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The Picture Man

It’s an existence full of twists and turns that of Gusmano Cesaretti, a famous Italian photographer naturalized American. We want to retrace a brief part of his story through an interview conducted in 2018 by photographer and creative director Stefano Lemon. This is an excerpt of the original conversation, transcribed and published in our volume «The Picture Man».


And at one specific point you decided to go.

My father bought me a one-way boat ticket from Genoa to New York City.
In November 1963 I left Lucca: I still have the image of my father waving to me while my friend Loreno, my mother, my aunt and myself drove away in a Fiat 600 toward Genoa.

So I got on board and sailed, alone, for eleven days. We kept in touch only through letters. It took years before we managed to see each other again.
Eleven days later I arrived in New York. The moment I stepped off the boat and my feet were in New York City, JFK was killed. President Kennedy was killed at 12:30pm Central Time (1:30pm NY Time) on November 22, 1963. I left on November 11 and arrived in New York on November 22 at 1:30pm. The same day and at the same time that Kennedy was shot.

L’arrivo di Gusmano a New York, 1963

This is unbelievable.

Yes, incredible. Everybody was freaking out. The whole United States of America was going crazy. The guy at customs didn’t even look at me, he just stamped my passport and shouted “Next!”
Everybody was out of their mind. All day long people were crying and screaming in front of TV stores “Kennedy has been killed… Kennedy has been killed.” Can you believe it?

The first night in New York I immediately wanted to go to the Apollo Theater in Harlem. The taxi driver didn’t want to take me there because he was afraid of driving through that neighborhood, so he dropped me off a few blocks away, pointing me in the right direction.
When I arrived, I noticed this huge crowd waiting in line to get in. I was the only white man and I didn’t speak a word of English. Once inside I felt like I was in some magical place. I was in front of a large orchestra playing the same jazz music I used to listen to the radio in Italy. It was Marvin Gaye singing “What Kind of Fool Am I.” It was a dream come true.

The next days I spent my time wandering around the city, fascinated by the towering skyscrapers. This new world before my eyes was giving me the energy I sought. I stayed in New York for just two weeks and then I moved to Chicago because I had relatives there. My uncle found me a job in an Italian restaurant. He was friends with the owner, Alfredo.
One day while driving me to the restaurant my uncle says, “Gusmano, wait for me here…” He goes up into a building and comes back with a driver’s license with my name on it. “Now you can drive,” he says.

The first step to becoming a true American…

[Smiling] Yes! It was a clean driver’s license in just 10 minutes! Then he took me to this restaurant on three floors called The Italian Village. It has been there near Willis Tower since 1927.
The owner had emigrated from Florence, Italy, to Chicago in the 1920s. So they put me in the basement they called La Cantina to do all sorts of basic things. I was working with some black people, peeling potatoes, washing dishes. That kind of stuff.
I didn’t speak English at all at the time. So technically I started learning English with these people. Picking up the way they spoke, the way they acted. They were all black people from the South.
Chicago was a little bit more open to black people than the other cities back then. I met Ray, a cool black guy from Southside Chicago. He was twenty years old and I was just nineteen. He was a weightlifter, he used to work out by lifting me up in the air with his arms.

One day Alfredo came to me and said, “Gusmano, there’s a group of Italian people that come here every Thursday night to eat. They like that you’re Italian too. You don’t know much English but I want you to be their waiter.”
So Thursday night twenty people came to the restaurant. All well dressed, with sunglasses and nice hair. Tough attitude. No smiling. They were all Italian descendants but only one, an old man, actually spoke Italian. I don’t remember his name.
Every time they came to eat they would give me a $100 tip. After dinner, they usually spent two more hours talking about their business. It was interesting listening to them: they were talking about money, names, and shops around the city. After a few months, one night the old Italian man says, “Gusmano, come here, I want to talk to you. Sit down.”

He was talking to me with a thick Italian accent from the South… mixing Italian and English. He says, “You’re a good guy Gusmano, you’re smart and cool. Come work with us.” “What do I need to do?” I ask. “Hey Roberto…” he says, looking at another guy “Monday you take Gusmano for a ride. Teach him how to drive a Lincoln Continental.” That was the car the mafia families would drive in Chicago in those days. They bought me a suit and sent me to get a haircut.
So I started going around with this guy named Roberto… As we drove he’d say, “Do you see this pizza place? It’s closed, you enter the back of this place and you’ll find a guy there with a box. Put the box in your car and take it to another pizza place. You don’t need to know what’s inside the box. There’s nobody inside the pizzeria, just remember the sign pizza. Ok? Just follow these simple rules and you’ll be fine.”

We did this for a couple of months, but one day I told my friend Ray what I was doing and he went crazy: “Gusmano. Don’t fuck up your life. Stop doing this! Don’t get involved with them. This is the Italian mafia controlling the city of Chicago and you’re working for them.” I found out that they were all members of the mafia families, and that the old man himself was a top mobster. My friend Ray saved my life. I owe him a lot.

I didn’t want any trouble, so I went back to the restaurant and told Alfredo that I was quitting the job because I wanted to do other things. And when my uncle found out about it, he kicked me out of his house because he had connections with the restaurant although I don’t know how. With the tips I had earned from them I bought my first car, by the way. I didn’t have a job anymore, I didn’t have a place to stay, and I was alone in the United States at the age of nineteen. I was just a kid.

So I stayed with Ray’s family for almost seven months in Southside Chicago, on 67th Street. There were no white people in the neighborhood. He introduced me to everybody. He was like a brother to me. Because I needed to somehow feel at home, every Sunday I would cook pasta for his mother, father, and his two beautiful sisters. Then I found a job at another restaurant and at an art gallery as well. During the time when I wasn’t working, I used to go into bookstores and libraries and look at magazines and photographs. I wasn’t even checking the name of the photographer, I was just looking at them.

One day, in 1965, I bought a little developer and built my own small darkroom in the kitchen of the apartment where I was , and started printing pictures. Every night I would stay up until 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning printing and printing all night long. Not all the prints were good, I was just learning how to do make them. I used to print the same picture again and again to experiment different ways and results.

How did you end up in Los Angeles?

I lived in Chicago for six years, and then in 1969 I moved to LA. Chicago was damn freezing and I couldn’t take it anymore. I’d had enough. Los Angeles was my real dream because I loved movies with Steve McQueen and Marlon Brando. I loved all the great actors, the locations around California, and I needed the sun almost every day, otherwise I felt depressed. When I got to Los Angeles I said, “I’m going to be a photographer right here right now.” No matter what. I thought photography and film could make connections together, like a beautiful relationship. So that’s why I came to Los Angeles: at the beginning I used to live just outside Hollywood, but I didn’t like it, so I moved here to South Pasadena.

When did you start considering yourself a photographer?

I started taking photographs seriously in 1968 while in Chicago. Chicago was my training camp, my first approach to street culture and photography, but it was in Los Angeles that I really started to express myself.

In 1970 I used to go to the Huntington Library in San Marino every day because I loved that place. I would find art collections from Europe and America. They also had a botanical garden that covered about 120 acres, with plants from all over the world. Beautiful! So one day I asked the guy inside: “Do you need any help here? I love this place. I’m looking for a job, I’ll cut the bushes… whatever.” The guy asked me what kind of job I was looking for and I said, “I’m a photographer but I’d like to work in the garden.” Everything was interesting to me. He replied, “Well, we need someone in the photo department here…” So I worked there for three years photographing flowers and plants. They also had a Chinese garden with Bonsai trees.

Frank Reinhardt was an incredible teacher and a great photographer too. He taught me everything about photography, from developing film, to printing and creating your custom developers. I spent hours in the darkroom, printing at least fifty pictures a day. It was the best school in the world and a wonderful experience. I was working there during the day, and at night I had time to discover the city. I had a little Volkswagen and I went everywhere with it.

I discovered I was more attracted to the East Side of Los Angeles. I found it more authentic. There were people walking, eating, chasing each other, singing, fighting… there were paintings and graffiti on the building’s walls… So I thought to myself, this is a place I need to know better. Talking and talking… I spent so much time talking to people, they were very welcoming.

I always mixed Italian with Spanish. I became interested in the graffiti on the walls and I wanted to discover its meaning. One day I met this guy in Boyle Heights: he took me to his house and he introduced me to his entire family. They were all members of the oldest gang in Los Angeles: The White Fence. They had been around since the 1930s, but in 1970 there were no drugs involved. Gangs were more like a community and family thing. It was watching out for your loved ones and protecting them.

Gusmano Cesaretti is a well known Italian photographer naturalized american. Bio here.

Stefano Lemon is a photographer living between Italy and the US. Bio here.

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