Once Upon a Time in America

Vince Leo Turns three generations of his Italian family into a national photo album


This is an interesting story, the rise of a family from the solitary, frightened immigrant to a wide array of modern progeny. But it's hardly novel, and it wouldn't have the same reach if Leo hadn't approached it with aesthetic depth and editorial savvy. "I'm always trying to make an interesting photo," he says. "I'm always trying to do something that looks good and stops the heart for a second. I don't care how I do that....This was not a documentary project for me; it was a visual project. It was 'What do I see, how do I see it, and how can I depict it?'"

On this secondary level, the immigrant story falls into separate, more abstract elements. Leo's images are filled with individual moments of great beauty, and these work their way into our imagination so that we easily make connections through the generations. Imagery and characters appear and reappear: We see repeating porch scenes, tomato bushes, a reproduction of Millet's "The Gleaners." The story deepens through accretion and interconnection.

The way she yields that stick, she'd do Tony Soprano proud: A portrait from Vince Leo's "Three Stories from Little America"
Vince Leo
The way she yields that stick, she'd do Tony Soprano proud: A portrait from Vince Leo's "Three Stories from Little America"

Once one discovers that the exhibition is an aesthetic event as well as a narrative one, the third level of reaction kicks in. That is, you realize that your personal story is somehow reflected in the depictions of Leo's family, in the range of images encompassing birth to death and all the rituals in between. In looking at these images, I couldn't help but recall a story central to my own life. My grandfather was a Pennsylvania coal miner's firstborn who survived the orphanages of Depression-era Philadelphia. As a child, he swore he would one day be reunited with his family, and he was, though two of his five siblings had died in the meantime. Later, he restarted life much as Leo's grandmother did by moving away (to mid-century Southern California rather than Columbus, Ohio).

Each person's response to these photos will likely be unique. This is the open-ended nature of photography. As Leo himself says, "I could have told my whole family's story and it would fill about 1,000 pages--but it probably wouldn't be that enjoyable. I think photos address it in a different way. You find something interesting in the photos, and the rest of it is filled in by the infinite quality of pictures....What you find has a lot to do with who you are."

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