Neal Boenzi, top New York Times photographer for four decades, dies at 97
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Neal Boenzi, top New York Times photographer for four decades, dies at 97
Firemen scramble to escape falling wall during fire that swept two abandoned buildings on 137th Street near Lincoln Avenue, in Bronx on July 18, 1962. Boenzi, a photographer who for more than 40 years at The New York Times deftly captured aspects of city life from firefighters fleeing a falling wall to a man walking a goose, died on Monday, April 3, 2023, at an elder care facility in Newhall, Calif. He was 97. (Neal Boenzi/The New York Times)

by Richard Sandomir

NEW YORK, NY.- Neal Boenzi, a photographer who for more than 40 years at The New York Times deftly captured aspects of city life from firefighters fleeing a falling wall to a man walking a goose, died Monday at an elder care facility in Newhall, California. He was 97.

His daughter, Jeanette Boenzi, confirmed the death.

Boenzi’s photographs usually accompanied breaking news coverage and longer articles. But they also included many so-called day shots: photographs he took when he was told to be creative and find pictures that brightened readers’ days.

“There’s an aspect of Weegee in his photographs, that grittiness of New York, but with a lighter touch, less macabre,” Fred Ritchin, dean emeritus of the International Center of Photography, said in a phone interview, referring to the celebrated New York City tabloid photographer of the 1930s and ’40s. “Maybe even a New York version of the humanism that one sees in the work of French photographers such as Robert Doisneau and Cartier-Bresson.”

In July 1962, Boenzi (pronounced boe-EN-zee) left a steakhouse in Manhattan to rush to the Bronx, where a five-alarm fire was sweeping through two abandoned buildings. He found a perch on a nearby roof from which he snapped a picture of the falling wall, five firefighters looking as if they were about to run, and a sixth who had begun running. It lent drama to the Times’ short, bare-bones account of the blaze.

“When something like that happens in front of you, you’re aware of what’s going on,” he told the Times in a 2013 video, “but the more important thing is ‘get the exposure — did I get it?’”

He would continue to find moments. He shot a famous hug between Fidel Castro, the prime minister of Cuba, and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev when they visited the United Nations in 1960. From a high floor of the Empire State Building looking south, he took a front-page photo that showed smog eerily shrouding Manhattan on Thanksgiving morning in 1966, one of the city’s worst air pollution days.

He caught a woman who worked for the Communist newspaper The Daily Worker protesting the seizure of its records to a Treasury agent in 1956. He found four men calmly playing cards on a table on the other side of a fence from a garbage-strewn lot in the South Bronx in the 1970s.

Boenzi was present when a lion was coaxed with sticks to leave its cage and pose with a model at a press preview of the 1966 International Auto Show at the New York Coliseum. The lion posed calmly at first but then suddenly sank its teeth into the model’s left thigh; she was taken to a hospital for emergency surgery, which saved her leg. One of Boenzi’s pictures showed a handler trying to pry the lion’s mouth from the model’s thigh.

“If you asked Neal how he took the terrific pictures he did, he would pretend to click an imaginary camera shutter with his index finger and say, ‘It’s not this,’” David W. Dunlap, a reporter for the Times, and Librado Romero, a photographer for the paper, wrote in the Times’ Lens photography blog in 2010. “Then he would tap his temple with the same finger. ‘It’s this.’”

Neal Boenzi was born on Nov. 15, 1925, in Brooklyn, one of five children. His father, John, was a plumber. His mother, Josephine (Sabbia) Boenzi, was a homemaker. He enrolled at Brooklyn College but left early to enlist in the Marines, where he served as an aviation mechanic from 1942 to 1945.

He did not initially have any thoughts of being a photographer. But after his discharge, a girlfriend told him that the Times was looking to hire an office boy in the photography department for $30 a week. He was hired in 1946. He soon became a photo lab assistant and, not long after that, began taking pictures.

He returned to active duty in 1950 for about a year during the Korean War, spending some of it in the photo section of the 2nd Marine Division at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. He was hired by the Times as a staff photographer soon after his service ended.

Boenzi had a reputation for working very economically; he was able to cover an entire assignment with one single 36-exposure roll.

“He could get something in six frames,” Nancy Lee, one of his editors, told Lens in 2013. “I’d wonder why he didn’t take any more than that and he’d say, ‘Because I didn’t need to.’ And sure enough, he’d have six frames and five would be usable.”

Some of his best pictures were shown in an exhibition, “Vintage Boenzi,” at the Jadite Galleries in Manhattan in 2013. “He had a wonderful eye,” Roland Sainz, Jadite’s owner, said in a phone interview. “He could catch things that a lot of other people might have missed.”

Boenzi’s marriage to Lenore Rothstein ended in divorce. His second wife, Olga Marron, died in 1988. His third marriage, to Janina Sidorowicz, also ended in divorce. Survivors include his daughter.

Boenzi, who retired in 1991, found many of his subjects on the streets of New York City: a young Black boy standing and trying to balance on a wrought-iron fence; a construction worker beating up an opponent of the Vietnam War; people weeping on Veterans Day; a dozen Radio City Rockettes (and one man) sunbathing on what appears to be a roof.

“Anyone can take a picture,” Boenzi liked to say, as Romero recalled in 2010 in a second Lens post, “but are you a journalist?”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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