by Susan Markisz
April 2, 2001

It has been said that a picture is worth a thousand words. Dan Farrell's picture of "John John Saluting at President Kennedy's Funeral,"  Eddie Adams "Moment of Execution," defining moments, to be sure. I'm not sure I have yet taken one of those pictures, though, granted, maybe I have, and it just hasn't made headlines yet, and maybe I have, and the picture was meant for a smaller audience.

Twice this past week, amidst photographers' increasing concerns for stagnating editorial day rates, contract negotiations, and the growing fury over intellectual property rights and copyright infringement, (all worthy concerns to be sure), I was reminded of the meaning of photographs from in front of the lens.

The first was a newspaper assignment, a mortgage closing on a house in Peekskill,  essentially a lot of paper pushing, with ten people in the room...lawyers, buyers, bankers, sellers, and the title guy, in a room around a conference table signing documents in quadruplicate. There was a lot of
good natured banter going on during the closing and everyone was at ease with my peering over their shoulders. I am as interested in getting to know about the people I am photographing as I am in getting their picture. Both are inextricably linked in my not too humble opinion, although sometimes, deadlines get in the way of my modus operandi. In this case, there was little interaction with me (nor should there have been in this case), until the end, when a couple of the people remarked that they were surprised  I had stayed til the end of the closing...I needed those handshake and congratulatory shots...and they thanked me for taking the time.  One of the lawyers asked me for my card and we chatted for a few moments about our daughters and other personal stuff and I got on my way for the hour drive back to the newsroom to meet a 5 pm


Angelo Infelice and his mother Patricia Alberelli signed 
documents to buy a home.  Their lawyer Jessica Bacal, 
is between them.  In the foreground, is the seller, James 
Dalton, and his attorney Marsha Kressin.
© Susan Markisz for the NY Times

The editor chose one image and told me I had done a super job, just super, he had said, and then added, "you made a silk purse out of a sow's ear and we're running it as this Sunday's Real Estate section lead picture. Maybe he was humoring me. It wasn't that great of a picture. It was a group shot, there was a lot of paper on the table, with people signing reams of documents. What can I say? The editor liked it. But that's not my point.

Several days later, I received a letter from one of the lawyers, which read in part: 

"Dear Susan: I want to thank you for an excellent photograph, which was not only flattering to me (an important consideration!), but also captured  perfectly the spirit and temper of a Closing.  The tone was set by your picture of documents on the table, with the purchaser calculating fees and charges, and with the seller figuring out the moneys owed, while the others not directly
involved wait at the back of the room. It was a wonderful, accurate depiction of 'The Closing.'"

I called her up immediately and thanked her for taking the time to send me the letter. It occurred to me that the photograph represented for her an acknowledgment of what she does, of what is important to her. This is no small thing. Most of us rarely get the attention of the Daily Newspaper. That I also managed to take a picture that was flattering to her (my job, no less) was 
icing on the cake for her.

It wasn't the picture worth a thousand words to the rest of the world, but in someone's world, it was a big deal. As photographers, as image makers,  our pictures have a unique ability to make people smile, or cringe at our depiction, or to make them cry at their significance.  Which brings me to my second story.

I recently got word that a friend was suffering from a rare illness. With each passing day, her condition worsened to the point where we knew the outcome was not going to be good.  The details of her suffering were unfathomable and left many of us, friends and neighbors unable to  comprehend what was happening to her. She died a week ago today, on a Monday morning, at age 47, leaving behind a husband and two daughters ages 14 and 17, and many still unbelieving and grieving friends and neighbors. In the midst of the last weeks of her life, she had also endured the loss of her own mother.

For 19 years we had raised our children together, although she and her family had moved from our co-op to a house in the neighborhood a few years ago. There were quite a few of us back in the days when our children were little, all young mothers, who learned from each other about motherhood and the balance we all sought in our careers, some as stay-at-home moms and others, as working-outside-the-house moms. We spent afternoons at the park in between our kids' meals and naps, catching up with each other on long summer days by our pool, where we  watched our children learn to swim, and where we learned about life and where we learned about each other. 

A few nights after the funeral, my  husband, daughter and I went to their house to pay a Shiva call. I spent some time looking at the Bat Mitzvah album of their youngest daughter, which had taken place a year ago this week and I was absolutely struck by what I saw.  The pictures were beautiful of course. The photographer had done an exceptional job.  Etta looked radiant in each and every picture. There was a light coming from her from within and without. The photographer had captured the essence of Etta in these photographs in pictures with her husband, with her daughters, with her mother, with friends, and in each and every one, she was happy and radiant.   He couldn't have known that a few weeks later her life and that of her family, would be forever transformed by an illness that would take her life not a year later. Pictures aren't memories, but
they represent a moment in time which is fixed in heart and mind, moments which might seem too painful to look at with grief still so palpable and raw. But the pictures, for me were astonishingly beautiful. I  don't know if the photographer will ever know the importance of those photographs. 

It has been said that we should all be living each day as if it's our last. For those of us out taking pictures, we ought to be mindful of the significance to others, of what we do. Every photograph we take may not have great meaning to the world at large, but to the individual in front of our lens, the moment at which we press the shutter, is a defining moment, for them.

Susan B. Markisz
April 2, 2001

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