and human exchange were the basis of his training and of his very essence.

Milan, Galfa Tower seen from Pirelli skyscraper, 1968 © Cesare Colombo

It is no coincidence that in 2014 retracing, with a long interview with Simona Guerra, his life and work history thus concludes: I return once again to the ever faster passing of the years of my life: I have dedicated it all, without regrets, to photographic images and, curiously, more often to those of other authors – well known or completely unknown – than to mine.

I had the privilege of working alongside him for several years, of collaborating in the creations of important exhibitions and books and coming to know, thanks to him, the protagonists of Italian photographic culture, of participating in long and intriguing discussions on the nature of photography; but always and above all – in addition to his lucid intelligence and vis polemic – I will remember the man, his unconventional simplicity, his generosity, his openness to debate, his attention to young people and his playful attitude and irony.

Milan, Piazza Duomo, national metalworkers strike, protesters with flags, 1970 © Cesare Colombo

Like I do, I think he will be remembered by the hundreds of friends, photographers, insiders but also simple citizens who queued up on February 20th to visit the retrospective exhibition, created with the contribution of his daughters Silvia and Sabina who continue to keep his memory alive, to investigate and to give access to the father’s archive – and the precious donation by the family of 100 photographs taken by Colombo of his beloved Milan. Images that will increase the collections of the Civico Archivio Fotografico and that tell us not only of a city in constant transformation but of the relationships between people, with “constant attention to the outlook, to the actions and relationships”.

As in a cinematic sequence so dear to Colombo, the black and white and colour images of his Milan flow on the walls of the Sala Viscontea, of the years between 1952 and 2012.

Milan, Via Valpetrosa, a megaphone for the Union of Tenants, 1975 © Cesare Colombo

Images characterized by constant attention to the inhabited space, to the young and the elderly, to family rites, consumption, the role of women, couples, urban solitudes, crowds, assemblies and street demonstrations, music and work; because for Cesare Colombo the development of photography is inextricably linked “to the investigation around the human, to the human facts of which photography is irreplaceable testimony”.

Close to the great exhibition The Family of man, curated by Edward Steichen, to the imprecision of the images of William Klein and Mario Carrieri, to the London suburbs of Bill Brandt, Cesare Colombo prefers and practices a photograph adhering to the “current reality” and he fights fiercely to bring Italian photography away from arcadia and formalism, away from pure evasion, along the tracks of greater awareness and civil commitment, faithful to the “Zavattinian concept of the poetic message always latent in pure reality”.

Milano, “L’amore in città” (Love in the city), Bovisa District, 1974 © Cesare Colombo

The exhibition offers a lively portrait of the Lombard metropolis and its transformations over half a century and is enhanced by an interesting setting and graphics by Italo Lupi, director of the Domus and Abitare magazines, with which Cesare Colombo had a long and intense collaboration and friendship. Thanks to the photographs, videos, the list of books and exhibitions curated by him and a large series of devices placed on the large table located in the centre of the exhibition hall, the entire professional story of Colombo is traced in a philological sense, focusing not only on the undisputed value of his photographic work and his militant commitment but also on the extraordinary figure of critic and intellectual, in the Gramscian sense of the term.


curated by Silvia Paoli, Silvia and Sabina Colombo
layout and graphic design by Italo Lupi
catalogue curated by Silvia Paoli and published by Silvana Editoriale


Extended until 25 October 2020, the exhibition is admission free but, due to the Covid-19 emergency, visitors must book in advance on the Castello Sforzesco website.


March 28, 2020

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