October 25, 1999
Volume 52, No. 9
Mario DiGirolamo's photographs tell 40 years of stories
The upstairs seating area of The Food Business overlooks downtown Decatur's stately old courthouse, a rock-solid reminder of the city's past. Inside the restaurant are artifacts of less permanence--but of no smaller beauty--from Italian history, photographs that capture the daily life and lives of Mario DiGirolamo's homeland.
"It's a hobby; probably it's a hobby," DiGirolamo said, sounding a little unsure, of the craft he's honed most of his life. "I take photographs because I like to take photographs. But I do enjoy the visual arts. I have a small collection of paintings, and I've always liked museums and galleries, so I'm sure I've sharpened my eye by looking at the composition of the masters."
Indeed, to sit down with DiGirolamo and listen to him describe 40 years of his "hobby," print by mesmerizing print, is to absorb a lesson in photography. "I'm trying to put these images together in a book," he murmurs in a voice still thick with the rhythms of Rome, "and these are not the best prints. And these are not cropped."
This is from a small town south of Rome, where this lady is really in command of her house, with her little husband behind over here, and I call this 'Her World.' For a visitor with an untrained eye, DiGirolamo flipped through a collection of images, offering a few words on each, on a sunny afternoon in October. This is a picture of my alma mater, the University of Rome, where I got my medical degree.
DiGirolamo came to the United States in 1959 to do his residency at Columbia University in New York. It was there he met his future wife, Gay, whose love of music mirrored his love of photography. After a year DiGirolamo returned to Italy for two years, then came back to America and married Gay. In 1968 he and his family moved to Atlanta, where he joined Emory's faculty in the School of Medicine, first in the division of endocrinology, then in geriatric medicine and gerontology.
This is one of my favorites: these are three pensioners, with very distinct physical characteristics but having a lot in common. And they are looking down the piazza where the young people are congregating. So that tells you a little bit about retirement--being together but being somewhat distant from the world of action.
DiGirolamo holds joint appointments as a professor of medicine and of physiology, and his work concentrates on obesity and nutrition. He has won teaching awards, writing awards, research awards, fellowships and other honors. He sits on the editorial boards of a half-dozen journals and reviews manuscripts for at least a dozen more. He is or has been a member of international health teams and organizations, National Institutes of Health committees and several groups on the Emory campus.
On the glass wall separating his office from a hallway in the Woodruff Memorial Research Building are prints of Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel.
This is one of my better ones: when printed correctly, this window is outlined, and this woman is bathed in light. She's praying in a church in Rome. The opening is transparent, and the light--it's interesting.
"I don't think I could make a living with my photography," DiGirolamo said. "I do basic research on metabolism and fat cells."
This is a lucky shot. I was walking near a farm in Rome, and the farmer said, 'You wanna come and take a good picture?' He insisted. So I went, and he lifted a mother duck out of the middle of these elements of composition--each [chick] breaking the egg and coming out at different stages. That was a good picture.
Though he has captured certain scenes that catch his eye for their texture, their abstractness or their color--he has shot more color in recent years--DiGirolamo has not "documented" Emory the way he has his native Rome. He has shot a few construction sites, but nothing exhaustive. "There's a beautiful book about Emory that was done by a professional photographer and is no longer for sale," he said. "I should do that. When I retire, I'll have some time."
DiGirolamo has contributed images to many photography shows but has had only a few of his own, including an exhibit at Emory's own Schatten Gallery in 1994. He will have six images at the Unitarian Church gallery in Atlanta in November as part of a group show sponsored by the Alpine Camera Club of Atlanta, of which he is a member. DiGirolamo received the club's Francis Wu Award for Creative Photographer of the Year in 1994, 1995, 1996, 1997 and 1998.
One day I was home from school, and you know how children look through their parents' things. I opened one of my father's drawers and found a Rolleiflex, which was a very good camera, especially in those days. I said, 'What is that?' 'Why, your uncle owed me some money and gave me this camera.' 'Can I have it?' 'Sure, I don't know if it's good.' This is the first good picture I took with that camera.
"Images should speak for themselves," DiGirolamo said, reassembling 40 years of them into a neat pile. "You've seen the sort of pictures here; what does it give you? Do you see any style, a unique point of view? Or just another set of pictures?"