Doctor brings lovers photography, story to public eye

For nearly 20 years, Donald Hershman watched his partner, Vittorio (Victor) Arimondi, struggle to achieve artistic success as a photographer. The tall, handsome Italian had been one of Europe's top male models, but the confidence and ease he projected in front of the camera didn't always extend to his work behind the lens.

"I saw the suffering — he'd work all night like someone totally possessed, and then he'd tear it all up the next day," says Hershman, a San Francisco podiatrist.

When Arimondi succumbed to AIDS last year, Hershman was left with a room full of negatives and a sense that Arimondi never got the recognition he deserved. To preserve his former lover's legacy, Hershman has organized a retrospective on permanent display at San Francisco's Atelier Gallery, 2354 Market St.

Now he's working on a documentary — detailing the story of a man whose life was as least as compelling as his photography.

After a modeling agent discovered him as a college student in Stockholm, Arimondi catapulted into the top ranks of male models. He showed off Nino Cerruti and Valentino suits on the runway and landed on the cover of Esquire in the 1960s. After he moved to America, the modeling offers kept coming — well into his 40s. But Arimondi's dream was to be known for his work behind the camera.

"Once Mercedes-Benz called and wanted to do a big campaign with him, and he turned them down, saying, 'I don't have a driver's license,'" recalls Hershman. "He really didn't like that kind of fame, and was so embarrassed when he was recognized on a billboard."

In the 1970s, Arimondi started to do fashion shoots for magazines including Vogue and Harper's Bazaar. Then he turned his lens on the male nude, and developed a following as a photographer of erotica. Three books of his works have been published: "The Look of Men" (Color Library Int., 1980); "Boyfriends" (Crown Publishers, 1984); and "Male Nude" (Taschen, 1998).

Following a revelation in his personal life, the Star of David and other Jewish iconography started to enter Arimondi's images. The Italian cosmopolite's parentage had been somewhat of a mystery, even to Arimondi himself. His mother bore him out of wedlock in deeply Catholic Italy during World War II. Not until 1984, on his mother's deathbed, did Arimondi learn that his natural father was half-Jewish.

"He was so proud" of his Jewish heritage, says Hershman, who is Jewish and still grieves deeply for the love of his life. "Whenever some anti-Semitic thing would come up in the news, he'd tell me, 'I'll march into the ovens with you, if it comes to that. I'll tell them I'm half-Jewish.'"

There's great breadth to his portfolio, but some of his most provocative work is in fashion photography. In one image, two children are pushing a baby carriage across the road. It is either dawn or dusk, and a car with its lights on is heading towards them. It's obvious to the viewer that the smiling children are mannequins, yet the image produces a riveting sense of anxiety.

"Victor was so ahead of his time," says James Scott Geras, a photographer and friend of Arimondi's. "If you go into a gallery in New York, you'll see Cindy Sherman and other photographers like that doing this sort of thing. But this photograph [of the children] was taken way back in 1972."

In his later work, Arimondi tried to capture the humanity and beauty in human forms completely outside of the fashionable world. He spent a lot of time befriending homeless people and making them the subject of his photographs.

"Victor's life is fascinating, because it reflects the changes going on in the larger culture," says Elisa Isaacson, a Bay Area grantwriter who is seeking funding for the documentary. "He went from the all-night disco society of New York in the '70s, to picking up the camera and photographing homeless people on the streets of San Francisco. He was very much a person of the times."