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Tribute to Romano Cagnoni

12 February 2018

Stefano Cagnoni

My father, photojournalist and long standing NUJ member, Romano Cagnoni died in Tuscany, on 30 January, 2018 aged 82

Former Sunday Times editor Harold Evans said he viewed Romano as: “One of the most important photographers of the 20th century.”

Romano Cagnoni was born on 9th November 1935 in the small, coastal Tuscan town of Pietrasanta. After school and ignoring his father’s advice to become a book-keeper, Romano found work in a local photographic studio in his home town where he learned the basic skills of his trade, later turning to beach photography to supplement his income.

He arrived in London in the late 1950s and launched a freelance career photographing many weddings of the newly-immigrant black community around east London's Hackney, as local studios would often refuse these commissions because of racial prejudice. Often he found himself emerging from the receptions almost as tipsy as the wedding guests such was their kind welcome.

His first "scoop" came when he climbed down from the rooftop of the Dorchester Hotel to photograph Elizabeth Taylor on the balcony of her hotel room dining with her husband Eddie Fisher. Taylor was in London to film Cleopatra, but refused to face the press. Romano made enough from these paparazzi pictures to buy the better equipment he needed to take the photos he really wanted to take.

A fellow photographer, Alan Vines, introduced Romano to Simon Guttmann, one of the founding fathers of photojournalism in late 1920s Berlin and the man said to have given a camera in 1932 to his then darkroom boy Robert Capa. Guttmann persuaded Romano to join him in working for his photo bureau Report in London.  Helen Warby, Romano's wife, would later join them, operating as a picture editor and administrator. The Report photographic archive is still active, with many photos available.

Guttmann at Report had excellent contacts in the Labour movement and the progressive cultural forces then emerging within Britain.  In 1964, Romano acted as the official Labour Party photographer, photographing Harold Wilson as he travelled across Britain leading his party to victory in the October general election.

Then came his greatest scoop. Guttmann, using his contacts book again, managed to gain permission for three men, renowned journalist James Cameron, photographer Romano Cagnoni and news cameraman Malcolm Aird, to be the first independent, western reporters to enter North Vietnam, in November 1965, at the height of the war being fought against the USA.

Romano produced a number of evocative photos of the ordinary Vietnamese people reflecting their daily lives as they lived through the bombing of their homes by seemingly overwhelming forces. His photos of President Ho Chi Minh and Prime Minister Pham Van Dong were splashed across the front covers of many major magazines, including LIFE, Espresso, The Observer and The Economist.

Two years later in 1967, he headed for Biafra to cover the three-year Nigerian Civil War for Report. Despite the presence of other major photographers, including Don McCullin, Romano’s commitment to the Biafran people's cause, reflected in the powerful photos he made,  used extensively across the world’s press,  made it very much “Cagnoni’s war”. For this he received the USA’s prestigious Press Award for his coverage of the war in LIFE magazine.

By the early 1970s Romano parted company with Simon Guttmann and Report. He began to freelance covering stories for numerous publications including The Observer and Sunday Times magazines.

The next decade started with him producing two innovative and widely-published photo essays on the Russian army’s presence in Afghanistan and later its military presence in Poland. He worked clandestinely, using a camera loaded with smaller 110mm film which he hid in a large mitten with a hole cut in it.

After his second marriage to artist Berenice Sydney ended in divorce and following her death in 1983, Romano left London and eventually returned to Italy to operate from his home town of Pietrasanta.  He wrote a book, Caro Marmo, on the local marble quarries that he had known since he was a child and he continued to work in war zones, sometimes with his third wife, Patti, who he married in 2000.

In 1991, he went with her and a large format camera to photograph the conflict in the former Yugoslavia; images again used across the world’s press. Here he took a series of formal, rigorous images of the effect on buildings within the conflict zone, producing very high definition, technically perfect, images of shelled and bullet-ridden buildings.  In his own words, he “…produced a disturbing effect based on the perfection of the image in contrast with the imperfection of war".

In 1995 in Grozny, he set up a photographic studio in the middle of a war zone during the conflict between the Russians and Chechen people and photographed the Chechen rebels who posed for him like film stars before heading off to face battle.

Even into his seventies he worked in Syria and, following up on an idea of his wife Patti, gave refugee children phones and asked them to take selfies as they somehow survived living in the camps.

For Romano Cagnoni, his life was his work; and during that time, in addition to the numerous publications in which his photos were used, he had more than 40 exhibitions of his work and many books published of his photos.

He is survived by his third wife, Patti, his first wife, Helen, his son, Stefano and daughter, Tania, his three grandchildren, Rosa, Tommaso and Anna, and his older sister Anna -Maria.

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