WWII photo exhibit shows photographer’s humanity

The ‘Happenchance’ traveling WWII photography exhibit’s opening reception was held on Nov. 12 at the Italian Cultural Institute of Chicago at 500 N. Michigan Ave. Suite 1450. 


“Happenchance,” a traveling exhibit from an Italian-American photographer documenting his experiences during World War II, is now on display at the Italian Cultural Institute of Chicago, 500 N. Michigan Ave., Suite 1450.

The exhibit, which opened Nov. 12 and is set to run until Dec. 18, showcases Alfonso Carrara’s photography from 1942–1945. The Institute is the exhibit’s final stop after showing in San Francisco from June 18–July 31 and New York City during September, according to Alberta Lai, director of the Italian Cultural Institute in Chicago.

“It is a joint project with our colleagues in San Francisco and New York,” Lai said, noting Carrara was a native Chicagoan. 

Friends of Alfonso Carrara and his widow, Gillion Carrara, gathered Nov. 12 for the opening reception of the Chicago exhibit. Gillion Carrara started the evening by sharing memories of her husband, who worked as an architect before his death in 2012.

Alfonso Carrara was born in Chicago in 1922 to immigrant parents from Tuscany. He later studied at the Chicago School of Design, a precursor of the Illinois Institute of Technology Institute of Design, where he learned about photography and architecture, according to Alan Cohen, his former photography professor and friend at the Institute of Design.

“If Alfonso was alive, he would be so pleased you want to look at his photographs,” Gillion Carrara said at the reception. “Alfonso called Italy a museum without walls.”

Gillion Carrara, a Chicago jewelry designer and metalsmith, said she owns the photographs and named the exhibit “Happenchance” because they capture Alfonso Carrara’s chance encounters in Italy, where he originally served as an Allied soldier in the British and American military during World War II. 

Gillion Carrara said the title “Happenchance” is revelatory of how Carrara first encountered photography and how the exhibit was started.

She said the exhibit was put together by Cohen and Jordan Schulman, both former photography professors at Columbia. The photographs are matted and printed from the original negatives, a process Cohen and Schulman began 16 years ago with Alfonso Carrara, she added.

For the show, Schulman continued the job of printing and restoring the negatives, many of which had been damaged by Carrara’s travel through the war-torn countryside because he did not have the proper resources to develop his negatives, according to Cohen.

“Photography is a relatively precise medium if you are able to exercise temperature and proper ratios of chemistry,” Cohen said. “[Alfonso Carrara] gave us something very difficult [to work with].”

Cohen and Schulman decided the damaged negatives should be showcased because they were also Alfonso Carrara’s art.

“Let’s show all the damage and consequences of what he had to go through in order to [take] these,” Schulman said.

Cohen said Carrara’s cultural upbringing influenced his images and can be observed in the exhibit.

“Alfonso lived through the redefinition of what his family told him about their Italy,” Cohen said.

Cohen said viewing Carrara’s photographs changed his own view of what the term “homeland” means and broadened  his perspective on how the creation of art is heavily influenced not by one fixed viewpoint but several external influences.

“What we see in the photographs is Alfonso becoming someone new,” Cohen said.