John B. Monaco 1916 painting and study of the John Singleton Copley portrait of John Hancock. San Francisco artist and San Francisco city documentary photographer John.B. Monaco, (Giovanni Battista Monaco) (American, 1857-1938). Signed lower right "J. B. Monaco S.F. 1916." Unframed. In his early days in the city, John B.Monaco came to the attention of the prominent artist Domenico Tojetti and studied painting with him for several years. A writer commented on J. B.'s distinctive style, "One must see his studies of Napoleon, Washington, and Lincoln to judge this quality."
J.B. Monaco: The Dean of North Beach Photographers
by Richard Dillon, from North Beach: The Italian Heart of San Francisco, 1985: Presidio Press, Novato CA:
In a local paper, circa 1923, J. B. was profiled as "a Swiss photographer and painter of San Francisco's Bohemia." He liked that. He told his anonymous interviewer that, at the age of fifteen in Livorno, he got his first art lesson by mischievously ringing, repeatedly, the doorbell of an established artist. The man promptly boxed his ears for disturbing him. "But," added Monaco, "while he was 'massaging' my ears, my eyes were feasting over his roomful of paintings, and the result of it all was a lot of artistic and fatherly advice." The photographer told his interviewer, "For real pleasure, I say, give me a canvas, paints, brushes, pipe, and a pretty subject--if it isn't asking too much at sixty -- six."
Monaco was also pleased when the March 1938 issue of Focus, a magazine published by Hirsch and Kaye, the West's largest independently owned photographic supply house, devoted its lead story to J. B. and his work. The cover bore a halftone from a photo of his 1929 romantic painting of a Neapolitan boy. At eighty-one, he was in good health although only months away from his death. His years rested easily on his shoulders. But his pride would not allow him to admit that financial reverses had taken his studio from him. He told his visitor that he had decided to retire and had therefore closed his photography business.
Monaco reminded his interviewer that he had been painting long before he started taking photos. At age thirteen, in fact, he painted Vesuvius. However, he depicted the volcanic peak as it had appeared during the full eruption of 1833. He used pigments that he made of ash, charcoal, and pulverized brick. The rude but vivid canvas hung on the wall of his home. Today the painting is on display in Alessandro Baccari's North Beach Museum, on loan from Richard Monaco.
In his early days in the city, Monaco came to the attention of the prominent artist Domenico Tojetti and studied painting with him for several years. The Focus writer commented on J. B.'s distinctive style, "One must see his studies of Napoleon, Washington, and Lincoln to judge this quality." Obviously impressed by the still suave and jovial old gentleman, the writer closed the article by saying, "J. B. Monaco, photographer, painter, gentleman of leisure; we are proud to call him friend."
His grandson Richard today owns Monaco Labs, a motion picture and video laboratory in San Francisco. Dick also has devoted much time to the rediscovery and appreciation of the pioneer photos of the Dean of North Beach Photographers, his grandfather, J. B. Monaco.
John B. Monaco's legacy to his adopted city is the collection of hundreds of photographs, both portraits and North Beach cityscapes, which survived the closing of his studio and are now in the hands of his grandson. When Alessandro Baccari opened his North Beach Museum in 1978, Kevin Starr wrote an Examiner story in which he compared the Swiss's work with that of Arnold Genthe in Chinatown. Both men were portrait photographers by profession whose best work was done in their avocational urban landscapes.