Arts

Elio De Pisa’s photographs capture Berkeley as it was

Cover
Berkeley Then is a collection of photographs by Elio De Pisa with text by his wife, Diane De Pisa

There exist several photographic records of Telegraph Avenue in the 1960s: Rag Theater by Nacio Jan Brown (1975) and Telegraph 3 a.m. by Richard Misrach (1975). There now is a third, Berkeley Then, photographs by Elio de Pisa, text by Diane de Pisa, photo editing by Nick Cedar. Brown and Misrach were great photographers who went to Telegraph Avenue, took great pictures, and made great books. De Pisa was of Telegraph. He managed the Caffe Mediterraneum from 1960 until 1972.

Elio de Pisa. Photo courtesy of Diane de Pisa
Elio de Pisa. Photo: courtesy Diane de Pisa

As a photographer, he was untrained, but he had an aesthetic sense informed by his early life in Rome. He generally worked with a Rolleiflex twin lens reflex. He made his black-and-white gelatin silver prints with a Durst enlarger, guided by Ansel Adams’ manuals. He also worked in color, and about one-third of the photographs in the book are color.

His widow, Diane de Pisa, has published a collection of his Berkeley photographs. She provides text, which is a treasure inside a treasure, a wistful recollection of Berkeley at a time when good, if radical, change seemed possible.

A few of the photos from the book:


Bill Miller in front of his General Store. Photo: Elio de Pisa
Bill Miller in front of his General Store. Photo: Elio de Pisa
Street vendors. Photo: Elio de Pisa
Street vendors. Photo: Elio de Pisa
Photo: Elio de Pisa
Photo: Elio de Pisa
Photo: Elio de Pisa
Photo: Elio de Pisa
Photo: Elio de Pisa
Photo: Elio de Pisa
Photo: Elio de Pisa
Photo: Elio de Pisa
Photo: Elio de Pisa
Photo: Elio de Pisa

It was surely a different time.

De Pisa’s universe was Telegraph and the campus, as opposed to Brown’s focus on the young Red Rockets/Mini Mob in front of Rag Theater and Misrach’s universe of youth descending into the hellish vortex of hard drugs.

De Pisa’s photographs include many names known by those who remember and those who have studied the Telegraph Avenue scene — Johnny Buoananno and Lino Meiorin, Ferid Aksel, Fred Cody, Tom Palmer, Bill Miller, Hassan Erfani, Byron Menedez, Storyman and his puppet, Holy Hubert, Piera Amado, Siglianda Scarpa, Gene Jones, Martin Metal, Lucien Delia, Nino Calabrese, Joe Agos, and Barbara Dane.

Photo: Elio de Pisa.
Photo: Elio de Pisa

Holy Hubert, a major icon of Telegraph, is shown here doing spiritual battle with a young man he called Satan. The majority of the photos are not of Telegraph celebrities, but bit players in the drama, passers-by, brief participants, the anonymous.

Diane de Pisa Then. Photo: Elio de Pisa
Diane de Pisa Then. Photo: Elio de Pisa

What emerges from the photographs is a hopeful portrait of a time and place. Ditto with Diane de Pisa’s commentary. It is a stunning tribute to a man she loved and to a time and place that are gone but that still inform.


She writes: “These are scenes infused with drama, tenderness, and humor. The sub-text forecasts positive trends. Beyond the mere concept of civil rights, there is de facto integration of races, professions, ages, and even species. The handicapped are in the mix, starting to live independently. Distinguished intellectuals engage with street people.”

Berkeley Then is a gift to both those who remember and those who want to understand. There are other records of the time and place that I hope will see publication, such as the photographs of John Jekabson. But what we have here is a limited edition of a heartfelt portrait of Berkeley when everything seemed possible.

Copies of the book are available at Moe’s Books (of course!), Pegasus on Shattuck Avenue and Solano Avenue, and Revolution Books on Durant.

Tom Dalzell, a labor lawyer, created a website, Quirky Berkeley, to share all the whimsical objects he has captured with his iPhone. The site now has more than 8,600 photographs of quirky objects around town as well as posts where the 30-year resident muses on what it all means. 

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