Local passport: NYC

IF I WEREN’T FORCED into the modern age by my profession, which requires spending time with all things digital, I might chose, instead, to roam the world (or the world that is New York City) with an analog camera.

I did that for a long time, until the photo darkroom where I printed for nearly eight years recently closed its T.A. program. During that time, I and about 35 other film fanatics, shared a community darkroom at Pratt Institute, and a love for the black & white print. It sounds precious, yes, but anyone who has ever made a print feels a small heart tug recalling the dreamy, slow sliding of an image onto blank paper.

The darkroom, a place where all you did is count the time—nine-second exposures at the enlarger, two minutes in developer and fixer—also created a time warp. A day in the photo lab was a snug asylum away from the pressures of the bright modern world, and whenever I emerged with a blotter book full of damp prints, I was calm and neutral as if, in those hours, an even exchange between creating art and purging anxiety had passed through me.

So, today, I write about two recently published stories about photos and love. Last month, I did a roundup for The Wall Street Journal of film-based photo shows around town, finding that film is alive in all sorts of curious ways and places. I interviewed people who see analog as a relic and people who combine it with digital technologies. All fine. That story posted the night before Eastman Kodak declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Strange timing. [WSJ story here]

One show I purposely did not mention is the current exhibition at the International Center of Photography, “The Loving Story: Photographs by Grey Villet.” The small exhibition, as everyone now knows, features 23 prints of Mildred and Richard Loving, the interracial couple who sued the Commonwealth of Virginia for the right to live in their home state as husband and wife. LIFE magazine assigned Villet to the story in 1965.

Even though it had a good track record covering civil rights, LIFE held the story and when it published it the next year, used only a few images.  At that point, the Lovings were making news—on their way to the U.S. Supreme Court,  but it was also a time when only 4 percent of the population approved of interracial relationships. LIFE played it safe holding the essay until it was a news story, and then, showing a loving (no pun) family waiting in limbo.

What didn’t run are images Villet shot in his characteristic invisible style, capturing a determined couple in love, yes, but a couple also in pain, in negotiation and in fear. The images are intensely personal, shot as though Villet were flitting about—not as a fly on the wall, but as a darting and dipping bird who could get incredibly close to its targets without making them duck. [more images]

Villet died in 2002 without ever obtaining the fame his LIFE colleagues did. Though he shared a masthead and roamed the halls with the most renown shooters of his day, he stayed the fly on the wall.

By all accounts that was as he wanted it. I contacted his former colleagues from 40 or 30 years ago and without exception they all said “great photographer, terrible self-promoter.”

Now that posthumous task is up to his widow, Barbara, who still lives in the house they bought in 1961. She’s made it her life’s work to ensure her husband gets the acclaim he deserved. She invited me and WSJ photographer Daniella Zalcman to her home 200 miles north of New York City to see his photo archive.

Barbara Villet’s 19th-century house is a tumble of rooms filled with photos and her husband’s sculptures (Grey was a talented wood carver and bronze caster), so it seems that he’s never far. Her bed, awkwardly positioned in the middle of the bedroom, takes advantage of the wide river view through a wall of windows out back. There is a stone marker in her backyard with her husband’s name on it.

GREY VILLET LIKED ANGELS. A stylized wood-carved angel bearing a long trumpet hangs above the desk in Barbara’s studio. You can make the symbolic connection. He was also a furniture-maker. In her studio, there’s an rough-hewn old-fashioned flip-top student desk upon which he carved, “Where do the winds blow your words?” It’s where she stores his assignment sheets from LIFE—oversized pages typed out in uneven courier, some stained with cat pee.

Mugs, a highly protective rescue dog, trots around after his mistress, planting himself at her feet when she sits and throwing low, throaty grumbles our way when we get too close. He shares the premises with two cats—one chosen and the other an insistent stray that strangely won her over. She had tried to rid herself of him several times, but recalled that her husband once told her he wanted to come back in another life as a cat. The two have since settled into each other.

And that’s how Barbara describes her relationship with her husband. They met on assignment and knew within three days they would marry (he knew on day 1, but it took her two more to come around to the idea). “We were joined at the hip,” she said more than once in the several conversations I had with her.

More than husband and wife, they were a journalistic team that worked in sync to produce some of LIFE’s memorable stories: “The Lash of Success” (in an anthology of LIFE’s greatest essays), a 50-page essay covering three generations of a Vermont family, and many other deep and humanistic examinations of American society.

“Working with him was magic! My job was to listen and to get the words. We both favored what people were doing and saying, and not ourselves. So I was big on getting as many verbatim quotes and listening, listening, listening to what people said while he was watching, watching, watching what they said with their hearts. It was really very easy to work with Grey. I never had any strain at all with him. For some reason, it was like sensibilities and we both knew it.

“Grey used to say a photographer must feel what is happening before he hits the shutter.”

Then the shutter stopped clicking. When LIFE ended, so did a significant part of their charmed career.

“He was very ill at first after LIFE folded because it was like standing on a pinnacle and then the whole thing collapsed under him, you know. But we weathered it. And then we got the Airstream and that was a godsend for both of us. We packed it up and went to Mexico. We were a pair of gypsies. He didn’t shoot anything. He did carvings on the way. I don’t think I did anything but read. We just lazed around.

“If you were to meet him for the first time, he would be so self-effacing and quiet. You would have no idea of the level of talent. He always put everybody else at ease. He put what they had to tell him first. And whether it was visually or in fact what they had to say. He was just really interested in everybody else. In fact, really interested in life.  And so this made him very special because that generosity of spirit is why he could disappear.”

PDF story here [WSJ] // Daniella Zalcman’s slideshow here // Multimedia essay here

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1 Comment

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One response to “Local passport: NYC

  1. what a remarkable photographer and intense observer of life. thanks for bringing Villet’s photos to life for me. wonderful stuff.

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