t began with a photograph of a stable in Athens, Georgia. Edward Steichen, who had just become the director of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, was so intrigued by the photo that he sent it along with others to art director Alexey Brodovich at Harper’s Bazaar. The year was 1953, and photographer Tom Palumbo was thirty-two years old when he was hired by Brodovich. As a staff photographer, Palumbo worked at Bazaar until 1959, and then at Vogue between 1959 to 1962. He shot haute couture, movie stars, beauty features, and covers. He traveled around the world on assignment.
Magazine editors enjoyed working with him because something always seemed about to pen in his photographs. Why does Mia Farrow appear imprisoned behind a screen door? Why is the tough guy in dark glasses clutching a sinister oversize plastic doll?
There are no answers of course, only suggestions of stories. Stories, secrets and drama. Palumbo invariably plotted every layout like a play. Note the baby Lolita type from Junior Bazaar. Note the elegant brunette gazing intently at her reflection in the water below while a couple of nude sunbathers ignore above on the rocks.
Even when he composed that off-beat bathing suit portrait, Palumbo was more obsessed with theater — as obsessed as he was with photography — maybe more. He recalls that between assignments at Bazaar, he’d rush off to take acting classes with Lee Strasberg. And, try to attend every show on and off-Broadway. Sometimes when he was watching a Martha Graham concert and as the dancers moved triumphantly across the stage, he’d get an idea for a new photograph — the image would start forming in his mind.
Born in Molfetta Italy in 1921, Palumbo and his family moved to New York City when he was twelve years old. He began his young career building scale models for ships at an engineering company, but it was his employment as an assistant photographer to James Abbe that led him to commerical work in fashion photography. Even before he was even hired at Bazaar or Vogue, his work for Peck & Peck Department Store had appeared in the magazines, foreshadowing his future passage.
In 1962, the same year he left Vogue, Palumbo shot perhaps some of my favorite photographs in Paris. Others might love his black & white photographs of Jack Kerouac, Miles Davis, or Mia Farrow, or all those wonderful fashion spreads. After all, who doesn’t enjoy gorgeous shots of celebrities and fashion? However, it is his personal work that captivates me most. In these photos, Palumbo has a way of capturing candid elegance and beauty that seems almost commercially staged. I’m quite surprised that a book on Palumbo does not [yet] exist. It should.
Tom Palumbo passed away on October, 2008. The biography on his own website is written in present tense as if he still directs, reads plays, photographs. It might just be true; great artists are made immortal by their work.
These days, Tom Palumbo experiments with photo collages but he spends most of his time directing plays off-Broadway and on the road. He directed a workshop at the Actors Studio of a Joyce Carol Oates play about Marilyn Monroe, and recently he directed and produced a tribute to Proust at Lincoln Center which featured Zoe Caldwell, Nadine Gordimer and Ned Roram.
Every so often, he organizes play readings in his cluttered, brick walled studio for himself and friends. One of the most memorable was an updated version of Chekhov’s The Seagull. Twenty people crowded in past lighting equipment & drop paper to watch Tammy Grimes enact Arcadina. The following morning, Palumbo was busy snapping pictures of construction workers tearing down a building in Hell’s Kitchen.
To him, there’s not much difference between the photographs he takes and the plays he directs because both contain drama — both contain paradox and revelation, both energize Palumbo’s life.