Antoni di Gesu

di Gesu photographs ~ di Gesu chronology ~ di Gesu the photographer

Antony di Gesu learned the trade of portraiture in the last days of vaudeville in New York City during the 1930s. His portraits of ordinary people from his studio in Brooklyn led to sittings with writers, musicians, scientists, politicians, artists and actors in Manhattan during 1950s and 1960s, and in turn resulted in a large amount of work examining San Diegans between 1971 and 1993. A pioneer in the use of color in portraiture, di Gesu used color to evoke the rich texture of his subject’s presence and used his skills as a communicator to coax his subjects into revealing themselves for the camera.

Throughout the 1960s di Gesu was commissioned to photograph prominent members of the Arts for the cover of the Saturday Review, an important magazine of literature, criticism and the arts. Included on the covers were Vladimir Horowitz, Peter Ustinov, John Gielgud, Norman Mailer, Irving Berlin, Lotte Lenya and Truman Capote.

On the 20th of November, 1952, J.D. Salinger (author of Catcher in the Rye) came to the studio and said he wanted a portrait of himself for his mother and his fiancee. Since I didn’t [know] as much then as I do now, I set up the camera and light and sat him right down. His expression was so rigid and self-conscious [that] I was at my wits end. Nothing happened. I decided on something I had never done before with an adult. I excused myself, went up to my apartment and came down with “Catcher in the Rye.” I brought him a table and ashtray, set down the book (why the hell didn’t I ask him to autograph it?) and suggested he do anything he pleased. Read to himself. Read aloud or just smoke.

If I’d thought he was going to be so damned famous, I’d have written down everything we talked about to get the expression we did. I took 48 5×7 negatives. Serious, thoughtful, smiling, laughing, howling with laughter. White shirt, white background. Black suit, black background. But I don’t remember a thing.

He was pleased with the results, but asked me not to show the portraits publicly. When I asked why, he said when people recognized him, they usually behaved peculiarly because they thought he would write about them. I promised I wouldn’t and I kept that promise for thirty years. My 1982 exhibition was titled “Thirty Years of Color and J.D. Salinger.” Enough was enough and anyway who the hell would recognize him after 30 years and if they did, would it matter? What I have found astonishing is that over the years, when I mention J.D. Salinger, young people’s eyes open wider and a deep breath is taken. That’s the pattern.

–From di Gesu’s unpublished memoir

On the morning of July 10, 1962, [Valdimir] Horowitz’s secretary came to the studio to ask if I would do a portrait of him. Cool as a cucumber, I said, “Omigod, how much does he want?” We set a time and I went to his home which is just around the corner. I would hear him play sometimes over our backyards.

After the usual introduction and some time spent in getting acquainted, the maestro sat at the piano and said, “How would you like me to hold my hands?” He went through a series of poses that he thought would be suitable-both hands on the keys, one hand on the keys-the other in the air etc. When he finished I said I could only take them while playing. Normally, I watch the musician’s hands, whether pianist, violinist, cellist, or whatever and when the fingers and hands look most dramatic, I will normally interrupt them and ask them to go back three or four bars, and start again…Horowitz began to play and I was spellbound. How the hell could I stop him and tell him to go back three bars…

–From di Gesu’s unpublished memoir

As with the entire collection of 2.5 million negatives and prints at the San Diego Historical Society’s Photograph Collection, the di Gesu images are in need of long term care. While most of di Gesu’s color negatives are still viable, it is important that the images receive the best care possible. These images of San Diegans and others, are an important key to documenting San Diego in the 1970s and 1980s. To ensure that these and other images dating back to the 1870s endure, please support the Historical Society’s Photograph Department’s efforts to preserve San Diego’s images.