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Fotostiftung Schweiz presents works by photographer and seed salesman Roberto Donetta
Humoristic Scene, Bleniotal © Fondazione Archivio Fotografico Roberto Donetta, Corzoneso.

WINTERTHUR.- Roberto Donetta (1865-1932) from Ticino is one of Swiss photography’s great outsiders. He managed to survive as a travelling photographer and seed salesman, and upon his death left almost 5,000 glass plates which were preserved merely by chance. These capture the archaic life of his compatriots in the Blenio Valley, which at the time was totally isolated, and the gradual advent of modern times in a precise and sensitive way. Over a period of 30 years and in an era of great change, Donetta became a unique chronicler. At the same time, he saw himself as an artist who — self-taught — experimented freely and knew how to master his medium. His pictures are penetrating and humorous, cheerful and deadly serious — be they of children, families, wedding couples, professional people, the harsh everyday-life of women and men, or of the photographer himself. The Blenio Valley as a microcosm: with Donetta the mountain valley becomes the stage for a great Theater of the World. The exhibition will display about 120 works from the Donetta Archive, many of them on show to the public for the first time ever.

Roberto Donetta was born in Biasca on 6 June 1865. It is not known where he spent his youth. Towards the late 1870s his family most probably moved to Castro in the Blenio Valley, as his father had got a job there as a military functionary. An official register entry on the occasion of his marriage to Teodolinda Tinetti indicates that Roberto Donetta certainly lived in the valley as of 1886. He is registered there as “contadino”, a farmer, which he most likely never was. In 1892 he opened a small grocery shop in Corzoneso, but he had it for only six months. In 1894 he went to London to work as a waiter, returning just 15 months later, sick and exhausted. He then became a hawker and travelled into the most remote corners of the whole valley selling vegetable and flower seeds. As of 1900 he lived in the “Casa Rotonda” in Casserio, part of the Corzoneso municipality. He and Teodolinda meantime had seven children, one of whom died at the age of one. It was around that time that Donetta began to be involved with photography. Apparently Dionigi Sorgesa, a sculptor from Corzoneso, introduced him to the profession and also rented him a camera. Now Donetta was not only a seed merchant but also the valley’s photographer.

A Constant traveller
After turbulent quarrels about the use of their sparse income, he and his family separated in 1912: his wife and children left him in the direction of Bellinzona in search of more lucrative work. Only the youngest son, Saul, remained with his father. On 6 June 1913, his 48th birthday, some of Donetta’s belongings were seized and, for a couple of months, he had no camera, which was a great worry to him: “Not to be able to work for a period of nine months — that severed my connection with my art and made me totally destitute.” Donetta spent the years after the First World War in great solitude, constantly on the road throughout the valley. From 1927 onwards, some of his photographs were published in one of Switzerland’s first illustrated journals, «L’Illustré», issued by Ringier.

On the morning of 6 September 1932, Roberto Donetta was found dead in his home. All his photographic equipment was confiscated and auctioned so as to pay off his debts to the municipality. The glass plates, however, were all left untouched. In the mid-1980s Mariarosa Bozzini rediscovered them in Corzoneso.

Between tradition and modernity
Donetta’s personality was full of contradictions. On the one hand, he expressed considerable interest in all the phenomena associated with the advent of modern achievements, such as photography. On the other hand, he was decidedly conservative when it came to the cohesion of the family or his close links with nature. The latter prevented him from leaving the valley to look for more secure work in town. He lamented the constant changes associated with road building and new railway lines, which he did not see as a blessing for the valley. In his capacity as a photographer he succumbed to the fascination of the modern, yet at the same time he expressed a deep respect for long-standing traditions and rituals. Roberto Donetta’s passion was undoubtedly for portrait photography. The self-taught photographer not only exhibited an astonishing technical mastery in portraying people, but was also able to give free rein to his creativity — despite the fact that this particular field of photography was strongly influenced by the conventions and expectations of his clients. His numerous portraits of children are remarkable. With children he was well able to live out his delight in composing, his talent in staging small scenes. He took the young people seriously, and they in turn were his accomplices, becoming involved in his idiosyncratic ideas.

The chronicler and his style
Throughout his life Donetta accompanied life in the valley, taking commissioned photographs of the inhabitants and the representatives of the different professions, as well as of various events: a visit by a bishop, the arrival of a carousel, a flood, a fire, the construction of a railway line or a bell tower. He was also present at life’s rituals, the transitions from one age group to another, from one social group to the next, or else the prominent fixed points in the year’s cycle, be they secular or ecclesiastical: festivals, weddings, funerals, processions, outdoor church services, these were inconceivable without “il fotografo”. Donetta made photography an important part of those rituals, and over the course of time the photographer was as much a part of the valley as the parson was of the church. This is surely the source of the quality of his photographs: the people did not dissimulate, indeed it’s almost as if they forgot that someone with a camera was watching, so self-engrossed do they look, serious, at one with themselves.

The improvised studio
As Donetta did not have a studio of his own, he travelled the whole valley to take his portraits and produced only small modest prints in postcard format (i.e. 7 x 11 cm), which he occasionally stamped with his initials. Often the only ornamentation was an oval vignetting or rounded edges. He regularly delivered the commissioned photographs late because, in order to save chemicals, he only developed his films infrequently. After his rounds as a seed merchant, he then struggled with his business correspondence late in the evening. His works differ greatly from the elegant, classic, gold-edged cards that people could have done those days in the city studios without long waiting periods.

Yet in his own way Donetta did imitate the decorative aesthetic of the late 19th century professional studios: he transformed interior or outdoor spaces into improvised studios by, for example, hanging up fabrics or carpets as backdrops and placing objects like chairs or tables with vases of flowers in the foreground. His portraits are carefully composed and arranged, look uncontrived, calm and archaic. Because of the long exposure times, he was concerned to eliminate chance and spontaneity as far as possible.

In addition to this, he also experimented, or simply took photographs for himself: still lifes, stormy scenes, cloud formations, strangely shaped cliff or tree outlines. These photographs impress us by their modernity and originality and testify to an inquisitive man with an interest in aesthetic issues.

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