When I was six months old, my parents took my maternal grandmother and me to a small cottage—a shack really—that sat on the shore of a great salt pond on Martha’s Vineyard. The full range of sensory experiences from that time and other visits there were deeply imprinted on my young brain, and they define my greatest pleasures. The smell of the salt air, infused with the sharp iodine of seaweed and the decay of sand and mud exposed at low tide. The simple building, aging shingles, peeling paint, old wood aged to dark chestnut. Roads of sand as fine as powdered sugar, cutting though pine forests with dappled light reaching the ground. All of these things excite me still, 60 years later.
I have had the good fortune to lead most of my life within those same tidal reaches—that strip of land along the New England coast, laced with rivers, streams, swales and marshes which mark the endpoint of the ocean’s ebb and flow. Sometimes these intrusions of the sea into the soil come as a surprise as you walk along a back road through the woods and fields, only to find a tidal brook with heron fishing for alewives in the middle of a small meadow. Or you drive through the woods near Porter’s Landing with the window down for the first time in early spring, and suddenly smell the tang of salt being carried in the cold air. This is a part of the world where half the houses in even humble neighborhoods have a boat or two hauled up in the back yard from October to May, and more than a handful have some lobster traps stacked beside the garage. And every few months the local paper carries a story of one of two fishermen lost at sea when their boat founders or burns or simply disappears. We are ever mindful that just out of sight there is a large, deep and often threatening sea that in one way or another is a part of our lives.
My visual imagination was shaped by other forces as well. I grew up with a strong sense that the ghosts of our past experience shared space with our current lives. As a child, my mother often told me of her early life in New Hampshire during the Depression. The imagery of her stories was strong. Her family were tenant farmers, moving every year as my grandfather burned some bridge or other within a few months of his arrival on a new job. As a young girl, my mother had witnessed her father being kicked in the head by a horse—an injury from which he died a few months later. Their lives remained hard and their surroundings austere throughout her childhood. Only the Second World War broke the pattern for the four siblings who survived into the 1940’s.
The images of my mother’s early life and girlhood were planted in my mind when I was very young. The texture of those visions has found expression in some of these photographs, almost sixty years later. As an only child, I had little other close exposure to the evolution from girl to woman, and thus I pictured it, however incompletely, through the lens of my mother’s stories. Hers was the world captured by Harper Lee (To Kill a Mockingbird), Carson McCullers (The Heart is a Lonely Hunter), and the stories of Flannery O’Connor, although my mother’s characters lived harder and leaner than did the characters of that fiction.
My own experience growing up in Montclair, New Jersey in mid-century also left a strong visual impression upon me. When I recently found a box of photographs taken of me at age five, I was intrigued to find within them many themes and textures that came to dominate my photography many years later. The sylvan backdrop. The peeling paint. The sense of collaboration between model and photographer. These are all elements that have emerged in my own photographic explorations.
In August 1994 I headed off with my wife and three young daughters for our annual vacation at the old family cottage. It is located in Nonquitt, a 19th Century summer colony set on the shores of Buzzards Bay, overlooking the Elizabeth Islands and Martha’s Vineyard. I have long loved the place, but sitting on the beach always left me feeling stilted. That summer I brought along an old folding Kodak camera that had belonged to my father as a teenager in the 1930’s. I spent several days carefully cleaning it and then took it to the local camera shop to buy film, only to learn that it had been decades since that format had been produced. Twenty minutes later I left the store, the proud owner of a battered Yashica twins lens reflex camera, complete with electrical tape in place to counter light leaks. Total cost? Twenty five dollars. (I still have it.)
That afternoon, I photographed around the old house, exposing images of a wooden wheel barrel, the textures of the shingles and a few other odds and ends. Late in the evening I retired to the bathroom and developed the film. To my delight, I found images that I could contact print in the early morning hours after the film dried. I was hooked, and that engagement with the camera has impacted my life ever since.
A few days later I persuaded my daughter Molly to sit for a portrait, the first of tens of thousands that would follow. I quickly realized that making images of people was my passion. I was blessed to be surrounded by my daughters, numerous nieces and their friends, many of whom engaged in the process of portraiture. While I did not fully recognize it at the time, I was capturing a very special and transitory time in their lives. As parents, we tended to assume that these years with children intertwined in our lives would last forever, and that the house would always be filled with their presence. But of course it was only a matter of time before their rooms would stand empty; the kitchen filled with shrieking and laughter only in the days surrounding Thanksgiving and Christmas when they all journeyed home to celebrate our family life. I see now that our children and their friends and cousins were racing away from that instant when the shutter clicked -- at a speed that quickly launched them into adulthood. Those youngsters who I initially photographed are now nurses, accountants, farmers, opera singers, political activists….
Since that first summer with my camera I have photographed many people, usually focusing on groups. Firemen in Lower Manhattan after 9/11. Maine’s Holocaust Survivors. Judges. Fetishists. Old villagers in Tuscany. Haitian sugarcane cutters in the Dominican Republic. Dancers, circus performers and naturists in Russia. Collaborative portraiture with these groups has given access to people and places that would never have been available to me without having my camera in hand. I am now well more than 60 years old—a wonderful age for reflection and looking back—and I realize that my later life has been defined by this obsession, joined with the aesthetic of my early years along the shore. The vast majority of these images were made within a mile of the coastline of Maine and Massachusetts. Many portraits were made on islands. For me, it is the juxtaposition of the nearly perfect, emerging subject against a ground of slow decay and deterioration that illuminates the true nature of aging, and the particular beauty of this stage of life.
The camera is a mirror that I hold up to my models. “Show me who you are, how you see yourself, and how you would like others to see you” is the implicit instruction. The result is what you see here.