An autobiographical preface

I have presided over half a century of regrets for missed opportunities and general fecklessness during four undergraduate years, 1961-1965. In fact I did lots of worthwhile and formative work, and sometimes made portentious choices, but I could have done so much more with the smörgåsbord if I'd applied myself, done the work, and been more self-reflective and less self-indulgent. Less clueless. More willing to listen. More responsible.

But at 18-21 one is only beginning to experiment with thinking for oneself, and with the construction and projection of a persona. Some are comfortable with taking instruction and seeking mentorship, generally staying within the prescribed pathways, and so developing a firm foundation for a career of coloring within the lines. The quinquennial Class Reports are full of those estimable sorts, doctors and lawyers and such, the Responsibles who are the bedrock of polite society and civic virtue.

But other types there be, wild hares and marchers to different drummers, unbridled and unbroken, whimsical and imaginative, the dissatisfied seekers. And it's with them I think I belong, or at least want to be found.

My tuition was covered by scholarships, and my tastes and proclivities were fed by a succession of jobs—animal caretaker at Tufts Dental School, cleaner of others' rooms at Harvard, research assistant to Robert B. Textor, photographer to Radcliffe alumnae publications, lab assistant in Harvard's still photography course, and progress photographer on the State Street Bank building, the first new skyscraper in Boston's financial district. Each of those is its own story, but these pages concern the lattermost.

It was more than 50 years after I took the photos that I suddenly realized the dimensions of the opportunity that the State Street Bank work opened up, and so glimpsed an alternate path that I might have taken. It's not that I consider that another path would somehow have been better, but the realization has led me to think differently about the 100+ rolls of film I exposed and developed, and so has enlarged my understanding of my long-running photographic enterprises.

I remember the pleasure of putting on the Gilbane hard hat and wandering at will over the block-sized construction site, photographing anything that caught my interest or seemed like it might be an element of the construction process that the site manager would choose to have printed (at $4 per 8x10—I worked on spec). I took hundreds of pictures of the workers (of almost no interest to the site manager) and lots of artsy details of materials (similarly of no interest), along with the chronology of assembly of the building.

I didn't reflect systematically on what I was doing, but I kept eyes and ears open and so absorbed a lot of miscellaneous information on the construction project and its dramatis personae. What I didn't do, and should have, was realize that I had a unique opportunity for real live fieldwork. I was embedded in a work site with a score of contractors and hundreds of specialized tradesmen, in a carefully choreographed ballet of materials and technical processes. I had the opportunity and the excuse to talk to anybody, ask any questions, assemble the background and context for my photos, and so produce an original and unprecedented ethnography of a job site and a contruction process. All that was within my grasp and I didn't see it, not until 50 years later.

There were many personal and institutional reasons for not-seeing the possibility. I considered myself to be headed for a (rather ill-defined) career as a Southeast Asian anthropologist, and was sure that Peace Corps service was the on-ramp to that future. How I arrived at that formulation is another story, and what actually happened still another.

Even if I had grokked the possibility of an ethnography, the Harvard of the mid-1960s would not have been receptive to the project—or, at least in hindsight, I can't imagine where I might have found a mentor to supervise the work. Certainly not within Anthropology as I understood its rather exotic concerns. A decade or more later there might have been room within Visual Studies or Arch Sci.

So I'm left wondering what an honors thesis project would have looked like if I could have imagined it and found a mentor to help me through the process of turning my visual and narrative material into a package with the right earmarks. And I ask myself if I can now approach the evidence of 3000+ photographs with this imaginary armature of an ethnographic thesis in mind, how might I read and interpret the photographic work I did?

Re-interpretation is a good excuse for opening up the musty archive of old negatives. It's not a matter of longing for a path not taken, or unseen, so much as an opportunity for excavation of subtexts: why did I take photos as I did? What was I doing unbeknownst? What was the underlying and nascent vision that has lain largely latent for 50 years?

I was after all a serious student of photography in those years, though I scarcely understood it as more than a private passion for the visual. I was gradually immersing myself in the work of photographers of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, and inching toward my own definition of a visual aesthetic, elements of which seem to me pretty well developed in the State Street Bank photographs—nothing glorious, but some consistency in composition and in the selection of subject matter. I don't mean to over-see what I was doing, but I find it instructive to apply a 50-year perspective to what I seem to have seen and thought in 1964-1965.

There were technological limitations: I worked almost exclusively with 50mm lenses, I was cavalier about exposure, and my darkroom technique was sloppier that it should have been. And I should have shot more, and recorded for myself what I was thinking and seeing (at that time I didn't have the habit of writing notes to myself). So: inconsistent, scattershot, insufficiently thoughtful... and still I captured images that please me still, and that grasp something of the essence of time and place.

I was somewhat aware of the work of Lewis Hine (thanks to Len Gittleman), but I never sought out Harvard's vast library of Hine's images, and never quite realized how much my work owed to what I did absorb by desultory examination of Hine's photographs.

And I was, alas, primary in it for the $4 per print, and the photos of workers were more of an afterthought and sideline. I did make small prints of many of those pictures and gave them to the guys, to their real pleasure. They were proud of what they did, and gratified that the kid with the camera noticed and remembered them. That was my toehold in fieldwork, if I'd only noticed it and acted upon it. I could have hung out with them at lunchtime and asked for their explanation of what my progress photos showed, but I was too shy, in too much of a rush, and didn't really reckon with the knowledge and expertise they possessed. So yeah, it could have turned out so differently, if only.

It was David Hunsberger who threw the job my way. He had covered the excavation of the site, but was off to do something else and introduced me to the site manager as a replacement, just before the first column was to go up. I followed the progress for the next nine months, visiting the site twice a week for an hour or two each time, shooting a roll or two on each visit, then delivering contact sheets to the project manager. He marked the shots he wanted, and I delivered the prints on the next visit.

Since I wore a Gilbane hard hat, nobody ever questioned my presence or warned me not to go someplace. Everybody on the job site was friendly and the door was certainly open for the college kid to be friendly too.