The late Dinanda Nooney is not a household name, but many Brooklynites know her photographs. These haunting images of Brooklyn residents in their homes in the 1970s live on in the Brooklyn Public Library online archives.
The gelatin silver images capture borough family life and the era’s style through candid-feeling portraits of parents and children in their bedrooms, living rooms and kitchens.
But despite her thorough documentation of how others lived, her own life remains lesser known. Brownstoner reached out to Dinanda’s daughter Jill Nooney, an artist, to find out more about the prolific photographer.
Dinanda was a risk taker who came to photography late in life, after a divorce. Best known for her Brooklyn photographs, Dinanda did not live in Brooklyn and had no personal connection with the borough, said her daughter.
Born in Germany in 1918 to a wealthy family in the caviar business, Dinanda moved to Manhattan in the ’70s, following her divorce. She established a darkroom in her basement with the help of her friend and mentor, published photographer Jerry Thompson.
Anti-Vietnam War presidential candidate George McGovern was the link that brought her to Brooklyn. She was working on his 1972 campaign against Nixon, photographing at rallies before he began attracting national attention. Other campaign workers took note of her diverse skills (honed in the family business) and put her to work on lease negotiations, phone banks, and organizing the effort to win the New York Primary.
“She was in charge of Brooklyn,” Jill says of her mother’s role in the campaign, as well as her ability to photograph the borough.
Following the campaign, Nooney kept in touch with coworkers from Greenpoint. They would become some of the first subjects in the shots of Brooklyn interiors which maintain her legacy. Once she’d processed images of her Greenpoint friends, she’d bring them a print of the photo and ask them to recommend her to friends, leading to the development of a network of collaborators. It became her regular work.
It’s not clear she was paid for her work as a photographer — her daughter and Thompson aren’t sure — although she received commissions and had at least five exhibitions in her lifetime. She sold a photo to friend and businessman Ed Rogoff, Thompson said.
Dinanda’s main interest in the Brooklyn project was documentation, as well as her passion for the craft of photography.
“I have no personal connection with Brooklyn, nor did my mother, except as a subject for documentation,” Jill says of herself and the late Dinanda, “She viewed herself as a photojournalist and as such, had a great interest in documenting history. A period piece, she would call it.”
In addition to Brooklyn, Dinanda also photographed the disintegration of the West Side Highway, of which L.A.’s Getty Museum currently holds the negative. She also devoted her talents to an hours-long, narrated family history slide show. “She liked big projects that could occupy her for years,” Jill explained.
While the mother and daughter shared a common lack of connection to Brooklyn, their artistry strayed significantly when it came to process. “She liked to document real things; I like to dream things up and try them out,” Jill told Brownstoner, further saying of her mother,
She was no dreamer. She was disciplined, practical, well organized, hard headed and finished what she started. She used to say that the difference between a good photographer and a bad one is that the good one gets rid of her bad photographs.
That being said, she had a good eye for composition, balance, color and personal style. She meticulously documented her work with paper and pencil. She wrote on the front of a file folder or on sheet of yellow legal paper the name, date, address, photo release, date printed, if she had given a set to the subjects, etcetera. She kept track of her stock portfolio, which she managed by herself at times, in the same no-nonsense way.
On another level she pursued what pleased her. I imagine this has led me or given me permission to do the same. Although she never went to college (that is another story), she learned about Bennington College from the neighbor next door to her brownstone on 30th Street, and she encouraged me to go to what was at the time the most expensive college in the country with an avant-garde and somewhat iffy reputation. A decision that changed my life. Thank you, Mother. So I would say she was a risk-taker. I was influenced by that.
I took a generally supportive daughterly interest in her work, flying in from New Hampshire for a couple of shows. However, just as my kids take little interest in my doings (being firmly embedded in their own lives), I did not follow her photographic career closely. That may be left to the grandkids. So it goes.
Indeed, Dinanda’s prolific photographic career left plenty to be mined. Her first exhibition was at the New-York Historical Society, where her West Side Highway images were displayed in a group show called “Moving in the City” in the late ’70s. She had prints up at Manhattan’s Municipal Arts Society, the Long Island Historical Society, the New York Public Library, in addition to various portrait commissions.
If Dinanda were still around today, Jill says, she would likely not be too fazed by the changes. “The last time I was there with her, ” Jill says of her time in Brooklyn with Dinanda, “she looked at some buildings and said, you know, if I were 10 years younger I might buy one of these.”
Dinanda Nooney died at 86 on November 26, 2004. She was in her home in Foggy Bottom, D.C., surrounded by her family. Jill says of her death, “she died peacefully and at home as she wished.”
This is the first installment of a three-part series on the late photographer Dinanda Nooney, whose full collection of Brooklyn photographs is available online via the New York Public Library’s archives.
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Photos: Meryl Meisler’s 1980s Bushwick — Youth and Freedom Despite the Blight
Photos: Joel Meyerowitz’s Brooklyn Wild — Capturing Untamed Nature in City Parks