Home Brewed: The Photography of Joe Fornabaio

February 5th, 2007 by jeremy

Go to the photos

Joe Fornabaio now lives in Manhattan’s East Village, but he keeps his camera close to home—which is wherever his extended family can be found. Christmas, Halloween, first communion, birthday parties—if there’s family, cake and a “bajillion course Italian meal” to be had in the Fornabaio family, you can bet your seven fishes that Joe and his camera will be there, too, both as participant and documentarian. “On any occasion I’m there in celebration with them, but they’ve become comfortable with my camera by my side so I get to shoot without drawing a glance,” he says. He takes photographs both for love and for a living using his Mamiya RZ 67. The 37-year-old photographer shares a few of his very personal pics with SMITH, and his thoughts on what makes him click.

What makes a good image to you?
I like different images for different reasons. Sometimes I like an image for its visual strength, sometimes for its content. The cream of the crop is when you’ve got both in one photo.

Who first inspired you to take pictures?
My high school art teacher, he didn’t inspire me so much as bring photography to my attention. I’m forever grateful to him for seeing the boredom I had in his class.

What’s the most important quality of a photo for you?
I need to like it whether it’s content or just visual strength. If I don’t like it I’m not going to look at it again.

What do you consider off-limits?
For me, I can’t shoot the depressing side of life when people are at their most difficult time, so I admire photojournalists who do by covering wars and human interest pieces that focus on the sadder parts of life that we need to be aware of.

What’s the strangest thing you’ve seen through the viewfinder?
Let me put it this way: nothing that’s kept me from shooting, but I am eagerly awaiting that moment when someone will have to call an ambulance because I won’t be able to breathe from laughing so hard.

What’s the fish that got away—the photo you saw but didn’t have a camera for?
I see ’em everyday but I don’t sweat it. I can’t capture every moment of my waking life so I’ve learned to appreciate every moment regardless whether I’ve captured it or not. I’ve learned to not beat myself over the one that ‘got away’ because there are way too many moments in life that I find interesting. So I always carry at least one of my point-and-shoot Yashica T4’s with me so I at least have something on film.

From whom, what, or where do you derive inspiration?
Everything. People, places, things. Cliché? I don’t care, it’s the truth, and there’s too many to list.

What’s the picture you’d most like to take?
Actually, this is sort of the ‘one that got away,’ a self-portrait with my point-and-shoot camera at arms length atop the Twin Towers overlooking New York City in the background.

If anyone could take a picture of you, who would it be?
Lorenzo Giustini, my four-year-old nephew. What a great name, Lorenzo Giustini, sounds like some great pioneer/turn of the century photographer. He’d probably shoot it with his parents’ point-and-shoot digital camera. Why? Because he has no preconceived notions of what a photo should be, so he would shoot endlessly the boundless curiosity he has with a camera that instantly gratifies him. No rules, no ego, pure enthusiasm.

Where are you happiest taking photographs?
Wherever I’m standing. As long as there’s a breath in my body and I’m fortunate enough to have the strength in my arms to lift a camera and the eyes to look through a lens then I’m happy. I consider myself very fortunate to love what I do for a living, which also enables me to keep doing my personal work. So it’s a double whammy: I love to shoot and get paid for it!

Below are some of Joe Fornabaio’s favorite family photos.
Click on an image to enlarge.

Easter at my mother’s house. My cousin Ann Marie taking a picture of some of us in the back patio. The weather was gorgeous that weekend so we set up a long table outside in the backyard patio to accommodate about 12 of us.

Easter at my mother’s house. Left to right: my cousin Francesca’s husband, Michael, and my brother Donato sneaking a peek at some dessert. My brother is pulling the box open.

Cousin Ralph getting a haircut by Anthony of Artistic Image on Staten Island. This is part of another project I’ve begun on barbershops.

Christmas at my mother’s house. Left to right: My cousin Nancy’s son Sal sitting on the couch bored out of his skull while she has a conversation with my brother Anthony’s girlfriend, Antonia.

Easter at my mother’s house. My cousin Ralph fixing bicycle for his daughter Diana.

Easter at my mother’s house. Left to right: My cousin Francesca’s son Michael, my cousin Tommy’s son Giovanni eating, and my cousin Nancy’s son Joseph, with my cousin Filomena in background.

My Aunt Ida’s sixtieth birthday. Left to right in front at table: Diana, Victoria, Aunt Ida, Sophia, Aunt Maria. In the background: Aunt Antoinette, cousin Tina and mom all looking on.

Easter at my mother’s house. Back of my brother Anthony’s head as he talks to his girlfriend Antonia.

My cousin Joe’s daughter Antonia’s christening at the Knights of Columbus on Staten Island. The man’s head is my Uncle John.

Sam (my cousin Filomena’s son) wrapped up in toilet paper at my cousin Santo’s son Nicholas’ first birthday. We have lots of kids at family gatherings now, so they hired this DJ who specializes in entertaining kids; one of the things he had them do was wrap each other up in toilet paper.

Barely skipping a beat to eat, my brother Anthony eating as my Aunt Ida is putting a lobster bib around him with a tray of baked clams and lobsters in the foreground. In an Italian household like mine, Christmas Eve dinner is all fish.

Food coma sets in on my brother Anthony sleeping next to a doll after a Thanksgiving meal at my Aunt Antoinette’s house. Don’t ask me how the doll wound up there.

At my cousin Tommy’s son Giovanni’s first communion party. Left to right: Filomena laughing as she looks on, John with his Blackberry and his wife (my cousin) Francesca both looking puzzled at an email he’s received.

Joe (my cousin Nancy’s son) at his Aunt Filomena’s wedding looking not too excited about the stiff suit.

Easter at my mother’s house. Mom showing cake to my cousins. Left to right: Ann Marie, Christine and my brother Anthony’s girlfriend, Antonia.

Left to right: My cousin Francesca’s kids Victoria and Michael. I was doing some formal pics of the family and the kids were dying to put on their Halloween costumes. We finally obliged, and I just let them go wild. Then it happened. She was moving the chair when my cousin John and I noticed her stockings were around her knees. (We hadn’t seen it earlier because her skirt hid it.) That’s when Michael leaned in to see what we were laughing at.

Left to right: Cousin Joann’s husband, Joe; Uncle John; and Uncle Sal’s brother-in-law Enzo sitting on wall at cousin Santo’s engagement party at his parents Zia Dolores and Uncle Sal’s house in Brooklyn.

More of Joe Fornabaio’s work can be found on his site

SMITH Magazine

SMITH Magazine is a home for storytelling.
We believe everyone has a story, and everyone
should have a place to tell it.
We're the creators and home of the
Six-Word Memoir® project.