JTF (just the facts): Published in 2021 by Blow Up Press (here). Softcover (16.5 x 23.5 cm), 204 pages, with 132 color and black and white images. Includes texts by Francesco Francine Grasso and the artist. Design by Aneta Kowalczyk. (Cover and distribute the plans below.)
Comments/Background: The Catania red-light district of San Berillo, Italy, once the largest open brothel in Europe, is a well-known haven for marginalized communities. Decades of failures in urban planning have aggravated the situation there, where prostitution, illegal occupations and degradation mingle in an uneasy coexistence. Many of the prostitutes in San Berillo are transvestites and transsexuals, with more than a few fleeing precarious situations like job discrimination, homophobia in the family, or simply the desperate need to earn a living. In Sparkling Blues, Italian photographer Lorenzo Castore offers a rare insight into the lives of some of these Sicilian transvestites living and working in San Berillo. He introduces us to the “girls” – Francchina, Cioccolatina, Lulù, Ramona and Graziella, to name just a few – with whom he has developed a friendship that has grown even more solid and committed over time.
The project started in 2004 when a friend invited Castore to visit, and slowly, as he met people and got to know them, it turned into a long-lasting series. The situation of the transvestite community is particularly interesting given the feast of Saint Agatha, which commemorates the life of the patroness of the city. According to the story, 15-year-old Saint Agatha of Sicily refused to give up her faith and rejected the advances of a Roman governor. As punishment, her breasts were amputated and she died a martyr. Castore says he associated Saint Agatha with “daughters”, to whom “nature had granted not breasts but excess genitalia, which had caused, in spite of them, a conflicting personal identity and too often left them as objects of sectarian discrimination.”
Sparkling Blues is exciting enough as a photo book. It has a glossy orange cover and the title appears in the same color, slightly raised, creating a more tactile experience. The book has a nice open spine, showing the stitches and signature block. Inside, the photographs are printed full-bleed and appear in both black-and-white and color; occasionally unfolds revealing additional layers, and there are no captions or page numbers, inviting us to focus on its visual flow. Two essays, by Francesco Francine Grasso and by the artist, appear elegantly at the very end, closing the book. Castore notes that “this story is not only poetic. It is also a story of suffering for a rejected identity. Often, it is also a story of misery.
Sparkling Blues begins with a sequence of images presented as a leporello. The black and white images capture landscapes covered in a cloud of fog. It’s Etna. Then a small portrait, placed in the center, shows a young man in swimming shorts sitting on the rocks and looking straight into the lens. With this striking opening, Castore takes us to Sicily.
Castore’s photos are often grainy, blurry and deliberately out of focus, aiming to convey an atmosphere full of emotion, expressive moments and energy. The images collected in the book follow the “girls” in their ordinary days, from morning to night. One of the earliest portraits shows a woman standing in an apartment, a dog to her right is caught barking, and a painting of a woman in a bikini to the left adds a touch of softness. A few pages later, we meet the same person, standing outside as the light falls on him – this time the outfit and body language are more masculine. These daily transformations are elegantly intertwined throughout the story, and we then follow its journey through the city to the neighborhood of San Berillo.
A color portrait of one of the girls showing half her face behind a metal door, this time fully made up and dressed in red, signals that we have arrived. The area of the district is rather small, only four streets, but these maze-like narrow passages, with overgrown trees and dilapidated buildings, resemble a jungle. In these streets, the atmosphere also changes, becoming more intimate and vibrant. Many photos show the “girls” in their rooms and outside as they get ready or pose. A broadcast combines two photographs of one of the “girls” posing in a bedroom, taken with a curtain in the frame, creating a sense that we are allowed to watch. The broadcast unfolds by revealing a sequence of seven vertical images showing her as she takes off her stockings. Then we see her lying on a bed as she smiles looking at us.
Castore makes repeated rounds, moving between rooms, trying to remain invisible so as not to disturb his subjects when they are with customers. He is interested in capturing their quiet moments and has also spent time with them celebrating birthdays, taking walks, playing bingo and visiting the cemetery. Castore’s photographs empathically reveal their humanity and vulnerability.
In his essay, Castore shares a little more about the people he met, but he doesn’t identify them directly in the photographs, leaving it to us to complete the puzzle. Ramona lives and works in the same place and can decide when to attract clients. Ciccolatina (Antonio) usually has lunch at home with her sister, then takes over for Ornella (Fabio) in the afternoons (because they share a room). Lulù (Marcello), whom Castore met in 2014, has a reserved personality, “her femininity was so natural that even the family accepted her with ease”, even her father called her “my little girl”. Lulu’s case is a rare exception, however, as most of them are rejected by their families and go through ongoing dramatic battles. There is a strong sense of belonging in the community, and this space allows their identities to flourish.
A number of notable photographers have sensitively documented the daily lives of transvestites and prostitutes. Jane Evelyn Atwood spent years with Parisian sex workers in the 1970s. Christer Strömholm’s Photobook Friends of Place Blanche features captivating portraits of transsexuals, capturing their pride. And more recently, Txema Salvans has spent nearly a decade photographing sex workers standing on the side of Catalan roads waiting for clients.
Sparkling Blues is a small publication, but unpretentious and cheerful. It is a moving tribute to people who “live to be accepted as they are, to have the freedom to be themselves with all the contradictions that entails”. As a photo book object, it is beautiful and elegant, echoing the spirit of its resilient subjects.
Collector’s point of view: Lorenzo Castore does not appear to have gallery representation at this time. Collectors interested in following should probably connect directly with the artist through their website (linked in the sidebar).