Life in Black and White
Behind the lens
“Just scooch in a little closer — there you go! Thank you. Now, hold the pose… just a few seconds… look right here and smile!…”
Click! Whrrr… “Beautiful!”
Clint was satisfied. He had a feeling this one would turn out well — a photograph that told a story without words. A story of the love of a father for his children.
It was Clint’s dream to open his own photography studio someday. Until then, it was a hobby. His fascination with photography had begun when he was young, maybe the age of the boy in this family he had just captured on film.
He had started saving pennies, but it would take a long time before he’d have the dollar necessary to buy a camera. Mama gave him a jar, so he could drop the pennies in. Clink! One hundred pennies! That was a lot of money. A lot of clinks.
“That’s almost as much as Daddy earns in a day, after expenses,” Mama told him. His daddy worked as a Pullman porter. Clint wasn’t very sure about the expenses part, so Mama explained that Daddy got paid a certain amount every month — but out of that he had to pay for his food, his uniforms, and even the shoe polish he used on the passengers’ shoes.
“I’m proud of you for saving! Just keep doing it. There’s no point in buying a camera until you have enough money for a roll of film to use in it,” Mama said, giving him a quick squeeze around his shoulders. Clint kept saving his pennies. Clink!
In 1930, the Eastman Kodak company had its 50th anniversary. To promote interest in photography, they gave away a Brownie Hawkeye camera to every twelve-year-old in the country.
Clint didn’t qualify; he was nine at the time. His sister Dorothy, who was twelve, received a camera, but she wouldn’t let him try it. She was afraid he’d waste the film. He continued saving pennies. Clink!
By and by, Dorothy lost interest in the Brownie Hawkeye. She filled a roll or two of film over the next couple of years, then abandoned the camera. She preferred to save her money for a sewing machine so she could make her own dresses, and maybe someday sew for other people like Mama did.
“Can I use the camera?” Clint asked. Mama heard.
“‘May I’, Clinton,” she reminded him. “And remember your manners, please.”
Mama was a stickler for being proper in all things; the children were always clean, neatly dressed, and had impeccable manners. She was strict, but kind.
“Yes, Mama. Dorothy, please may I use your camera? I have money to buy the film,” he added quickly.
“Here,” Dorothy offered. “Just keep it.”
The tiny photographs were a little disappointing, but Clint persisted. Any money he received went to his film fund. Clink!
Little by little, his skill increased, but the small square box had limited effectiveness. He needed better equipment.
For extra money, he set up a shoeshine stand. Daddy showed him how to achieve a lustrous shine. Sonny Gibbs, the barber, let him operate just outside the barbershop doors, and he became a fixture on Saturdays. Clink! Clink!
“May I take some pictures of you at work, Mr. Gibbs? You could use them for advertising, if they turn out well!”
Mr. Gibbs chuckled, a deep, rumbling laugh.
“All right with me, Clint — better ask the customers before you do it though.”
“You need a better quality camera, Clint,” Mr. Gibbs remarked a week later, when he saw the first results. “You have talent, and that little Hawkeye doesn’t do it justice.”
“Yes, sir. I don’t have the money, sir.”
“Well… let me see what I can do.”
Sonny Gibbs dropped a word in the ear of Jakob Schneider, a regular at the barbershop. Jakob operated the pawn shop a few doors down.
“Ja, I have some cameras,” he acknowledged. “You come by — I show you.”
There were three cameras in Schneider’s shop. One was a Brownie Hawkeye, just like the one Clint was already using. The second was an almost new model, too expensive for Sonny’s intent. He eyed the third, a Leica Model A.
“Made in Germany!” Jakob proclaimed proudly. “One hundred fourteen dollars new, neunzehn hundert — ah — nineteen twenty-five.”
“For you, for the boy, twenty dollars.”
Mama wouldn’t allow Clint to accept the Leica.
“Mr. Gibbs,” she explained, “that’s very kind of you, but it won’t teach him responsibility.”
“We’ll call it payment for advertising then.”
“No, Mr. Gibbs. Clinton will pay you for the camera.”
Finally, they came to an agreement. Mama decided that her son could give Mr. Gibbs earnest money. She consented to the barber crediting him a modest sum for “advertising fees”. She would then allow Clint to use the Leica, so his photography skills could improve.
“It belongs to Mr. Gibbs until you pay the very last penny.”
Through the lens -
The photograph is close to seventy-five years old, still crisp and sharply defined in black and white. It tells a story without words. A story of the love of a father for his children.
He stands, smiling broadly, squinting in the bright spring sunshine. Fully leafed-out poplar trees in the background provide a clue to the season.
A wide-brimmed hat casts a shadow on the man’s forehead. His left arm is around the shoulders of an adolescent girl, perhaps twelve years old. She wears a striped tee shirt, ragged jeans with a hole in one knee, and a tentative smile. She has large, captivating eyes framed by distinctive arched brows.
Against his right side, the father holds his son in a half-embrace. The boy, about eight years old, has a self-conscious smile and his father’s crinkly squint. He’s wearing a dark jacket that could be leather. There is a visible hole in the side of his shoe, and visible contentment in being pressed close to his father’s side.
The youngest child, a puny girl of about six, is not smiling. She wears a sober expression and has a peaked appearance, as if she has been recently ill. Even in the black and white image, it’s evident that the tip of her nose must be pink.
She’s been lovingly bundled in a knee-length coat with a wide collar, slightly out of fashion, and wears a bonnet style hat. Too small to be included in the embrace, she’s tucking herself tightly against her father’s denim-clad leg.
The mother has chosen not to be in this photograph, self-effacingly joking,
“There’s too much of me to fit in the picture!”
Beyond the lens -
Goats clamored to be noticed as they clambered over and upon tree stumps and farm equipment. There were Alpines, sporting horns and beards; Saanens, hornless, clean faced, a bit larger than the Alpines; and charming, chunky, lop-eared Nubians.
The goats were fun — albeit challenging — to photograph. Clint asked the boy to assist him.
“Think you can catch that one? She’s pretty.”
Dexterously, the boy apprehended a large chestnut Nubian nanny with a black face and white blaze. Her silky, pendulous gray tweed ears flopped as she bellowed,
The boy crouched beside her, arms encircling her broad shoulders and neck, restraining her.
Click! Whrrr… “Beautiful!”
Sometimes, at school, he was called “Goat Boy”.
“Hey, Goat Boy, is your coat made from one of your goats?”
In reality, the leather jacket — which his parents could not afford to buy — was a gift from his favorite aunt, his father’s sister. A prize possession, but he almost didn’t want to wear it after being mocked.
The photographer came now and then, usually to take pictures of the animals.
“Any new ones?” he always asked. He had plenty of pictures of goats, chickens, rabbits, pigs…
This day, there was a tiny black lamb. Just a few days old, he tottered a bit on his slim legs as he followed the boy.
“How about if you sit on the ground and hold him in your lap?” suggested the photographer.
Click! Whrrr… “Beautiful!”
The father was a storyteller. He painted pictures using words as his medium. His children had heard them again and again, never tiring of their allure.
Clint came to take pictures, and stayed for the stories. His particular favorite was an account of the father’s cross-country journey from Maine to Nevada. It began with a bicycle ride all the way to Illinois, where the tires wore through and were replaced free of charge in Chicago.
The last leg of the journey was by train, and Clint wondered if his own father might have served as porter on that very voyage. Of course, the young traveler would never have had occasion to enter the sleeping car — he couldn’t have afforded it.
The next time he stopped by, Clint brought a gift for the family. Three large prints of the same photograph —
“One for each of the children,” he said, with a smile.
The father offered to pay for them, but the photographer refused. He wanted to give them this moment in their lives, preserved in black and white.
It is, indeed, a photograph that tells a story without words. A story of the love of a father for his children.