Joe Pintauro: Out of the Darkroom

"The camera -— was my secret lens, my confessional poetry instrument.”
Joe Pintauro took a break in the backyard of his house in Sag Harbor where, after leaving the Young & Rubicam advertising agency, he settled in to write his acclaimed first novel, “Cold Hands,” published in 1979. Morgan McGivern

The recent appearance of Joe Pintauro’s photographs in galleries and in print came as a surprise to those who know him as a prolific playwright, poet, novelist, and longtime fixture of the theatrical and literary worlds. When he received Guild Hall’s lifetime achievement award in 2008, it was for the literary arts. There was no mention of photography.

“I’ve been interested in photography for so long, and taking pictures for so long, that people I knew were saying, why don’t you show your stuff,” he explained recently at the Sag Harbor house where he has lived for more than 40 years. “So I started showing my stuff.”

Personal reasons, he said, were behind his early interest. “My upbringing was very restrictive. So I was always looking at life through my front-porch window.” Visible from that window was a church. “The place was fantastical, and from my porch I could see people walking to and coming from church and I would be at that window, unable to go out and play, ride a bike, or roller-skate. That window -— and, subsequently, the camera -— was my secret lens, my confessional poetry instrument.”

Mr. Pintauro grew up in Ozone Park, Queens, and went on to Manhattan College, where he earned a degree in advertising and marketing. While he was at school, his mother was dying. “I felt very guilty after she died, very frightened. Death was a pure shock to me. I never expected it to come so soon in my life, so I began searching.” The search took him to St. Jerome’s College in Ontario for a degree in philosophy; to Our Lady of the Angels, a seminary at Niagara University, to study theology, and to Fordham for an M.A. in American literature.

It also led him to travel widely and often, always with a camera. He has been photographing Paris and Venice, two of his favorite cities, for decades. A selection of Venice photographs titled “Nunc et Semper” was published last year as a limited-edition artist book by TSR Editions. Images from that series were exhibited concurrently at the Avram Gallery at Stony Brook Southampton.

“The book was just about St. Mark’s Square,” he said. “I’ve been there so many times that the square became interesting to me at night, when the boats and tourists and buses are gone.” He photographed elegant but almost vacant cafes, tuxedoed musicians playing to empty seats, Baroque drapes of the arches, which rise and fall throughout the day – and, “stained, torn, worn, mended, year after year, raised or lowered, both hide and reveal the truth of Venice.”

Decay, corruption, and the ravages of time figure in many of Mr. Pintauro’s photographs. Several years ago he read about Santa Maria delle Anime del Purgatorio ad Arco, a 17th-century church in Naples built on top of an early Christian church. This second, underground structure was devoted to the worship of souls in Purgatory.

“I spent two and a half hours in this wet place where there are bones, altars, chapels. It was bizarre. I was photographing these ossorios, which are boxes where they put the bones. I was crying because there was so much hope. Polaroid pictures of dead people were pinned up, put there by people who believe that those they loved are waiting in Purgatory for prayers from above so they can be released to heaven.”

The society in charge of the chapel does nothing to maintain it. Visitors leave flowers, which are left to die, and the altars are falling apart. “For me, the beauty of that place was its rareness, the way one would almost turn away from it. It also said something very personal to me. It is what has happened to faith.”

Closer to home, Mr. Pintauro has been photographing the Sag Harbor Whaling and Historical Museum, built in 1845 for Benjamin Huntting II. A leading citizen of Sag Harbor, Huntting made his fortune in the whaling industry. “It’s an awful place, when you really come down to it,” he said. “It’s all about killing those animals, and the instruments that were used to take them apart.”

But the building itself interests him as an example of the tendency of 19th-century American architects to imitate the classicism of Europe.  “Those Corinthian capitals — are they stone? No, they’re wood, made by artisans more than 150 years ago. They’re falling apart, birds make nests in them, the paint on them is almost like oil paint on a canvas, dimensional laps of cracking paint. And I find that beautiful. To me it has the fearful fascination with corruption and at the same time the beauty of paint.”

Mr. Pintauro has not abandoned the theater. A revised version of his play “Snow Orchid” is being presented by Barefoot Theatre Company in association with Cherry Lane Theatre, and he is working on a new play with Valentina Fratti, who is also directing “Snow Orchid.” But he said he would never be able to put photography aside. He is drawn to people as well as to buildings. Greg Therriault, his companion for 35 years, “has dragged me to museums all over the world, and I became fascinated by itinerant 15th-century portraitists like Hans Memling and Jan Van Eyck.”

“There’s a whole culture of winter surfers in Montauk, and with the armor-like garb they wear — the gloves and the hats — they look so 15th-century. I reduced the size of the images to the normal size of Memling’s portraits. I told them, it’s not a snapshot, you don’t have to smile, and they got it. When I put a red filter on the camera, it made these figures almost like water animals. The filter takes away some of the details, but it makes them look like they’re from another time, or another planet.”

Another series of photographs comes from Key West, where Mr. Pintauro and Mr. Therriault spent winters for 20 years. “I took pictures of tarpons, who would swim in close to shore when the boats came in. I would practically put the lens in the water — people wondered what the hell I was doing. I used a Polaroid filter, which takes away the glare and lets you see the fish and the vegetation. You would get the reflection of the bow of the boat and it would almost look like a pond leaf. Tarpon are big, six or seven feet long, and their shell-shaped scales would catch the light in interesting ways.”

Mr. Pintauro has also photographed the water of the canals in Venice and, during an ocean crossing, the northern Atlantic.

“During dinner one night we were passing over the spot where the Titanic went down, and the orchestra began playing the song from the film. So I got the camera and hung over the rail and took pictures of that spot.” One of those images was blown up to 5 by 12 feet and exhibited at Mulford Farm last summer as part of the Moby Project.

“Generally, photography for me is like a confessional poem. It’s an ongoing process of trying to see where I am on this earth and what everything is all about, and of being able to either secretly or not secretly capture something in an image and then bring it in very, very close.”

Now working only digitally, he pointed out that much is accomplished in the printing. He spent five years working at Amagansett Applied Arts with Jenny Gorman, a photographer with homes in Springs and New York City, “who taught me so much about inkjet printing.” Recently he has also worked at Laumont Printing in the city, where he has produced silver gelatin prints, chromogenic prints, and digital C-prints.

Among the photographers he particularly admires are Henri Cartier-Bresson and Walker Evans. “I go to Paris and say, if I were Cartier-Bresson, would I shoot this? When I see an old barn that’s falling apart, I see it as something Evans wouldn’t pass up. Not that I put myself in their league.” He paused, smiled, then added, “I’m still learning.”

Mr. Pintauro consciously photographed Montauk’s winter surfers with Hans Memling’s 15th-century portraits in mind.
For Joe Pintauro, the facade of the Sag Harbor Whaling and Historical Museum reflects 19th-century America’s admiration for European classicism, but, up close, the wooden columns display the ravages of time.
This altar is from Purgatorio ad Arco in Naples, an underground church devoted to the worship of souls in Purgatory.
Joe Pintauro’s limited-edition book, “Nunc et Semper,” focuses on Venice’s Piazza San Marco at night, when the square is almost deserted. The drapes over the arches are raised and lowered throughout the day, alternately revealing and hiding what’s behind the colonnades.
A detail of one of Piazza San Marco’s Baroque curtains.