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New museum exhibition highlights work of Santa Barbara photographer who captured images of everyone from Fellini to Sinatra

Famed Director Lina Wertmüller directing "Pasqualino"
Santi Visalli
Santa Barbara Museum of Art
Famed Director Lina Wertmüller directing "Pasqualino".

Santi Visalli's career spanned seven decades, photographing some of the biggest tastemakers in film, literature, music, and art.

He’s photographed everyone from world famous poets to movie stars.

Now, the work of this 90-year-old Santa Barbara photographer is being celebrated with a new museum exhibition.

Santi Visalli captured images of movie stars, singers, authors, and artists.

A new exhibition of some of the Santa Barbara photographer’s work features some of his iconic photos from the 1960’s and 70’s.

Marlon Brando, Any Warhol, Frank Sinatra, Cher, and Sofia Loren are among the celebrities showcased in Santi Visalli at 90: Una Storia at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art.

Visalli talked about his work, and the exhibition. "People will share emotions. Oh, I grew up with that. Oh, I remember Frank Sinatra," said Visalli. "It's history."

Visalli grew up in Sicily. As a boy, he watched American movies, and dreamed of meeting movie stars. As a young man, he spent three years traveling the world, developing his skills as a photographer.

In the 1950’s, he moved to New York. He was broke, but got a job in a restaurant. He started going to movie premieres, shooting photos of celebrities as they arrived.

One night, he got a huge break. "The vice president of the opera house, he says Jackie is going to be in the house tonight. Exclusive, for you," said Visalli. "I hop in the taxi, go to the opera house, and take (an) exclusive shot of Jackie Kennedy after the President died. (It was) the first time she went out."

Visalli’s work was soon appearing in places like the New York Times, Newsweek, and Time magazine. He figures he shot more than 100,000 pictures. Does he have a favorite?

Poet Allen Ginsberg at home on October 27, 1980 in New York, New York.
Santi Visalli
Getty Images
Poet Allen Ginsberg at home on October 27, 1980 in New York, New York.

"You ask me if if I have a preferred picture? It's like you have 106,964 children," said Visalli. "I'm sure you love all of them the same way.

At one point he got tired of shooting celebrity portraits, and turned to architectural photography, doing 14 books. "I started doing architecture, so I didn't have to listen to people (telling me) what is their best side," said Visalli.

The new Santa Barbara Museum of Art exhibition features 29 of Visalli’s photographs of artistic tastemakers.

"I thought what would be a good subject matter for a museum to feature, and I came to people in the arts," said Charles Wylie. He's the Santa Barbara Museum of Art’s Curator of Photography and New Media. There are photographs of everyone from Adam West as Batman to Cher, and actress Sharon Tate.

Visalli says his work, in fact, any good photograph, comes down to three basic ingredients. "Light, composition, and message," said the photographer.

Santi Visilli at 90: Una Storia runs through March 13th at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art.

Lance Orozco has been News Director of KCLU since 2001, providing award-winning coverage of some of the biggest news events in the region, including the Thomas and Woolsey brush fires, the deadly Montecito debris flow, the Borderline Bar and Grill attack, and Ronald Reagan's funeral.