If the word “globetrotter” could be authentically applied to anyone, it would have to be Tom Nebbia. His career as a freelance photojournalist spanned more than 40 years, took him from Tonga to Spain to Hollywood and far beyond, and put him face-to-face with such disparate personalities as Nikita Khrushchev and John Wayne.
This month, 30 portraits from those peripatetic years will be on display at the Henderson County Public Library, in the exhibit “Faces.” All the photographs on display were shot for National Geographic, where Nebbia was hired as a staff photographer in the early 1950s when the then-governor of South Carolina, James Byrnes, recommended him to the Geographic’s editor, a personal friend. “Two weeks later, I was asked to do an assignment for them in Charleston,” Nebbia recalls. “Mind you, the pictures I took there were awful, but they liked them, and they were published. Then I was hired on staff, caressing the world in my arms.”
During his 25 years shooting for National Geographic, as well as for the London Times and Paris Match, among other world-class publications, Nebbia hobnobbed with Charles Lindbergh in Tonga while spending a few weeks with Laurance Rockefeller, helping prepare Rockefeller’s book on the South Pacific islands. He hung out with John and Jacqueline Kennedy while shooting interiors of the White House. And he lunched with Walt Disney, with whom Nebbia spent a month.
“He told me one day at Disneyland that he was once a man with great imagination but no money,” the photographer remembers, “but that a man with no money has no imagination.” Disney was referring to Snow White — the animated film that set him on his career.
Alfred Hitchcock liked Nebbia and his wife Gitte so much that he invited them to lunch one day at Chasen’s, the star-studded Beverly Hills restaurant of years past. “We sat close to Natalie Wood and her husband Robert Wagner, who were having a heated argument,” Nebbia recounts. He later shot a famous photograph of a playful and rotund Hitchcock biting into a book as if it were a sandwich.
An especially prized photograph is a candid of Picasso, whom Nebbia had been pursuing for a formal portrait for some time. “I was shooting a story on the French Riviera at the time, but he refused my request for a picture,” Nebbia says. “But the very next day, while shooting a bullfight in a small town, the matador presented his cape to a leathery figure seated in the stands, who turned out to be Picasso. I was able to take his picture whether he liked it or not.”
Now well into his eighties and enjoying a quieter life in Mills River, Nebbia and his hundreds of photographs capture a world retreating more and more rapidly to the deeper recesses of history.
“I wouldn’t have it any other way,” he says, referring to his tranquil surroundings in the Blue Ridge Mountains. “Because when I see what has happened to the world I once knew as a place of wondrous beauty, I cringe.”
“Faces” will be on display at the Henderson County Public Library (301 N. Washington St.) from May 20 to June 20. 828- 697-4725