A photographer's personal history, rediscovered

Story highlights

  • Mario DiGirolamo grew as a photographer even as he worked as a doctor and scientist
  • He captured images of everyday life in his native Italy and New York

(CNN)They are quiet moments -- a young couple bending their heads together in 1956, a little boy clutching a ball in 1958, a nun collecting donations in 1959, three generations perched on worn steps in 1968.

They showed themselves to Mario DiGirolamo. He photographed them before the subjects even noticed and went on with his day -- his entire life, really.
"I'm not a professional. I'm not a photojournalist," he said. "When I see a picture that I want to collect, I want to get it."
    DiGirolamo was born in Rome in 1934 to a family of doctors. He wasn't interested in medicine, at first; he preferred to wander with a camera, especially the 1935 Rolleiflex he found in his father's desk drawer.
    Photographer Mario DiGirolamo
    But by the late 1950s, he had continued in the family business. He was out of medical school, working at a hospital in New York and stalking the streets with a camera on weekends. He married his wife, Gay, in 1963, and kept shooting photos as they traveled from New York to Italy, and then to Atlanta, where he worked for decades as a physician and scientist at Emory University.
    He stayed active in camera clubs, tucking away images year after year. He exhibited in both solo and group shows and published a book, "Sole e Ombra/Sun and Shadows: Images of Italy," in 2000. Still, DiGirolamo said he felt like a bit of a "second-class citizen" in photography, gathering images while he attended scientific conferences and journeyed between Europe and the United States with his ever-patient wife.
    "I've learned by doing," DiGirolamo said. "I think I'm holding my own."
    There's a new wave of attention around his recent book, "Visione: A Midcentury Photographic Memoir," and a May exhibition at Lumiere gallery in Atlanta.
    It uncovers those quiet, long-ago moments shot in New York and Rome, those glances at family members who knew him forever, strangers he never knew at all and places that have mostly faded away. He thinks his images "are interesting from a human point of view -- their expressions, their composition, their moments of life," DiGirolamo said, even as he argues that street photography has been around forever. Humbly, he agrees: "Probably, it would be more difficult to take these pictures now."
    In the introduction to "Visione," LensWork magazine editor Brooks Jensen said it's more than that.

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    "It is a glimpse at a place and time that probably didn't feel all that historic as he was living and photographing it, but now that these moments are gone and irreplaceable, his photographs take on an importance in helping us remember," Jensen wrote. "These are not newsworthy events but instead are the kind of visual moments that stay with us, making a personal history of our lives."
    For DiGirolamo, it's nice to look back on a body of work, and see that it holds up.
    "I wish I could convey all this excitement of being rediscovered, or being looked at with new eyes," he said.
    He doesn't shoot much in black-and-white now. Instead, he spends time with his photographer friends, and takes his little point-and-shoot to junkyards, to spot colors and textures and examine them closely. But he still has that old Rolleiflex.