My interest in photography began in my late teens. My girlfriend, who became my wife in 1974, had an Agfa adjustable camera that belonged to her grandmother. We went to the library to learn how to use it. We found books that explained how to adjust the speed and lens opening based on lighting and what you were taking a picture of. After experimenting with it a bit, I was off and running.
Developing film and printing my own pictures came next. A student teacher in my high school art class had a 35mm Mamiya Sekor. He was kind and generous enough to let me borrow it and it opened a new world. I used all my savings to purchase that same camera. I joined the school newspaper, art and literary publication and yearbook staff. I became known as the kid who always ran around New Utrecht H.S. with a camera. Up until this point, I was not the best student. I played drums and guitar and believed I would become a rock musician or actor. Photography probably saved my life. It was the late 1960s and the Viet Nam War was going on. Going to college came with a student deferment.
I graduated high school and went on to Kingsborough Community College and Brooklyn College. I continued to work on college newspapers and yearbooks. Around this time I joined a camera club in NYC, The Manhattan Miniature Camera Club. I met a lot of old timers and I honed my skills in composition, picture taking and darkroom technique. In 1972 to 1974, I was director of a Manhattan Beach historical project at Kingsborough Community College where I archived old photographs of Manhattan Beach and Coney Island. I also photographed in those neighborhoods, as Coney Island also was a big part of of my growing up in Brooklyn.
At Brooklyn College I majored in art and and took photography classes. After graduating, I decided to pursue an MFA in photography. My masters project evolved into a love letter to Little Italy in NYC. My entire life I had a connection to this neighborhood, even though I was born and raised in Brooklyn, NY. Both my father and my uncles had businesses in Little Italy. It was a legacy of my grandfather, Ernesto, an Italian immigrant who opened a store there in the early 1900s. It was a music and book store that catered to the immigrant population and evolved into music publishing and imported items.
My father later opened his own store on Mulberry and Hester St, while the flagship store operated by his brothers was on Mulberry and Grand St. My cousin still has that store. I have childhood memories of trips with my mom to spend time with my dad in the shop. When I was older I helped out by working during the Feast of San Gennaro that took place every September. Family members were called upon to help because this was the busiest season and often it carried the business financially for the rest of the year. The crowds, the food, the games and rides, the grease poll climbing contest, they all made the streets a sort of Disneyland for me. I took photographs of it all; From the early morning hours when the streets were empty, dirty and wet from the prior nights revelry to the crowded streets, from the religious processions and the people who lived and worked there, to the late night ride home on the subway with my mom and girlfriend.
I was inspired by photographers Jacob Riis, Diane Arbus, Walker Evans, Robert Frank and my masters degree mentor Robert D’Alessandro. These artists had a great influence on my work. By this time I had stepped up my camera to a Nikon FTN. NYC in the 1970s was very different from now. It was a much grittier place and despite today’s concern with crime, the 1970s had much more. Traveling on the subway with a camera bag was risky. Also my appearance as a long haired hippie did not endear me to the people living in Little Italy. The older, traditional Italian folks, the young tough guys and the gangster types were all suspicious of anyone wanting to take a picture. None of that stopped me from documenting the Feast, though. My pedigree as son and nephew of the Rossi enterprises was an advantage and got me out of some sticky situations. It also gave me entry to some locations such as rooftops, courtyards and backrooms that most people did not have access to.
The Feast of San Gennaro
In this photo, the statue of San Gennaro was being carried through a procession, obviously is at night. It was a very crowded scene and I was positioned behind a couple viewing the procession. The highlights of her hair give a madonna like feeling while the sign on the store reinforced “Italian” over the head of her partner. The gilded statue is an imposing figure. But the young man, with the turn of his head, and looking very much like a young Robert DeNiro, is such a haunting image. It’s almost like he is saying, “How can I escape from here?”
Perhaps I feel that way because the 1970s were good times and bad times for Italian Americans. Movies like “The Godfather” and “Mean Streets” were generating a lot of interest and curiosity in the general public. However, most of the interest was in organized crime and not in the culture of family, education, honest work and Italians’ long history with music and art.
During a daytime procession, the bright sun cast harsh shadows and created contrast. The men carrying the statue show strain on their faces and look a bit sinister. The donations of money pinned to ribbons demonstrate how people showed their devotion.
San Gennaro, patron Saint of Naples in his niche on Mulberry Street, always sat diagonally across from my dad’s store. The saint was surrounded by flowers and decorated with donations. The paper bills, pinned to ribbons, cascaded down like a waterfall. Donors received a prayer card and a pin. No one ever dared steal the money, even though it was on display all day! This is also a night shot taken without flash. The shadow almost creates a vignette around the saint.
I rarely give my photographs titles, but I refer to this one as “Gargoyles”. A huge attraction at the feast used to be the grease pole climbing contest. It ceased in the 1980s, primarily due to insurance liability and safety. The contest involved teams of young men attempting to reach the top of a telephone poll that was thickly slathered with grease. They would climb atop each others shoulders and the last person would try to shimmy up the pole to snatch a cash prize at the very top. It led to much hilarity when the young man would slip down, often loosing articles of clothing in the process and splashing grease on the spectators! This took place at the intersection of Hester and Mulberry Streets. In the photo a group of neighborhood youngsters found an ideal viewing spot on the roof of a building. They are equally spaced due to lying down in drainage gullies, with their heads hanging over the edge. They symmetry and stillness of the image are a contrast to the chaos and excitement happening in the street below. This remains one of my favorites and a memory of a feast event that no longer exists.
Here, the Za Za Band was playing outside the Societa San Gennaro. These gentlemen would play traditional Italian marches throughout the day. I don’t know for certain if Za Za was actually a name, but that’s what everyone I knew called them. The composition of this picture is frenetic like the feast itself. Their faces and instruments all go off in different directions, but it all comes together.
During a nighttime scene outside the Society of San Gennaro, the band appears again. The plaster statue of the saint in the window looks like he is staring off into the distance. The drum, the horn and the hats echo the circular shapes. Again, this was taken with natural light. Despite all the activity in the photo, the smoking man on the left looks lonely.
Here, an elderly couple watches the procession or the crowd. Behind them is the window of my dad’s store. Jesus over the man’s shoulder looks like he is protecting them. Many tourist buses used to bring people from out of state to the feast. I was intrigued by their faces and their expressions. They looked very much like grandparents or aunt and uncle from everyone’s Italian family.
Next is the guardian of the saint and the donations. While the saint was carried during a procession, it was replaced by a picture. This is a candid shot, as are most of my pictures. This requires observing, finding an interesting subject, pointing the camera, composing in the viewfinder, and snap. Candid photos of people always involve some risk of questions or confrontation. This gentleman was totally unaware. Many times any trepidation of a subject was alleved by going back and presenting them with a photo as a thank you.
The “PRAY” photo of the gilded saint on a flatbed truck is a later picture from the 1980s or 90s. This time, the saint wasn’t being carried on the shoulders of men, but transported by motor vehicle. My trademark of high contrast looms large in this photo, along with the order to pray. Many of my photos utilize signs and images to present an idea or message or to relay irony or humor. This one is pretty straightforward. This photo also shows the neighborhood changing as more Asian stores stand where Italian businesses used to be.
On a rainy morning outside my dad’s store, record albums affixed to the doorway featured some popular Italian music of the day. My dad was a friend of singer Rita Berti. I had gifted her this picture before she passed away in 2020 and she really appreciated it. The music business for my dad was very slow by the 1970s. Sadly, he always said he started out selling sheet music and records and ended up selling pots and pans. The street lights are hippie style daisies hovering over the empty street stands. The cloudy skies did not bode well for the feast that day.
The last photo is another procession scene. One of the marchers was looking right at me. They look quite intimidating but my dad knew these guys that ran the feast. It’s a bit of a sinister image in the midst of people having fun and eating zeppole and other Italian favorites.
Hear more stories from John Rossi about Little Italy in this episode of the Street Photography Magazine Podcast.