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Q&A | Vintage photo trove hidden in attic for decades revealed in new book

Alberto di Lenardo’s secret 8,000-strong archive has been distilled into a new publication by his granddaughter Carlotta, who tells us all about it

Courtesy the estate of Alberto di Lenardo and MACK.

It was during a lunch with his granddaughter Carlotta that the late amateur photographer Alberto di Lenardo revealed an 8,000 strong-archive of photographs that he had, until that day, kept a secret for decades. Uncovering the huge haul of images that were hidden in the attic of their family home in Udine, northeast Italy, Carlotta di Lenardo has since spent five years sifting through her grandfather's work. Alberto died in the summer of 2018, just as Carlotta was finishing the book An Attic Full of Trains which includes more than 140 of Alberto's photographs (the loft incidentally was dominated by a vast model railway, hence the title). Here, she explains how she curated the collection for the new book.

Courtesy the estate of Alberto di Lenardo and MACK.

The Art Newspaper: Why do you think your grandfather's work is special? How would you describe his style?

Carlotta di Lenardo: There are a lot of reasons why I like his work or find it special, which sometimes is dangerous because I can’t always be objective looking at his photographs. From a purely visual point of view, I love the vivid colours, the framings and the subjects he always picked. From an emotional point of view instead, I like how they make me feel. It might sound trivial but every time that I look through his archive, I end up wanting to run out and live as many adventures as I possibly can. Most of the photographs were in fact taken during boat, car or field trips so they convey to me this will of freedom and thoughtfulness. 

Courtesy the estate of Alberto di Lenardo and MACK.

I can totally see his character in every single shot he took and this is, I think, one of the reasons why I’m also so attached to them. They faithfully reflect his inner serenity, a state he had always tried to pass onto us. They are quite reserved, often “stolen”. The subjects are in fact mostly unaware of the camera but there is anyway a strong connection to the subject, even when the person portrayed is a stranger. Most of the images are really romantic but also extremely funny and ironic in a subtle way. 

Courtesy the estate of Alberto di Lenardo and MACK.

Was editing the photographs for the catalogue a challenge?

The editing phase took me almost five years because of the quantity of images I had to deal with (more than 8,000). I honestly fell in love with more than half of them and thought they were all good enough to be in a book. I think I changed my edit and worked on the whole sequence until five minutes before delivering the file to the printer.

While I was working on it I was already thinking of a second hypothetical book and I guess this helped me to renounce a lot of images. Because it's my grandfather's first book I didn’t want to get stuck into specific themes, which are actually really present in his work, but I wanted to give a general feeling of what I think has been his life and vision.

With my edit I tried to show his inner serenity and how ironic (but also really romantic) most of the images are. He was always on the road with my grandmother and their friends so I just wanted to give this sense of journey, thoughtfulness and freedom that I feel every time I go through his archive.

Courtesy the estate of Alberto di Lenardo and MACK.

What's your favourite photograph?

There are many photographs to which I somehow feel linked and this is certainly also due to the fact that many of the subjects portrayed are part of my family, but I must say that one stands out among all. I can't really explain how or why I immediately felt attached to this image. It’s the photo of a girl, whose face can't be seen, who is taking off a red sweater in a snowy meadow. There aren’t many details or colours in the photos so this focuses your attention directly on the subject and the vivid colour of the sweater. This image somehow gives me an immense sense of strength. 

Courtesy the estate of Alberto di Lenardo and MACK.

Do you hope that the book will become a collector's item—or possibly a reference guide for other photographers?

I really hope both things will happen. I still have a lot of unseen material and projects in my mind so I hope this is just the start of it. I would like to establish my grandfather as a photographer and [hope to] to see his photographs in galleries and museums.

Will the photographs be available for sale? Perhaps as editions? 

I’m currently working on this so I hope I’ll be able to make it happen really soon!

An Attic Full of Trains, Alberto di Lenardo (edited by Carlotta di Lenardo), Mack, 232pp, £25.00/$35.00 (pb)