Article available in a few moments... ...GO TO ARTICLE »

iEugène Sevaistre, n. 23 Revolution de Palerme, Barricade de la rue Toledo, le 2 juin 1860.
Courtesy Collezione Eugenio Sinatra.

«Images, with their pathos, are seen in the present tense and it is clear how they are to be interpreted. However there can be who cannot disregard the fact that each photograph is a document and as such it has a date. A person like this cannot be satisfied by a formal-psychological comment; he/she reclaims the confrontation with the stories, with History, as he/she thinks the dramatic dimension is missing otherwise»

Lalla Romano*

Lalla Romano's words – decontextualised and forcedly borrowed – refer back directly to Barthes' analysis which sees the conjunction of a synchronic and diachronic level in each photographic image. (1)
Beyond doctrinal considerations, the spectator's approach inevitably undergoes a diachronic mutation, which is produced by the time gap between the production of the image and its observation. Within decades, the same original aim can vary, and move for example from a vernacular level to a documentary one. In due course, the pictures produced through domestic memory can become a source of information on the period in which they have been taken.
Within these ordinary considerations, we can include the case of Eugène Sevaistre's stereoscopes realised on the 2nd of June 1860, right after the end of the revolt of Palermo (27th - 30th of May 1860). On the one hand, they put us in front of a problem of the transformation of the urban landscape. The revolution subverts Palermo's visual urban layout even if with a temporary effect. The barricades organised either following military criteria or improvised by the population, introduce temporary architectonic variables that deeply effect the perception and fruition of the city. The urban fabric is however alive and constantly transforming. Its cells renew themselves again and again even when they are under the attack of revolutionary viruses.
By observing the pictures, it is inevitable for the modern spectator's mind to have questions on the happenings, the ways of living and the feelings of the people that were their protagonists. Actually, the pictures are able to reply only in a very partial way to this flood of questions. They can only offer a semblance of certainty related to the scenarios offered by fantasy, which works in league with the specific personal knowledge on the matter.
A third substantial starting point for reflection is offered by the questions on the nature of the pictures that arise on the spectator's mind when looking at Sevaistre's work. The approach that can be gathered by observing the images, together with the technical choices and habits of that period, induce to the hypothesis of a commercial matrix of the shoots.
In fact, nowadays, those images represent documents of exceptional interest and uniqueness that somehow are close to a journalistic approach, even if it is penalised by level of technology expressed in the photographic field around the mid 19th century. However, if we have at hand an adequate viewer, that can reproduce the original stereoscopic vision, Sevaistre's images are brought back to life and fully express their visual power.
The perspective partial views that highlight the tri dimensionality of this kind of vision, add more pathos to the emotional fascination deriving from their status of historical images. The limits of technology can be seen in the static nature of the shoot, where human figures appear almost as ghosts in the background of the barricades. This also contributes to increase the emotion, placing itself in the illusory condition of the cancellation of the spatio-temporal barriers. The events of 150 years ago emerge out of the pages of high school history books and surround us, thanks to the spatial illusion of the stereoscope.
What is then the enigma behind what we normally call vintage photos?
Far from solving the issue, we propose here an incentive to reflection (hoping it will go beyond these pages) remembering with a further unnecessary logical jump, a quotation from Calvino: «he wanted to recognise the screwed up and torn images in his photos and at the same time the unreality of random inky shadows, and at the same time again their concreteness of objects full of meaning, the strength with which they held on to the attention, trying to chase them away». (2)

[ The Editorial staff ]

(*) - Free translation from Lalla Romano, Nuovo romanzo di figure, Einaudi, Turin, 1997; p. VIII-IX.
(1) - cfr. Roland Barthes, L'ovvio e l'ottuso, Einaudi, Turin, 1997.
(2) - Italo Calvino, L’avventura di un fotografo, from Gli amori difficili, in Calvino romanzi e racconti, vol.II, Meridiani Collezione, Arnoldo Mondadori Editore, Milan, 2005; p. 1109.

iEugène Sevaistre, n. 22 Revolution de Palerme, Position des Napolitains sur l'Alberghiera pendent la tréve, le 2 juin 1860.
Courtesy Collezione Eugenio Sinatra.


Godefroy Durand, Palermo (Italy), 27th of May 1860.*

On the 27th of May 1860, the arrival of Garibaldi's army in the city was acclaimed with bells ringing, and marked the start of the revolt of Palermo. The Bourbons' reaction at Porta Termini provoked the construction of barricades. Thanks to their protection, Garibaldi could in fact enter the city. In just one hour half of the city was occupied. However, at midday the bombing of houses and buildings from land and sea started, as threatened prior to the revolt. The Bourbons' reaction, without a definite action plan, resolved itself in reprisals towards the population that was on the field armed with makeshift weapons. The Bourbons tried to establish again the connection with the population but they were opposed until the end when the troops guided by Corrao entered from Porta Maqueda on the morning of the 28th of May dividing in two the Bourbon army. Not to remain isolated, the soldiers that were guarding the Grandi Prigioni (Vicaria Prisons), escaped; the evaded prisoners joined the rows of the insurgents whose number was constantly increasing. On the 29th of April the fight moved close to the barricades, especially close to the Duomo, Palazzo Reale and Pepireto. On the 30th of May, the Bourbons, who were lacking food and munitions, ended the bombings and General Lanza asked Garibaldi to start a negotiation that brought an immediate cease-fire and an armistice starting from midday.

(*) - The violence of Bourbon troops ransacking the population and the habitants located between Porta di Castro and Piazzatta di Grande and setting the south borough of Palazzo Reale on fire. Godefroy Durand, Palermo, 27th of May 1860.

iEugène Sevaistre, Piazza Carini (originally without caption).
Courtesy Collezione Eugenio Sinatra.

iEugène Sevaistre, n. 4 Revolution de Palerme, Barricade de la place Bologne, le 2 juin 1860.
Courtesy Collezione Eugenio Sinatra.


In 1832, Charles Wheatstone experiments stereoscopes for the first time. Six years later he published an essay on binocular vision. To visualize the first experiments, he uses an optical tool that through mirrors and prisms allows to obtain a tridimensional effect. Wheatstone is convinced that his discovery can be applied to photography and gets in touch with William Fox Talbot. In 1938 he presents the first stereoscope to the London Royal Society where he is received with extreme coldness because of the complexity of its use and its excessive bulkiness. The first binocular camera for stereoscopic photography only appears in 1852 created by J.B. Dancer, and 6 years later, Brewster's stereoscope – presented at the International Exhibition in London – eventually arouse interest; in fact, the firm Duboscqc & Soleil from Paris decides to start producing it. With the end of the 19th century, also ends the golden age of stereoscopy that starts to decline, only to periodically return in the limelight in modern forms.

iEugène Sevaistre, n. 21 Avants postes, des Palermitains dans l'Alberghiera pendant la trêve, le 2 juin 1860.
Courtesy Collezione Eugenio Sinatra.

iEugène Sevaistre, n. 9 Barricades de Porta Macqueda, le 2 juin 1860.
Courtesy Collezione Eugenio Sinatra.

iEugène Sevaistre, n. 2 Bombe et barricade dans la Correria Vecchia, le 2 juin 1860.
Courtesy Collezione Eugenio Sinatra.

Eugène Sevaistre - He was born in Normandy in 1817 and died in 1897. The French photographer is particularly famous for his activity in the field of stereoscopic photography realised mainly in Italy and Spain. Here in 1857, he realised about four hundred stereoscopes that were anonymously published on the Fratelli Gaudin's catalogues. After, he decided to move to Palermo, where he not only produces a series of stereoscopic cards about Sicily, but also in 1859 he becomes very good friends with the photographer Giuseppe Incorpora from Palermo. The following year, between the end of May and the beginning of June, Sevaistre takes his most famous pictures, documenting on stereoscopies the revolt of the people of Palermo against the Bourbons.