Once Upon a Time in America

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

The third-floor office of photographer Vince Leo at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design is an odd place to spin off into a reverie. The space is sterile and white and vaguely discomfiting, its only concession to the human need for visual variety being the window looking south over the Whittier neighborhood. Which is odd, as I had come to the office one Thursday afternoon to look at Leo's anything-but-visually-uninteresting series of photos, soon to be mounted at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts as "Three Stories about Little America." (Disclosure: My wife works at the museum.) Under the hum of fluorescent office lighting, we sifted through a duplicate set of the 5-by-7-1/2-inch digital prints. When finished, they will be framed and placed in a line at eye level around the walls of the gallery.

Leo explained that these were culled from a collection of several thousand snapshots he had taken of his family in Columbus, Ohio, and other places, since 1975. The images are impossible to describe in one neat sentence, for besides the fact that there are 92 of them, they are simultaneously deceptively simple (as family portraits) and yet surprisingly complex (as aesthetic objects). And it was just as I was trying to formulate a description for the work that I spaced out. To be more specific, I was overcome with thoughts of my own grandfather, Thomas P. Fallon. More about that later.

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"

Leo himself is a bit of a puzzle. He is a compact man, with a neat head of cropped gray hair. He is friendly but holds himself upright with the reserve of a distant uncle from another state. Even more to the point, Leo is rather spare in talking about his work and how he makes it. For instance, he says he "never realized what [he] was doing" as he took these particular photographs. He had no plan in mind; he just started taking them. "I started doing my grandmother's house because I had just read James Agee's Death in the Family," he says. "Then I left to go to New York City for five years, and I came back and realized that nobody has a house like this. I thought it was normal, but I started realizing there was another culture present."

It wouldn't be as interesting if this series were merely a documentary of the immigrant experience. In fact, it becomes clear fairly quickly that Leo's work exists on three successively abstract levels. The first level is the surface narrative about the life of his grandmother and succeeding two generations. The second and more artistic level involves the aesthetics of photography--in terms of color, composition, lighting, gestural effects, and the like. And the third level concerns the intangible and uncertain relationship between memory and story. My suspicion is that while viewers will first and foremost recognize the narrative in the work, the other two levels of the photos will come to them as an afterthought. Part of the reason for this is the show's organization.

Leo sets the exhibit as a running story in three parts, one for each generation of family: "Anna," his grandmother; "Ernie and Glo," his parents; and "The Kids," him and his siblings and their children. The images begin just to the left of the door to the gallery: his grandmother's clapboard house, her vegetable garden, a spare, black-iron bed frame, a graying windowsill, the faded and dented gold Dodge Charger. The images come at you straight on, broken by a passage of wall-mounted text that describes Anna's arrival in America in the 1930s as a 20-year-old unmarried woman. The colors in these images are foreign and from another time: gray and dun, interrupted only by Anna's purple dress and headscarf and the green of her ubiquitous garden stuff. These are images of aging, of solitude, of the airlessness of life's closure.

The first chapter fades into the second chapter with an image of Anna in her casket. Now we see the family opening up, Leo's parents becoming part of the American landscape. Time moves forward, and the colors change. These are the primary tones of 1950s Technicolor: sky blue in the walls of Leo's parents' house, red in the American flag and in the sweater of his mother, yellow in curtains and throw-blankets, green in the well-kept lawn. The parents move into the society that Anna avoided. Neighbors come for dinner; Leo's mother wears an "I'm proud to be an Italian" pin at a social gathering. The faces are open, smiling, warm. Most of the shots depict the comforts of home and end with the parents white-haired and comfortable there.

The third chapter is less comfortable. It includes a more diverse range of images, depicting the kids moving out into the world. Cars travel across the landscape. Women dance at a wedding. Leo's sister poses in a yoga headstand in her sleek urban apartment. Leo's daughter poses with her ethnically diverse softball team. As the range of images expands into the lives of the kids, Leo unveils a confetti-like assortment of secondary and tertiary tones: maroon, mahogany, ocher, pink, magenta, yellow-orange, midnight blue. It is an explosion outward into a more modern, diverse, and indefinite American life.

 

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.

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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