Monday, July 9, 2007


I handle moving claims for a living, in addition to other things. That means I go into people's homes, introduce myself, and try to solve the myriad of problems sometimes caused by inept movers and packers. Furniture dented, carpets soiled, washers and dryers not functioning, valued paintings damaged.
I like to think that I treat all of my clients equally. But, some clients are more equal than others. This is just how life works.
So, when I met Ida Schwartz--this is not her real name--I fairly quickly decided I'd met one of those who are just a little more equal. These are the ones you sit down with to enjoy a cup of coffee and conversation for awhile. This does not happen often. I can think of only half a dozen times in the past decade when it has. When it does, there is always a reward: a friendship made; something new learned or experienced.
Ida is an elderly woman, a Jewish photographer from New York City. She has travelled extensively, which may explain how she is adapting so well to the Midwest.
She has lived many years in NYC, so she's--understand--a freak by Midwest standards. She has also lived for some months in Brittany, France, and in LA. This, of course, makes her even more of a freak, in the Midwest. Well, she lives in Madison, which is where the freaks in the Midwest live, so...

Ida had some cabinets damaged: brightly painted stacked units which the movers had treated rudely. I have had to haul them to my shop and sand and repaint. In doing so, Ida and I had to take a little trip to the paint store to pick out colors. Picking out colors with an artist is not for the faint of heart. There is no accounting for taste. It took a bit o' time. By the time the Flambe and Marigold had been picked and mixed, well! It was time for lunch. So I treated Ida to lunch. This is the sort of thing one can do when self-employed, and which makes life a little more enjoyable. Ida was delighted. Everythng on Denny's menu delighted her. This was a date!--albeit spontaneous. She began to remind me of my mother, who often said when seated at dinner in some restaurant or other: "What an adVENture!" Food, and leisure, and conversation.

I spent the latter part of this morning on site, repairing chips and scrapes and dents in various and sundry furniture belonging to Ida. Oh, and where was I going next? Would I be anywhere near such-and-such a street? Yes, I was going to be near there. And...would it be at all possible for me to drop her off there? Yes, of course. No problem.
But before we left, we had the cup of coffee. She answered a phone call, so I strolled throughout her rooms, sipping java and admiring her black and white photography. Then, we sat and discussed her work. It turns out she was a free-lancer for years for LIFE magazine, BUSINESS WEEKLY, and others. We discussed the changes in technology throughout the life of her career. She pointed out examples from prints on her walls of how technology had changed--more and crisper detail in her later work. I asked her for an example of getting a free-lance assignment from a major magazine. She gave the example of having to film a tennis pro giving lessons to some film starlets in LA. "I was up half the night worrying about how to do it. I mean, what do I know about tennis? And when I found it was just a thinly veneered promo for a resort, I was pretty disgusted. But they liked what I did." I mentioned that, disgust or not, she did her job professionally, and that is what we are called to do. Yes, she agreed, that is how it is.

How to describe a picture? It might take a thousand words. Two of Ida's that caught my eye had both been taken in Britanny many years before. One was of an older woman--a restauranteur--sitting at a table near a front window in her restaurant, two glasses of wine sitting on the table. She is stemming green beans. There is the slightly blurred image of a man walking by, looking into the window at her. This is a picture of vocation, in fact, coupled with the little pleasures that vocation brings: the glass of wine, the leisurely, mid-morning routine of the day. Green beans and a woven basket on the table.
The other was my favorite: a photo of Robert (pronounced Roh BERR, the French way). He is standing in an old, tidy little kitchen, in shorts and a sleeveless t-shirt. It is either very early in the morning or late at night (Ida told me it was late at night: he was a baker in the village, just beginning his day, putting together the ingredients for cafe au lait). The shaded kitchen light hangs suspended from the ceiling, so that only the table, its contents, and Robert are encircled in light. He is in his thirties, so it appears, and stands, half-awake, right hand pouring hot water into a bowl, left arm held slightly bent and back, as though he withheld himself somehow from his activity
It is the left arm, held back in such a way, that makes the photo subtly poignant. It is a wonderful print.
Black and white photography is at the far extreme from the sort of visual imagery that we now consider art: full-color action movies is what I have in mind. The stark detail of B&W causes the mind and eye to slow down, just as poetry does. There is no hurrying the reading of a poem. And a good poem requires several readings to appreciate. I would call B&W photography the visual equivalent. We have to stop , and look, and think. We see detail that we would not ever notice in film. We see detail in a different way than we would were it colored. Good black and white photography reminds me of a good Alan Furst novel. He probably writes surrounded by good black and white photography. Taken in Britanny.

Ida is a mature artist. There is none of the extraneous, superficial "artistry" about her. She's grounded, she's old, she's worldly but in a pleasant, simple way. She has nothing to prove. Her little condo is a combination of beautiful things hanging on the walls coupled with the fussy mess of a slightly disorganized person. Prints and proofs stacked on beds; next to beds. An ironing board set up, stacked with books.
The coffee mug I drank from this morning showed Moses holding the Ten Commandments. The caption read, "Take two tablets every morning". I was about to broach THAT subject, but the phone rang again. And then we were off.
Next time, perhaps.


Anonymous said...

Your character study prose is vivid: your reflection paints a picture of your friend for us.

Thank you.

Bruce Gee said...

Well, a picture does indeed paint a thousand words. But while I got Ida's permission to blog about her--"Don't use my name!"--I necessarily didn't get her picture. So the words will have to do, I guess.


Anonymous said...

Your words will do..... because they do very, very well.