Elisa Leonelli- Street Photography
I was born and raised in Italy, my hometown is Modena. After college I moved to Rome, after coming to the US, I lived in New York and San Francisco, then settled in Los Angeles. I had tried different fields, I was a film critic, a TV producer, a filmmaker, an actress, a photographer. In 1974, I decided to become a professional photographer, because that would allow me to express my creativity, literally create images that did not exist before, and work independently. I took classes at UCLA, with Edmund Teske, Don Petersen and Robert Heinecken. I put together a portfolio and showed it to photo editors of local publications.
This 1975 self-portrait shows my attitude as a young woman ready for action, I was 27. Wearing a camouflage army jacket, like a guerrilla fighter, and a sheriff star like a western hero, my weapon was my camera, a Nikon F. I set up a darkroom in the bathroom of my apartment on Beachwood Drive in Hollywood, so I could print B&W. I printed a self-portrait upside down and created this image that resembled the Queen of Spades, I asked my friend Paul Ruscha to design the back like a playing card, and that became my business card.
In May 1975 I went with a Newsweek photographer to document the Vietnamese refugees at Camp Pendleton, the army base in Southern California, they had been airlifted here after the fall of Saigon. You could call this street photography, it was like a village of tents and army barracks. These images were discovered recently, after I included them on my website, I was contacted by the curator of an exhibit and a book on the Military History of San Diego. They used of couple of photos, then asked me to send the the complete series for their permanent collection. I first scanned my prints, then the negatives. It’s a series of about 25 images, and I only shot 2 rolls of 36 frames, with my Nikons, but each photo was precious because of the subject matter. There is an enduring value to photography, not only as art, but as a historical document. That is why the LA Library is so involved in the preservation of photographs.
Children are the best subject, often eager to pose, happy and smiling, even in this dire situation.
In February 1976 my friend Ave Pildas invited me to join him to walk around Sunset Blvd, to shoot “Street Photography” It was a popular style in the 70s, inspired by Henri Cartier Bresson, who photographed in postwar France and Italy. His goal was to catch what he called “the decisive moment,” with his noiseless Leica, which is a viewfinder camera, not a reflex like a Nikon, where the mirror goes up when you click the shutter and makes a clunking noise. That allowed him to be more unobtrusive
Last September Ave invited me to present some of my photographs to the students of a class on Street Photography he was teaching at Otis College. So I made a selection of my B&W prints and figured out something to say about them. That is what inspired me to propose a similar presentation, when I was asked to do this talk. I had the original negatives scanned, for archival purposes, and that I what you are seeing here.
Framing and composition are very important. Inside that rectangular frame there should be no extraneous objects, everything has to have meaning, express what you want to say with that image. Woman at laundrymat. the diagonal lines direct your eye one central point.
Decisive Moment. Old man in supermarket, walking toward camera, the diagonal lines guide the viewer’s eye.
When I traveled to New Orleans for Mardi Gras in February 1976, I took color slides of the carnival floats, that sold for many years through my Italian photo agency. I also photographed in B&W regular people in the streets or in front of their homes.
A woman on the bus, a man looking at her, the driver, to my eyes this was a meaningful photograph.
A woman sitting on her porch, with wrought iron railing, a typical architectural feature of New Orleans homes. She is looking at you.
When I started photographing for magazines in Rome in 1971, a photo editor gave me best advice: “Get close to your subjects, always photograph people from the front, not from far away or from the back.” I prefer to get their implicit consent, whenever possible.
In June 1976 I stopped in New York on my way to Italy, to show my portfolio to photo editors, since most magazines were based in New York. I had succeeded in getting assignments from all the magazines in LA: Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Magazine, LA Weekly, Herald Examiner, Coast, New West, Westways, Intro, and the Los Angeles offices of Time and Newsweek.
When I was in New York I walked around with my cameras. I noticed this woman on the subway, with the graffiti, the statue of Liberty. I was sitting across from her, but she didn’t mind being photographed.
New York is great place to shoot street photography, because, unlike Los Angeles, where nobody walks, everyone is out in the crowded streets, there are street vendors at every corner. And it’s a melting pot. Look at these two men, one is well-to-do, properly attired, with a tie, the other is a homeless man, with only one shoe, striking a dance pose.
In June 1976 I went to Rome to cover the national elections, a turning point in Italian politics. I also walked around to the streets with my cameras. Here’s a limo driver waiting in front of a newsstand.
In my hometown, Modena, a city east of Bologna, I photographed people in the cobblestoned main square, in front of the Romanesque Cathedral, men chatting, riding bicycles around town. Exceptionally I shot this old man from the back, but the pose was worth it.
I joined my parents who were vacationing in the beach town of Roseto degli Abruzzi, a mountain region across from Rome. We would go to the beach in the morning, swim, have lunch, take a nap, then drive around sightseeing in the afternoon. I discovered this village, Montepagano, where people lived their social life out in the streets. Women knitting, chatting, hanging out in front of their homes. I was fascinated, I talked to them, they invited me into their homes, their shops.
This woman invited me into her kitchen.
When I came back to Los Angeles I printed some of these photos into a series. I thought I’d propose to a photo magazine to publish them as an essay. Another photographer friend, Yoram Kahana, suggested I write a text, so it could be published in a travel magazine like Westways, which in fact happened in 1977. It was my first published article written in English, I could now call myself a photo-journalist. Later this series was published by another magazine, Mankind, as a photo essay.
In early 1979, on assignment for the Los Angeles Times, I did a photo layout with Arnold, before he was a famous movie star, after the 1977 documentary about body-building Pumping Iron. I photographed him at his condo apartment in Santa Monica, at Gold’s gym where he trained, and at his office on Main Street. He had this poster of strong men from the 1900s behind his desk. Newspapers only published B&W photos in the 70s. Arnold was simpatico and charming, I interviewed him many times since then, in my current profession as foreign correspondent and film journalist.
I had been renting a studio in Hollywood since 1977, I had taken a class about studio lighting at Art Center, with Bill Robbins, I bought a Hasselblad, learnt to shoot 120mm film. My studio mate, Judith Kalmus, had 4×5 view camera, and she taught me how to use it. But remained attached to my 35mm Nikon cameras, they allowed more freedom of movement, using my body as a tripod. And I preferred to shoot on location, with real backgrounds, for a journalistic feel. So I photographed and interviewed Scott Glenn on Venice Beach.
I did many “at home” layouts with famous actors. Here’s Danny De Vito in his living room. I would carry a bag with cameras and lenses on one shoulder, on the other shoulder a long bag with light stand and umbrella, plus a Norman 200B portable strobe, in one hand I carried a roll of 9-feet wide seamless color paper, so could take studio portraits anywhere.
I also photographed musicians, like Devo and Frank Zappa, and writers. This is Charles Bukowski, outside his home in San Pedro, by the Vincent Thomas Bridge. Great lighting in the late afternoon; photographers cal this the magic hour, the sun traveling through more layers of the atmosphere intensifies the colors.
3 weeks ago, I was contacted by Linda Bukowski, his widow, asking permission to use this photo in the program of the San Pedro Film festival, for a celebration of her husband in August. It’s important to have a web presence so clients can find you. I devoted the past several years to scanning my photos, eventually my archives will all be online, and the original slides and negatives preserved.
Magazines not just newspapers published many B&W pages, so I would shoot both.
The Italian magazine Grazia, published this interview and photos by Elisa Leonelli, in B&W.
The lessons learnt during my early days of B&W street photography came handy later when I became a travel photographer. Starting in 1981, I organized photo trips to Peru-Ecuador-Bolivia, China, Jamaica, Brazil, India, and Japan.
I was able to connect with people, even if I didn’t speak the language, like in China. I learnt to say 3 phrases, hello how are you, may I please take your picture, thank you very much.
Elisa Leonelli – My Career