Memory, Connection and Loss: The Work of Hope Herman Wurmfeld
By Matt Fink
When photographer Hope Herman Wurmfeld moved from New York City to Rome in early 1964, post-war Italy’s so-called “Economic Miracle” was still taking shape, with companies like Fiat attracting with the promise of gainful employ impoverished occupants of the nation’s heel, arch and toe (and Sicily, the boot’s deflated soccer ball?) to relatively affluent northern cities like Turin and Milan.
But while it was a nation swelling with renewed prosperity and the promise of the kind of luminous modernity embodied by England, France and the United States, the pictures Wurmfeld took in the years she spent there depict an Italy with one leg in a simpler past; her new collection, entitled Vintage: Italy 1964, affords a fine view of this shapely appendage, its stockinged outline untroubled by the trash jewelry of industrialization.
While the young Wurmfeld had already developed an interest in photography prior to her arrival, Rome - and in particular Trastevere, at that time still something of a working class neighborhood - proved to be the Miracle-Gro that flowered interest into profession. She and her husband Michael, an architect who had recently received a Fulbright Scholarship for a waterfront project in Genoa, left shoe leather all over not only Rome, but towns and cities the length of the country: represented within the slim volume are, among other places, Alberobello, Palermo, Assisi, and Venice and its island neighbor, the glass-blowing mecca of Murano.
“I think [photography] helps me connect to a place, which is the opposite of what people seem to think, that you’re removing yourself from the situation,” explained Wurmfeld one afternoon at a mid-town Manhattan coffee shop. “Instead, it made me feel more deeply involved in the moment; I can look at these photos and tell you how I was feeling and even what I was wearing at the time. There was also a coherence that I liked, a formal quality.”
It was a species of coherence Wurmfeld found after a trip to the main branch of the New York Public Library in 1965, having returned from Rome to involve herself in the social ferment of the time (the civil rights movement and Vietnam War opposition, primarily). While doing research on Spanish painting, the photographer, who was adopted as a baby, wandered into the library’s genealogy room, where she began digging among its birth books. Eventually, with help from the library’s curator, Wurmfeld unearthed and reconnected with her birth family. In a marvelous bit of cosmic convergence it turned out her birth parents were Italian citizens, hailing originally from Foggia, a small city in the country’s southern province of Puglia.
The work that eventually came out of Wurmfeld’s familial rapprochement - having also become acquainted with aunts, uncles and a brother - is called Dream Garage. An explicit tribute to both loss and retrieval, it consists of enlarged images of the artist’s birth family - including her mother, who, having died in 1945, Wurmfeld never got the chance to meet - incorporated into the surfaces of defunct buses and cars, the wreckages half submerged in the bleak winter snows of Vermont.
The spring of 2018 found Wurmfeld back in Trastevere, a primary source of Vintage’s Rome-set images, and the neighborhood where over five decades ago she and her spouse routinely invited friends and neighbors to eat lunch cooked from produce and pasta bought at the nearby Campo dei Fiori market. While the Trastevere she knew was almost unrecognizable, at least one acquaintance remained: Gino, owner of a recently-opened trattoria, Pizzeria dalla Gino alla Villetta.
“I went into his place and asked about the people I knew back then,” said Wurmfeld quietly. “But they’re all gone.”
Then she perked up, smiled and said, “But I found Gino, and met his grandson! Gino got out of his chair and hugged me. When I told him Michael had passed on tears appeared in his eyes.”
Wurmfeld’s life in Italy seems to be full of these sort of trim biographical symmetries. It makes sense, therefore, that the eulogy/celebration to family that is Dream Garage and Vintage’s tribute to a bygone Italy contain, when taken together, a similar correspondence; out of their union a harmonic resonance emerges, one which sings simultaneously of irrecoverable loss and reconnection via the evocative power of memory.
To view - and purchase - more examples of Hope Herman Wurmfeld’s work, including selected photos from a series on 1980s Manhattan drag performers and the aforementioned Dream Garage, go to her website.