My father would have been 90 today. Here's what he taught me about collecting the beauty in the world.
My father was a collector whose precious objects brought him great joy. On this, the day he would have been 90, I am full of memories of what he taught me. He's been gone more than four years now, but my husband and I live surrounded by some of those precious objects: Books, records, pottery, and drums. I have his photo collection in my basement. It's massive.
I'm also, apologetically, his daughter. I'm a "Look at the Moon!" person. I'm a "Look at that hawk!" person. I'm a "Look how green the leaves are" person. I'm a photographer who captures and preserves my experiences so I can study them again later, relishing the memories. I love making photos for other people and seeing them in print as lasting keepsakes. I am most passionate about photographing people and showcasing their uniqueness. He was a cultural anthropologist, so his favorite subject was also people.
The contrast between my parents and their affinity for things was stark and amusing. My mother didn't even think about material objects (except as tools to do or make), and my father was a passionate, organized, and diligent collector. When he and my mother moved in together, she had a mat to sleep on, two suitcases and two rattan chairs. He brought boxes of his records, books, artifacts, stamps, cameras and photographs. Everything was cataloged and ordered just so. Mom came to treasure his things and share his passion for the artifacts they collected together.
My own passion for not just photographs and photography, but also books, stories, music, and adventures, began at his side. Dad taught me about collecting stamps, filled our house with his favorite music, took us on adventurous sabbaticals to Mexico, Guatemala, and Trinidad, and always made beautiful, vivid photos of the people he met and studied. People always react with shock when I tell them I wasn't allowed to touch his cameras growing up. But they were so complicated: his Rolleiflex and light meter still baffle me. I didn't really start making my own photos until I was married and had a camera of my own. I don't look back on his possessiveness as a bad thing, but with a wry, sneaky satisfaction. Why? Because he WANTED me to share his passions, he just didn't want anything damaged.
What I did was sneak! I studied his art books. I loved the weight of his giant volumes of great works on my lap. I read Catch 22 and the Planet of the Apes when he left them sitting around (before I was old enough). I "stole" his Bizet Symphony #1 in C Major by taking it to my room and playing it over and over again on my record player. And when I left for college, I took it with me. I studied his photo albums. I went into the field with him when he was interviewing people for his research, and I was so proud to be his daughter when people said, "Robby's here!" The photos he captured of those people had love in their eyes for him.
Surprisingly, for all his talent, he was very modest and didn't look for attention from his photography. When I asked him if I could make a print from the slide of this photo, he was baffled. And then I wanted him to sign it, so I could frame it for my house. He complied, reluctantly. He didn't see himself as an artist. I feel this photo captured how I felt around the beauties I met on our travels: I was so pale and big (though not for an American), and my friends and "cousins" were delicate, dark, and beautiful. I wanted to look like them. He captured our friendship and our contrast magnificently in this photograph. I appreciate the legacy our dear old Dad left us. Today, he would have been 90. If he were here, he'd be sad it was sleeting and snowing. His birthday was usually during Passover, so he would have loved the Manischewitz cake we used to bake for him. He would have celebrated seeing forsythia blooming in his yard. And he would have had his camera out to capture all of it.
Happy Birthday, Dad. Your memory is a blessing to all of us who knew and loved you.
I feel an obligation to my younger sisters to point out that I was an only child until I was six years old. So my experience, my sliver in time with our parents is when they were younger, starting out, and I had their full attention. Before our family was complete with my two sisters, I was lonely for companions, so I had lots of solitary time to look at all of Dad's stuff.
Blog: Stories from Behind the Lens
As much as I revel in the final image and love returning to look at them again and again, the process of making a photo is also a treasured experience.