Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Camera is Mightier Than the Pig

My father was a photographer. I mean, he was a real photographer—a photo journalist. He worked for Time Life. He worked for Vogue and Bazaar and Town & Country. He did things like the Yuban Coffee Can Lady...for years and years, Yuban coffee cans sported an amber photo of a soft blond woman deep in thought while sipping from a coffee cup. That was my father's photograph. His career reached its pinnacle when he became the head photographer for the Daily Racing Form—and if you think taking pictures of race horses is not such a big deal, think about photographing Secretariat taking the Triple Crown by winning the Belmont Stakes by 31 lengths back in 1973. Maybe you were there—if you were, I know you remember it, I know its something that you’ll never forget. Secretariat was a folk hero during a time that this country needed a hero. The Vietnam War, Nixon, and the aftermath of the social and political upheavals of the Sixties left the country hungry for something like a horse that reminded everyone of a Greek God.

But recording Secretariat's life was the cherry on top of my father’s career. I want to talk about something else he did with his camera that might have been more powerful than any photograph he ever shot . . .

A few years before this story takes place, my father apprenticed with the great photographer Mark Shaw and was fortunate enough to work on JFK's entourage—you know those pictures of Kennedy walking on the beach at Hyannis Port? My father was on that shoot and he assisted in developing those photographs. When I look at Shaw’s photographs, I see where my father’s eye for framing a photo was born, the softness and intensity all combine to make an image that leaves you breathless. In 1968, Dad was asked to work as one of Hubert Humphrey’s campaign photographers and this put my father smack in the middle of the political cauldron that those times were stewing in. Dad’s year with Humphrey would be defined by the Chicago convention.

If you go to my father’s house and stand in his living room, you will find a montage of photos pasted on a board, unframed and sitting on his mantle along with a couple of hurricane lamps, a silver steeplechasing trophy or two, and a collection of found things . . . hawk feathers, pine cones, beachcombing booty in the form of shells, sea glass, and sea beaten stones. The photos are stark in black and white and the anxiety pours from the images. One photo is of Humphrey in mid-campaign speech, his mouth is gaped and his brow is furrowed. Another photo is a shot of delegates inside the convention center, you can feel the noise of the crowd, the enthusiastic Democrats. Another shot shows Humphrey’s campaign workers huddled in a hallway, strategizing. And then there are three more shots my father took outside the convention center—these three are night shots; the first, a Chicago policeman holding a billy club across his rather large belly that is pushing at the buttons of his uniform, his cap pulled down tight over his brow, his eyes cannot be seen. The second is a crowd of college students, their faces lit by stage light as they watch the concert that was playing round the clock that week in the park across from the Convention Center. That concert featured the likes of Joan Baez and Peter, Paul, and Mary. The third photo might be the most evocative—a line of Chicago policeman in full riot gear, Mayor Daley’s army, their faces obscured by helmets, the street lights reflected in their clear visors. They are all in black uniforms, and they are like something out of a bad dream.

Those photos have sat on my father’s mantle for as long as I can remember, never mind that he has moved from house to house to house, those pictures have always been present. When I was little, the photos frightened me. But the fear turned to intrigue and finally I clutched them in my hands one night and asked Dad to tell me what the pictures were. I knew he had taken them. I just didn’t know who the people were or what the significance was.

He told me of arriving in Chicago and the streets filled with thousands of kids—college kids, hippies and yippies, activists, artists and singers . . .he told me of the music playing night and day as the peaceful protest went on. The kids were gathered in the park across from the convention center. Mayor Daley was adamant that protests would not be allowed and he loaded the streets with police to discourage large crowds. As my father tells it, the ongoing concert acted as a Trojan Horse—the kids were gathered to sit in the park and listen to music, how could that be construed as a protest? But the tensions grew and grew as the week wore on. The cops multiplied in numbers as did the protesters.

As Humphrey was declared the Democratic nominee on the final night, the celebratory mood turned to animosity and then boiled over. My father went outside to get a break from the insanity of the convention hall and headed over to the park. He could hear Peter, Paul and Mary singing, their voices were booming across the crowds of kids and the cops...Puff the magic dragon lives by the sea...and he was drawn deeper and deeper into the gathering storm. It must have been like participating in an opera. As my father joined the crowds of thousands listening and singing along, so did the Chicago police. They pushed into the park and began to forcefully break up the crowds. But instead of peacefully dispersing, violence broke out. A wildfire of fear and brutality thundered all around Dad. He and other journalists were smack in the middle of a huge story, and like any good journalist, my father began taking photographs. It was as though the riot were contained within a crystal ball and he was on the outside watching and shooting pictures of cops beating protesters—knocking young women and men to the ground, kicking them and beating them into submission with their clubs, handcuffing them and dragging them by their hair. When my father told me the story it was the first time I could liken anything to Dante’s inferno.

But the crystal ball effect wore off and the journalists were no longer observers, they were in the dangerous fray. My father found himself running down a dark street away from angry policemen who saw him taking photographs. He was with a handful of protestors who had managed to get out of the cyclone. He decided to break away from the small crowd and turned down an alley thinking that it would lead him back to the safety of the convention center. As he made his way up the alley he found a single policeman beating a girl, a girl who was all of twenty years old. Dad stopped and instinct told him to take pictures, this was important to record, and so he began shooting away. His adrenaline and motor driven camera were one, but the images that were coming through his lense became too horrible for my father to keep the camera between him and what was happening. He realized that cop was killing that girl and he had only one weapon—his camera. He ran up behind the cop, who was not wearing a riot helmet, and swung his camera with all his might to come crashing down on the cop’s skull. That Nikon camera with the zoom lens knocked the cop unconscious. And the cop’s hard head broke my father’s camera wide open, spilling a swirl of cellulose out onto the pavement and exposing what might have been Pulitzer Prize photos. Dad scooped the bleeding girl up and the two of them ran to Humphrey’s campaign headquarters which had become a makeshift hospital for the injured.

I asked Dad if he ever found out the girl’s name, if he stayed in touch with her? But he didn’t. He got her to a safe place and then lost her in the chaos of the night, the chaos of the times. He spent most of that night terrified that he had killed the policeman, but no reports surfaced of a dead cop in an alley near the convention center. My Dad left Chicago with only a few rolls of film, pictures that he had taken in the nights leading up to the riots, the best of which sit on his mantle, they are evidence of the building storm. He thinks often of the roll of film he shot the night of the riots—what a contact sheet it would have made! Pictures of Peter, Paul and Mary, panicking crowds, riot police inciting a riot, the brutality of Mayor Daley’s thugs. The roll was lost forever on that night in a lonely alley, but not the girl.


Caitlyn Hentenaar said...

This made me tear up. Your father sounds like an amazing person. I'm glad he did what he did that night. So many others would have just run away.

Jeremy said...

Oh my gosh. That was a heck of a read. He must have been a very interesting guy, your father.