Pino Lella is one of those people with an aura that ends up influencing their life. I felt it when I met him. It becomes clear when you learn about his life.
I didn’t know anything about Pino until I read the novel based on his life. I read it fast, it consumed me. When I finished the last page I was sitting at the Denver airport weeping. I knew right there and then that I had to meet this man. It was one of those things that would keep me up at night until I got it out of my system by going and photographing it. I did have a connection that would allow me to get my foot in the door and I emailed him right there and then. I was going to be in Austria, about 4 hours from where Pino currently lives, about a week and a half later and I could drive to meet him. It was a long shot but I had to try.
Over the next ten days I went to Romania and then Austria. All the while trying to get a commitment out of Pino’s daughter for me to come and take a portrait of Pino. The family was guarding him not only due to his age but also because of legal concerns since a movie adaptation of Pino’s story was underway.
The day before the last available window I finally secured my chance to meet Pino through his wife. The next morning I got in the car and crossed the alps into Italy to meet Pino. Then, just about 20 minutes from his house the road was closed and a police man told me that there was no getting through. I spent about 20 minutes trying to come up with a way around but since the road was running along a large lake none of my attempts were fruitful. I started worrying. If I didn’t figure this out within the next 10 minutes I was going to be late and possibly not able to make it all. I said to myself: No! This is not happening! I am not going to be shut down last second. There has to be a way. So I decided to go through where the police man told me not to. And I made it.
Pino’s wife Yvonne welcomed me into the home and after she showed me around a little I started taking a few portraits of her. Then Pino came jogging up the narrow alley and I introduced myself. Quickly we started shooting since I was urged to keep it short. I took a few portraits in their courtyard and then used a beautifully textured wall in the alley with the light coming pretty strongly from one side as a background. I started with my go-to-pose of a very straight-on and emotionless look. The light was a little too much from the side for it so we started playing around a little and I had Pino turn towards the light. There I got two fantastic portraits. One of them reminds me of a classical painting, or a greek god. I knew I got something good there so I cut it short by only shooting one more roll of film there and then switching to a full length shot around the corner in another alley. It was clear that the previous shot was going to be it so we didn’t spend too much time.
We chatted for a few minutes, I thanked them excessively for being open to me photographing them and then right before I was going to leave I asked Pino: Tell me about James Dean. And from my left Yvonne goes: You know, he was supposed to be the one driving him that day…
Between me first learning about Pino and standing in front of him lay only ten days. There were however 6000 miles between it, gatekeepers, the alps, legal challenges and not to forget an Italian police man who could have made all efforts go puff last second. When I got back in my car and drove along the shore of Lago Maggiore back to Austria I got overwhelmed by a feeling of ridiculous accomplishment. An accomplishment that had defied all odds.