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

This obituary is part of a series about those who have died in the coronavirus pandemic. Read about others here.

As head of photography at the Frick Collection on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, Richard di Liberto was one of the “upstairs” employees – the curators, curators and administrators who run the museum.

But Mr. di Liberto, the son of an Italian immigrant bricklayer, liked to hang out downstairs – in the basement billiard room, with the caretakers, gardeners, guards, art movers and construction workers. maintenance who shot billiards in the afternoon.

A musician since his adolescence, he takes advantage of lunch breaks to play the drums at Jazz at noona long-running weekly jam session in Manhattan.

And when his granddaughter visited him at work, Mr. di Liberto lifted the velvet rope and carried her upstairs to show him the opulent pieces off-limits to museum visitors.

Mr. di Liberto photographed Frick’s collection of paintings, drawings, sculptures, decorative objects and furniture from 1974 until his retirement in 2004. He also photographed interior and exterior architectural images of the museum, as well as all traveling exhibitions who were there. His photographs illustrate numerous books by Frick, catalogs and press materials.

Mr. di Liberto died April 1 at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset, NY, on Long Island. He was 82 years old. Her granddaughter, Nika Sabasteanski, said the cause was Covid-19.

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

Mr. di Liberto dropped out of high school at age 17 and enlisted in the Air Force. After his release, he returned to town and completed his GED, working a series of mundane jobs before pursuing photography. He took courses at the RCA Institutes in Manhattan and the Rochester Institute of Technology, apprenticed with the fine art photographer Scott Hyde and began photographing art and architecture for corporate clients, galleries and museums.

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

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

Outside of work, Mr. di Liberto restores vintage sports cars. He and Galen Lee, Frick’s horticulturalist, rented a garage in Queens along with other gearheads.

“Richard was obsessed with cars and convertibles,” Mr. Lee said. “We were going there and finding out why they never worked properly.”

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

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

Besides his granddaughter and his wife, Mr. di Liberto is survived by two daughters, Lisa di Liberto and Carolyn di Liberto, and a grandson, Harper di Liberto-Bell.

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