VICTOR ARIMONDI – A Compassionate Eye

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By Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Photo by Lynn Imanaka

Victor Arimondi was a challenging photographer. He challenged Image and Perception – on an international and very high-end commercial scale. In his early years, on the other side of the lens, Victor was a hot young fashion model. His natural beauty freely opened the doors to European fashion houses where he gained immediate acceptance, abounding fame, and the attention of international celebrities. Arimondi was the young god on the runway, the dazzling definition of what it means to be top-tier, ultimately desirable, out of reach and untouchable, yet available and vulnerable to the highs and lows and volatile extremes of Fashion’s trendy people, places, and things. In his later years, Victor did print work for Macy’s and the Hastings Clothing Company, formerly located at Post and Grant. That is what triggered my memory of him. Victor Arimondi on downtown billboards – “The Hasting’s Man”. In those days, here in San Francisco, some may have thought Victor Arimondi had the plummiest job in town. He was clearly mature, a far different image than the blow-ups of boy models in suits today. When Don Hershman, Victor’s then lover and now protector of his estate, showed me an example of Victor’s print work for Hastings, I exclaimed, “I haven’t seen a man like that since Victor was The Man like that.” Victor Arimondi was sensationally handsome. He also hated modeling to the point of dark despair. He returned to his first love, the camera, and created a body of work that captures a slice of San Francisco, particularly the crisis of homelessness and AIDS like none other. In 2001, Victor was 59 when he fell to the disease. A Compassionate Eye: The Work of Victor Arimondi will be on display from September 12th through December 10th at the James C. Hormel Gay and Lesbian Center located on the third floor of San Francisco’s Main Library (100 Larkin Street at Grove).

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Still Life with Leaf Series, Model- Janos, 1986

I spoke with photographer Adam Stoltman who took on the lion’s share of curating responsibilities for the exhibit. Teaming up with another photographer and archivist, Regina Monfort, and with the blessings of Karen Sundheim, director of the Hormel Center – A Compassionate Eye: The Work of Victor Arimondi is an up-close and very personal introduction to a gorgeous and literate man who lived for his art, loved his subjects, was passionate with his partner, and suffered the demons of an artist’s life. The exhibition is a sampling of an intriguing and abundant legacy that has come out of the box and heading back into the spotlight.

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CLOWN SERIES. Victor Arimandi. Palace of Fine Arts, San Francisco 1982

Seán: Tell me about the artist, the influence, and the retrospective.

Adam: Victor began his career as a fashion model in Europe and came to this country in the late ‘70s. I became involved in his work through a friend, Don Hershman. Victor’s partner. Victor passed away in 2001. Don inherited the estate and was not entirely sure what to do with this legacy. I’m originally a photographer, an editor – I’ve worked with a lot of different aspects of photography over the years. I told Don I would come out and take a look at the work and let him know if I thought there was something to be done.

Adam: I was really blown away by Victor’s range as an artist, the complexity of the themes, and his sensitivity to what was going on around him socially – his documenting the human cost of the AIDS crisis from very early on. There was a really profound humanistic thread that I saw through his work. I was very intrigued. I came back to New York and spoke with a colleague, Regina Monfort. She has a long history of working with photographic estates and collections. She was intrigued.

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Portrait of the Artist’s mother, Naples, Italy 1969

Adam: Little by little we went to work, re-curating the archive and trying very hard to discern what can be a very illusive layer of artistic intent, of artistic legacy. We found it to be a very rich experience. We found there to be many layers to the work and we proceded very slowly. I went to the Hormel Center at the San Francisco Public Library. The gentleman who ran the Center at the time was Jim Van Buskirk. I will never forget that first meeting. I said to Jim that I was doing some research and wanted to see what background they had on Victor. He said, “I knew Victor. I didn’t know him well, but we had this wonderful connection. He was always sending me cards, always up-dating me on what he was doing. He really cared about what we were trying to do here, before we became big and notable.” That really struck me and stayed with me. We started talking to the Hormel Center, the San Francisco Public Library, and Susan Goldstein the archivist for the City of San Francisco. She was also impressed by his work and its relevance to the history of The City. They put forth the notion of doing an exhibit.

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Male Nudes, Stockholm 1973 and 1974

Adam: The Clown was a motif that ran through a lot Victor’s work. According to Don, it represents a bit of his alter ego. The costumes that were used, Victor made himself. I think he was very attuned to issues of Identity and contradictions between the external and internal. That probably comes from having worked as a fashion model and living in that world quite deeply.

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Female Nude, Stockholm 1974 and
Clown Series, Female – New York City 1979

Adam: There are a lot of people he photographed in Europe. A lot of actors and artists. He did some pictures of Grace Jones before she was very well known. One of the things that’s very interesting to me about his work is that he’s always re-working things. In a lot of his compositions he does this work with collage where he will re-photograph photographs he took many years ago. He puts them into a different setting, puts physical objects with them, etc. There’s always this reworking of ideas and themes. I think his documentation of a certain time, a certain slice of time in San Francisco just before the specter of AIDS appeared, is very significant. That was always my contention – that it was very culturally significant. I don’t profess to have a great deal of firsthand understanding of the Gay Community in San Francisco. But from my own work as an editor and photo journalist, I’m very attuned to certain cultural themes. And that really struck me, early on, that this was very significant.

Seán: How long was he diagnosed?

Adam: I don’t know the exact time. He didn’t want to be tested.

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Indianapolis

Seán: I’m a native San Franciscan. I’ve lost many friends and partners to AIDS. I’m old enough to have been around and participated in significant demonstrations, such as the first Gay Pride Parade. Victor would have been older than me at the time. Certainly his perspectives and perceptions would have been different, just by living a life that is about being beautiful AND Gay, and being a model and a fashion photographer – all these kinds of things during the initial crisis of AIDS. How does all that stuff influence his photography?

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AIDS awareness collage, 1994

Adam: The group of work that speaks the most is a series of portraits he did called Fifty-five By One. These were portraits of fifty-five friends and colleagues. He created an almost memoriam to them. He gathered pictures he had taken of them when they were young, vital, sexy and alive and placed them in tableau with other objects that speak and make reference to the AIDS epidemic. When I look at those pictures, I feel a great deal of sadness, but also a certain protest or defiance. Almost like the act of creating is a way of fighting back that which you can’t control. The thing for Victor – creativity was Life itself. That was his way of fighting back. I think there’s a real humanistic sensitivity he had as the crisis was unfolding – ‘this is about people. Yes, there are all kinds of political issues around this. But let’s stay tuned to the people.’ He also documented the homeless in San Francisco – very early on. That body of work – we haven’t been through that much yet. He would often bring homeless people to model for him and give them a little money, etc.

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AIDS related composition with beads, 1998. CIAIDS sign photographed c. 1988

Adam: When I look at the sardine can picture I see issues about confinement, the box that Society tries to put us all in and how you deal with that in terms of your spirit. That’s what comes through for me. There’s many of the sardine can photos. We have four in the exhibition. There will also be a benefit auction at the Starlite Room on September 16th for the AIDS Emergency Fund.

Seán: How many of Victor’s photos can we find?

Adam: There will be ten photos up for auction that evening.

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Still Life Collage, 1985. Model – Janos, former Mr. Hungary

Seán: Is there a way of capsulizing the spirit of the exhibit? Certainly Victor is much more complex than the label – “Gay Photographer”.

Adam: When Regina and I started working we talked a lot about this. Why are we doing this, what is it about? The answer we like to give is that what we really wanted to do – was to shine some light on a really, very talented, multi-layered and wonderful artist – who was not that well known beyond a certain niche. Personally, I don’t like term, “Gay Photographer”. To me it sounds limiting and somewhat pigeon-holing. And the breadth of his work is more than that. But certainly that community was the world in which he lived and functioned and was responding to. But there are broader human themes in it. What we want to do is show some of his range as an artist. One can look at the nude work and say ‘OK, there is a certain homo-eroticism about it.’ I think he really had a mastery of that form. Even in the female nudes he did, that comes through. Our goal is to shine some light on his work. And, hopefully, to start exposing people to it.

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Dovanna with Life Magazine AIDS cover, New York c.1986

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Self Portrait as Clown, Stockholm 1972

Seán: If you had to choose one of Victor’s photos for an ad campaign or the cover of a book – which would it be?

Adam: I like the sardine can, the Self Portrait. Because there is a certain playfulness, a sort-of glint in his eye – that I see – that comes through. It’s as if to say, we are so much more than the confines we experience in our day-to-day life.

Seán: And you have to make an effort to roll the cover back to find it.

Adam: There you go!

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Clown Series, New York City, 1979

Seán: And behind the make-up is the man. Do his professional modeling photos convey the same energy he would later capture as a photographer? I mean, did those modeling photos invite curiosity about him personally? For example, the recent Yves St. Laurent exhibit at the de Young Museum. I had forgotten how really attractive the man was. Just out on his own, in candid photographs, you know? Here’s the latest thing he created, but let’s take a look at this guy! No wonder the biggest doors around just flew open for him. Was Victor working that aspect of himself in front of the camera?

Adam: Probably when he began. I think that quality probably drew a lot of people to him. There’s a certain energy in attractive men, and vitality. My suspicion – is that as it wore on there was more conflict about being in a world where you are judged entirely by external appearances – or, judged largely by them.

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Clown series, San Francisco, 1985

Seán: When you look at portraits of him, what gets stirred in you?

Adam: That’s a good question. I see a kindred spirit, certainly. I see an artist who pushed back. He did it by creating. And trying to touch the lives of those around him with a creative spirit. That’s a very important act. I think, a profound act. It’s what artists do.

Seán: How did he push back?

Adam: I don’t mean in a political sense. But trying to infuse a certain creative spirit and energy in his interactions and involvements.

Seán:You mean in the sense of ‘here are the forces coming towards me, but here is the way I can deal with it and contribute to better understanding’.

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Clown Series, Palace of Fine Arts, San Francisco, 1982

Adam: It is a way of pushing back against ignorance. It is a way of contributing to the knowledge or the greater good – society’s benefit.

Seán: Just stir the idea through imagery.

Adam: Yes.

Seán: Where does the exhibition go from here?

Adam: We’re going to see what response and interest level the show generates. We’ve talked a little bit with SF Arts Commission about doing something as well as the New York Public Library. Personally, I think certain aspects of the work might make for a very appropriate part of a collection.

Seán: Any talk of a book?

Adam: That is a possibility. A photography book is a complicated undertaking and most are not revenue generating. There are a lot of photography books out there, but it’s hard to make them work without it being supported in some way.

Seán: For the exhibit, how do you choose the sizing of the photos and how to place them?

Adam: After spending so much time with the work, the groupings and categories of the work were relatively clear to us by this point. Then it’s literally very much the way you would lay out a book or magazine. And that is a world I know intimately. Picture relationships start presenting themselves to one another. And that’s what we’ve tried to do. We cover a lot of territory – AIDS related work, experimental work, nude studies, fashion, etc. Victor did a lot of still life compositions with leaves, often autumn leaves. Even with the AIDS work, there is a lot of symbolism going on there which I find very poignant.

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Composition with Leaf, c. 1998

Visit Seán on YouTube:
Lorena Feijóo – A Look at “Giselle” with Seán Martinfield
SAMSON & DELILAH – Meet Seán Martinfield
CA ACADEMY OF SCIENCES – A Preview Look with Seán Martinfield

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Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Seán Martinfield, who also serves as Fine Arts Critic, is a native San Franciscan. He is a Theatre Arts Graduate from San Francisco State University, a professional singer, and well-known private vocal coach to Bay Area actors and singers of all ages and persuasions. His clients have appeared in Broadway National Tours including Wicked, Aïda, Miss Saigon, Rent, Bye Bye Birdie, in theatres and cabarets throughout the Bay Area, and are regularly featured in major City events including Diva Fest, Gay Pride, and Halloween In The Castro. As an Internet consultant in vocal development and audition preparation he has published thousands of responses to those seeking his advice concerning singing techniques, professional and academic auditions, and careers in the Performing Arts. Mr. Martinfield’s Broadway clients have all profited from his vocal methodology, “The Belter’s Method”, which is being prepared for publication. If you want answers about your vocal technique, post him a question on AllExperts.com. If you would like to build up your vocal performance chops and participate in the Bay Area’s rich theatrical scene, e-mail him at: sean.martinfield@comcast.net.

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