Stalking the Crowded City, a Loner With a Lens
From May 1952 to June 1966, a troubled recluse named Angelo Rizzuto stalked Manhattan with a camera. He saw a city of solitary beings isolated amid the architectural grandeur, cold streets prowled by disillusioned women, exhausted men and vulnerable children. He ended every roll with a portrait of himself, alone in a spare room, sullenly staring or bizarrely grimacing into the camera, a loner among loners.
No one saw these images while Mr. Rizzuto lived. When he was dying of cancer in 1967, he asked that his photographs - some 60,000 of them - be sent to the Library of Congress, along with $50,000 from his estate to finance a book of his work. The library printed a cheap, staple-bound booklet, then used the bulk of Mr. Rizzuto's money to acquire the work of more famous photographers like Diane Arbus.
It would be another 40 years before Mr. Rizzuto got the book he deserved: Michael Lesy's "Angel's World," published this month by W. W. Norton & Company.
Mr. Lesy first saw the photographs as a young scholar in 1974. He and Mr. Rizzuto were an inspired match. The year before, Mr. Lesy's doctoral thesis in American studies at Rutgers University had been published as the book "Wisconsin Death Trip." A startling, dreamlike montage of photographs and news clippings documenting a small town in the 1890's and 1900's, "Wisconsin Death Trip" exploded familiar conceptions of the Gay 90's. For the aptly named Black River Falls, the era had been more like the Extremely Grim 90's, filled with murder, suicide, epidemics, madness, debt and despair. After 30 years and a number of other books, "Wisconsin Death Trip" remains Mr. Lesy's signature work, the one that established him as a maverick prodigy in academia.
Mr. Lesy was fascinated by Mr. Rizzuto's work, not as great art photography but as a visual diary of a disturbed and obsessed mind. "In the Jewish tradition he'd be called the 'hidden saint,' " Mr. Lesy explained in a recent telephone interview. "The solitary, inspired, diseased, clairvoyant lunatic."
Over the years, Mr. Lesy tracked down Mr. Rizzuto's surviving relatives and neighbors, piecing together his strange, sad story. Mr. Rizzuto was born in Deadwood, S.D., in 1906 and grew up in Omaha. His father, a Sicilian immigrant who founded a successful construction business, saw to Mr. Rizzuto's education, including a brief stint at Harvard Law School. When the father died, his sons fought viciously over his estate, a protracted battle that pushed Mr. Rizzuto to a suicide attempt and left him convinced that his brothers were in league with an international conspiracy of Communists and Jews. After drifting around the country and working odd jobs, he settled in Manhattan, a bitter, paranoid outsider, and began observing the city's multitudes through the camera lens, "as remote as a recording angel," Mr. Lesy writes in the book's introduction, "bearing witness to a world of pain and geometry."
For "Angel's World," Mr. Lesy selected 98 photographs from the thousands Mr. Rizzuto left, carefully matching pairs of images on facing pages to create an almost cinematic montage both sad and exhilarating. He says that the art of winnowing such a huge collection is "a matter of visiting and revisiting, a level of persistent viewing, and the ability to enter into a relaxed but alert state of looking. It's almost a yogic practice. Over time, you begin to recognize in a large body of work that there are things a guy like Rizzuto kept returning to - sorrow, solitariness, loss, reverie, the grandeur of space. You begin to understand that this guy, like all of us, had certain melodies he kept playing."
In the past, Mr. Lesy has ruffled some academic feathers by arguing that what he calls "demotic photography," like family snapshots or picture postcards, deserves the same level of scholarly study traditionally given only to art photography. He writes in "Angel's World" that once, when he presented the work of the unknown, half-mad Mr. Rizzuto to a group of his colleagues, they reacted angrily, as though "he was a naked fool and I was a charlatan."
"The art and photography historians really do not want anyone to say that the canon is something larger and more mysterious than they are willing to accept," he says. "My whole intention is to subvert the canon. I'd like to blow the whole thing up - not to destroy it, but to open it. To say the world is a far more wondrous place, greater in extent and breadth and twisted, gnarly depth than you could ever imagine. There are possibilities that go beyond the safe definitions of what an artist is and what a camera is used for."
Mr. Lesy is currently on sabbatical from teaching literary journalism at Hampshire College in Massachusetts, working on his next foray outside the canon - "Murder City," a study of newspaper photographs and articles documenting Depression-era homicides in Chicago.
In all his books, he said, his ambition is "to touch the soul and the heart and the mind." He continued: "And that's what I think academics are bad at. They don't understand the heart. They deal with photographs as aesthetic, intellectual constructs, or as integers in philosophical or linguistic argument. That's not all they are. They're slippery and deeply emotionally charged. A photograph is a thing which, to use an old scholarly word, needs to be 'unpacked.' There's the manifest content, then half a dozen layered contents."