Women of Molise taking notes for a movie about Frank Monaco

Women of Molise

Frank Monaco

Frank Monaco, who has died aged 89, could look and sound the very model of the hard-bitten, hard-drinking photojournalist. The Leica and his bag of film were always within his reach, and the whisky glass as near as circumstances would allow. But otherwise, he seemed like a man who travelled light. The glint in his eye and the rusty-chain laugh would fix you, and captivating tales of other lives and distant cities would follow, delivered in the pungent Italian-American tones he never lost in half a century of life as a Londoner.

A child’s view was what he wanted to retain, and his camera sought the child in others. He never lost his sense of wonder, and it was that child’s eye that made him a great photographer. Human contact was his favourite material, and several vivid, haunting books of black-and-white photographs, exhibitions and citations in several countries testify to it. In his favourite roost, a restaurant – when he wasn’t “taking the camera for a walk, the way other people walk their dogs” – he would suddenly be lost in the body-language of strangers across the room, as if in delighted amazement at the mystery of it.

Monaco was a chronicler of simple lives, and of simple ways of life. He took up photography in the early 1950s, just in time to document the last days of a traditional village culture – that of the Molise region of southern Italy, where his mother, Chiariana, had grown up before emigrating to New York. His images of the small mountain village of Cantalupo (“singing wolf”) have come to be are recognised not only as remarkable photography, but as a unique record of a rural way of life now gone for ever.

He was proud of the belated recognition his work received, but had not sought it, and his favourite subjects were those who did not seek it either – with lives that, by circumstance or choice, stayed out of earshot of modern life’s turmoil. Silhouetted figures tend candles, a baby sleeps in a makeshift hammock beside a prone figure whose identity is out of the frame; saints painted on a peeling wall mirror, patient faces in a window; a shrine is crossed by a washing line; black-clad peasants labour against impassive mountainsides.

Monaco also loved documenting private contemplations: monks and nuns in Italy, England, Ireland and elsewhere, and religious communities in India, a country he loved. By charm, commitment and empathy, he gained access to places closed to the outside world.

Monaco was born in a railway goods van in Altuna, Pennsylvania, and raised in Brooklyn, New York, by his mother and stepfather, along with his brothers Daniel, Anthony and John. His father died when he was one. Unemployment or organised crime were the main career options, and he did not get on with his stepfather. He ran away from home at 16 to avoid all three. By the time the US entered the second world war in 1941, he had already married and divorced his first wife, Muriel, and fathered a son, Clifford. He joined the army before his draft by pretending to be an older cousin, and arrived in England in 1942.

As a sergeant-instructor, he lost three fingers from his right hand while demonstrating how to defuse a booby-trap, and after returning to the US to recuperate studied literature and painting at nightschool. He was determined to become an artist, took a job at the J Walter Thompson advertising agency to support himself, rose rapidly to production manager, and then quit – to his family’s consternation.

The incentive was the GI bill, the postwar US legislation that promised a free college education, anywhere in the world, to Americans who had served in the war. Monaco chose to go to Rome; his cousin Gerry ran a bar on the fashionable Via Veneto, and he found himself hanging out with a clientele that included Robert Mitchum, John Wayne and Richard Burton. Monaco loved the atmosphere that Fellini would capture in 1960 with La Dolce Vita, describing it as both “intense and indolent”.

In 1950, he took the trip that changed his life – taking his paints on the long bus-ride to Cantalupo, which his mother had described so vividly to him. An aunt introduced him to the villagers – almost all tough, dignified women, working the land and raising families while they waited for the summons of their menfolk who had emigrated to the US. Monaco quickly became part of village life, the chronicler of its births, festivities and deaths. But his shattered hand made the work frustrating, and he took some pictures on a borrowed camera.

On his return to Rome, his teacher looked at the photographs and said: “Everything’s here already. You’re a photographer.” Coupled with his warmth and vitality, the camera – he called it “the means to follow my heart” – opened every door, even into the most guarded of communities.

Monaco moved to England in 1955 where he began studies at the School of Economic Science, London, and several of his closest relationships were formed there. Over the following 15 years, he worked for the liberal Catholic magazine Jubilee and the Italian tourist board. He would travel through Italy every year on a Lambretta with his photographic kit in a sidecar. He was sometimes accompanied by Lavinia Jones, a gentle, idealistic English aristocrat who was his constant companion – and later second wife – from their meeting in 1956 until her death in 2005.

From 1962, on a recommendation from Norman Hall of the Times, Monaco also worked for Frank and Elizabeth Selby’s Rex Features. The Selbys became lifelong friends, and placed his work in more than 400 outlets. It has been exhibited in the US, India, and at the Photographer’s Gallery and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. His books included They Dwell in Monasteries (1982), The Women of Molise: an Italian Village (2000), and Brothers and Sisters: Glimpses of the Cloistered Life (2001). The best – for its pictures of Cantalupo, of street-shrines in Naples, of trips to India, and Monaco’s fullest account of his work and motives – is the Italian edition Obiettivo Sull’anima (Lens on the Soul).

Monaco was not a quitter or a griper, even when chronic emphysema stopped him taking the camera for a walk. He always looked forward; 15 days before he died, he was singing Brooklyn street songs in a an Italian restaurant in Chelsea at the wedding dinner for his third marriage, to the Swedish university teacher Lena Frosterud.

Monaco disliked the affectations and embraces of the world of high art, and saw himself simply as a witness – to life’s drama and vividness, but more often to its modest necessities. “All I do is record,” he would say. He is survived by Lena, and by Muriel and Cifford.

Frank John Monaco, photographer, born December 27 1917; died June 26 2007

The Guardian,

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