Santi Visalli’s photographs have stories to tell
Ranging from the delightfully spontaneous and joyous to the more posed, introspective and quiet, all of the 29 portraits in the exhibit, “Santi Visalli at 90: Una Storia,” at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, relate a “storia” — an Italian word meaning many things: tale, story and history.
Among the images are Luciano Pavarotti singing by a piano, Andy Warhol reading the Village Voice, Frank Sinatra performing in New York, Truman Capote with Katherine Graham and Sophia Loren at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
From thousands of photographs taken by Mr. Visalli during his decades-long career, he and Charlie Wylie, curator of photography at the museum, decided to focus on some of his memorable black-and-white portraits.
“I like to capture public figures in public places in private moments. I wanted to evoke in people the same emotions I felt when I took the pictures, and I wanted people to get educated about good photography,” said Mr. Visalli, a longtime Santa Barbara resident and well-known photographer who has photographed “anybody who was somebody” during his illustrious career.
“Presidents, prime ministers and potentates – the Kennedys, Martin Luther King Jr. and the Beatles,” he told the News-Press during a phone interview from his home in downtown Santa Barbara.
“The Kennedys were a delight, like royalty. Besides being so photogenic, they had great charm and panache,” Mr. Visalli said. “Jackie was a superb woman. I have a wonderful shot of her at the opera with six men staring at her. I did Bobby and Ethel Kennedy’s youngest child’s christening after Bobby was killed.”
The untimely death of President John F. Kennedy Jr. at the age of 38 was especially painful for Mr. Visalli, who had photographed him since he was 18 months old.
“John was also two days older than my son Ivan,” he said. Mr. Visalli and his wife Gayla, a former executive editor at Reader’s Digest, also have another son, Anthony.
The current exhibit, which is on view through March 13 in the Photography Gallery at SBMA, came about after Mr. Wylie saw “Mentors – Tony & Santi,” a documentary made by actor and director Andy Davis, Mr. Visalli’s good friend, at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival.
The film touchingly documents the lifelong friendship between the two renowned, world class photographers, Mr. Visalli and his early mentor, Tony Vaccaro.
“Usually they do those things after you’re dead,” he quipped. “I was honored to have a documentary made by Andy Davis, who directed ‘The Fugitive,’ and to have it premiered in my hometown.”
Among Mr. Visalli’s personal favorites of his work are his photo of the World Trade Center, the most popular of any in his collection. Two other favorites are his special view of the New York Stock Exchange and the portrait of Sophia Loren.
“I view all of my pictures as if they are my children. They are all good,” he said. “All 106,964 pictures I donated to California State University Channel Islands in Camarillo. What good is it to anyone if they are in a drawer where no one can see them? By keeping them together, they have an impact.”
Mr. Visalli said he chose Cal State Channel Islands to receive his collection because he wants it to be part of a growing institution where it can inspire generations to come.
His photos have appeared on the covers and in more than 50 magazines and newspapers worldwide, including The New York Times, Newsweek, Time, Life and U.S. News & World Report. In 1996, he was made a Knight in the Order of Merit of the Republic of Italy. He is a former president of the Foreign Press Association of New York. Its 400 members, representing 60 countries, cover the United States.
His passion for photography matches his passion for America. As a child in Sicily, where he was born in the city of Messina, Mr. Visalli dreamed of coming to the U.S. since he was 7.
“I watched American movies all the time — Tom Mix and Charlie Chaplin,” he recalled in a News-Press profile about him in 2000. “Even when the Americans bombed us during World War II, I never hated America. I loved the American West and Chaplin’s humor. After the war, I fell in love with the Doris Day-Rock Hudson movies. My first day in New York City, I went through revolving doors in hotels, banks and department stores because I had seen them in the movies.”
Mr. Visalli left his hometown after graduating from the University of Messina in 1956. He and two friends bought a 1939 Jeep Overland, which was Army surplus, and decided to travel around the world.
From Sicily they traveled to Tunisia and South Africa, took a boat to South America and made their way to the United States. When they arrived in New York City in 1959, Mr. Visalli was smitten.
“I was not going to leave, only over my dead body,” he said. “I had a journalist’s visitor visa because I was taking photos and writing stories about our trip for papers in Sicily. But no one would give me a job because I didn’t speak English. I spoke French, Spanish and Italian. The first thing I had to learn was English. I enrolled at New York University and attended for a year and a half.”
In 1969, Mr. Visalli and a partner started their own agency, Photo Reporter Inc. Nine years later, the agency had 30 photographers working for it. Mr. Visalli realized he was ready for a new phase in his career when he observed a man reading a copy of Newsweek magazine in which he had contributed photos.
“The man flipped through the magazine and then tossed it into the wastebasket,” he said. “I decided I wanted to do something more permanent.”
From 1987 to 1996, Mr. Visalli created eight coffee-table books published by Rizzoli: “Chicago,” “Boston,” “San Francisco,” “Los Angeles,” “Miami,” “New York,” “Washington, D. C.” and “Las Vegas.”
When Visalli retired in 1997, there was no dilemma about where to live. The couple loved their home in Westchester County, N.Y., but Gayla Visalli had always wanted to return to Santa Barbara, ever since she graduated from UCSB decades ago. Mr. Visalli didn’t object because he and his wife had come back frequently for college reunions.
“I came to America with $60 in my pocket,” said Mr. Visalli. “I’m most proud that I was able to make a nice family — a beautiful wife and two sons, Ivan and Anthony.”