There’s a beautiful stillness and tension to Matthew Brooks’ Italian Homes that documents the houses of Italian-Canadian immigrants of the 1950s to 1960s, as though something is about to shake up the well-dusted order. The Montreal-based photographer started the ongoing series simply by chance: “I stumbled upon [the houses] through meeting my girlfriend’s extended family,” he explains.
“I was initially interested in these spaces because of their wild, pattern-laden decor that I found so visually arresting. Great care has been taken to preserve these homes, so much so that all the furniture is in almost-new condition,” the photographer says. “Later I came to appreciate them differently, as I realised that these homes would be swiftly renovated when the next generation acquires them. I began to think of them as impermanent and therefore important to document.”
This renewed appreciation means we start seeing Matthew’s images as a catalogue of artefacts, where each item has its place in a bygone era. The series feels like multiple television sets where characters have been created using objects instead of actors, like the perfectly positioned fabric jewellery box and the dish of glass-blown candy in a china dish. While the photographer says none of the shots are staged, he’s fascinated with the dialogue these images create. “I’m interested in the ways in which interior space can function as both truth and fiction in a photograph… The tension between the ‘documentary’ and the constructed image is worth exploring,” Matthew says. The rich, saturated colours within the series add to this conversation, as dark walnut wood supports earth-coloured marble and jewel-coloured quilted silk pillows clash with floral patterns to create a wonderfully dated aesthetic.
At first the photographer merely concentrated on capturing the homes as they presented themselves, thinking about them as spaces rather than the people and lives that inhabited them. “The more time I spent in them, the more I began to understand how they function sociologically. For example, traditional mid-century Canadian-Italian homes will have two full kitchens: one for everyday use and one for special occasions. However, the latter is so rarely used that it essentially becomes a kitchen for display purposes only. I started to see these spaces as performative in many ways and inseparable from social rituals and conventions.”
Matthew experienced these well-practiced and ingrained rituals first-hand while creating the project. “At first they were surprised when I asked to photograph their houses but then they politely agreed. After my first visit I quickly understood these visits would be several hours long and would include antipasto, wine and never-ending food.”