These days, everybody’s on the lookout for the next Vivian Maier story. This is not it. Not exactly. But the tale of Alberto di Lenardo is remarkable, and the 11,900 pictures he took during the course of his lifetime—most of them in his native Italy, all of them saturated by Kodachrome’s rich colors—are astonishing both in their beauty and in their ability to make you feel whirl of passing time. Di Lenardo shot throughout his life but his pictures remained squirreled away in his secret attic (accessible only through a hidden door) and, outside of his family, were unknown until shortly before his death at, 88, in 2018. That’s when his granddaughter, a designer at Mack books, showed them to her editors. They fell hard for the pictures and have just published An Attic Full of Trains, a novel-size paperback with 145 of di Lenardo’s quietly emotional images.
Unlike Maier, an outsider who shot strangers and singular moments unfolding on the street, di Lenardo often photographed the people he loved and the experiences they shared. The extraordinary thing about his pictures, though, is that far from zeroing-in on unique moments, di Lenardo captured those that all of us live, that all of us see—a child looking out the window at the street below, laundry hanging on the line, coke bottles left behind in an empty stadium—but he somehow makes them feel like the precise definition of those moments, as if they were plucked from our own sacred memories. Flip through his family album, and you feel like you’re looking back through the pages of your own life.
Blind spoke with di Lenardo’s granddaughter, Carlotta di Lenardo, about the magic behind her grandfather’s photos, why they remained hidden for decades, and how this jewel of a book came to be.
When did your grandfather start taking pictures?
He shot his very first photograph in 1948, when he was 18, in Bologna.
He took nearly 12,000 pictures over the course of his 88 years. Do you have his very first?
We do. The caption he wrote says: “View from my house on Risorgimento avenue. In the opposite house, on the top floor, lives a girl that I would like to meet….” From that moment, he never stopped taking photographs. And he wrote detailed captions for every single image.
Your grandfather wasn’t a professional photographer. What was his day job?
His family was from Udine, a region in the northeast of Italy, which is where he mainly lived throughout his life. He was an entrepreneur in the field of fruit and wine, working in the family’s vineyard.
Did he study photography?
No. He didn’t follow the work of famous photographers and didn’t own photo books, but he did subscribe to magazines that talked about the latest cameras and techniques. Photography was just a passion for him. Photography and train sets.
Somehow, these photos seem to hold more emotion than the typical photographer shooting his or her family. What is it about these pictures?
I think my grandfather’s main talents were choosing the right moment and his ability to compose a picture. His composition is very strong and he definitely thought about lines and point of view and about what not to include in the picture. But the colors and his understanding of light play an important role, too, and add another layer of emotion to the images. You can almost always feel a connection between him and the subject; it’s funny, you can’t really tell the difference between a photograph of the house where he grew up and a house he might have visited for just a few moments. I think that’s the reason even strangers can relate to these images.
Was he an emotional person?
Inside he was but he never showed it. He was almost courtly in his demeanor, wearing a suit jacket even on casual occasions. He was quiet and a little formal, even with us. It was the way he grew up. So to see how romantic and soft some of his images are was a revelation because he never showed us that side. He did have these unique and funny facial expressions when telling stories that are firmly impressed in my memory. I can see his personality in every shot and that’s one of the reasons why I’m so attached to them. He was also one of the most obsessively organized people I’ve ever met: He kept every instruction manual, every box, and everything in his studio was neatly arranged and labeled. Early on, he bought a scanner and scanned all of his photographs—and then he threw away the negatives. In his mind, they were just taking up space. This decision, as you can imagine, broke my heart!
How did you learn of his archive?
I was about 16 and it was just one of our regular Saturday lunches at my grandparents’ house. The only reason he showed me some of the pictures was because, during lunch, he’d told me a story about my father and had wanted me to see the photos of the moment. I instantly fell in love with his images and by the end of the first folder, I basically became his art dealer.
Had anyone else seen his pictures?
Everyone in the family knew about his passion but nobody realized that they were anything more than “normal” family snapshots.
What effect did the pictures have on you?
These pictures, and the way he would get excited while sharing them with me, made me fall in love with photography and, really, influenced my entire working life. I think looking at his photographs unconsciously directed me toward a certain aesthetic and because of him I decided to go to Milan to study photography. I eventually studied photo editing, picture research, and book-binding, and fell in love with photo books. That led me to London, where I now work as a designer at MACK.
How did the photos go from your grandfather’s attic to a published book?
I’d been working on a book of his pictures, on and off, for nearly five years but when I got word that my grandfather was getting really sick, I knew I had to finalize the project. This was 2018 and I was living in London, working at MACK. I printed up a dummy and brought it to the office—the team fell in love with it and decided to actually publish it. I couldn’t believe it. It was my dream to let everyone know about my grandfather. I gave a mock-up to my dad who took it with him on one of his final visits to see my grandfather. It was one of the last carefree moments they had together, my father and his father, just looking through the book, reliving memories, talking about each image. My father left the mock-up with my grandfather, and shortly after he passed away.
When you look through his pictures today, what do you see?
My grandfather took so many photos, from a really young age to his very last years, that I felt like he gave me all his memories and secrets. I know every picture by heart. He and I used to talk about his friends and the trips he took as if I had been there with him so, in some way, we were able to share those memories. Most of the photographs were taken on trips—on boats, from the car, and whatnot—so to me they convey a willingness of freedom and a thoughtfulness of life. Every time I look through his archive, I end up wanting to run out and live as many adventures as I possibly can.
By Bill Shapiro
Bill Shapiro is the former editor-in-chief of LIFE magazine.
An Attic Full of Trains
Editions Mack Books