Now I know to some folks, “wonderful day” and “New York City” don’t belong in the same sentence. But I have always loved the city, lived there for 16 years (not anymore), and have fond memories of the energy, the lights, Central Park, first runs of movies, and yes, even the muck, the squalor and the noise.
After 9/11, I shot a project on the world’s only Giant Polaroid camera that was known as Faces of Ground Zero. (Maybe in a future blog, I’ll talk a bit about it, and this singular beast of a camera–interior chamber of the camera is the size of a one car garage, for starters, and in 90 seconds you peel the backing off a 4’x9′ life size image.)
One of the gifts doing the project gave me is the lasting emotional relationships I have with people who came before the camera. One of those is with Archbishop Demetrios, the spiritual leader of the Greek Orthodox Church in North America. He graciously agreed to see me yesterday to present him with a copy of The Moment It Clicks, which has a photo of him in it.
The photo in question came from the assignment I received from the church to make the Archbishop’s official portrait. What an honor of an assignment! I got a chance to make a picture that will last in the annals of the Greek church for all time, way past the time they pry my D17xs from my cold dead fingers. (That’s ambitious, eh?)
We sat and talked for about a half hour. He is one of the most decent people I have ever met. He radiates forgiveness, warmth and a love of humanity in all it’s shapes and forms. I took a deep breath when I got out of the building and onto 79th St. Proximity to such goodness lightens anyone’s mind and heart, even a prone-to-be-cynical 30 year career photog. The irony of feeling such a blast of clear air in my head and my heart was that the Greek Archdiocese offices are directly across the street from former Governor Spitzer’s residence. The news trucks were still there, and you could smell the smolder of something that had gone terribly wrong.
Then I headed west, across the park and delivered a book to my mentor and editor, John Loengard. John was a staff photographer at LIFE who become the magazine’s DOP for a long time. We sat and talked pictures for about an hour and a half, and it was just remarkable. He remains one of the truly smart and perceptive picture people walking around. His book, Pictures Under Discussion, is a must read for anyone involved in photography. I took a class from John called “Editorial Concepts in Photography” at the ICP in 1977. 30 years ago! I was a copyboy at the New York Daily News. He gave us an assignment on dolls. This was a great assignment, and one of those beginning points. I made this photo of my mother’s hands with an Alexander doll. I have photographed hands ever since.
For class, I also started photographing a gentleman named Ivan Bankoff who would pluck his ukulele outside of the tonier shops on 5th Avenue, and lived in my building. (Should give you an idea of what a high rent place that was.) He would occasionally pull in a fiver from a well heeled passerby, and pull it out of his hat and wink as he pocketed it. He would regale me with tales of his days in vaudeville, a showman to his core.
John flipped through Clicks like it was a flip book, and then paused and looked at me and said, “You know I’m a fast looker, right Joe?” I smiled and reminded him of the first time I brought a carousel of pictures to him at LIFE around 1980. They were splashy and full of color, but utterly devoid of content. He never took his finger off the advance button except to pause and say, “You know I’m a fast looker, right Joe?” He also noted very pointedly that my controlled work, the work with strobe, had more “energy” than the more reportage pics in the tray. A harbinger of a career to come.
Still the same John, and by that I mean as quick witted and sensitive to nuance and detail as ever. After his review, he looked over and said he thought the book was terrific. Then he went on to say that the Steve Martin picture was “tilted” a bit, in a way LIFE had not done, and he liked it better in the book. Also, he was smiling at me but his eyes narrowed in disapproval as he noted, “You cropped Bernstein.” And he held up the gold man on the roof, and asked if I had lost the original. True enough, the repro of that picture is not as good as it could be.
This all happened in just a couple of minutes. We went on to talk of the field, and what photographers do now to survive, and he said, “This book is not your best work.” I readily agreed. It was not meant to be that. Some of the pictures I chose were failures on certain levels, or addressed field problems or mistakes. He gave, as always, good advice. He counseled me to think about the book. The book. The one I leave behind. “It may take you 5 years to do, Joe. You should think about it now.”
We rambled, and bitched in genteel fashion, which is what happens when two photographers sit down for any length of time. His voice has always been clear and consistent, and I have heard it on location often, sometimes in the back, but very often the front of my head. It was good to hear it again.