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Walter Ciardi


Harry Buschman

This is an article about the photographer Walter Ciardi;

Walter Ciardi was a teacher of photography at Pratt architectural school back in the 30's. Photography was not a major at the school of architecture but it was important enough to be a required subject for all architectural and industrial design students.

Ciardi was similar to a Phys Ed teacher in a university. He didn't have the pedagogical qualifications that other teachers had and that made him uncomfortable in his relationship with the faculty. As a result, I think, he fraternized with the student body more than other teachers did and he took their side whenever there were conflicts between the students and the teaching staff.

The school had one camera, a beautiful 5x7 Linhof. Ciardi wouldn't let the students get near it. If a student needed a picture of a picture, an architectural model or an assignment in the field, he would take over the controls of the Linhof while we stood aside and watched him operate it. We learned many of the fine points of photography as they related to architecture and light but we didn't learn much about using a camera or the process of darkroom photography. It didn't matter to us, we were only interested in the results, not how to get them.

The industrial design students would arrive in his studio with their models of pencil sharpeners and flashlights and we would show up with our shiny glass office buildings and everything was the same to Walter Ciardi. 50 cents a shot for anything. That covered the school's expenses for a sheet of film and a contact print, and very likely it covered Ciardi's salary as well.

What the 50 cents didn't cover was Ciardi's secret ambition. Like many of us he had a dream too. He wanted to be the world's greatest nude photographer. He didn't want to photograph in the nude, but to use the nude as his creative muse, and his ambition caused some awkward confrontations with the students.

Our school was known as an "Applied" arts school in those days, and many students went there to become illustrators. Zero Mostel was there in those days studying to be an illustrator. Life classes were held for these students using nude models of both sexes. We voyeurs in the architectural school could see the goings-on in the life classes from our windows across the street. We were also sharp enough to notice when life classes ended, some of the models ran across the quadrangle and disappeared into Ciardi's studio. Ciardi had the old Linhof warmed up and ready to go. At such times we would take the opportunity to shuttle our projects, (ready or not) downstairs and into his studio to be photographed. He would let us in if we promised not to reveal his indiscretions and let us watch him work.

Very few of us had ever seen a naked woman, and those who had, had never seen one so completely unaware of her nakedness.

She might say, "If I raise my arm the breast lifts and they'll look off-center, is that okay?"

"Maybe you can compensate, lift the right shoulder at the same time here let me show you."

We couldn't believe it. How could they be so professional? They were discussing the parts of a woman that, until now, we weren't even sure existed.

Ciardi would give us a print or two of his best efforts to keep us quiet.

These were pre-war years. The school was run by free spirits in those days and a teacher, even borderline teachers like Ciardi, could get away with almost anything. Students could come and go as they pleased so long as they paid their tuition and passed their mid-term and final exams. There were limits however and word eventually got around perhaps Ciardi exceeded those limits.

In my fourth year things became more regimented. War was on the horizon, art and architecture didn't seem to be important anymore ... the future of the world was in doubt. The student body dwindled and non-essential teachers were fired Ciardi was one of the first to go.

I joined the army and Ciardi joined the staff of Life Magazine. Years later I learned he was killed in a traffic accident in Germany in 1945.

I have never seen a photograph of a nude with Ciardi's name on it, but I have seen photographs he took during Patton's push into Germany at the close of the war. They were not exceptional, he was not a Robert Capra.

Harry Buschman 1999

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