Photographic Memory


The word "photography" is commonly understood to mean, "making pictures." In Greek, it more correctly means "light writing" or "light imaging." So, what you do when you click the shutter of a camera is collect direct (rarely) or reflected light onto a light-sensitive surface (film or, today, an electronic sensor). All's well if you have enough light to collect.

Things get tough in photography when there is little light; focusing becomes difficult and you may have to supply your own light source. In the beginning of photography, that meant igniting a trough of magnesium powder and, later, flash bulbs. Almost all of my party pictures are done in situations in which an electronic flash is a necessity. The difficult part of flash photography was, for a long time, the energy source for the flash. The flash units most people used to use, back in the seventies and before, were powered by two to six AA batteries. No matter how good these batteries were, however, they didn't last long. One could not expect to get through too many more than five rolls. Typically, I shot anywhere from seven to twelve rolls a job, so I'd needed a lot of spare AA batteries in my camera bag. Indeed, when I first started taking party pictures, I carried about twenty rechargable nickel-cadmium AA batteries, four of which powered a Braun "potato masher"-type flash. Worrying about the batteries running low at an important moment and changing them was such a pain that I eventually switched to a 520-volt dry cell battery pack and Vivitar 283 flashes. This combination worked well, but I had to buy a new $25 battery every three or four parties. Convenient but expensive.

Then came Quantum. Quantum is a small, rechargable battery pack made by a company in Garden City, Long Island. It seemed to be the perfect energy source: it was small, lightweight, and inexpensive. It plugged right into the 283's using a module that took the place of the four AA batteries, was rechargable 1000 times or more, and it could last for at least two consecutive parties before recharging. What a boon to indoor event photographers!

I used the unit for many jobs, and then I started to have a problem. In the middle of taking pictures, the flash would just not recharge. If I jiggled the the coiled wires that connected the module in the flash to the battery pack, the flash would start working again. There must have been a short somewhere in the wiring or in the module that fit into the flash unit, but no matter what I did I couldn't find it. I bought a new module, but that one, too, began to have the same trouble.

Party photography is very much like photo journalism. In both forms of the craft, the photographer can't miss a shot because the event being photographed just will not happen again. Certainly it is easier to re-stage a bride and groom cutting a cake than it is to re-stage a rescue at sea, say, but who could think of re-staging a whole wedding or bar mitzvah? And even if one succeeded (forget about the expense) how could you make it look like the real thing? So, we simply have to get our pictures done right the first time; all the events that unfold are unique.

The pressure on the photographer to do it right the first time, therefore, is quite intense and quite real. To alleviate this pressure, one must have very reliable equipment and equally reliable backup equipment. I always carried two all-mechanical Leica cameras, two flashes and two modules. With a setup like that, what could go wrong?

Well, one Saturday evening I was doing a bar mitzvah. In the middle of taking the family pictures, that same old shorted-wire problem started to happen; my flash just wouldn't re-charge — I had no flash. I switched modules — same problem. There is always someone at a party taking pictures along with the photographer, so I went to one of the more energetic snap shooters and asked him if I could borrow a set of his batteries. He emphatically refused. What was I to do? The party itself had not even begun, and I was without a light source. I asked around and found out that a Pathmark store about a mile away was probably still open. I took off for the store, found four sets of AA batteries, stood on the express line for a while, and sped back to the party.

I was in luck; the cocktail hour had just ended, and the guests were about to sit down to dinner. At worst, I had missed some candids, but I could make them up with dancing pictures. No one had really felt my absence, so all was well. I took the batteries I had just bought and removed the Quantum module from the flash unit. Then, just as I was about to put the batteries in the battery compartment, I remembered: the batteries have to go into a battery holder that comes with the 283 flash, and I had long ago stopped packing that holder since I no longer used AA batteries! I was horrified. The party had begun, and I was lost. I had visions of doing the rest of the job completely by available light. This meant taking all the pictures at 1/15th of a second at f 2 which in turn means numerous blurred and out-of-focus pictures all of which (because of the incandescent light source) would be yellow. I was in a major mess.

My only hope was to get some tools with which I could rewire the Quantum module. I hunted down the custodian of the Jewish center, told him of my predicament, and asked him for a screwdriver and a wire stripper. He told me that the whole center, except for the rooms being used for the party, were all locked up and that his keys were at home. I ran to the kitchen and asked for a knife. I was given a ten-inch kitchen knife and feverishly began the cutting, unscrewing, stripping of wires, and rescrewing. I had done all I could to resurrect the module. I plugged it into the flash, turned on the Quantum battery pack and waited. Sure enough, there was that high-pitched little whine that told me the flash was charging! I will never forget the feeling of relief that tiny sound afforded me. Still in a sweat, I calmly walked into the main hall just as the challah was being rolled out for the first prayer and the beginning of the party. All told, I had missed thirty-five minutes of the party, and, in the end, not a single important photograph.

Weeks later, after I had delivered the pictures, the mother of the bar mitzvah called and told me how much she liked them. She also said that one of her guests had seen the pictures and liked them too but was very surprised because she wasn't even aware that there was a photographer.

Muddy Waters

You should never ever leave things to the last minute. It must be one of Murphy's laws: If you leave things to the last minute everything that can go wrong will.

I had taken some black and white publicity pictures, and they had to be delivered the next morning. I had so many things to do with the rest of my day that I put off the developing and printing of the pictures until late in the evening. The time had finally come; I couldn't put it off any longer. I went to my basement darkroom and loaded the film in the developing tank. I returned to the kitchen and picked up the green glass gallon bottle of D-76 developer. On my way to the sink, I knocked the bottle against the corner of a metal table. The bottle shattered, and the developer went all over the floor. A smelly, wet liquid mess spread across the linoleum and started seeping under the refrigerator. What could I do now? I had all of these negatives to develop by tomorrow and no stores were open this late at night.

I had only one choice: mop up the developer and use it. So I got out the mop and started mopping. After only five minutes or so I had mopped up the nearly three-quarters of a gallon of D-76 and squeezed it into a kitchen pot. Not surprisingly, it looked just like the dirty water you get after you mop a kitchen floor. I then filtered the developer into a plastic bottle using a funnel and a paper towel. The stuff was still plenty dirty, but it did the trick; I developed the negatives and the pictures were delivered the next day.


My wife, Michele, met Stephanie on Kibbutz Mishmar-ha-Emek in Israel when they both lived there for a while in the 1960's. They both moved back to the States and settled on opposite coasts; Stephanie was our friend in San Francisco. Although we visited her there about once every ten years, Michele and Stephanie talked at least monthly and maintained a close, long-distance relationship. Stephanie was very much a part of Michele's life for almost thirty years.

Stephanie was about five foot three and very wide. She was extremely conscious of her size and the way she looked and always wore dark clothes that appeared to fall from her neck like a tent. It seemed as if she viewed her life as some sort of heavy burden, too, what with the early death of her parents, the cruel aunt and uncle who raised and abandoned her, her unsuccessful first marriage, and her troubles with her son and present husband. When we visited her, although she was always amiable, hospitable, intelligent, dryly funny, interested in world and particularly Jewish politics, one could feel the weight she carried — not only the physical weight of her own bulk but the weight of her past and present tribulations. Many of us, as we get older, add heft to our bodies as if to reflect the extra gravity of the particulars of our lives. With Stephanie, this tendency was just more extreme.

But Stephanie's size encumbered her in only one obvious way: motion. Not only did she walk and even drive slowly, she rarely ventured far from home. Indeed, she hardly made any long trips and never a trip across the continent to visit us in New York. Except once.

Sometime back in a winter of the late seventies, Stephanie made her way to Westchester County, New York. I have one very strong memory of that visit, of one experience we shared. Stephanie's mother died when Stephanie was nine years old. From that time she had not visited her mother's grave although she often thought about doing so. One cold, bright Sunday morning in December, Stephanie asked me to help her find her mother's grave. She knew it was in a cemetery in some town on the other side of Westchester — somewhere along the Hudson River. So we set out, with a vague destination and no directions. After driving around for about ten minutes up Route 9, I decided to get some help. Not many gas stations were open, but I finally found a fire house where I stopped to ask about Jewish cemeteries. One fireman knew of one such cemetery in the area, the New Hope cemetery in Briarcliff Manor. We drove there, and after a brief discussion with a custodian, we found Stephanie's mother's grave. Stephanie stood there in the cold and cried with tears but not a sound. At her request, I took some pictures of the gravestone. The beautiful, chilly crispness of the morning weighed on me, too.

In October 1989, just as I turned on the TV to watch the third game of the world series, on came the bulletin about the San Francisco earthquake. In fear that something might have happened to Stephanie, Michele called her for again and again, and finally, at three in the morning our time, Stephanie answered the phone. She assured Michele that she and her husband, Joe, were all right. She added, however, that she had just, this day, gotten the medical test results back.
"What test results?" asked Michele.
"I have cancer of the liver."

In December, Michele visited Stephanie; she stayed with her for four days and left on a Sunday. On Tuesday, Stephanie died. On the day she died, I got a call from Stephanie's son, Mark. The people at the funeral home needed to know Stephanie's mother's name and date of birth and death. Although Mark wanted to get to Michele for the information, she, unfortunately, had no idea. Then I remembered that cold day in the cemetery near the Hudson River. I looked through envelopes and envelopes of old negatives until I found the one I was looking for — the picture of the gravestone from some ten before, the gravestone next to which Stephanie stood and cried.

Uncle Benjie

As the photographer of social events for over thirty years, I have witnessed a number of very personal moments in the histories of certain families: I have photographed a wedding where the bride's whole side just didn't show up; I have watched while a bride, at the altar, cried through her whole ceremony; and I have witnessed touching scenes enacted by many people.

Sadly, I have even taken the last pictures of many individuals. The bleakest of these circumstances was when I did portraits of an entire family: mother, father, their children, the father's sister and his parents. It was a lovely fall afternoon and the pictures reflected the beauty of the day; indeed, the red and yellow out-of-focus trees in the background looked almost painted in their brilliance. Upon delivery, the photos were praised and many extras were ordered. About a month after the last of the reorders were delivered, I got a call from the father asking if I still had the negatives— he wanted more pictures because his father had just died. I expressed my condolences and reassured him that I would remake all of the pictures that showed his father. One month later, he called me again and told me that his sister had just died and wanted more pictures of her, too. I just gave him the negatives.

Although this is perhaps the most desolate of my dealings with death as a photographer, it is not the only one. It is almost a rule that if I get a call to reproduce a photograph a few years after it was taken, the reason is almost always the death of the subject. People have called me or come to my house looking for that last picture of a loved one. In fact, there may have been other later pictures taken of the deceased, but a professional photographer is more likely to have the negative and the resulting photograph will probably be of more lasting quality.

I was absolutely sure that I took the last picture of Uncle Benjie, because he died right in front of all of us in the middle of a party. I was photographing another bar mitzvah, this time in Scarsdale. I had already taken the family pictures and was taking candids of people dancing. I had run across the bandleader before. He's a stentorian, strident fellow who tells off-color jokes and is very popular in certain circles. His band was so loud that I could feel the vibrations deep in my chest. I always take a paper napkin from the bar, tear part of it into two small pieces, wad them up and stick them in my ears for protection from the deafening decibels of bands or DJ's. When the music still sounds loud to me and when I feel the vibrations in my body like I did that afternoon, I can't understand how the noise doesn't damage somebody. Well, this time maybe it did; this guy in a gray, pinstriped suit, probably in his sixties, fell to the floor.

While the band continued to play, members of his family ran to the man's aid; two of them took turns doing CPR while two others massaged his feet. Apparently this was not a new thing for them; it looked like they were either involved in medicine professionally or they had had to do this for him before, or both. The band finally caught on that something was not quite right, and they started to play a little softer. No one was dancing any longer, and some of the women hugged each other in shock. Eventually the band tapered down to a lone guitar player who, for some reason, continued to softly play some Beatles tunes. Within minutes, paramedics and police officers arrived on the dance floor and hooked the man up to an IV and a heart monitor. They also had a cell phone with which they communicated with a hospital. I noticed that whenever they applied the paddles to his chest and gave him a shock, the squiggly line of a heartbeat was visible on the monitor; when no shock was given, there was just a straight line. I had seen enough movies to know what that meant.

Now, it's hard for a photographer not to take pictures. In a situation like this one, however, I could hardly walk into the mob around the poor man and flash away as if I were taking just some more candids. Nor could I be in the presence of such an event without photographing at least for myself. So, I sat in a chair near the mass of personnel, took the flash off my camera, prefocused, set it for what I thought was the correct exposure, rested the camera on my knee, and very unobtrusively clicked off about twenty frames.

Eventually they carried him away. The rabbi, who had been invited to the affair and who I had known for a number of years, came up to me and asked, "What do you think?" I knew what he was asking and so I told him that I couldn't see how we could go on with the party at least as a party. He agreed. He got up on the stage and made an anouncement:
"Ladies and gentlemen: a very shocking and disturbing event has just occurred. It has been especially shocking to the many children who are here. In light of the circumstances, I believe that we should finish our meals in quiet and with respect, but that there should be no frivolity and dancing."

Immediately after the rabbi stepped down from the stage, up came the bandleader, and he made his own speech:
"I beg to differ with you, Rabbi. The man had a choke reflex when he left; he had a heartbeat. We should go on with the party."
He gave some instructions to his band and they began to play a spirited hora. For a couple of seconds no one moved. Then, tentatively at first, some of the kids started to dance, then some of the adults. Before long, the party was back in full swing.

Later the rabbi came up to me and said, "What a prick!"

And what about the photographs? The ones of the party came out just fine. The ones of the death — he had indeed died right there — came out well, too. After I had sent my clients their pictures of the party, I called them and mentioned I also had pictures of the death of Uncle Benjie. I asked if they wanted me to send them a few, and they said, "Sure, why not."

One Of Those Days

Some days, particularly Saturdays and Sundays, unfold without much of an agenda. Other days have a completely laid-out plan that is based on some previous events or promises. This is especially true of work days or school days. The purpose and progress of those days has been decided in advance; they have a history. Yet, regardless of how well a day may have been set up, some details just can't be anticipated or accounted for.

One particular Sunday's story started, for me, three years before on a very cold day in December, 1987. I was doing a morning bar mitzvah ceremony, family pictures and the afternoon party at Temple Beth El in Stamford, Connecticut. During the party I noticed that the band was a particularly good one. This was the eighties, and live bands were still around; the scourge of the DJ and canned entertainment had not yet taken hold. Although all the members of the band were quality musicians, the bass player struck me as especially talented. He just punched it. And he was hard to miss visually as well; he was wiry and black, wore big, black-rimmed glasses and played a fire-engine-red guitar.

I finished the job at about 5 pm and headed for my second job that day—a small wedding ceremony and party at a restaurant in Manhattan. At around 6, I arrived at this little place on Fifth Avenue somewhere in the 20s. I started taking the standard family pictures when who should walk in but the bass player from that afternoon's bar mitzvah. Like me, this was his second gig of the day. During a lull in the picture taking, I went over to him and told him of the unlikely coincidence. We both thought it was pretty weird and funny. We talked a bit about music and party work in general, and we exchanged names and business cards. By about 9, I was done with my work. I said goodbye to the bride and groom and their families and also to the fine bass player whom I now knew as Will Ford.

Three years passed, and in June of 1990 I got a call from Will. He wanted to know if I still did weddings, if I was available on September 23, and if I would send him my price list. I answered yes to all of his questions, but then I didn't hear from him again. In early September, it occurred to me that I would still be in Cleveland for the Jewish holidays on September 23. Although I hadn't heard from him for a couple of months, I figured I had better talk to Will. But he beat me to it. Just before I left for Cleveland, he called and said he was going to send me a deposit for his wedding. Then I went through the whole story about Cleveland and the Jewish holidays, but I told him that I thought I could get out on an early flight that Sunday morning. I did some calling, and I got myself on a 7 am US Air flight to La Guardia — flying standby. I called Will back and told him I would be his photographer.

Now, I don't like doing this kind of thing at all; a professional should leave as little as possible to chance. Not only did I not actually have a ticket for the flight, but if the flight were late, or there was bad weather or something, I would be in a real mess — and Will Ford would be in a worse mess. When I got to Cleveland, I called US Air and was assured that the plane, which holds 150 people, was only half full, so getting a ticket would be no problem. The only thing that bothered me was the weather report for that Sunday morning. It called for high winds and a chance of severe thunderstorms. A typical late summer day on the lake in Ohio. I decided not to think about it. On Saturday night, I called Will from Cleveland and asked him exactly what he wanted me to do and when. He said he wanted me to be at his fiancé Pam's place in Greenpoint, Brooklyn at 11 am. I told him that should be OK as I was taking off at 7 am, and the flight was only about an hour and a half. He said he hoped that was not cutting things too close, but I assured him that everything would be fine. I didn't tell him about flying standby or the weather report, or that, just in case of a delay, I had left two cameras, my flashes, a fully charged battery and twelve rolls of film plus the instructions and maps he had sent me in my car that was parked at La Guardia airport. But I did say that if anything went wrong I would call him. He told me that if anything went wrong he didn't want to hear about it.

It was indeed windy and rainy that Saturday night, and I even heard some rumbles of thunder. But, as the saying goes, "The only thing you have to worry about is that you're worrying," so I put it out of my mind and went to sleep. The alarm rang at 5 am. I got up, showered, dressed and went down the elevator to await the airport limo. It came sharply at 5:45, and it was still pretty dark when we arrived at Hopkins International. Since I carried only my suit, there was no luggage to check, so I went right to the gate. I got there even before it opened, and when the attendant finally showed up at 6:30, I was the first one to check in. Although I was supposedly flying standby, I was immediately added to the flight and given a seat assignment and boarding pass. We boarded the plane at 6:50. By my count, there were no more than thirty people on board. I was so relieved; things were working out very nicely.

7 o'clock came, 7:10, 7:15... Then there was an announcement: "This is your captain speaking. We are having trouble with the jump seat. It is not working properly. FAA regulations prohibit us from taking off in this condition. We're sorry, but this flight has been canceled."

What!? In less than four hours, I had to be over 500 miles east of here taking wedding pictures, and my flight had just been canceled. And what the hell is a jump seat anyway? I found out that it's the seat the stewardess has to sit on if there are not enough seats left. Well, there were plenty of seats left, so I guess they just needed some excuse to cancel a flight that wouldn't pay them to fly. It would cost them less to pay another airline to fly us, and that's just what they did. They put all of us on a Continental flight leaving at 8:30 am. With some luck, I could still get to La Guardia by 10, which gave me just enough time to be in Brooklyn by 11. I hoped.

I arrived at my new gate, got my seat assignment (there were enough empty seats on this flight, too, that I was even able to get a window seat), and then I went into the men's room to change into my suit. When I got back to the gate, the one and only Joan Rivers, as anonymous as she could make herself, sashayed in. She wore a black dress, a black shawl draped over her left shoulder, and she carried a little, stringy-haired, brown and black Pekingese poodle. She looked at no one and said nothing.

She just sat there with her dog. She was allowed on the plane ten minutes before any of the other passengers. As I got on the plane, I noticed that all her things filled the whole cabinet where you hang your val-packs, and she had the dog with her right there on her lap in first class. She was probably returning to New York from Cleveland after spending the Jewish holidays with her relatives, just as I was.

The flight was, thankfully, smooth and uneventful. We were welcomed to the "Big Apple" at 9:50 am. On my way to the parking lot, I again saw Ms. Rivers as she watched her tiny dog make poopie amid some construction debris. I got in my car, checked out my photography gear, re-checked the directions to Brooklyn, and off I went.

Before I got to Pam's place, two rather unexpected things happened. First: just as I got off the Greenpoint Avenue exit of the L.I.E., I stopped at a red light. Out of the car in front of me popped this guy. He came up to my window and said, in what sounded like a Russian accent, "Are you interested in selling this car? I'm looking for a used Audi diesel just like it." I told him that I indeed planned on selling it in about two months. He wrote down his name and number, gave it to me, and off he went. Strange. Second: as I arrived at Pam's place on Noble Street, I was surprised to see that Noble Street, right there, crosses Lorimer Street. Lorimer Street is the street Classic Album is on; that's the company I used to do make my photo albums. I was, by that time, almost twenty years in the photography business and had worked with Classic Album all those years, but I'd never been to Lorimer Street before, or even close. Now I was less than a block away.

I arrived at Pam's just before 11 am and took pictures of her and the rest of her family in their simple old brownstone. Pam was tall, stately and statuesque, a pleasure to take pictures of, and everybody was as sweet as can be. It was a real change for me; I was the only white person in sight, and I loved it. So different from all those stuffy, white-bread suburban enclaves I worked in weekend after weekend – country clubs, catering halls, and yachts.

The wedding ceremony was in Manhattan at the UN Chapel, right across the street from the UN. After taking pictures of the ceremony in the chapel and of the birdseed throwing outside, I went across the
street to the UN sculpture garden at 47th and 1st, where the new bride and groom wanted their formal pictures taken. I arrived there before the bridal party, so I just leaned against the fence and waited for them.

There I was looking into the park at this massive sculpture of Saint George slaying the dragon, when this guy comes up next to me and leans on the fence, too. I noticed right away that he looked very familiar. He was short-ish, had a proper mustache and wore a seedy, brown, beat-up cardigan sweater and baggy pants.
"Something else," I said to him, motioning to the sculpture.
"I hope it doesn't stay there long," he answered. "They think it's the only religion in the whole world."
"Tell me about it," I said.
"There haven't been any dragons since the time of Jesus," he said.
"There haven't been any dragons since the time of the dinosaurs," I added.
"What do you think all that machinery's for?" he asked, nodding to what looked like a boiler.
"I think they're going to make smoke and fire come out of the thing's mouth."
"I think you're right," he replied.
"Well, here they come; I gotta go take some wedding pictures."
We walked together toward the park entrance.
"You know," I said, "you look a lot like Kurt Vonnegut. Are you...?"
"Yes, I am."
"Damn," I said, putting my hand on his shoulder, "In my other life, I'm a high school English teacher, and I've taught Slaughterhouse Five in my class. Is that crazy or what?"
"Pretty crazy," he said laughing. We talked a bit about teaching and photography, and then I left him to go take pictures. He stuck around for a while and watched me work. While I was positioning Pam and Will, Will whispered to me, "Isn't that Kurt Vonnegut?" "Yup," I said, "do you want him in any of your pictures?"

The reception was held back in Brooklyn at a place called the Waterfront Crab House. I didn't see any crabs and I could barely see the East River through the mass of buildings, but the party was really fun – terrific dancing, hot music, and soulful singing – just great. For the first time in a long time, although the music was very loud, I didn't put tissue paper in my ears.

Just before I left the party, some guy came up to me and began to talk to me about photography. We talked about cameras and flashes and f-stops – that kind of thing. I finally asked him if he did photography professionally, and he told me he worked out of a studio in White Plains called Davis Studios.
"Hey," I said, "that's the studio that my school uses for yearbook photos."
"Really? What school is that?"
"Rye Neck."
"Oh, I'm doing Rye Neck pictures next Friday," he said.

By this time, I wasn't surprised by much of anything.

Back at school Monday morning, I began telling my new, second-period photography class the story of my strange Sunday. Just as I mentioned the name of my client, a kid in the back of the room called out, "Hey, Will Ford! That's my name!" And sure enough, the kid I knew up to then only as William, turned out to be another Will Ford.