Tom Palumbo. Italian name. For a time there he thought about changing it. Tom Powers, he thought, would be better perhaps. “In those days, the only thing that didn’t seem so terrible about being Italian was Frank Sinatra,” he once said.

But then Mario Puzo wrote The Godfather and it hit big and Palumbo reckoned he didn’t have to be ashamed of his Italian roots any more.

Tom Palumbo. Sinatra fan, American immigrant, theatre director and photographer. The last is the man we’re interested in here. You don’t know the name? Well, maybe he wasn’t enough of an operator to be remembered.

Not like his contemporary Richard Avedon. “I wasn’t ambitious the way Dick was … Dick was the shooting star at Bazaar,” Palumbo’s third wife Patricia Bosworth reports her husband saying in her introduction to Dreamer with a Thousand Thrills: Tom Palumbo the Rediscovered Photographs.

Rediscovered is the key word. And maybe it’s about time. Because Palumbo could take photographs. He had an eye. An eye for fashion and celebrity and cities and the way the sunlight and shadow work in this world.

Born in 1921 in a fishing village on the Adriatic coast, he emigrated to America with his family in 1935. After the war he entered a photography competition in Life magazine, won lunch with the pre-eminent photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt, who connected him with the photographer James Abbe Jr, who was looking for an assistant.

By 1947 Palumbo had his own studio and was shooting ads for New York stores and fashion catalogues. It was another legendary photographer, Edward Steichen, then the director of photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, who sent him to see Alexey Brodovitch, art director at Harper’s Bazaar. With that Palumbo’s fate was set.

At the start of the 1950s Bazaar was the magazine. More adventurous, more artistic, more everything. It published fiction by Truman Capote and Carson McCullers and photography by Avedon and Lillian Bassman.

“We produce a magazine for well-dressed women with well-dressed minds,” said the magazine’s editor in chief Carmel Snow at the time.

Brodovitch, a former cavalry officer in the Russian White Army, was responsible for the visual look of the magazine. Inspired by the Russian avant-garde, he brought innovative layout concepts and bold visual imagination to bear on it. And for this he needed photographers with a fresh vision. When he saw Palumbo’s portofolio he told the photographer: “Stay! Photograph for us immediately.”

American fashion photography of the 1950s is of its time in two ways. Most immediately apparent are the tropes of the time: the hats, of course, so many hats. And the cigarettes.

But there’s something else going on too. It’s the lightness. The war is over, America is on the rise. And all of that – all of that excitement and humour and belief in the good life that’s surely just around the corner – is there on the page and in Palumbo’s photographs.

Fashion photography is always a romance. It’s in its nature. In the spring of 1954 Palumbo met a model, Anne St Marie. Every photographer wanted to book her. Her nickname was Garbo. It turned out that this Garbo didn’t want to be alone, though. They were both married at the time. They would finally be free to marry in 1958. In the meantime she became Palumbo’s muse. He would take her photograph again and again and again.

Theirs was a volatile relationship, Bosworth records. “I was temperamental, demanding, very self-involved,” Palumbo admitted. “We fought a lot and loved a lot. Drinking was very big in the 1960s. Drinking and smoking and smoking and drinking. I can’t believe we did so much of both.”

By then Palumbo had moved to Vogue. He didn’t enjoy it so much. Anne’s own career was fading out too and motherhood was taking over. Time to move on. Palumbo left the world of fashion in 1966 and began directing commercials and documentaries.

Eventually he would move into theatre. He didn’t stop taking photographs. He shot Mia Farrow as a teenager, Jane Fonda as a young woman. Taking portraits had always been part of what he did. Years earlier he’d shot the likes of Grace Kelly, the Beat author Jack Kerouac and Miles Davis (though his negatives of the jazz musician were never developed until 1991). During those post-war years Palumbo was breathing the very air of American art and letters and music.

Life goes on. Anne St Marie died in 1985. Palumbo met Bosworth in 1986. They had met previously in the 1960s when Bosworth herself was a model and long before she became a journalist and biographer. They moved in together in 1990.

“The man exhausted me with his enthusiasms,” Bosworth writes affectionately, “but it wasn’t always easy. He could be moody – we’d be laughing our heads off one minute and then he’d make me cry the next. He had a terrible temper and he was restless too.”

Perhaps that restlessness explains why he was not one to look backwards. He often mentioned to Bosworth the idea of making a book of his images, but only began to take the idea seriously in the 1990s, prompted by the author Joyce Carol Oates. It would take another 20 years and more before it came to pass.

Tom Palumbo died in 2008. He was in his late eighties. He’d lived a full life. And even after his death, photographs he had taken years before were being discovered, still glowing with the light of days past.

Dreamer with a Thousand Thrills: Tom Palumbo the Rediscovered Photographs, by Patricia Bosworth, is published by Powerhouse Books.