Decou Photography


At 8:15 pm on Wednesday, October 18, 1933, an illustrated travelogue by Branson DeCou on Venice and Northern Italy was presented at the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Science. To the music of Casals' After a Dream rendered by a RCA-Victor Electrola, DeCou would provide "a leisurely visit to the world's most unique city." Lantern slides of the Palace of the Doges, the Bridge of Sighs, and the much-traveled horses of San Marco would be shown.

The 1,475 photographs Branson DeCou took in Italy, on what we believe were several trips in the 1920s and early 1930s, captured on film the popular cultural sites of Rome, Venice, and Florence, and picturesque tourist destinations like the Ligurian and Amalfi rivieras and the Alpine hills and lakes of the North. These scenes would screen well for American audiences, providing access to masterworks of art, introducing "originals" to those who had never seen them, enhancing familiarity with high culture, influencing taste, and playing with the American imagination of bucolic Mediterranean lands, which one might experience if only one could travel. Shown during the American depression years, these images must have offered nostalgic views of a cultural paradise and simple lifestyles, perhaps even pulling at the heart strings of those in attendance with European backgrounds.

Although DeCou may not have been motivated by any commitment to the social or political programs that were emerging so strongly in the Twenties and Thirties, his photographs nonetheless depict social situations and document the way people worked and lived. He traversed Italy in the crucial intrawar period and observed the rise of Fascism, the building campaigns that forever changed the old city historical centers, the growth of industrial development, and the emergence of large commercial companies such as Fiat and Pirelli. In his repertoire we find primarily romantic views of wedding musicians, fishermen and coral merchants, but also monuments to Mussolini and the occasional and incidental propaganda poster on a city wall. While he favored the best known equestrian statues, tombs of the renowned, and the most beautiful gardens, DeCou also photographed historically unique subjects such as the Roman galleys revealed in the dry bottom of Lago di Nemi. (These galleys were later bombed in the Second World War.)

Contemporary to DeCou, other photographers were also touring Italy, and over a period of twenty years the shift in style and content from pictorialist aestheticism to documentary photography and photojournalism is obvious in their work. While Alvin Langdon Coburn captured the romance of the dark passageways and canals of Venice in the first decade, by the 1930s Alfred Eisenstaedt was documenting Mussolini's rousing tirades to the crowds. Historically, it may be best to consider Branson DeCou's work in the context and tradition of those photographers who worked for the publishing firm of Fratelli Alinari Fotografi Editori. The Alinari brothers at first specialized in photographing famous Italian monuments, statuary, and frescoes, publishing the images for commercial sale as art reproductions. By the 1890s, however, the firm embarked in systematic photographic campaigns throughout Italy to document Italian society and customs and to sell their published photographs as tourist mementos. In the work of Alinari photographers we can view straw weaving in Brozzi, ceramic workshops in Doccia, and the strollers of the corsi of Palermo. DeCou, in fact, sold his services at one time to Underwood and Underwood, an American firm that traded in stereoscopic slides and equipment and operated a stock photo agency with bureaus in both the U.S. and abroad. Similar to the Alinari and like other publishers such as the London Stereoscopic Company and Negretti & Zambra, Underwood and Underwood sent photographers out to various world destinations to record people at work, their social customs, dress, housing, domestic lifestyles, rituals, and artistic pursuits. The original intention of such firms may have been to underscore cultural differences between "civilized" societies and other "types," but their work has recently received different readings that heighten our understanding of colonial and economic inequities of the past two centuries.

Today, we can view DeCou's hand-tinted slides as intrinsically valuable and luminous objects of art, and also as a medium of historic curiosity infused with nostalgia. His travelogues can be seen as part of the small-town entertainment tradition before motion pictures with sound appeared, or as instructional opportunities that exposed the public to monuments of art, the beauty of landscapes, and the customs of other lands. From a variety of perspectives, Branson DeCou's photographic works are important documents of twentieth-century visual culture that invite further examination, research, and interpretation.