Milton Gendel was born in New York on December 16, 1918. After taking a Bachelor of Science in 1940, Gendel decided to turn to art studies, attended courses in painting, but above all he obtained a master’s degree at Columbia University under the guidance of Meyer Schapiro. He was his assistant from 1939 to 1941. At Columbia he met Robert Motherwell, and they became good friends until the outbreak of the Second World War.
Between 1942 and 1944, before embarking to China with the American Army, Gendel frequented André Breton and the other Surrealists that thanks to the intervention of Peggy Guggenheim had arrived in New York to escape the war. Those years with the Surrealists marked his way of seeing the world and representing it through his photographs. In 1944 he married Evelyn Wechsler, with whom he had already shared a flat at 61 in Washington Square.
In 1945-46 he was in China, Shanghai, then in Formosa. There he took part in the operations coordinated by the US army for the repatriation of the Japanese after their defeat. It is in these two years that Gendel begins to photograph, borrowing a Leica from a friend.
After the war Gendel returned to New York and worked as a freelance critic and art historian, contributing in particular to some publications on American Art. In 1949 Gendel obtained a Fulbright scholarship to return to China. But in that year the situation in China had changed a lot: the new communist government of Mao Zedong did not accept young American scholars, so Gendel was forced to change his plans and chose to come to Rome, where he had already been on a trip in 1939 just before the outbreak of war. His Fulbright fellowship finances a study on urban changes in Italian historical city centers from the unification of Italy to the Second World War.
Gendel arrived in Rome in December 1949. This date marks the beginning of Gendel’s life in Italy, and by choice or by chance, he never returned to live in the United States. In the early Fifties he frequented Mimì Pecci Blunt and, through Cipriana Scelba, director of the Centro Studi Americani in Rome, became a close friend of Bruno Zevi. In 1951, Zevi introduced him to Adriano Olivetti, who offered him a job as cultural consultant and charged him of the international public relations for his company. Gendel became friends of many young Roman artists: Tancredi, Toti Scialoja, Alberto Burri and Piero Dorazio, among others. He shot many photos in Rome and on his travels around Italy, mainly with a Rolleiflex camera, as his famous trip to Sicily with the American photographer Marjory Collins. A few months after his arrival in Rome he separated from his wife Evelyn, divorcing only in 1962.
In 1954 he enrolled in the Foreign Press Association in Italy as a correspondent for ART News and in December of the same year he published his long article “Burri Makes a Picture” which would give a strong boost to Burri’s painting in the USA. In 1958, from his relation with Vittoria Olivetti, two children, Natalia and Sebastiano, were born. But this relation does not last and after separating from her he married Judy Montagu in 1962. In 1963 he had another daughter, Anna.
During the Sixties he continued his collaboration with ARTNews and wrote for other newspapers and magazines, both Italian and foreign. His apartment in Palazzo Pierleoni Caetani, on Tiber Island – where he had moved in 1958 – became one of the most interesting places in Rome, frequented by Peggy Guggenheim, her daughter Pegeen, the Italian and international aristocracrats like Princess Margaret of England, dear friend of his wife Judy, or Prince Carlo Caracciolo of Castagneto. In 1971 he rented an apartment on the third floor of Palazzo Costaguti in Piazza Mattei and established his studio there. In 1972 his wife Judy died.
In 1977 he was nominated co-commissioner for the United States pavilion at the Venice Biennale. On that same year he held his first photographic exhibition at the Galleria Marlborough, Rome. Another photographic exhibition took place later that year at the Galleria Barozzi, Venice.
In 1981 he married Monica Incisa della Rocchetta and held an exhibition at the American Academy in Rome. During the Eighties he held two photographic exhibitions in Rome, at the Galleria Il Ponte (1983) and at the Galleria Il Segno (1986). In 1988 his dear friend Giovanni Carandente invited him to join the advisory committee of the Venice Biennale with Lorenza Trucchi and Marisa Volpi.
From 2004 on many other exhibitions followed, rightfully establishing him among the great twentieth century photographers. In 2011 he donated his library, the photographic archive and a part of his collection to the Fondazione Primoli in exchange for the loan of use of an apartment on the first floor, with a loggia on the Tiber, where he set his studio and he still actively works.