In Conversation: Gillion Carrara

In Conversation: Gillion Carrara

Happenchance is a timeless collection of drawings, letters, photographs and poems from Alfonso Carrara that commemorate intimate details and recollections of World War II’s Italian Campaign (1942–1945). 

Published posthumously, the book contains reflections on Carrara’s work and impact from the Italian Cultural Institute, art consultant Paul Berlanga, and Rolf Achilles and Alan Cohen, formerly of The Art Institute of Chicago.

Alfonso’s wife, Gillion Carrara, spent many years knowing him as not only a husband, but as an wide ranging artist. She has heard the stories behind the photographs, felt the emotions behind his words, and is the perfect person to help bring this project to bookshelves. In this Q&A, Gillion shares the details on how Happenchance came to be and what she hopes readers will learn. 

Happenchance is now available. 



For those who may not know, can you share who you are and who Alfonso Carrara is?  

I am Gillion Carrara, widow of Alfonso Carrara, metalsmith, author, and SAIC Professor Adjunct. Alfonso was a Chicago architect, poet, author, and ceramic artist.  

How did the concept of this book come together? Was it always Alfonso’s goal to compile all his photographs, drawings and poems from World War II or an idea you settled on and brought to fruition?  

The subject of the war was always present. Often it was a basis for [his] poetry and drawings.

In respect, admiration, and great love, I was fortunate to know Al’s friends with whom he worked endlessly on prints of photos from the original WWII negatives. He had planned on simply cataloguing them for a future reference.  

Two publications preceded Happenchance. Felix Culpa was a [limited edition] catalogue of photographs in collaboration with the Stephen Daiter Gallery, followed by a [limited edition] portfolio of drawings and poetry. 

The production of this book was a collaboration between the Italian Cultural Institutes, you, and Alan Cohen, correct? How did this collaboration come about and what was that process and experience like? 

Yes, including myself, there was a team of 8 who collaborated on the project - a photographer and [Alfonso’s] assistant, an historian I know, a graphic designer, photography dealer, research assistant and editor. We got together over coffee and Italian dinner served at my home and the rest was history.  

[Because] Alfonso was deceased by the time of the development of Happenchance, [we] spent about three years on research to assure facts, places and dates, to gather essays and select drawings and poetry from his vast archives – organized by me.

There were a lot of photos, drawings, poems, and other artifacts that Alfonso left behind. How did you make the selections for the book? 

There is an organized archives in his one large glass walled art supply closet. I had the advice of the photographer, his assistant and the historian who helped me select materials. I also knew his path south to north, his experiences, and emotional recall having heard it many times. I used my gut to tell me what readers would want to know and what I was proud to display. 

How important was it to maintain the rawness of the original items shared in the book? 

Absolutely important and for his work to be given attention - and this was with the direction of the graphic designer.

How do you feel now that Happenchance is being distributed worldwide? 

I am satisfied and proud. I believe Alfonso was very talented in everything he said, every line he drew and every word he wrote. When discussing the war experiences with Tuscan friends, there was always lively conversation of the knowledge shared. When I gifted the publication to Italian friends, they were impressed that Alfonso’s experiences were organized so well into these pages. It was their history too. American and Italian friends were pleased that I have proceeded to promote his photographs, poetry and drawings for an interested reader or an historian. The facts were always checked. 

What kind of impact do you hope this book will make?  

To students, academics, and photography historians, [give] the truthful facts and experiences that are of importance to their knowledge.  

For Italians and Italian Americans, the book contains a very human and personal story many will want to know. Alfonso sensitively photographed the reclined Alberto Mussolini and Claretta Petacci after their assassination. He was asked to do so by the American and British officers. He often mentioned that he wanted to document the people of Italy not by fighting. 

I hope people will admire the beauty of the red-cloth-cover book, graphics and in particular the font – used during the time of 1943-1945. The red was selected since Alfonso’s color of choice was red.  

Also, the drawings and poetry were selected by some of us - the group of authors - for historical evidence and creativity. There are books of handwritten and penned poetry in his archives. There are letters included in the book that are copies of the actual ragged pages of heart felt prose. The book is organized by his arrival in Salerno and to his return to Chicago in 1946, and through his life until his death in 2012.  

What makes Happenchance different from other books on World War II?  

The publication is completely focused on one man’s personal experiences between and his interpretations in photo, text, and prose. He was 20 years old. The line drawings are original although not selected from this period.  

Happenchance is also a compilation by those who knew and admired him – those who believed in all that he did. Of particular importance is the fact that working with a photo editor, the original WWII negatives were cleaned and prepared expertly for publication. Most importantly, all of the images from Alfonso’s Rolleiflex were printed in towns where shops were still open and able to process film to print. After arriving in Italy, he had traded the camera with a German prisoner of war for a box of American cigarettes.  

The photographs are [also] educational and should be examined for light and shadow since Alfonso was a student at the School of Design when directed by Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, a painter and photographer. 


What are some of your favorite moments in the book?  

As I am now paging through the book, the prose, texts, and poetry in English or Italian impresses me emotionally. I savor his writings.  

The village women being humiliated for unproven collaboration are not smiling. They are crying. As in other pages, I look at them. They were once alive.  

After the troops climbed up to Monte Casino, Alfonso followed the soldiers and found a demolished library of historic books. He paged through one that he believed to be of original drawings by a 15th -16th century artist. He returned it to its place in the wreckage. 

Do you plan to have exhibits to display some of the original items in the book? 

Absolutely. I look forward to exhibiting photographs printed from the original negatives as well as original pages of text, poetry, prose, and drawings. 

The original seventeen or so photographs printed in Italy - negatives, original writings, and WWII war materials - are now owned by the Tuscan Center of Culture in Florence, Italy. 

What is one thing you would like readers to take away after completing Happenchance

The facts, the places, and images of people together with writings about the people and the places in those years.

Alfonso loved, if you can say this, the war years. He enlisted and left his nascent career as an architect in California, for Italy, to “find his uncle” he always said. 


Learn more about Gillion Carrara