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Vito Corleone: Chasing the gems of New York City on 18mm

Ukrainian-born photographer Vito Corleone left everything behind when he was just 20 years old to settle down in Coney Island, with just short of $300 in his pocket. An artist of unparalleled energy, Corleone was fascinated with New York since he was a kid.

From watching the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on TV to selling a clothing line that featured work by late street photographer Ricky Powell while working in retail, Corleone’s lust for New York only grew stronger.

In 2014, the Ukrainian-born photographer was able to make the cross-Atlantic move through a work-and-travel program as war arose between Ukraine and Russia. And in spite of the harsh reality of things, it wasn’t long before he felt like he belonged in the city that never sleeps.

ukrainian-born photographer Vito Corleone
“Summer Drip” by Vito Corleone supporting a friend’s clothing brand “Kentpacket”

As we talked, he vividly remembered the Haitian host he rented a room from upon his arrival: “She would make Haitian coffee every morning. She would cover me up with a blanket in the night when it got cold.”

And from little things such as these to the encounter that changed Vito’s life shortly after that, gratitude continuously emanates from him.

Ricky Powell and a soaring debut for Vito Corleone

Struck by the visuals of Ricky Powell’s work which he discovered through the clothing line back in Ukraine, Corleone immediately looked into the famous photographer when he arrived in the city. “I thought I should go to one of his exhibits,” he said.

But Corleone was still under 21, so he couldn’t get in. “So I asked outside if Ricky could come out,” he continued. And so Ricky Powell came out for a conversation that lasted over two hours and gave Vito Corleone his start in photography.

That day, Corleone took a picture of Powell right outside Club MK where Powell had captured the renowned portrait of Cindy Crawford in 1989.

ricky powell
Ricky Powell aka The Lazy Hustler, by Vito Corleone

That day the late photographer gifted him the print of his choice (with no hesitation, Corleone had one in mind: Warhol and Basquiat), and marked it with the following: “I like your style, kid. Do you.”

Though Powell passed away in February of this year, Corleone claims he still feels Powell’s spirit in the air, and hears his voice in his head.

“He’s the Godfather of my photography.”

Vito Corleone

“Grab your camera and go”

A plumber by day, Vito is a photographer every second in between, if not simultaneously. As unlikely as it may sound, the Ukrainian-born photographer explained how similar photography can be to his day job.

“In plumbing… you can’t lie to yourself. You can’t leave anything unfinished, or you’ll have water everywhere and who knows what other costly problem. It’s the same practice in photography. It’s not enough to just see what you see. You need to push what you’re doing to the end.”

Vito Corleone

“Well, maybe that’s just for life in general,” he concluded. The analogy left me speechless.

vito corleone
“Hustle and motivate” by Vito Corleone – advocating for freedom from street violence

It was humbling to hear Vito talk about his craft. He sees his body of work as a representation of the “universal journey” of living in the moment. Able to make the mundane feel special, while never failing to capture what is out of the ordinary, he insists:

“You need to be able to see things in the present.”

Vito Corleone

But the spontaneity in his work in no way suggests any lack of intention. The Ukrainian-born photographer just lives with an urge to share the way he sees things hoping to convey his excitement about them.

New York, New York

Vito Corleone strongly believes in respecting the history of the streets, knowing the sidewalks he walks, and steering clear of stereotypes. He claims:

“If you don’t know the city, you’re wasting your energy on it. But if you do know, then the city will give you the energy you need.”

Vito Corleone

Although his eyes find magic everywhere, I asked Vito if he had any favourite spots to visit around the city.

“Probably this old gas station in Brooklyn,” he said. “There’s always fancy rides, old models of cars… They were drawn by hand back then.”

The Ukrainian-born photographer has a great appreciation for how those showcase the flavour of their era.

ukrainian-born photographer vito corleone
“High stakes, low rider” by Vito Corleone shot in Coney Island

And authenticity comes across poignantly when looking at his work and hearing him speak.

Up close with Vito Corleone

“The closer you get the more interesting things become.”

Vito Corleone on working with 18mm

Vito recently pushed the boundaries of his creative process by taking one photo a day for 365 consecutive days. A challenge for the self, he recognized that it allowed him to continuously seek new perspectives, something he considers vital for his craft.

The Brooklyn-based artist believes photography can change the way people see things. It can connect us and remind us that while “we’re all so different, at the same time we’re all human.”

And it’s all those differences, that uniqueness, that Corleone seeks to share in a way that speaks to the world.

Since that day outside Ricky Powell’s exhibit, Vito’s camera has never left his side. It was Powell who told him “You need to be ready every day.”

Living by that motto, today Corleone adds: “You never know what you’ll run into.”

And with ambition and passion that soar higher than the city’s skyscrapers, Vito Corleone has much, much more for us in store.