swimming_pool_83

Westmount Swimming Pool, Montreal, 1983

30 years ago, my photo opportunities were slim. I had a miserable job, a shaky marriage, and probably smoked too much dope. But I persevered, and tried to form my picture-taking to suit my lifestyle. My youngest daughter, Megan, would take swimming classes at the Westmount pool every Saturday morning, and I would take her there and wait, and then return home with her. It was a perfect opportunity to have an hour or so to myself and take a few pictures around Westmount Park. I actually became very familiar with the place and some of my favorite shots from that period were taken there. When my hour was up, I would return to the pool and take Megan home. I liked those Saturdays—they were very peaceful tranquil moments for me. Sometimes I would just hang around the pool and shoot but that was then. Now if I did that I would be classified as a pervert, squads of SWAT cops would surround me, take me down and spend the rest of the day interrogating me, checking my computer, and questioning my neighbors about my “suspicious” behavior. Sometimes progress can be a bit unnerving.

Sam's Balcony

Balcony at Sam’s. Montreal, July, 2010
When I moved from Montreal to Vermont way back in the last century, I found it difficult to stay away for too long. It took only an hour and a half to drive there  so once or twice a month, I would head up, hang out with my friend Sam, chat, and drink lots of tea and then meet up with Sharon for dinner. It was a routine that played itself our for over 20 years. I always had a camera with me and over those years, I took some of my best pictures in his apartment. When I took this one, I almost decided not to bring a camera at all. We were going to some event that night, and I thought it might be a bit inconvenient. However I knew from experience, that when I went anywhere without a camera, there is always a missed opportunity so I brought along a small Leica X1, which could fit in my pocket. It was a hot, July day and as I was leaving, I noticed the hallway door to the balcony was open for air passage and stepped outside. Voila!

rome

In my world, there are two kinds of photographers. The first is the deliberate one, the guy who checks every setting twice, focusses very carefully, checks exposure again, and then spends the next two or three minutes framing their shot. One can take a lot of photographs in two minutes. A lot of times, I have come across these types of photographers, and not wanting to ruin their photograph, I patiently wait for them to finish, before walking through. On many occasions, I run out of patience, and after waiting for a minute or two, I say “fuck it” and walk through their pictures. They never notice me. The second type of photographer is the slob—that’s me.  For the most part on a sunny day I set my ISO at 400, camera at F8 and out the door I go. I see something that interests me, I raise my camera and shoot. Its all over very quickly. It may take me a half second to raise the camera and frame my shot and 1/125 of a second to snap the shutter and its all over. The photography above is a perfect example. I was walking through the Piazza di Popolo in Rome, and noticed this couple kissing. I was about 20 feet away and decided to get closer. As I approached, I pre-focussed for about 10 feet walked up, raised the camera and shot. They never noticed me so I continued to adjust my framing, and waited for a split second or two for the right moment and shot three more frames. This one is from the last three frames. It was all over in about three or four seconds and I was gone.

L1001562

 

This was a different situation completely and is about as anal as I get as a photographer. My wife and I were in Montreal and went for a late lunch at Chez Leveque—one of our favorite haunts when we visit there. We like to sit side by side, and the waiter begrudgingly obliged. Across from me was this woman, finishing off her lonely lunch with a glass of wine. I saw the shot but did not want to attract her attention so I refrained. I was very itchy to do something but experience had taught me that this was one of those situations that required some patience. In a few moments, a small child who was bored sitting with his parents got up and started to run around the place. When he ran in front of the woman, I raised my camera and pretended to shoot him, but was actually focussing on the woman at the table. The woman smiled at me as I pretended to shoot the obnoxious little brat and the ice was broken. She did not pay any more attention to me. The kid left, she took a sip of her wine and looked out the window. I slowly raised my camera which was already focussed and took two shots and it was all over.

In both situations, I spotted what I wanted to shoot, and acted spontaneously and quickly when I saw the moment.  If I was like the other type of photographer, I would have come up empty—the moment passing before me as I got myself ready.  I am sure there are times when it pays to take one’s time making a shot, and I am sure I am guilty of that from time to time. However those occasions usually do not have people in the frame. Then I have all the time in the world.

George_Paul

Way back in the last century, from 1971 to 1984, I worked as a medical photographer in a Montreal hospital. In many ways I enjoyed the work but in others, it was also quite depressing. When things became barely manageable, I would escape down to the animal quarters in the research institute and chat with my friend George who ran this small department. He had had some accident a few years earlier, and was confined to a wheelchair, and i was always amazed at his attitude when dealing with this unfortunate event. Last year I wanted to look him up and see him again after such a long absence, and I found out he had passed away a few months earlier.

The two men in this photograph (Mr. George, and Mr. Paul), worked for George as animal attendants. One day as I was talking to George, he mentioned that they had worked for him for at least ten years and they absolutely hated each other. Mr. George was from Barbados and spoke with a thick Caribbean accent. Mr. Paul was Greek and spoke with a very thick Greek accent. He chuckled when he mentioned that to me because he did not really understand how they managed hate each other when they could not even understand what each one was saying when they spoke to each other. (George on the other hand, came from Hungary and I could barely understand him but that was fine with me.)

Anyhow, after George told me this I grabbed my camera and asked the two men if I could take their picture and they said yes.

felix

I took this photograph in 1983. At that time I was working as a medical photographer at a Montreal hospital. I was always in the habit of using the staircases to get around instead of the elevators because I needed the exercise and it was quicker.

Naturally, while working, I almost always had a camera with me and on this occasion, while on my way up to one of the floors to photograph a patient with some obscure feature, which only doctors can find interesting, I encountered Felix, paused a few moments and took 3 shots before I continued on my way. But this is nor what this story is about.

This image was made almost exactly 30 years ago. As I mentioned, I was working as a medical photographer and I was not all that happy about it. When I started the job 12 years earlier, it was far more exciting. I was given this wonderful darkroom which I could use personally. I was my own boss (sort of) I worked alone and almost all of my duties consisted of either making photographs of patients, photographing surgical operations and making/designing teaching programs for the medical staff.

Somewhere along the way things changed. Additional staff were hired and I became a boss. The job changed and now almost half my time was administrative. Technology arrived and everybody wanted video and I personally had little interest in it but I had to learn and provide it to the staff. New levels of administration meant that good bosses were replaced by more mediocre ones. As I said things changed. They always do.

Being miserable in a job is not unique and I am sure many readers have encountered the same situation. However doing something about is something else. A short while after I photographed Felix in the staircase, this job suddenly came to an end, and for one of those brief and rare moments in my life, the fog lifted and I made one of those important decisions which would alter my life forever.

I gave up being a professional photographer (at least a professional medical photographer) and moved into an area that was new, different and challenging. I decided to become a self-employed graphic designer specializing in medical publications. I had the skills but I had never put them to practice but this time I seized the opportunity and became quite successful. There was also a side effect in that my photography that I loved, would continue. My new career allowed me more time to explore my real photographic interest which was not as a scientific photographer but as an artist.

15 years later things changed again because with the advent of the computer toward the end of the 90’s, most of my clients who were publishers, began to purchase computers, Photoshop and Pagemaker and bypass me, so for the second time in my life, I had one of those rare moments of clarity and decided to change my life again and this time became involved in the actual medical publishing side. I became the client.

Do you see where I am going with this?

Things change—they always do and there is little anyone can do about it except adapt. My professional photographic career lasted only 12 years but since I loved photography that much, I modified my discipline and have been able to continue it for 30 years (and hopefully a bit longer) Not only do I now photograph the things I want to instead of being directed by the “client”, but I think I am still getting better at it which is a wonderful side effect.

Because of the development of the computer, My 15 year period as a graphic artist, allowed me to prosper, however the change in technology led to the inevitable decline in my business.  Adapting to change and becoming involved as a publisher, allowed me to continue to prosper and also gave me more time to develop as a photographer.

When I think about though, nothing really has changed for me. I always enjoyed being a photographer and am still enjoying it today. Also, my background in the medical area has always governed my professional life to this day.

I think where most people run into problems is when the try to hang on to things instead of just changing with them. Instead of adapting to change they fight it and loose their way as a consequence. I suppose one may say the only way to fight change is to adopt it.

As for the photograph of Felix—it still one of my favorite portraits, to this day.

paperman

Part 1

If you are Jewish, and you live in Montreal, sooner or later, you will die, and end up at Paperman and Sons Funeral Parlor. Naturally, I had heard of it since I was a kid, but since nobody close to me had ever died, I never went there except for funerals. That means, I never knew what went on upstairs—I knew nothing of the business of death.

That changed in 2001 when my mother died at the age of 92. Suddenly I had to go to Paperman and Sons and “do business”. I phoned and made an appointment to see Ross Paperman who of course was one of the elder Paperman’s sons. Of course everybody in Montreal who was Jewish knew where it was but this time it was a bit different. I went in the entrance and for the first time, I went to the elevator, instead of the chapel. The elevator doors opened (just like the gates of heaven) and I entered. I was swiftly transported to the second floor and when I exited, there was a pretty young lady with dark hair, a dark suit, dark eye make-up and deathly thin. She walked up to me, extended her hand, and said very formally, “My extreme sympathies, Mr. Saxe, if you will have a seat. Mr. Ross Paperman will be with you shortly.” I sat down and looked around. The whole place was decorated in Jewish Gothic with dark paneling, black sofas, mahogany desks and everybody who worked there was dressed in black. I felt I was paying a visit to the Munster’s.

In a few moments a young 40ish man in a dark suit came out and introduced himself as Ross Paperman. “I am deeply sorry about the loss of your late mother.” he said. (Actually it was not such a tragedy. She had lived a long healthy life, her cancer was diagnosed three weeks before her death, and she suffered no pain. She told me she was ready to go.)

We walked down a dark-paneled corridor, past mahogany doors, and an endless bevy of employees—all wearing dark suits, and he stopped at dark-paneled door , opened it and said “Please go in.”. Sharon and I walked into this huge mahogany-paneled office. Instead of being dark like everything else. it was brightly lit by an array of fluorescent ceiling lights. I felt I was about to “beamed” somewhere. Every shelf, tabletop, bookcase was adorned with miniature GI Joe figurines. Yes! Fucking GI Joe figurines! I smiled. Sharon smiled.

“This is such a gloomy place sometimes, I keep my collection here to cheer me up. I hope you don’t mind. If it bothers you we can move to another room.”  All I could think of was where the fuck was my camera!

Part 2

Two years later, my father passed away. Again it was no great tragedy. He was 96, institutionalized, in dementia and passed away peacefully in his sleep. For the second time in my life, I had to go to Paperman’s to “do business”.

Sharon and I walked into the building, past the chapel and entered the elevator. When the doors opened, everything was as it had been before except that this time, I brought my camera. The woman with the dark hair, black suit and dark eye make-up motioned for us to sit on one of the black sofas in the reception room. As I waited, I thought I was so clever for bringing my camera this time. I eagerly anticipated meeting with Ross and photographing his office with himself surrounded by 10,000 GI Joes. After a few moments, he came out, gave his sincerest sympathies and we followed him to his office. We walked in and I could not believe it. There was no trace of any GI Joe except for a small glass case on the wall containing 4 figurines. “Where are all your GI Joes,” I asked. He told me that some of the customers had complained and his brothers and sister and father thought it was not “professional”  enough for Montreal’s finest funeral parlor, so he reluctantly removed them. Sadly I sat down in one of the black leather chairs and “did business”.  I signed some papers, received the death certificate and performed other “pleasantries”. At some point, I had to pee and asked where the bathroom was.  “Use the chapel restroom. It is much more comfortable. It is on your right at the bottom of the stairs.” I left the office, walked down the dark hallway and entered the staircase. As I was walking down the stairs, I saw this very old man standing at the bottom staring at the wall. “Hello,” he said. “How are you?” I introduced myself and told him I was here to arrange for my father’s funeral. “I am very saddened by your loss. My name is Herbert Paperman.” I introduced myself. At that point he noticed my camera around my neck. He said he used to collect them and at one time he had about 100 of them (including a few Contax’s). He rambled on and on about cameras and although he knew his stuff, he was not entirely connecting with me. I asked him if I could take his photograph and he said “of course.” He seemed to be a bit fuzzy on some matters and on others (like his Leica collection) he was very lucid. He was elderly and his mental state reminded me of my late father in his final years—dipping in and out of reality, punctuated by strong moments of lucidity. “Everybody in my family liked to collect things.” he said. My sons like to collect exotic cars. They spent a fortune on their Ferrari’s and Lamborghini’s.” Really” I answered, suddenly understanding why the costs of funerals in Montreal were so high. “Oh ya,” he continued, “they were buying and selling so many we had to build a separate garage for them to store them. They take up a lot of space you know. At one time they… Suddenly the door to the staircase was flung open and two women with black hair, dark eye shadow wearing black suits rushed in and grabbed him and ushered him away. As they were dragging the old man out the door one of them turned to me and tersely asked if I was lost.

“I have to pee” I answered. “I was on my way to the bathroom.”

HB_Kid

As a kid growing up in Montreal, I sorta got used to freezing my ass off in winter. Of course when you are younger, you don’t really realize it… or care for that matter. As a teenager you have to show how tough you are so you never wear a hat, don’t lace up your flight boots, and keep your jacket unbuttoned. And gloves? Fuck em! That phase only lasted until my 18th year. That’s when I went out one January afternoon and walked over to my friend Harvey’s which was a 20 minute walk. It was -10° F, and there was a 20 mile an hour wind blowing but I didn’t care. I was a tough teenager who thought he knew it all. (Over the years I have found out quite gradually, how little I really know. Its fascinating!) It was cold but I could “handle it” so off I went. When I arrived, his sister Julianne opened the door and blurted out, “David, what happened to your ear? Its white!” I reached up and touched it and it was frozen stiff. It took about 10 minutes to thaw out and after that, whenever the temperature was below freezing, my ear would sting like hell unless I wore a hat.

Over the next few years I started becoming more adverse to winter with age and started wearing sweaters, buttoning my coat, wearing gloves and of course a hat. At some point that was not enough. Winter became just as exciting as a trip to the dentist. I began to hate it with a passion. Slush in Montreal made the temperature damp. My toes were always cold. Sitting in a restaurant there was always a draft. Even having a car didn’t help because it took time to warm up and I always had to shovel it out after a snowfall.

I moved to Vermont as I like to say for “the warmer climate”. It actually was warmer… by about an average of 5° but after a few years it didn’t seem really different. I still froze, and my toes were still cold.

When I was 45, I went to Florida for the first time and met my present wife Sharon. We were both from Montreal and we both drove our parent’s cars down south for them. (An old middle-class Jewish custom) We were both broke so for the first few years of our marriage, that was our annual vacation. Every November and April… her in her mother’s car and myself  in my father’s car following each other down/up I95. It was worth it though, because I fell in love with that hot wind, on a winter night as we walk down the street with the smell of Jasmine in the warm aire. After a few years we eventually settled on one car. We found someone else to drive my father’s.

As time went on, we became a bit more affluent and started going down on our own—this time in winter when it was cold. As things got better we would do it twice, and eventually three times a year. It was nice, but we both hated coming back north and so about seven years ago after figuring out how to make our business portable, we bought a place here. It’s really funny but for most of my life, I always thought that people who were doing the same thing were schmucks. I saw it as typical “follow-the-herd” mentality. I never really wanted to identify with them. As I said at the beginning, I didn’t know very much when I was younger. You grow up, and as a teenager, acquire prejudices that you stick with for most of your life until you smarten up or other things happen to change your mind. This is what we call “coming of age.” In my case it took a while.

So, why the picture?  Because it was taken yesterday on the beach here in Florida when it was a balmy 82°. As I said, you have to adapt and change. In this case it was not about being able to afford it—it was about changing one’s view on things, figuring out how to make it work,  and I am the better off for it.

A very happy new year to everybody.