Sing Along with Me – The Camp Experience

In the urban centers of America, there is the annual summer ritual for school children of Camp. Parents left with the notion, this almost free-floating anxiety, of children Home Alone for two to three months with no schedule is overwhelming and downright unacceptable.

So, someone in the great spirit of the American frontiersmen, created Camp, as a great learning and socializing adventure for all these wanderlust children. The urban elite would learn from the great outdoors, smell the pines, eat by campfire, and sing the summer songs of camp.

Those of us born in the urban jungle of Manhattan were then being shipped off to the tranquil, mosquito infested backwoods of New England for fun and sport.

There was only one problem for me: I hated camp. I hated competitive sports, I hated the heat, most of the kids, the embarrassment of undressing in front of hundreds of boys, I hated the discipline, I hated camp.

In fact, if I look at my ten to twelve years of camp with a huge squint to try and turn reality into nostalgia, I can’t remember one moment after my first year where I was happy, except for the day I was leaving to go home.

Holden Caulfield’s alienation from society had nothing on me. The only time I can remember thinking that this was at all valuable was in Lariat class, where we would twist plastic twine in colors to make Lariats for whistles I never needed.

When I was very young, seven years old, I was probably the only child left back in camp. I repeated my tinker year twice.

This is the week that children from all over America reunite with their families from their summer at camp. It was the week of the summer I liked best. Finally free from one burden before the onset of the next.

Camp was actually very important to my pictures. There was, after my first year at camp, a basic shift in me, a cataclysmic trauma which has continued to the very present. I am still living a post-traumatic syndrome that I first recognized in camp in the Summer of 1953.

Next Tuesday, instead of recollecting all the joys of summer, I will begin the story of my fall from grace. After the Summer of 1953, as the summer heat turned to the cool of autumn, I found my life radically changed. The Summer of 1952, the summer of joy and friendships was over, the harvest had passed, and I was not refreshed. Stay tuned.

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Driving Me Crazy

One of the very few ways my father and I communicated was over our love of cars. I must admit, my father, despite his disappointment in me, was never at a loss for words for a beautiful car, or a beautiful woman. Put the two together, and something almost extraterrestrial could occur.

So it was no surprise, considering his vast wealth, that he always had an array of beautiful, highly polished auto machines.

When I was very very young, I can remember we used to tool around town in an MGT convertible. Before the words MG were known to anyone but true automobile aficionados. From there, in the late 1950’s, he graduated from sports to luxury, and would always have a black Eldorado convertible, with red leather upholstery. But then all hell broke loose in 1960. My father decided to get really serious about his cars. He had reached his early 40’s, and it was time.

I can remember one afternoon going with him to the showroom. He agonized over the color and the leather, and 6 to 8 months later, a beautiful Rolls Royce Phantom was delivered to our house. He inspected it proudly, and out of nowhere, a man in a perfectly pressed apron arrived with a small container of paint brushes, and together he and my father discussed the various options to personalize his new machine with delicate stripes of paint, and of course, detailing his doors with his signature SS, his initials.

It was at this point that Alex appeared. We already had Martin and Fritze to partially help maintain the house, cook, and drive, but with the arrival of Alex, my automobile life was complete.

Once a week, all of my father’s cars were washed, waxed, buffed, and shined until even the reflection of me, an unattractive, ungainly boy, began to look triumphant. I don’t know what Alex did, but if women could package it, he would have died richer than Bill Gates.

When you open my father’s door, Mark Cross (a famous leather store at the time), did nothing to compete with the aroma of voluptuous leather and history. His car was like driving within a leather suitcase.

But enough about all this, let’s get to the point of the story…

One Summer’s day, in the Summer of 1964, when I had just received my driver’s license a few months before, my father told me to get up, and that he wanted to take me someplace. By this time, the family had three cars: my father’s, my mother’s, and the chauffeur’s wooden station wagon, which was used for errands. How many more cars does a small family need? I was content driving around in our station wagon.

He wouldn’t tell me where we were going until he pulled up in front of a Jaguar dealership, in a small town near where we lived. He told me he wanted to get me my own car to celebrate my ability to drive, and he could not think of anything better than an XKE, British racing green, tan upholstery sports car. For a 17 year- old boy who loved and lived cars, this was my dream come true. The car, the color, everything was perfect, until…

I of course wanted the convertible with a 4-speed manual transmission to complete this masterpiece. He though, while looking at the car, unexpectedly decided he might want to drive it (which of course he never did), and therefore wanted the hardtop with an automatic transmission. I begged and pleaded with him to have some empathy for my ego needs, but typical of my father, once he decided, there was no turning back.

I know this must sound like a spoiled brat talking, but literally and figuratively, the air was let loose from the tires. This gem, this once in a lifetime beauty, this car that girls would swoon over, this car that would make this half of a boy begin to feel like the real thing, was here one moment, and lost the next. He had driven me right out the door.

We got the car, and I grew to love it, and always took perfect care of it. But like many other things with my father’s fortune, it was easily given, but somehow he kept control, and never was able to let go completely.

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In the Land of Light

Many years ago, when I was just beginning as a photographer, I received a wonderful and unexpected gift: a fellowship to live in Jerusalem for close to 100 days.

I’ve written anecdotes about some of my experiences and thoughts about this period in my first book, which is entitled In the Land of Light, and Elie Wiesel was kind enough to write an introduction, but there are still a few thoughts and stories which to this day that resonate with me, which I feel somehow reflect upon my pictures today, which are quite different visually, but are still similar in their intent.

I remember some years ago looking through a book of Cartier-Bresson’s photographs entitled The World of Henri Cartier-Bresson, published in 1968 (to this day remaining one of my favorite photographic books) and being curious about what picture he had chosen from Jerusalem for this publication.

As I found the one picture in the book taken in Jerusalem, I immediately recognized the spot in which it was taken. I realized at some point during my stay in Jerusalem I had been there.

For some time, I could not remember why this place was so familiar, because for me the location was of little importance in Cartier-Bresson’s picture.

One afternoon as I was under construction in my home, I was discussing with someone about how what lies behind the walls is as important to me as what lies outside. As if struck by lightning, it came to me. I now knew about the place where Cartier-Bresson had photographed years before me.

You see, we were both standing in the exact same spot, but it had taken me some years to realize that we had taken two totally different photographs from the same place. He was interested in what was transpiring on the outside, and I was interested in what was illuminated on the inside. You see, I was standing right in the doorway in Cartier-Bresson’s picture to take the picture you see above.

Like the interior of my home, what lies within is ultimately as important as what lies without.

Today, my pictures perhaps look less concerned with what lies beneath and within than they did when I was young, but don’t let the clothes fool you. I am still putting together the pieces, organizing the puzzle that is me, and looking as deeply as ever in my pictures, at a life that has to come from somewhere within.

PS: If anyone is interested, a few new copies of In the Land of Light, published by Houghton Mifflin 1983, are still available at the studio through my website here. This book is long out-of-print.

PPS: I’m off to drink some Sangria, relax my tired bones, and go to an exhibition of my work in Spain. The blog will return and reunite all my disassembled parts in two weeks from today. Buenos noches and good luck.

Jerusalen 1967

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Moving Forward

I have an extraordinary daughter named Savannah, who will at times demonstrate how hard it is to move forward.

She is extraordinarily capable of focusing and attaining what lies far ahead, but seems totally perplexed by what lies directly in front.

At dinnertime we have a nightly ritual. It usually proceeds like this. I work at home all day, and my wife works in New York City. She commutes on a daily basis, and as my wife knows how to work very hard, she often finds herself leaving early in the morning, not to return till close to eight in the evening.

A typical dinner might look like this. My daughter and I are starving, and my wife is too tired to cook. We all decide to go out to dinner to a local restaurant. Luckily, we live in an area where there are a fair number of choices. As we eat out often, we all know intimately the choices.

It is here at this interchange, at this moment in time, that all hell breaks loose. My daughter needs to look backward, before any forward movement can commence.

On most nights, my wife and I have learned over the years to refrain from any suggestion as to where we might go. We simply ask “Where would you like to go to dinner Savannah?” It seems like a fairly simple, straightforward question, but it sets off a nightly tempest.

Her response is “I don’t know,” which also seems fairly harmless and direct in its response. I might then take the lead and make a suggestion of a specific place, which would be countered with a higher-pitched “I don’t want to go there!” I then may, usually mistakenly, suggest a different alternative, which will be met by even more drama and characteristically annoyed regard, with another “I don’t want to go there!!” at which point, if I’m a little smarter, ask Savannah, “Where do you want to go?” Immediately, she will say “I don’t know” again, which basically has led us back to the beginning, or in effect nowhere.

This interchange can continue for some time, rising in pitch and plumage, usually only receding from exhaustion, and the now even more desperate need to eat.

Its quite amazing that by trying to move the horse backwards when he wishes to move forward gets everyone nowhere fast.

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“Waking Life”

Having just seen the enigmatic movie Inception, which has done nothing for my understanding of dreams, either as those developed while in the state of sleep, or even as a metaphor for some hope or aspiration in life, I thought it only fitting to discuss one particular dream that has plagued me since I was a young boy. It has recurred often throughout my life in various forms, but always upon waking, the same anxiety has consumed me. BUT… slowly I am beginning to feel the purpose of the dream may have a new answer.

Ever since I can remember, being seriously tested, either in my education or in my personhood, I have on occasion woken from a dream in total despair. At night, in the dark somber recesses of my mind, the true me, whoever that may be, has revealed itself over and over again, for 50 years. There I am in a classroom, waiting to be evaluated, tested, or examined, and I find myself feeling unprepared for the task. I also feel unexceptional in my abilities, and basically incompetent and unattractive. In the dream, I feel if I only had more time, more knowledge, more wisdom, and more vitality, somehow I would be able to succeed. But the clock is ticking, but soon the real me will be revealed, and I will fail miserably in my dream. In the dream, though, I never get to this place. I always wake with the fear of expectation. The actual exam never takes place.

I wake up in a total sweat, convinced that if one were to evaluate me, like the dream, I would fail miserably. If I were to stand naked before you, without my degrees, my wealth, my success, my clothes, I am nothing but a total failure. You would look right through me, deep into my soul, and see the total failure I might be.

Oh, in real life I can play the game of hide-and-seek, but at night, when sleep has slowly unveiled my external appearance, this person is revealed. I used to hate (and to some degree still do) doctors, because as they probe and examine me, nothing good can come from that. They will only find my faults, my frailties, and my sickness. Don’t look too closely, because as I stand before you, what am I?

So for 50 years, I have viewed these dreams with despair, because in my heart, I have believed them as the truth. But as I have gotten older, and begun to slip from these surly gates, I have slowly begun to leave this inception behind, and find some new meaning to these dreams. Maybe they represent not who I am, but rather my own attempt to keep me grounded (down, both physically and mentally), and to prevent me from seeking what is real and not a dream. These dreams represent a big part of me, but there is also the other part that is just learning it can fly.

For information on the new book, take the leap and visit it here, where The End is just the beginning.

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Pooches and Woofs, Part 2

In the matter of two years, my life, at the age of five or six, went through significant trauma and change.  One would think at my current age, post-traumatic syndrome would have worn off.  But despite years of therapy, I am very familiar with the symptoms but only vaguely clear of the exact cause.

The best I can remember, at age five or six, was that I was on top of the world.  We lived in a modest house on a comfortable street with many children my age.  Despite my size and weight, I remember acting strong, powerful and happy.

Then it all becomes a blur.  My mother, in 1953, was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 31.  I of course do not remember this, but what I do remember is a woman who doted and cared for her young son, disappearing.  She went off to bed for a year or so, isolated, alone and depressed.

You must remember, my father was in the fashion business where looks triumphed over character.  Where life was evaluated by appearance.  I guess for my mother, the stigma in the early ’50s of ones worth, beauty and attractiveness had been destroyed by her illness.  She was complete before and now something fundamental was missing.  This illness affected her for the rest of her life.  People did not discuss these issues publicly, nor privately, in the 1950s.

So in conjunction with my mother’s illness, my father went to work harder and basically disappeared from the family for a few years.  My mother and father both left me alone with the help.  Over a short period of time, he became much more successful and within a few years, we moved to a very large, grand house with lots of property and no one around.  I was even more alone than before.

At the same time, as my mother and father were renovating this house (this must have been my father’s attempt to bring my mother back to life), he surprised me with buying the two dogs, Golly and Frypo, which I described last week.

They became my best friends.  It must be noted that then, and to this day, I sleep with the door open.  In those days, I felt very isolated and had become more and more fearful.  I needed and wanted a way out.  I was slightly claustrophobic and for all these reasons, would never be closed in a room with all the doors shut.  (To this day, I am still frightened of elevators, which feel contained and like living coffins, to me).

Anyway, one night at about three in the morning, I woke up and was hardly able to breathe.  I couldn’t see more than three feet in front of me.  I was terrified and somehow was able to find my parent’s room and wake my father.

He immediately got wet towels for all of us to put over our mouths and was able to find his way downstairs and open the front door.  He called the fire department and somehow everyone else in the house was quickly awoken.

Golly and Frypo were trapped in the basement and everyone in their concern forgot about them except me.  I tried to run into the house to open the door, but the fireman would not let me go in.  Instead, I told them where they were and the fireman went in and brought out two very scared and shaken dogs.  All of us, luckily, survived this ordeal.

In the end, we were all alright, but we were told within another half hour we may have died of smoke asphyxiation.

The next day I went to school as a hero.  It would be one of the few days over the next years where I felt confident and capable.  As time went on, and I lived in this large, isolated house, it was often Golly and Frypo that would help bring me out of my room.  Somehow, these dogs and myself having gone through this experience had created a bond that was original to the three of us.  It’s hard to explain how dogs and humans understand each other, but together we always tried to help each other out.  For a young boy in need of attention and love, Golly and Frypo were a good part of the solution.  They would bring me out of the dog house to play and once again be happy.

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From left:  Frypo and Golly.  Circa 1960, Long Island, New York.

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Pooches and Woofs

There are two types of dogs in the world that I’m aware of: there are Pooches, and then there are Woofs. This is a very important distinction, and has had a seminal and profound effect on my life. I am definitely a woof man. These are heroic, loyal, courageous dogs, that will protect and defend the honor of any young boy who has loved, fed, and smooched the woof on their noses with affection.

This all started in the Summer of ’59. My father, whom I have often mentioned with fear and admiration, had always, since I was born, decided that it was important for any son of his to have a dog; but not any dog. He chose the rarest and most unusual dog he could find: an English Sheepdog. He always wanted what no one else had. So from 1949 until 1959, we were either the envy or disdain of the neighborhood by having its only English Sheepdog, whose name was Golly.

In 1959, when I was 12, Golly died of old age. Unbeknownst to me, my father had decided, as he had acquired more wealth and power, to turn the business of a dog up a notch. He had somehow found out who had bred the original Shaggy dog, and decided that it was only fitting that the family should now possess the offspring. So one Summer’s morning on the beach, where you would usually find me and my father, he told me that it was time to go, and off we went in the family station wagon. This is a car he never drove, so I knew something was amiss. Off to Kennedy Airport we went (which in those days was called Idlewild) to pick up what he termed a “surprise.”

The surprise, to my delight, was not one, but two baby Sheepdogs, shipped from a kennel in California. Immediately, I named the one that looked the closest to the original Golly, “Golly,” and the other came with the name Frypo, which we kept.

These dogs grew into small Wooly Mammoths who were both funny and affectionate to me, but usually only me and the help.

My mother and my sister, who basically could care less about animals, were terrified of these two monsters, but I knew that true love was a bond between a boy and his dogs.

On occasion, as I was quite small and frail, I would trick my mortal enemies into chasing me home, only to be met by two of the largest and most protective animals they had ever seen. Don’t mess with a little boy who has two large dogs. I may have looked weak, but Golly and Frypo gave me strength.

As my parents were often gone for months at a time, it was Golly and Frypo who were my best friends. As they often had saved my body and limb from scary bullies, it was only fitting that I return the favor. Next week, I’ll tell you more of how I returned the favor and created a bond that would never break.

PS: Although the dog pictured above is indeed a Woof, he is not the legendary Golly.

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We’re Havin’ A Heatwave

I must be in my tropical mood. I’m sitting here in my Summer wardrobe, which consists of basically the exact same as my Winter attire, except that for the Summer months, I indulge myself by wearing a lighter blue gingham shirt rather than my normal, slightly darker blue, that I feel more appropriate to the darker and more conservative months of winter.

It is well into the 90’s in New York, and the humidity has us all dripping profusely, so I thought it only proper that since I am appropriately dressed for the tropics, I should write this week about a week I spent many years ago in Round Hill, Jamaica. It is time to loosen my libido and start doing the limbo.

My wife and I were on one of our first vacations since our marriage in 1990, and we were visiting the famous resort of Round Hill, where the villas and oceans are filled with the memories of Hollywood at its finest, from the Forties and Fifties. All proper English and would-be-English actors had liaisons and repartees at Round Hill, and me, sitting under a tree on the beach, covered head to foot in my Summer wardrobe, without a drop of sun hitting anything that looks like my skin, was napping and fantasizing about life in the Forties, when my wife slapped me on the arm to wake me from my reverie, to see a waiter passing us by with a tray on his head. She exclaimed, as all determined, over-controlling, obsessive Art Directors would, that it was time to stop indulging my fantasies and get with the action, and take the waiter’s picture. So like all good husbands, who have wives as Art Directors, I ran and obediently got my camera and asked the waiter to follow me. I took him out on the dock, put my deepest red filter on my camera to exacerbate the depths of my remorse of having been woken from my fine nap, and took this picture.

It turned out I liked this picture, and in fact, it was put in my second book, The Hat Book, which was conveniently designed by my wife and her firm. She being the wisest of the two of us, must have had this vision in her head in Jamaica while I was dreaming on the beach of a life gone by.

As summer slowly goes by and July 4 approaches, I hope you all find someone to bring you back to the real world, so you can, in picture, find a way out.

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Summer Break

It is the first day of Summer, the longest day of the year. While I would love to share an insight or two with my faithful devotees, nothing could be more enlightening than the New York sunshine. So enjoy the bright inauguration of Summer, and look for new words of wisdom this time next week.

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Shopping At All Costs

Some years ago I was asked by Visa to do a picture on shopping, America’s favorite pastime. I should know. I grew up with a mother whose idea of consumption was to buy one of everything she liked in every color. Her closet looked like the original Henri Bendel store, with so many shoes, Melda Marcos would have been jealous. Sweaters, suits, blouses, skirts, all color-coordinated into a glorious pastel arrangement. If shopping gave rewards, my mother would easily have made the shopping hall of fame.

So when approached about doing a picture about shopping in California, no high-minded, envious, gluttonous consumer could find a more perfect spot than Beverly Hills, with Rodeo Drive at its pinnacle. It took all of the vested power of Visa to get permission to close Rodeo Drive for a few hours. We watered down the streets to make it feel even more rich than the merchandise inside.

It was my idea to find boxes from the stores, and exemplify a normal day of shopping for a Beverly Hills woman. When I shot this picture, I thought it was funny, but over the years there have been many women who’ve identified with this picture. It seems that this compulsion was not unique to my mother, but has infiltrated the upper crust of American society. I guess men have their cars, and women have their shoes.

Immediately after completing this shot, the store doors opened, and all the women who were patiently waiting rushed past me to spend their way into eternity.

So what’s my take on all this consumption? The truth is, I guess I’m right in there with the best of them. I produce an artifact, a photograph. I care a great deal, not necessarily about its reproduction, but rather about the artifact itself, the print. I guess this makes me a materialist. I find an original print beautiful, and I hope people will purchase them and think so too. I also love and produce other artifacts: books, houses, interiors, furniture, etc. I care about the patina and craftsmanship of things, and well-made objects give me great pleasure.

So put me down as my mother’s son, equal to her in my own way. Despite my attempt at disdain, I must admit I am one among many. I am with you all, but in my fashion.

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