Oscar Masciandaro

Hi, I’m Oscar Masciandaro. I’m originally from Gioia Del Colle, a small town in the Puglia region of Southern Italy. My family emigrated to the US in 1958 where I had the good fortune of growing up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. This was at a time when rents were still cheap and the neighborhood was a melting pot of culturally, racially and economically diverse groups of people. At the time I was under the naive impression that the whole world was like that. It’s been a lifelong disappointment that in all the years since, that particular mix has been so hard to duplicate.

Milliseconds before they figured out what I was doing and smacked me in the head.

My introduction to “art” was in my father’s barbershop, stuck on long Saturday afternoons with nothing to do except thumb through endless stacks of Life and Look magazines. While my friends collected baseball cards and tracked the batting averages of Maris and Mantle, at twelve I was getting an education on the finer points of Avedon and Arbus and Skrebneski.

Two photos come to mind as being particularly memorable for me. The first is of Mohammed Ali glowering over a prone and defeated Sonny Liston. I’m not a jock by any means but the power of this image lies in how it seems to suspend time. To look at it you might think that Ali stood there forever. It’s quite shocking when you see the video and realize that the scene barely lasted a millisecond. Neil Leifer squeezed the shutter at a strategic moment in time that captured all the rage and conflict, victory and defeat that came before and after. The second, a world apart, was Viktor Skrebneski’s portrait of Vanessa Redgrave in her role as Isadora Duncan. For all the centerfolds and pinups I’d seen by then, none had ever impressed me as transcendently beautiful. Even more so when years later I got a chance to see Ms. Redgrave on a talk show and couldn’t begin to reconcile the almost bookish persona of the sedate British actress with the luminous vision of the person in the photo.

Coming or going, it was always like this.

In 1968 I went back to Italy for the first time and was overwhelmed with what could best be described as reverse culture shock. I’d always assumed, based on how my parents behaved, that they were merely insane. Suddenly I was in a country where there were 50,000,000 people who were more or less just like them. They laughed loudly, cried easily and ate endlessly enormous meals. Changed into their pajamas in the afternoon and took long naps in pitch dark bedrooms. They took advantage of every opportunity to squeeze and pinch and hug the life out of me. Luckily I had a camera with me to document everything and years later, it gave me the sanity check that I needed to contrast that experience with the alternate realities of what my life was like in America.

I learned early on that people didn’t have much tolerance for a kid with a camera. Humans spend a lot of time stage managing their public personas to be “just so”. A camera tears that apart in every unguarded moment. Time, however, is inexorable. Children grow up. Everyone ages. Generations move on.

Those photos that were once so annoying now become immeasurably valuable as the last tangible vestige of someone’s presence. That annoying kid, fifty years on is now the family archivist and has an almost sacred role as a high priest of shared memories.

Throughout my life, I’ve worked a spectrum of jobs to make ends meet. I was raised blue collar and taught early on that taking care of my family was to always be my first priority so the luxury of being a full-time photographer hasn’t always been something I could afford. Through it all, I’ve always managed to have a camera near by to record my experiences and develop my own sense of seeing the world. If nothing else, I’d like to think that’s going to be part of my contribution to leaving the world as a slightly better place.

Oscar Masciandaro