TRAVEL: "UNDERNEATH" - Adventures in Photography
“Can I take a picture of you?” I asked with caution, which is odd, because I usually don't ask anyone for permission. But the old man in front of me sat with such confidence, slouched on a portable stool, aware of his own iconic appearance: sporting a yellowed ulster coat, soiled beige corduroys sloppily draped over high-laced combat boots and to top it all off, literally, an oversized white Panama hat that threw the right amount of light deep into the crevices of his dark face. A man of the streets. An umbrella salesman.
I came closer and repeated the question. Had to get up real close so he could hear me. “I appreciate you asking me, son” he answered. His intense, blood-flecked eyes now locked in on mine. “Everyone just takes a picture without asking…and I don’t like that…you never know what could happen…” I replied with some bullshit answer about how I always like to ask people in advance, more relieved that my intuition to seek approval had been right on target. “I tell you what…you come back tomorrow and I’ll let you take that photo.” “What time?” I asked as only a documentary producer could, wanting to orchestrate and schedule the appointment. “Anytime tomorrow. You just come by. I’ll be here."
Across the street, news teams assembled outside Little Pete’s, a forty year old around-the-clock diner that was shutting down. I already could imagine the over-the-top news anchor strutting towards the camera, flanked left and right by customers, “…after four decades of feeding Philadelphia’s hungriest locals, this iconic establishment is sadly closing its doors for good.” Yes, it was all very tragic. American once again victim to its own capitalistic endeavors, the portion of the story no network would ever air.
Of course, Philadelphia had plenty more to offer that day in terms of photography and I eventually ended up near the infamous Rocky steps, which were nothing more than the stairs leading up to the Museum of Art. Not a big surprise of course, but I found myself even more underwhelmed as tourists in fresh sportswear struck victory poses after mock-runnnig up a few of them, huffing and puffing. The best pose that day came from a shirtless man with a well-sculpted back, standing in front of a fountain, gazing upward as Old Glory unfurled with ease in front of him, tickled by a playful wind. This photo was taken without permission or the subject's awareness. My usual modus operandi.
The umbrella salesman had already closed shop by the time I came back to the hotel. There was no trace of him, just an empty corner. I must admit, I had forgotten all about him that night. But by the next morning, my eager trigger finger was itching on the shutter-release and stepping outside, there he was…this time however, asleep. Hunched over, his hat tilted down over his head as he slumbered through the deafening cacophony of morning traffic: the perfect motif. But after two quick clicks, I felt like I was cheating, simply steeling shots. I had gotten special permission and this was too damn easy. Plus, I wanted to get a proper portrait, direct to camera, capture his weathered face that somehow held in it everything American had now become.
That day we spent the afternoon filming social workers as they cruised through neighborhoods in Camden, NJ. With the air conditioning off for sound purposes, the heat was slowly rising as the two of them talked about their work with the poorest of the poor. Every once in a while, I was told to put the camera down. "Bad part of town. Um, not here. Hold on.” Necks turned as we pulled up to the curb. We couldn’t have been more out of our element. Dilapidated houses and buildings, pot hole ridden streets without a single painted crosswalk, and “We accept Food Stamps” signs littered barred convenient store windows. How well this had all been hidden from Philadelphia, across the Delaware river, tucked away from suburban America, its underbelly carrying the entire weight of another third world country.
Back in downtown Philly, we secured our footage on pristine new thunderbolt hard drives and stepped out to pursue some good dining. And there he stood, alertly towering over tourists and passerby’s, installed on the sidewalk like his very own institution. His cart of umbrellas stacked and ready to sell on a gorgeous summer evening. "Always Prepared" like a boy scout, my lens cap had automatically removed itself and I stepped right behind him, framing up the shot, adjusting focus, ready for him to turn and face the camera. I was confident he would remember our agreement, would even smile, wink or nod when he’d discover my stealthy presence. That’s when I'd release the shutter. In that very moment.
Instead, he launched forward, right at me with such speed, his eyes now filled with rage and anger. Holy Shit.
"What do you think you are doing? Huh?” He was up in my face, yelling right at me. I was speechless, but calm. He had clearly forgotten our agree — “Hey! You think this is safe? You creepin’ up on me like this? Huh? How am I supposed to know you're not packin’…” And with a batman-like gesture, he flung his cape-lengthed coat back, revealing what must have been a .44 magnum, Travis Bickle’s weapon of choice in Taxi Driver, its long barrel tucked away in a faded leather holster strapped around his waist. Instinctually, I knew what to do, slowly stepping backwards, smiling calmly, lens cap back on the lens, all while trying to jolt his memory of our earlier encounter. I had a kind of permission slip, a verbal release form of sorts, unsigned of course…but still, come on. His enraged eyes carried no trace or memory of me, the polite inquiry from days before long vanished. My stubborn side wanted to insist and demand, the documentarian was still fascinated by the Smith & Wesson and the little boy inside knew it was time to go. I wished him well, apologized profusely and turned into the alleyway.
Just recently, I was made aware of Alain de Botton’s “The Art of Travel” by friend and creative writing professor Stephen Tuttle. In chapter eight, “On Possessing Beauty,” Botton writes about the dominant impulse we all experience when we encounter beauty, how we “wish to hold on to it, to possess it and give it weight in one’s life.” But he also writes about its fleeting nature, how “beauty is fugitive, being frequently found in places to which we may never return.” He goes on to suggest that the only proper way to possess beauty is by “making oneself conscious of the factors (psychological and visual) responsible for it,” and that “the most effective means of pursuing this conscious understanding [is] by attempting to describe beautiful places through art, by writing about […] them, irrespective of whether one happen[s] to have any talent for doing so…”
Alain’s motivating appeal to write about beauty, along with Stephen’s encouragement to tell this story has led me here. Clearly, I had encountered beauty in its raw form, and discovered that “thing" below the surface. Underneath it all: the Unexpected. Nothing I could have ever really assumed. It’s that thing I keep looking for as a storyteller, a documentarian, searching for these deep rendezvous that unlock it all, break into a new dimension. In my vulnerable quest to photochemically capture these moments of beauty, I found instead, that the best way to hold that very instant is by letting it drift from the tangible. When it finally does find its home in writing, it will hopefully emit some kind of essence or the aftertaste of an experience.
All that said, admittedly way too esoterically, I’m happy that I was able to sneak at least these two pictures of my umbrella salesman.
Enjoy captured beauty.