Photo East was great. It always is cause I see lots of friends and colleagues I never get to see, and I had some good classes, but man, was it busy. There were folks sloshing around everywhere in the Crystal Palace of the Javits Center on the far west side of Manhattan. It really sits there like a space ship in the middle of kind of the only stretch of streets in NY, NY where there just ain’t much of anything else. That’s why I guess they can get, you know, like $5.75 for a bran muffin. Hey, some fiber in your diet’s worth it.
Whilst wandering through the swirl of ones and zeroes mixing it up in the Javits ozone, I wondered how many PPE folks might recall the guy the place is named for, Jacob Javits of NY. A tailor’s son who became a Senator, he was by all accounts a devoted public servant, a champion of civil rights and a remarkably decent man. He helped shaped NY and its future with intelligent stewardship, moderation and common sense advocacy, traits tough to find in the political hubbub of today. I don’t claim to have known him, but I did photograph him, in his waning days, those days when a case of ALS was inexorably gaining the upper hand. He fought the disease with grace and dignity, two traits that marked his political life.
Shot it in 1984, when I was really still a pup shooter. I can remember the light at camera left, a Norman 200B with a Chimera 3×4 softbox, Nikon F3 camera. I remember him being affable, though he really only communicated with his eyes. He was nattily dressed for the photo, though I suspect he always was, photo session or no. His silk neck scarf partially hid the respirator tube he depended on at that point. He attempted a smile here and there. I worked alone, and quickly.
The photos I shot that day won’t stand the test of time. In fact, they already haven’t. Average snaps of an above average man, encased in plastic slide pages for over almost 25 years. But I remember the day, and the man, and that human intersection that occurs on a photo assignment. I remember my battered 200B, very dependable, and the equally dependable F3, with its distinctive shutter noise. I remember, too, back then and now, the sense of boundless possibilities that start dancing in my head, most destined to go unfulfilled, whenever I pull a camera out of a bag. The adventure begins! Sometimes it ends gloriously, sometimes rudely, sometimes not at all, and sometimes with me just about begging for it to be over. This one ended simply, quickly, quietly. A job, nothing more.
But it reverberates, every once in a while, in my head and surely no place else, when I wander the Javits, past the memorial sculpture of him and his office chair, and then into the aisles, where in the midst of jonesing after the latest in high speed circuitry and supergig flux capacitors, I think of a small slice of a day in a life long since gone. For me, this has always been about stories, and memory.
My personal hero and mentor, Carl Mydans, former staffer at LIFE, impressed this on me. During a lecture, he put up a picture he made during the Cuba missile crisis of a U.S. destroyer forcing a Russian cargo ship bearing missiles to turn around on the high seas. The picture, by all measure, was average. A record frame from the air of two boats in the water. Then Carl, in his stentorian, made for radio voice, read from his caption book. He described the weather, the time of day, the hum and crackle of the radio transmissions, the stern voices heard on the ship radios, indicating there were to be no compromises, turn around or be sunk, the faces of the young servicemen with him watching tense history unfold a few hundred feet below them. Carl, whose book, Photojournalist, is a must read, described the completeness of the moment, down to the wind in his face, his exposures and lens choice, and this simple photo of a crucial pivot point of our time, all in his Bostonian accent, clear and authoritative.
(Carl grew deaf in his later years, so that amazing voice grew correspondingly louder. The day I was fired at LIFE, I bumped into him right at the juncture in the hallway where the business side and the edit side of LIFE joined. It was of course, a business side decision to ax a great deal of the edit staff. Carl grabbed both my arms in his hands and told me in no uncertain terms how despicable he thought all this was, how unnecessary, how short sighted, how etc. etc. My smile grew wider and wider as he grew more descriptive about the greedy bastards, because I knew those words and that voice were echoing all the way down the hall and into the oblivious sanctums of those who only see numbers.)
In the fog and burble of the Javits Center, I can still hear his voice.
A nice tone to start a cold sunday
I know you’ve heard this a hundred times Joe but if you ever give up photography you could easily be a motivational speaker!!
Joe, thanks for the touching story. I always wondered who Jacob Javits was – now at least I have a face and a name to go by – and I think you did pretty well with the shot.
A few blocks south on 34th street there’s an excellent deli by the way – my $10 got me an egg-salad wrap, a bag of chips, a bottle of water and a bottle of ice tea. You should check it out next year.
Richard Cave says
Nice to remember the ghosts of our past. I initially overlooked the photo that Carl took of the shipping. I have seen these types of shots by the dozen. however this is the only colour photo of the Cuban blockade that I have seen. This little ship preventing third world war.
I can go through all my photos and give a story about all the people that I have took portraits of. I think that is what keeps driving me, yes the technical side is boring as hell, neccessary but boring. But for me at the point of taking the shot you become part of that persons life.
Some days are hell, but a bad day out of the office is better than…
There are thousands of photos out there that are lost away in drawers in and albums never to be seen again. Think of all the lost stories out there …
Please Joe share more of your images good or bad, I like the stories behind them.
What a wonderful why to remind us of a great man, Mr. Javits, whom I only know thru readings. Thank you Joe.
Just having my morning coffee and reading your post. I love your photography and enjoy reading your posts as much as I enjoy viewing your photos. Thanks for the great photography and the wonderful stories that go with them.
Ian Lozada says
For Jacob Javits, my fiercely Republican mother cast the only Liberal Party vote she’ll ever offer up in her life. She said simply, “He’s a good man”, which is, I suppose all you can explain to an eight year old boy, but seeing your portraits of him, I understand those words a little better today.
In just a few days after losing one of America’s greatest story tellers, Studs Terkel, I smile as I read your words as I am reminded of what a great historian and torch bearer we have in you. Thank you for finding your way to sharing your stories I am enjoying very much and look forward to more for many years to come.
Justin Scott says
Two things really interest me regarding that beautiful picture of Jacob Javits.
1. I was born in 1984
2. I still have a Nikon F3 and light setup you used in that picture!
john fowler says
Among life’s greatest pleasure as one grows old are the wonderful memories an old photo can stir in one’s mind’s eye. Those are super images Joe and they’ll certainly stand the test of time. Thank you for showing them.
Ryan McBride says
those are some really good shots you took.. always impressive Mr.Joe
Great to hear Carl Mydan’s name brought up here… what an honor it must have been to know him – and to be mentored by him! Of all the images I’ve seen during my life, Carl’s photos shot during the Great Depression have made the biggest impact on me and my photography. Now I can see the connection between his work and yours, and it makes sense. Maybe one of these days I’ll track you down and we can talk about Carl over a couple of beers.
Great post Joe… thoroughly enjoyed reading that. Thank you.
Thanks so much for the great photos and for sharing your stories Joe. This touching story right here that you are a very great story teller yourself. I enjoy reading your blog and seeing your pictures as well.
Thanks Joe –
This put me one step closer to seeing the stories within the images I take. You were mentioned a few times as inspiration at the Maine Strobist meetup this weekend. We appreciate all that you are doing.
Mark K. says
Great remembrance, Joe. I, too, am happy to have now have some background on Mr. Javits. Beautiful portrait, too.
Joe.. sometimes I think you missed your calling. You’re a fantastic photographer.. but perhaps an even better writer.
Genaro O. says
It’s always nice to remember where you’ve been, in order to see how far you’ve come. The writing on this blog is top notch. Keep it up.
Joe, I looked up your site and came to it with the intention of asking you a question about the computer setup I saw you using in the SB800-600 DVD, but the first thing I saw was the picture of senator Javits. I was immediately stricken by it as it brought memories of some 25 years back when I had the honor of caring for him as one of his doctors, here in West Palm Beach. What I remember the most about him was his ability to express himself with his eyes, not just by the movement of his eyelids but by the mere expression in his eyes. ALS is a very cruel illness, it does not affect your mind but paralyzes you; dealing with it the way senator Javits did takes extraordinary character and courage, he did it with grace and an ever-present smile in his face. The image you captured shows him the exact way I remember him. Thank you for sharing this image, I’ll leave the computer question for some other time.
Mark Griffith says
Your writing always inspires me with your writing. Your photos do as well, but the man behind the photos and the words you spin those are golden.
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Jerry Seton says
Very informative blog. Much obliged.
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Scott Stebner says
I’ve said this before to you (in writing and in person) that I truly appreciate how you carry my uncle (Carl Mydans)’s legacy on. One of my biggest regrets is that he passed away before I picked up a camera. How I wish I could have picked his brain as I sat in our living room listening to his stories.
How I would love to pick your brain for some memories of my uncle.