Richard di Liberto, expert photographer of museum art, dies at 82

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Richard di Liberto, expert photographer of museum art, dies at 82
In a photo provided by the di Liberto family, Richard di Liberto in an undated photo. di Liberto, who photographed the Frick’s collection of paintings, drawings, sculpture, decorative objects and furniture from 1974 until his retirement in 2004, died on April 1, 2020 at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset, N.Y., on Long Island of the novel coronavirus, his granddaughter, Nika Sabasteanski, said. He was 82. (di Liberto family via The New York Times)

by Steven Kurutz

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- As the chief of photography at the Frick Collection on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, Richard di Liberto was one of the “upstairs” employees — the curators, conservators and administrators who run the museum.

But di Liberto, the son of an Italian immigrant bricklayer, liked to hang out downstairs — in the basement billiards room, with the custodians, gardeners, guards, art movers and maintenance workers who shot pool in the afternoons.

A musician since his teens, he used lunch breaks to play drums at Jazz at Noon, a long-running weekly jam session in Manhattan.

And when his granddaughter visited him at work, di Liberto would lift the velvet rope and whisk her upstairs to show off the opulent rooms forbidden to museumgoers.

Di Liberto photographed the Frick’s collection of paintings, drawings, sculpture, decorative objects and furniture from 1974 until his retirement in 2004. He also shot interior and exterior architectural images of the museum and any traveling exhibits. His photographs illustrate many of the Frick’s books, catalogs and press materials.

Di Liberto died April 1 at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset, New York, on Long Island. He was 82. His granddaughter, Nika Sabasteanski, said the cause was COVID-19.

Richard Peter di Liberto was born Feb. 7, 1938, in Manhattan to Gaetano di Liberto, who emigrated from Sicily, and Mildred (Macaluso) di Liberto. The family soon moved from a tenement on the Lower East Side to Corona, Queens.

Di Liberto dropped out of high school at 17 and enlisted in the Air Force. After his discharge, he returned to the city and finished his GED, working a series of humdrum jobs before pursuing photography. He took courses at RCA Institutes and the Rochester Institute of Technology, apprenticed himself to fine-art photographer Scott Hyde and began shooting art and architecture for corporate clients, galleries and museums.

The Brooklyn Museum hired him as its chief of photography in 1971. But two years later, when a dispute broke out between museum staff members and a new director, di Liberto sided with the staff, resigned and went to work for the Frick.

Photographing art is a specialty, requiring the technical skill to show a variety of objects and surfaces in their best light. Using a medium-format film camera, di Liberto captured the subtle veining of a marble bust, the patterns of an 18th-century Flemish tapestry, the craquelure of a Goya canvas. He printed the images in a darkroom on site.

Outside of work, di Liberto restored old sports cars. He and Galen Lee, the Frick’s horticulturist, rented a garage in Queens with other gear heads.

“Richard had an obsession with cars and convertibles,” Lee said. “We’d go out there and figure out why they never ran right.”

Di Liberto spent his retirement at home in Beechhurst, Queens, with his wife, Irene di Liberto, and at their rural cabin west of Albany. The couple met as teenagers when he was stationed at Mitchel Air Force Base on Long Island.

“We would have been married 62 years,” Irene di Liberto said. “If you want to call it love at first sight, sure, that’s what it was. We always made a good partnership.”

In addition to his granddaughter and his wife, Richard di Liberto is survived by two daughters, Lisa di Liberto and Carolyn di Liberto, and a grandson, Harper di Liberto-Bell.

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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