.Remembering Arnold Del Carlo, Silicon Valley’s Visual Storyteller

Arnold Del Carlo documented the valley’s transformation from orchard to suburb

One of the greatest photographers in San Jose history has left the building. In fact, many of the buildings he captured have also left. 

Originally from St. Paul, Minnesota, Arnold Del Carlo of Saratoga recently passed away at the ripe old age of 101. Via his photography from the late ’40s through the early ’70s, Del Carlo, known informally as “Del,” successfully captured the valley’s transformation from orchards to a vast suburban expanse. Before the tech industry was even a phase, Del Carlo captured mid-century modern buildings, facades and interiors in ways no one else in San Jose had ever done, whether it was the IBM building or a roadside diner. He depicted shopping centers, fast food joints, grocery stores and steakhouses. He took PR photos for real estate brochures. He also flew through the skies in a private plane and somehow managed to snap aerial shots of subdivisions in the ’60s, but in ways that made the landscape almost endearing. He was an artist that found beauty in the mundane.

“The thing about Del is everything he did, he did well,” said Heather David, a friend of Del Carlo’s who used his photos in her book, Mid-Century by the Bay. “He had such a zest for life, and was so genuinely enthusiastic about everything, that his photography just sings. I’ve always thought that if he’d been working in LA, he’d have a household name.”

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When the Ann Darling Shopping Center first opened in 1959, two palm trees rose through a cut-out in the overhang by the bowling alley and Del was right there with a keen eye. He captured the scene perfectly, with the BOWL sign emerging in the background. No other building looked like it, before or since.

A collection of Del Carlo’s materials now sits in storage at the Sourisseau Academy for State and Local History at SJSU, encompassing two filing cabinets, 12 binders and 102 boxes, totaling 83 cubic feet of stuff, but hundreds of photos are viewable online. There are entire groupings of shots, including San Jose State College, city government structures and then-brand-new San Jose business campuses like IBM and General Motors—both of which featured creative architecture that has long since been erased by politicians and real estate syndicates who prefer Chase Bank and Yogurtland instead.

The IBM building, for instance, didn’t attract just Arnold Del Carlo. One of his contemporaries, Ansel Adams, also photographed the complex in its heyday. As a nature photographer, Adams did the IBM shoot just for a job, so the results weren’t really the same. The photos are flat and uninspiring compared to Del’s imagery.

“Del was passionate about everything,” David said. “He made coffee shops, gas stations and bowling alleys sexy.”

David first discovered the work of Arnold Del Carlo around 2007, when researching Valley Fair history. Immediately thereafter she discovered a 1999 back issue of Metro that made extensive use of Del Carlo’s photos. David eventually tracked him down in Saratoga and realized Del Carlo had a genuine interest in everything. She could feel and sense the enthusiasm in Del Carlo’s photography.

“He was incredible at framing,” David said. “Whether it be architectural photography or portrait photography, framing is essential to getting the best photograph, and he could turn something so commonplace into an architectural masterpiece just by the way that he positioned his camera.”

Nowadays, over at the Ann Darling Shopping Center, one will not find 32 lanes or any bowling pins. The business succumbed to San Jose’s war on bowling alleys a long time ago. A stand-alone Walgreens now occupies the same space. There is no exterior overhang, no palm trees, no decorative concrete-block patterns, no piano bar and no coffee shop. Although you might still find a classic ’50s International pickup somewhere in the neighborhood, nothing else from that photograph remains. We’re stuck with a lifelessly beige Walgreens instead.

“I am not even sure Del could make that building look sexy,” David said. “But if anyone could do it, he’d be the one.”

Nevertheless, even though Arnold Del Carlo has left the buildings in his photographs, he will haunt the suburban landscape of Santa Clara County for years to come. Perhaps even forever.

Gary Singh
Gary Singhhttps://www.garysingh.info/
Gary Singh’s byline has appeared over 1500 times, including newspaper columns, travel essays, art and music criticism, profiles, business journalism, lifestyle articles, poetry and short fiction. He is the author of The San Jose Earthquakes: A Seismic Soccer Legacy (2015, The History Press) and was recently a Steinbeck Fellow in Creative Writing at San Jose State University. An anthology of his Metro columns, Silicon Alleys, was published in 2020.

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