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Thanks for the Memories
2004 was not a great year from my point of view. For one thing, the Yankees didn't win the World Series as preordained, and what was worse, the Boston Red Sox did. Personally I would never be a fan of a club that can't spell it's own name correctly. Even worse, however, was that, despite my vote, John Kerry didn't win the presidency. This wouldn't have been such a great loss if it weren't for the fact that George W. Bush did. So all in all, I'm really pissed with Massachusetts, and am seriously considering not going to Tanglewood next summer at all. You have to fight back anyway you can.
But by far the worst aspect of this dismal year was the frequency with which I attended memorial services, for 2004 was the year of the departing legends. It was check-out time not just for some good photographers, but for some of the greatest photographers that ever lived, a pantheon of photo-gods: Eddie Adams, Richard Avedon, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Carl Mydans, Helmut Newton, George Silk.
When you think of the images that are their legacy to us your mind is flooded with memories - someone leaping over a puddle or a liberating general wading ashore; a woman dressed only in leather or a man dressed only in bees; children in Halloween costumes, or in a boat fleeing the war in Vietnam. In their own different ways and through their own different styles they have left us an intricately woven tapestry of life in the 20th century that will continue to delight, disturb, inform and inspire for many generations to come.
In fact, the photographers' memorial services weren't all bad. The richness of their achievements and the wonderfully diverse narratives of their lives mitigated the sadness of their passing. Eddie Adams, who was aware of the proximity of his death for several months, made a farewell videotape to the tune of Stevie Wonder's "I Just Called to Say I Love You" that not only moistened many eyes in the audience, but also left them relieved that he chose photography as a career and not music.
Similarly, the stories that were recounted illustrated for me the reasons why the profession is so appealing to so many people despite the frustrations that accompany it. One of my favorites was from the gathering for Carl Mydans at the Time and Life Building in New York. Carl was the bureau chief for Life magazine in Moscow during the height of the Cold War, and one day Irving R. Levine, the NBC news correspondent, came into his office loudly complaining about how much he hated being stationed in that city. He said that he didn't like being constantly followed by the KGB, didn't like the food, didn't like the party officials, found the environment drab and depressing. Carl looked up at the part of the office ceiling where he knew the inevitable bug was planted and said, "That was Irving R. Levine. This is Carl Mydans, and I love working in Moscow!"
As the evening unfolded and the speakers recalled other incidents that they had shared with the photographers they were memorializing, and the video presentations depicted their lives as photojournalists, I thought what an incredible privilege it is to do this job. When all's said and done, and after all the bullshit of contracts and copyright and struggling to make ends even come near each other, let alone meet, I wouldn't have missed my 13 years as a working photojournalist for anything, going to amazing places, meeting extraordinary people and shooting them. It is the promise of such a life that keeps bringing 100 young photographers to the Eddie Adams Workshop each year while hundreds more are turned away.
The memorial services were a reminder that the world of photojournalism is a community in a very real way. There were people there that I haven't seen for ten days and others that I haven't seen for ten years, and I can honestly say that I was glad to see them all. I don't know if architects or accountants share the same kind of camaraderie, but I suspect that they don't.
Maybe what bonds us is shared misery, the kind of closeness that comes from the mutual experience of being deprived of even the most basic comforts, including sleep, food and safety, or the frustration of getting work published and paid for, or all of the other hurdles that this annoying profession demands that we overcome. In fact it is more than all of these, because these are the ties that bind victims, and most photojournalists are anything but victims.
The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation interviewed me recently for a documentary that they are doing about war photographers, and the interviewer asked if I liked photojournalists and why. My answer was that I like most of them very much because they seem to live larger lives than other people. I love their self-reliance and their humor, their passion and their curiosity. I love the fact that they do what they do because they love to do it, and not because it will bring even the most successful of them any more than slight fame and very limited fortune.
Another great advantage to choosing photography as a career is that when it is time to depart, the legacy that you leave behind is more profound and longer lasting than any lawyer will ever know. An ex-suit is an ex-suit however much money he leaves his heirs, but photographers leave history and we are all their legatees. I suppose it's the photographers' final revenge on all those people who annoyed them in life, whether they were editors, media executives, Hollywood PRs or presidential advance people. The photographer who took the picture will be remembered long after the accountant who questioned his expenses has faded into oblivion.
Nearly 24 years ago a man, who was a good friend to many of us in the profession at that time, was badly wounded in El Salvador, and died in Miami a few weeks later. His name was Olivier Rebbot, and he was 31 years old.
I still think about him often, and when I do two images come into my mind. One is of him smiling in a picture that I shot on a boat ride we took together while covering the Republican National Convention in Detroit in 1980, and the other is one of the last photographs he ever took, in El Salvador in January 1981. It shows the body of a soldier killed in a guerilla attack. He is lying facedown in front of two murals, both showing angels holding banners, one of which says "Gloria a Dios," and the other "Paz a los Hombres." It is an image that to my mind sums up that nasty civil war that brought neither glory to god nor peace to men. If you want to know what it was like to live through it, or the neighboring conflict in Nicaragua, the revolution in Iran, or to be a child prostitute in Times Square before its Disneyfication, go to http://www.contactpressimages.com/portfolios/rebbot/rebbot_fs.html, where you will find part of Olivier's rich legacy.
His memorial service was the first that I had ever attended for a photographer, and when my turn came to speak I quoted a short poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay that seemed to capture his spirit: "My candle burns at both ends; it will not last the night; but ah, my foes, and oh, my friends - it gives a lovely light!"
The light that emanated from the photographers who died this year burned longer than Olivier's, and, like his, will not be extinguished by their passing, but has become part of the eternal flame of history.
© Peter Howe
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