By Elisa Leonelli. August 2014

In the fall of 1967 I was 19 studying at the University of Bologna, and I had to choose a subject for my thesis, which was required to graduate in my major, Liberal Arts. With my best friend Roberta we wondered what would be an exciting field for a future career and my answer was the movies. In the 1960s in Europe we admired the work of revolutionary filmmakers like Francois Truffaut and Jean-Paul Godard in France, Karel Reisz and Tony Richardson in England, Michelangelo Antonioni and Pier Paolo Pasolini in Italy, and rediscovered “auteurs” of American cinema like Howard Hawks and John Ford. There were no film departments yet in Italian universities, but I convinced my professor of Aesthetics, Luciano Anceschi, to create a Film Theory curriculum for me, and together we chose the French novelist and filmmaker Alain Robbe-Grillet as the subject of my thesis.
Two weeks after graduation in February 1970 I left my hometown of Modena and my family home to live on my own in Rome, with the purpose of attending the only film school in Italy (Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia). With my credentials I would have been admitted; unfortunately it was a 2-year program and I would not be able to start until the fall of 1971. I landed my first job as a Film Critic for the Pesaro Film Festival, organized in Rome by film historian Lino Miccichè, I worked alongside Adriano Aprà and Enzo Ungari, founders of the magazine Cinema e Film, inspired by the French Cahiers du Cinéma, and became friends with new Italian filmmakers, like Peter Del Monte. I learnt that to make films required money and the collaboration of several people, but I couldn’t wait to create my own visual images, so I bought a 35mm Nikon camera and a filmmaker friend, Michele Mancini, taught me in one day how to take photos, process the film and make Black and White prints.
In the summer of 1971 I met a young American, Stuart Birnbaum, who had just graduated from USC Film School and worked as assistant director for Federico Fellini, then shooting Roma in the capital city. We fell in love and when he left to return to the US, he asked me to join him; it was an offer I couldn’t refuse, because I had always wanted to go to America, a dreamland for Italians born after World War II. In 1972 we had an exciting time producing a weekly avant-guard television program, The Chicken Little Comedy Show at KEMO-TV in San Francisco, then the comedy special Beneath the War of the Worlds at KCET in Los Angeles in 1974. We had been inspired by Monty Python’s Flying Circus, just like the creators of Saturday Night Live, that started broadcasting on NBC in October 1975.
With this experience I could have continued working on television, but producing shows involved many other people, while still photography was a medium where I would be able to express my own personal creativity. So I put together a portfolio and went around to all the TV stations in Los Angeles, offering to take publicity stills on their sets, one of the multiple tasks I performed for our own TV shows. I did land several regular clients, like Metromedia and ABC-TV. At the same time I continued to take photo classes in the evenings to perfect my skills. I would have preferred to enroll in the 2-year photography program at Art Center College of Design, but it cost $2,000 a semester, you had to attend full-time and I didn’t have the money. In 1973 I enrolled in a UCLA class taught by the legendary Edmund Teske, in 1974 I studied with Don Petersen, in 1975 I attended a Robert Heinecke class; these teachers inspired me to look at photography as an art form.
My first photo essay was Ladies in Ladies Rooms (1974), then I did a photo sequence in the style of Duane Michaels, Insect Fear (1975), that was published in an art magazine curated by Eve Babitz. During a trip to visit my family in Italy in the summer of 1976 I did a photo essay on the people of Montepagano, a rural village in the Abruzzi region. My friend Yoram Kahana suggested I write an article to go with it, and that became my first published piece on Westways, the AAA travel magazine. It was then that I started calling myself a photo-journalist. I had been approaching magazine photo editors for assignments. My first was for Coast in 1974; with a group of photographers, like Don Peterson, Antonin Kratochvil, Brian Leatart, Gary Krueger, we were asked to photograph the 100 best places in Los Angeles. In April 1979 an entire issue of California Living was devoted to my work as a photo-journalist, as I was one of the few women working in this field, although not as successful as Annie Liebowitz or Mary Ellen Mark, my role models. In 1984 I was chosen to participate in the book 24 Hours in the Life of Los Angeles. That same year I photographed the Los Angeles Olympics and my work was published in a book, Olimpiadi 1984.
A fun assignment came from the Los Angeles Times in 1979, to photograph Arnold Schwarzenegger at his Santa Monica office and apartment. I photographed Gene Wilder for the Italian magazine Grazia in 1977, and in 1981 Dudley Moore in his Marina Del Rey home for the American magazine Intro.
Another one of my specialties was travel photography, from 1981 to 1986 I visited China, India, Nepal, Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, Brazil, Jamaica, Mexico, Japan.
During my last foreign trip in April 1986, to photograph teenagers in Tokyo, a companion piece to my photo essay Teenage USA, which was exhibited at LA Nicola gallery in January 1986, I was 6-months pregnant. After I had my baby, as it often happens to women, my career focus changed; I wanted to stay closer to home, so I increased my writing and slowed down the photographing. In 1987 I became the Los Angeles Correspondent for the Italian film monthly CIAK, in 1990 the Film Editor of VENICE, the Los Angeles Arts and Entertainment Magazine.
In 1993 I had enough time and money to finally study Cinema at an American university, so I enrolled at USC Film School, where Marsha Kinder was Chair of the Critical Studies Department. It was pure pleasure for me to take classes on silent films or Italian Cinema, to write papers and make short films. For my Master thesis I explored the work of Robert Redford as a filmmaker, under the guidance of Professor Richard Jewell, and later turned that essay into a book published in 2007, Robert Redford and the American West.
Even though I stopped accepting photo assignments in January 1990, my love for photography stayed with me; I taught myself how to use Adobe Photoshop and the Internet to showcase my work. In 2008, after turning 60, I started organizing my photo archives, and I’m still working at it now in 2014, editing my Black & White Street Photography from the mid 1970s, which had been inspired by the legendary Henry Cartier Bresson and my friend Ave Pildas. I scanned and edited my travel photos and created a website with the Mac program iWeb, foto-trip. In 2010 I started a blog on WordPress about about the avant-guard dance group L.A. Knockers that I photographed from 1976 to 1984. In 2011 I scanned my articles about movie actors and directors published in foreign and American magazines, I uploaded samples of this work to a website, then I incorporated these websites into one,, adding my photography. I keep updating it with the cover stories I wrote recently, about Leonardo DiCaprio, Cameron Diaz, Julia Roberts, etc. In the spring of 2014, inspired by an autobiography class from USC Emeritus College taught by Marlene Wagner and Susan Aminoff, I created a Chicken Little website, Facebook page and YouTube channel about my experience as an actress, as well as production coordinator of those early comedy shows. I wrote profiles of legendary movie stars like Bette Davis and Burt Lancaster for the new website of the Hollywood Foreign Press, the association that produces the Golden Globe awards and that I have belonged to since 1979.

My passion for the movies and for photography has not lessened with age, I consider it a great privilege to be able to earn a living doing what I love, every morning I can’t wait to get up and start working.

Elisa Leonelli-My Career


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