“Hold on, I’m coming” See you starting April 6.
For two days I’ve been sitting at my desk staring at the walls in the hope that some profound thoughts will jump out of my hat. And to no avail. I seem to have lost my way for the moment. I’m very sorry. I am trying to find words of wisdom, something exalted that will transcend the melancholy. The world is full of enough despair, and ugliness so next week I will write something from a more gracious heart.
In the Fall of 2013 I received some questions from a young photographer named Kohann Tensen in France that I felt where so insightful, and intelligent that I have often thought about him, and have often wondered how he became so wise.
After I finished his interview he wrote me, and asked me as a final wish to fill in one or two line responses to the following questions. They were to be spontaneous. He called this questionnaire “la carte sentimentale” or as he described it in English “a romantic passport”. He referenced Proust, and wished me good luck and thanks.
So in order to get me once again into the meandering stream of my weekly posts, I thought I might begin with my responses to his request. Here following is my la carte sentimentale.
the most beautiful song : My Romance
a music genre : Classical, but I like most music except rap.
a male singer : Pavarotti
a female singer : Ella Fitzgerald
an art movement (in painting) Hudson River School
a painter : Vermeer
a painting : Anything by Sargent
a writer : John Steinbeck
a book : Grapes of Wrath
a photograph : Spanish Wake
a photographer : W. Eugene Smith
a movie : Out of Africa
a film score : Days of Heaven
a director : Roman Polanski
a music composer : Samuel Barber
an actor : Cary Grant
an actress : Audrey Hepburn
a superhero : Superman
a superpower : contentment
an element (earth, fire, water and air but also sea, sky, wind, rain, thunder, fog, sand…) : fog
a letter : A
a number : 7
an animal : English Sheepdog
a tree : White Oak
a flower : Tulip
a sound : A Peacock’s Lament
a smell : Guerlains Jicky
a country : England
a city : Charleston, SC
a famous character you would love to meet : Jesus
an invention : automobile
a cure : cancer
a monument : Lincoln Memorial
a word : buoyancy
a verb : reclining
a habit : criticism
a relevant and insightful question : Who are we?
an essential thing : Light
an amazing thing : Trees
an enjoyable thing : Green grass
a success : living
a quote : “Thanks to the human heart by which we live”
a mood : Melancholy
a deep regret : Not knowing my father better.
I’m sorry but it seems like I can’t win. I think I’m going to only write about dead people, or myself. I don’t mind revealing my inner workings, but obviously others do, my daughter for one. So for the sake of family harmony I have removed this last post, but I will be continuing to write hopefully on a weekly basis. See you next week.
In 1988 I was once again asked by the H.J. Heinz company to photograph more of their most senior management at various locations around the world, but this time I was going to start my sojourn in Ireland, photographing Tony O’Reilly at his home Castlemartin in Kilcullen, Ireland.
Terry, my friend, my assistant, and my confidant, and I traveled first class one spring day on an Aer Lingus flight to Dublin.
As we settled back into our seats and began to quench our thirst with Irish beer, I already began to feel the need to dance a small Irish Jig to celebrate my newborn success at photographing the world’s CEOs.
The New York Times had done a front page business story on the photographs I had shot for Heinz the previous year, and new work was slowly beginning to come my way.
I was transitioning to a corporate world of the late 1980s. America felt strong, even boastful and powerful and you felt this in the advertising, and in a lot of the communications. Design and Advertising took risks that have not reappeared since. Money was to be found in global expansion, and the world felt full of opportunity. Everyone seemed to be running in every direction. Money didn’t seem to be the obstacle to most adventures as it does today. It was the best of times and it was the worst.
Against this background I began to have new adventures. I went from being penniless to making a nice living to ultimately as years went on to being quite successful.
I began this manic high with a new found energy, enthusiasm, and even my humor seemed to return. I finally felt I was wanted, even desired, and most importantly appreciated.
As the plane touched down one spring morning in Dublin, Terry and I were met by Dr. O’Reilly’s chauffeur, Arthur Whelan, better known as “Wheels”.
In a shiny black Rolls Royce we raced through the Irish countryside approaching 100 miles per hour with Terry, and I holding onto our seats in a desperate attempt to stay upright as we made our way through hedgerow after hedgerow of beautiful Irish countryside.
Wheels loved speed. It was as if “Odd Job” had been recreated in an Irish gentleman. He looked the part in his perfectly tailored hat, and charcoal grey suit. Just what you would have expected.
We reached our destination at Castlemartin, and after making our way down the long circuitous driveway, I saw a large tent being installed for the evening’s festivities.
We were greeted by the staff, and Mrs. O’Reilly, and went into the living room, and met Tony O’Reilly once again. Without blinking he said welcome Roddy, and said to me “The pictures can wait.” Tonight I want you to join the party, and tomorrow I want you to go with me to some friends for lunch, and then on to Dublin for a rugby match.
At the party there were dignitaries, Irish royalty, cabinet members, Irish movie stars, and food. I remember meeting a beautiful young Irish woman who trained horses for Dr. O’Reilly. She invited me to come to Tipperary after the shoot, but time was limited, and afterwards I was off to Mexico.
So the weekend went on from one festivity to another an I felt honored to be included, but still I couldn’t seem to get a few hours alone with him. He was definitely the man everyone wanted to be around.
Finally, as I was watching one of the trainers bring a horse around the front of the house from the stables, I saw the picture.
I ran inside the house, brazenly interrupted his conversation, and begged for just a few minutes. I grabbed a chair from the house and placed it in his front yard, a mere few hundred acres of fields, and asked him to sit. In typical O’Reilly fashion he stared me down like I was the competition in a rugby match. I tell him this, and he smiles, and says “I like it.” So do I, and I quickly take a few frames, and over time he grants me the time I need, and I take other pictures. But in the end this is the one I like the best, a man sitting peacefully in his front suburban yard.
So life continued at this pace for a number of years, and I slowly learned the ways, and means of many of the world’s CEOs. Some I liked, some I loved, and some I detested, but for the most part I found them extremely interesting, complex, and somewhat misunderstood. Terry and I had fun, and great adventures, but in the late 90’s it all came to an end as I began to transition to doing other work.
Slowly, as time meandered it’s way through the late eighties and nineties, I was allowed many opportunities to get closer to these men, and have a chance to understand them more. I think without realizing it though, I was also finding a way to get closer to the one man who I needed to understand the most, my father.
“Just when you think the gods have totally abandoned you, they send you a gift.”
In late 1986, finding myself in desperate need of separation and income I was offered, unbeknownst to me, the job of a lifetime. My life almost on cue began to slowly change fundamentally. The H. J. Heinz Company was looking for a photographer who did not shoot commercially, to go around the world and photograph the presidents of all their divisions. I was also to photograph Anthony O’Reilly, the Irish CEO, Chairman, and Chairman of the Board of the Heinz Company. He was often referred to by his contemporaries as the Holy Trinity. This was appropriate, for at the time, I was looking for any spiritual guidance I could find.
O’Reilly commuted to Pittsburgh from his large estate, Castlemartin, outside of Dublin, and this is a story of my initial meeting of one of my favorite CEOs of the 1980’s. This is also a story of my withdrawal from my life as I knew it.
Tony O’Reilly at the time was already a legend. He had been a world class Irish rugby player turned businessman, and had quickly made it up the ranks at Heinz to CEO. He was one of Ireland’s great contemporary figures, and was adored all throughout the country.
As we were just beginning to map a three month itinerary to photograph each president at twelve to thirteen locations throughout the world, I received a call from Mr. O’Reilly’s office one afternoon informing me that everything had changed, and I was to quickly get to the Marine Air Terminal at LaGuardia Airport by 4:30PM that afternoon, and catch a ride with Mr. O’Reilly as he leaves New York on the private jet, and fly with him to Ireland. I would be let off there as he continued on to Egypt, and I would make my way to London to start photographing the other presidents.
I would have a few hours to introduce myself, and talk with him, so that at the end of my journeys I could return to Ireland and spend a few days with him at Castlemartin.
As it turns out I made it on time to the airport, but as typical for the Holy Trinity he arrived very late, in large black Mercedes limousine, and uttered his first words to me “get on the plane we’re leaving”, and with those profound words of wisdom I began my new career photographing CEOs.
I boarded a brand new Gulfstream G4, the premier corporate jet of the time, the door closes and within five minutes we are airborne and rapidly begin climbing to almost 50,000 feet.
As we all start to relax (Mr. O’Reilly, his daughter Justine, his friend the owner of Guinness Brewery, and myself), and dinner is being prepared by the steward, I begin to talk to Mr. O’Reilly. He unclasps his tie, and begins to tell me about his day. He is in a very jovial mood. He thinks he has discovered a way to have a vending machine that can keep french fries fresh, and hot for long periods of time without becoming rancid. A Frenchman has discovered a process to prevent the oil from breaking down. He is going to put one of his french fry vending machines in every college campus in America. Heinz owned Ore-Ida potatoes so he would make a profit on the potatoes, the ketchup, everything. He was going to make a billion dollars on this deal, and he felt a lot richer that afternoon. Forget the beer, let’s get to the good stuff.
As the light begins to get very low in the sky, as we jet at almost mach 1 toward the east, I see there is enough light to take a quick photograph of the man of the hour, at work on the company’s jet. I ask him if it’s ok, and he says fine, and I take a few frames of a legendary master of the universe as he jets his way home after a days work.
We all agree to meet at Castlemartin in a few months where he will give me as much time as I need.
Off I go in Dublin along with Mr. Guinness, and Justine, and off he goes to Cairo to meet with Mubarak about some food deal in Egypt.
When I returned back to New York, and Bennett Robinson, the Art Director saw the few frames I shot on the plane, he said “This is it. No need to go any further.”
For some reason he felt this to be the quintessential portrait of a CEO of the 1980’s. I, on the other hand, thought this a simple picture of a man by a corporate jet window. But Bennett would hear none of this. He was sure this picture told it all. A powerful man at work, diligent, dedicated, energized. With Bennett’s words to my ears I started a new career that helped me extricate myself from my marriage, and my previous life. I began a whole new chapter of my story.
So I never got to Caslemartin that year, but I did the next as I was invited back to do more work the second year. There are stories to tell of the rich and famous, but this will have to wait until next week.
In late December 1960 standing there alone, terrified, being forced to speak a language I did not understand, (although I thought the characters beautiful and interesting) I think I finally understood that at a profound level, I was totally lost.
I already had a glimpse of this over the past months, as I was forced on a weekly basis to attend Hebrew classes in preparation for my Bar Mitzvah into manhood.
I had week after week recited passages that I did not understand or believe. I had learned to speak the language, but any Holy Spirit had eluded me. The walls around me seemed so baron and empty.
I had vigorously protested this whole exercise with my father, but he in deference to his parents, and with the opportunity to have a large lavish party, dismissed my protest.
Although we were only nominally reform Jewish, life in the late fifties and early sixties was segregated not only for blacks, but for the most part for Jews as well.
There were non-Jewish sports clubs, country clubs, neighborhoods, etc. and the Patrician WASP culture of America, although much kinder and accepting of Jews than Blacks, in their hearts felt a Jew to be ugly, crass, and second rate. Jews were very smart and cunning, but for the most part to be avoided as good close friends. They were a different breed with far less style and breeding than their Christian counterparts in the elite East Coast corridor of America.
My mother in her never-ending attempt to expunge Judaism from our home, mimicked the WASP culture to a tee. She could have put Ralph (Lipschitz) Lauren to shame.
We became a family that socialized with likeminded Jews but we all looked like we didn’t quite belong. My sister and I went off to boarding schools and we too appropriated the style and demeanor of our Christian associates. I learned how to out-prep the preppies in my dress and learned how to emulate the WASP culture and continually put myself up for comparison. I didn’t have the blond hair or the blue eyes. I didn’t excel at sports. I was second rate, but I still wanted to be seen past my Jewishness, past my curly hair, my nose, past this exterior, I was never apart of, and be accepted by those of style, and provenance for being acceptable. Although I wasn’t born into it, it was the only culture that felt right, and I wanted to be a part of it.
In later years I went to Chapel at boarding school daily, recited The Lords Prayer, sung the carols, gave penitence, but still found myself both culturally and spiritually on the outside looking in. I yearned for assimilation, something to be apart of, something I could believe in, and in the end although I came very close to membership I never felt I truly belonged.
So on this Easter Holiday, this Moveable Feast that intwines the Jewish holiday of Passover with the Christian holiday of Easter which celebrates the resurrection of the Son of God I find myself as always wondering what if ?
What if Jesus was the actual Son of God. How different our lives would be. This Good News would allow us to know our purpose, our reason for existence, and how to live our lives. We would be allowed to forgive our trespasses, and find peace and grace on this earth. His Kingdom Would Be Done.
But on that late December day on the eve of Jesus’s birthday, as I looked out over the congregation in search of my Father, although I think I may have seen him in the distance, I never was able to reach out my arms, my soul, nor lift my gaze, and find peace. I remained, as always, on the outside feeling very much alone.
I live in a very small, somewhat Bohemian community on the Hudson River about ten miles from Manhattan. We are so close to the city that if this was LA I would be living downtown amidst cement and shopping centers, but luckily it’s not and the metropolis of New York ends at the George Washington Bridge separating New York from the foreign land of New Jersey.
It is an eighteenth century community nestled into the Palisades (cliffs that lie near the river), with a great deal of history.
Although closely attached to the extremities of New York City, it is far far away with few unpaved roads, and a mixture of homes from the eighteenth century to the ultra modern. No two homes are the same in appearance or even scale. There are large estates, and tiny cottages all intwined into the community called Sneden’s Landing.
It dates back to the American Revolution, where George Washington had his headquarters a few miles from the landing and it became one of the main traverses of Washington as he traveled with his troops to cross the Hudson River. In fact the main lane is called Washington Spring Road as legend has it that he often stopped at the small spring to get water for himself and his troops.
At the foot of the Palisades lies the original Molly Sneden house, which used to provide Ferry Service across the great expanse of the Hudson River to the alternate side of Dobbs Ferry. Legend states that there existed a great love affair between Molly Sneden and William Dobbs.
For a time in the 19th Century at the foot of the landing Hudson River sloops were built at the edge of the river, and grand Hudson River estates were built to escape the noise and heat of Manhattan in the Summer.
Beautiful gardens were built and some truly majestic trees were planted that still existed until recently (See Above Picture), and like the homes of England each house in the landing has a name. There is the Ding Dong House, The Laundry, Cliffside, The Captains Lair, etc. and often houses have passed on to descendants or people move from one house to another as their lives change.
Throughout its history Sneden’s Landing has always been home to the eccentric and the artistic. In the twenties it was filled with writers and publishers, and today it is filled with movie stars, dancers, directors, theatrical lawyers, and some businessmen, and me.
Sneden’s prides itself in its slightly organic quality. Things ramble a bit, houses decay, stone walls are left to their own devices, and things in general are left to fall where they may. This is part of a carefully orchestrated aesthetic, that was original to the original landing but today is something only money can buy.
Although my house is very old (1840) it is very meticulously restored and it is a place of order and solace. When you turn down Washington Spring Road into Sneden’s Landing that is far away from traditional American suburbia. It is a small remnant of nonchalant country life, but when you finally enter the large black gates, the entrance to our home you have left the laissez-faire behind. My hedges are neatly clipped. My lawn, which at the moment is being vacuumed to pick up winter’s debris, is usually carefully clipped and manicured. My driveway is raked like a Japanese monastery, and I agonize over the quality of paint (buying fifty gallons of the last oil based paint available). Unlike the slow decay around me I am continually in odds with mother nature, defying its continual effort to dull my paint, give my grass heartache, and my stones a truly unkempt look. I never win this battle but as long as I’m breathing I will try to stand strong.
Like my photographs all is in its place, serene, peaceful, and balanced. I would think that when you enter the property you have entered the world of Rodney Smith.
I hope it is as inviting as what lies before, for like the original Sneden’s Landing, I would hope that I am one of a kind.
In the early nineties when there were large numbers of Masters of the Universe filling Wall Street, and power and money oozed through every poor of the cavernous streets, I found myself one morning in the midst of all this money and power waiting to meet one of the large scions of Wall Street to take his portrait.
As usual, his name will be withheld to protect the guilty, but at the time he along with very few others controlled billions if not trillions of dollars that coursed through every exchange throughout the world.
Wall Street was booming. He was booming and it was imperative to quickly get back to making more billions. He had no time for photography, or did he.
At this point, after photographing many of the worlds CEOs and Power Brokers, I had become very adept in getting what I wanted, which was time away from the office. If I could get these men (and at the time it was almost all men) away from their work and their office, they behaved graciously and seemed to enjoy the experience. We would get along very well and some even became my friends.
My secret was my little box. Enclosed were prints of portraits of their contemporaries that I had taken and quite often after a great deal of work and enormous effort I would either get to meet the CEO in his office or on occasion over lunch or dinner and show them the work I had done of their contemporaries. It was implied that they too could look like these other men if only they would give me enough time and the right place. If they accepted this promise like a flash of revelation hostility towards me would mostly dissipate, and the rest of the discussion would be the appropriate location and how much time I needed. The conclusion of lunch or dinner would go something like this. See you in London, or in the Bahamas, or in Aspen, or in Paris etc. If they were going some place I thought interesting I would tag along and they would usually find a day for me.
But here I was waiting in the most mundane boardroom imaginable waiting for our subject. The entourage that surrounded him never let me approach him before the shoot, and it had been determined that I would only be allowed fifteen minutes with the man of the hour.
I had learned over the years that all this play for power and control was simply fear. These men were very public figures and equally as vain as most celebrities. They wanted to look good but only if they could control the situation. They were afraid of something they did not trust or control. If in the end you could earn their trust they were willing to be truly vulnerable and powerful subjects.
So on this early morning in the early nineties, our subject walks into the room and says to all around, “I’m busy, so let’s get this over-with as fast as possible”.
Now, it’s time to provide some background music. Every job is filled with anxiety, some more than others. In this case, the marketing director of the firm was terrified that the CEO would not like the photographer as in years past, and he or she would find herself severely reprimanded for hiring the firm that hired me. The firm that hired me was nervous that if I failed in any way they then they failed too and therefore their job was in jeopardy. So as everyone stands quietly and watches you could almost feel the pores of sweat forming on people’s foreheads until, this ordeal would be concluded, and they could graciously slip away and sigh with relief.
So when our impatient CEO walks in the room and utters his comment the silence was roaring. Everyone stood motionless in fear.
I ask him quickly to stand in one place, to look directly at me, and I take one frame and put my camera down, and announce to him that he is finished and can now go.
He stares at me with shock and amusement and even a little annoyance and asks again if I am serious that this session was truly done.
I tell him “I believe he has a competent picture equal to the effort he has put into the experience, and I realize he is in a great rush (there are millions of dollars at stake) and I am a willing to accommodate his need for speed. If in the future he had more time and was willing, together we could produce something of far more substance, but for now one frame was enough”.
With this comment he laughs, thanks me, and walks out of the room.
Everyone left standing in the room doesn’t know whether to cry or laugh but to avoid this uncomfortable situation everyone quietly dismisses themselves and leaves as quickly as possible. Nobody knows what to say. Has this been a good experience or terrible. They are all praying this one frame was worth its weight in gold.
I too pack up quickly and am just about at the elevator door when our subjects’ secretary comes running over to me and tells me the CEO would love to see me in his office.
I join him in his beautiful mahogany filled office, and he begins to show me pictures of all his houses around the United States.
At first I’m not sure I understand but soon it becomes clear he is asking me to reshoot his picture at one of these locations where he would have more time.
It is never my intent to be arrogant, although I often am, nor to be tough or rude or inconsiderate, but what I will do is fight relentlessly for the picture. The picture is bigger and far stronger than me. It is almost sacred and it is worth fighting for. A portrait requires full participation by all involved to even begin to have the chance to produce something truly special. If one opens up to me I will give my heart and soul to them.
What our subject only offered at first was a handshake but in the end great portraiture requires an intimate embrace.
As early evening descended on some excruciatingly hot summers day in 1967, Niven and I were walking slowly through acres of walnut trees at his ranch in Hollister, California, when he mentioned casually that these acres of trees almost became a vineyard.
In typical Niven fashion, with a languid meandering drawl, which fit the hot dusty earth of California, he began to unwind a slow and bemused story of an almost wealth that was not to be.
California in the early and mid sixties was just beginning to produce grapes on a large scale for wine. Napa and Sonoma were in their infancy as one of the wine producing capitols and one of the largest producers of wine was Almaden Vineyards.
Almaden was one of the businesses of Louis Benoist of San Francisco, a descendent of French aristocracy, a uniquely extravagant and flamboyant figure of the late fifties and early sixties, he had five houses planted around California, huge yachts and planes, and a lifestyle that fitted a boastful man of means.
One afternoon, some months before our conversation, Niven received a call from a representative of Mr. Benoist, who asked if he may come over that day for a conversation.
It turns out, Mr. Benoist was expanding both his lifestyle and his property and wanted to buy Niven’s few hundred acres of mostly untended apricot and walnut trees and turn them into more land for Almaden to grow grapes.
Although the land looked fallow, dusty, and dry to me, and the ranch an unpretentious single level house that was comfortable but nothing special, it turned out the land was perfect for a premiere vineyard and Louis Benoist wanted it. Niven in his usual fashion negotiated an extravagant and incredibly prosperous deal for himself and with his very best gold pen signed that day a letter of intent to be finalized and notarized at Mr. Benoist extravaganza party at one of his palatial estates in two weeks.
As we reached an end of an allay of walnut trees my heart began to beat faster in expectation. If you think I’m a good story teller you should have heard Niven. Remember he’s a screenwriter novelist and if there ever was one who could spin a yarn it was Britton Niven Busch. Niven told me he was ecstatic at the thought of selling a few hundred acres of dirt. He had negotiated a huge sum and with it he had fantasies of a beautiful townhouse in Pacific Palisades in San Francisco.
Finally the evening arrives and Niven and Cheeta, his fourth and my most favorite wife, go to Mr. Benoist house for one of the most lavish and extravagant parties Niven had ever seen. And Niven, who was a product of Long Island extravaganza, had seen a lot. Remember this man was friends with many of Hollywoods most illustrious luminaries, and I could only imagine what his good times were like.
As we are slowly meandering back towards the ranch Niven tells me that all night Mr. Benoist eludes him. He seems to be continually avoiding any opportunity to sign the papers but finally at the very end of the evening Mr. Benoist tells Niven he’s too busy at the moment but they will get together next week to finalize everything.
I am now more impatient than ever and beg Niven to get on with the story and tell me what happened. He laughs and slowly unveils the remainder and the most important part of the story I’m about to tell you.
Firstly, despite numerous attempts by Niven over the next few weeks, Louis Benoist never signed the papers. Two weeks after this last extravagant and lustful party, Niven reads in the San Francisco Chronicle that Louis Benoist has been arrested by the FBI, and here is where this story like many other stories of the past, the present, and I am sure the future merge into the common denominator of greed.
With an eye for going from rich to even richer Louis Benoist began to expand his empire on credit, buying more businesses and more land, and this is where Niven came in. Louis Benoist was on a tear buying more and more land for his ever-expanding Almaden Vineyards and to raise the capital that all acquisitions need, Louis Benoist put up as collateral all the soybean oil he had stored in his tanks being held at Lawrence Warehousing, which I understand to be many millions of dollars.
He borrowed huge sums of money against this oil to go on his buying spree. The banks, to continually check and confirm their collateral, would send inspectors out to the warehouse on a monthly basis armed with a giant dipstick that they would place into the top of the tanks to make sure their oil was still there. Month after month they would confirm their collateral. It was just on the day that Niven was to get his papers signed, that someone spilled the oil and told the FBI that there was fraudulent playing at Lawrence Warehousing. Oh to imagine what could have been.
So the story goes like this. Over the last number of years Louis Benoist had been sucking dry his soybean oil unbeknownst to the banks. He did this, like all intelligent men of greed, by cheating those who supported him. He had placed a small and narrow tube down the inside of each of his tanks and slowly syphoned out and sold all the oil outside of this small tube. By the time the FBI got to him the tanks were basically empty except for a few hundred gallons that remained inside the tube to satisfy the bankers dipsticks.
So with this discovery the world of Louis Benoist, Almaden Vineyards, Lawrence Warehousing, and a number of other businesses along with the houses, the yachts, the planes, came tumbling down and just a few days after his arrest Almaden was sold in a fire sale to National Distilleries. Along with the sale all the hopes of what might have been for Niven were lost.
Niven the ultimate wheeler-dealer had been double wheeled and double dealed by the infamous Louis Benoist.
P.S. It has come to my attention that my story is correct but some of the facts are wrong, well what you would expect from a story that is 47 years old told to me by the greatest storyteller I’d ever met.