My Father’s Green Album


Benjamin Swett

I always thought of my father as a photographer. He was constantly taking pictures when we were growing up. Our walls were covered with his prints. It was he who first put a camera in my hands. He was one of those for whom photography seemed less an activity than a state of mind, who approached the world as a series of images that had to be translated into words; who, when driving down a street, always mentally framed the view through the windshield, and who, in conversation with another person, could be observed more to stare at the other person’s face than to take in much of what they were saying. The level of energy, even anxiety, that my father poured into photographing family events far outweighed the requirements of recording them. Holding himself apart from conversation, roving around the outside of family groups with camera clicking, climbing trees, lying on his back in pachysandra borders with head and elbows raised, running through rose bushes or along the outsides of cars to get the better angles, he gave our ordinary birthdays and christenings a sense of urgency and even national importance, as if we were the Kennedy children and our mother Jackie Onassis, or a line of troops sloshing through a rice paddy in Vietnam and he the camouflage-clad photojournalist recording us for a spread in Life. Visits to Coney Island, a trip to the Central Park Zoo, kite-flying in Prospect Park, the sunset on the Esplanade in Brooklyn Heights were doubly significant occasions, first through our father’s recording of them, and then through the prints he made, which confused us into thinking that what he had recorded was what we remembered. He had an account at Modernage, the lab on Sixth Avenue used by photojournalists he knew, and would spend hours at night after dinner poring over his contact sheets with a loupe and a grease pencil, marking and cropping the images that he would give to Modernage the next day to print and mount on Masonite. By the mid-seventies, when I was in my teens, our walls really were covered with black and white prints of my sisters and me at different stages of our lives, and of our mother since she had entered our father’s life before we were born.

He was, or made himself out to be, what we would call today a serious amateur. Only once, as far as I know, did he ever take money for his pictures (and that experience was sufficiently traumatic that he never repeated it). He never had an exhibit, rarely published his pictures, and only occasionally gave slide presentations. Until the day in the late 1980s when he dramatically announced that he was “giving up” photography for good, he confined himself to family snapshots, group photos, and photos of events of importance to him or the family, such as the unveiling of a statue of his father-in-law or a sailing trip he took with four other men across the Atlantic. Except for one green album that he always kept on a shelf near his desk, and the way he would make rectangles with his fingers in front of his eyes to explore how a scene might look through a camera, and the reverence with which he used terms such as “depth of field” and “tonal range,” and the three battered Nikons that hung in a dirty white canvas sack behind his closet door, I might have thought of my father as no more than the slightly obsessive hobbyist he claimed to be; might have thought of him as a publisher or businessman or something even vaguer—even as a “ponderer,” as he calls himself these days, and has put on his business card.

But it always seemed to me, growing up, that underneath all the talk of being an amateur my father had a secret, and that secret was a more serious engagement with photography than he was able to express within family life. And the clue to that more serious engagement, I always thought, was the green album.

I first became aware of the album when I was growing up in Brooklyn Heights during the 1960s. My father was in his mid-thirties then, working for a book publisher in Manhattan. I don’t exactly know why he would have thought to show me the album—it was already more than a decade old at that point—unless some item on the radio sparked a discussion. He had bungie-corded a world-band radio to the window ledge in the bathroom of our apartment, and every morning he would listen to 1010 WINS—“you give us a minute, we’ll give you the world”— while he shaved. References to Martin Luther King, Jr., Freedom Marches, race riots, the Civil Rights Movement, and Black Panthers leapt out in the crackly, interference-filled voice of the announcer, and as my father dressed for work he would try, in his careful, deliberate way, to explain some of these terms to me. Thus it seems to me that I would have heard the story of the album before I actually looked through it, so that, by the time I did look through it, it would have acquired a meaning colored by my father’s telling of the story: how, in 1956, three years before I was born, through a connection of his father’s, he had gotten a job as a police reporter for the Baltimore Evening Sun, and how, during the brief period he held that job—roughly from July of that year, when he graduated from college, until October, when he was drafted into the army—he spent his days driving through South and West Baltimore, different parts of the city from the ones where he had grown up, visiting the police precincts. He would read the police blotters at the different police stations and, if something interesting turned up, call the stories in to the newspaper. A “rewrite man” would type up the stories and they would be published in the evening edition. What he explained to me on those mornings in Brooklyn Heights, however, was how few of his stories ever got printed. The way he remembered it, if he called one in about a Black person who was accused of murdering a Black person, it wasn’t considered a story and wouldn’t get printed. If he said a White person had been accused of murdering a Black person, it wasn’t considered a story either. Only when a White person was accused of murdering a White one, or when a Black person was accused of any crime against a White person, was it considered newsworthy and printed in the newspaper. In other words, again, as he put it, “White deaths got the attention and Black deaths did not.”

Southwest Baltimore was, at that time, going through what my father described as a dramatic and difficult period of change. Blocks of the traditional row houses were being torn down to make way for new public housing projects in the process that was then called “slum clearance.” At the same time, through the system we now call “blockbusting,” real estate speculators were creating segregated neighborhoods by selling a house in an all-White neighborhood to a Black family at a reduced rate, then encouraging White residents to sell their houses at reduced rates and flee to the suburbs to avoid living in an integrated neighborhood. The speculators would then buy the houses and resell them to Black families at inflated rates. Two years after the Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. Board of Education, Baltimore was also trying to integrate its school system, and tensions flared in different neighborhoods over the busing policy. None of this was my father in a position, in 1956, as a junior police reporter, to write about for the newspaper, but nobody told him he couldn’t take pictures. His camera, and the private album he made of the pictures, gave him a chance at least to record his impressions of that time and place. He had a Contax, a compact 35 mm film camera, similar to a Leica, that he would throw over his shoulder or stuff into a pocket of his jacket and carry around with him as he drove around to the precincts and followed up on stories. He took it with him not to take pictures for the newspaper, he was careful to explain, but to take them for himself. (Nearly fifty years later I would come across the much more sophisticated attempt of another former Baltimore Sun police reporter, David Simon, to depict the complexity of what was happening in those same neighborhoods long after my father was there: I refer to the HBO series The Wire.)

As a boy, learning of the pictures my father had taken with his Contax and seeing the few prints he made from them, I formed an image of my father as a kind of undiscovered Bruce Davidson who, if he hadn’t come from such a conservative background and needed to support a family, might still be out on the streets crusading with his camera for justice. The prints in the green album didn’t necessarily tell that story, but I didn’t understand that yet; all I knew was that, from the way he prized them, they meant something to him that was independent of my mother and sisters and me. They seemed to come from a place in him that was his own, and because of that they attracted me; they showed him as possessing qualities to aspire to. When he got into weird positions on the sidewalk or climbed up onto walls at family gatherings to get the right angle, I sensed that this was really where it came from, his time in Southwest Baltimore in 1956, three years before I was born, when he taught himself to be a photographer and, for perhaps the only time in his life, consciously photographed the world outside his family. My own decision to devote myself to photography years later came, in many ways, from my admiration for that idea of him. He shared his cameras with me when I was small and taught me how to create that same “depth of field” and other effects, but it was the concept that photography could connect you to the world in a meaningful way that made it seem worth pursuing. These assumptions about my father lodged in my mind and stayed there for years, long after I had moved away from home and nearly forgotten about the existence of the green album. A chance conversation, quite recently, about something I was working on, caused my father to bring it up, and he offered to let me see the album the next time we visited him and my mother in New Hampshire. Curious to see something I had forgotten about for so long, but which I remembered now as evidence of something important about my father, I told him that I would be glad to take him up on his offer.

*    *    *

He had, of course, forgotten the offer when I drove up a few months later with my wife and sons to visit. He had forgotten it, I knew, not because his memory was deteriorating, but because he was focused on another project and, like me, had trouble retaining things that didn’t relate to what he was working on at the moment. But when I reminded him he said he would be happy to show me the album. When I asked if I could see the negatives and the contact sheets as well, because it would be important to see the work he hadn’t chosen to print, he frowned. “I’ll look for them,” he said. “But I’m worried that those were part of the material I decided to throw out the other day.” This surprised me: my father had always been very careful in storing his negatives and contacts, both for the obvious reason that he might want to return to them some day to make prints, and also because he was a methodical person. But recently he had gotten quite aggressive in getting rid of things he thought he wouldn’t need any more, to the extent that I sometimes worried that he would get rid of something that I would need. He took me down to his basement office (which he now uses for writing his books) and began pulling open drawers in the file cabinet where he stores his negatives and contacts. I began to wonder if he had really thrown the Baltimore material out, if he had misplaced it, or if he was stalling for time for some reason, perhaps because there were things on the contact sheets that he didn’t want me to see. The possibility of his ambivalence seemed natural for many reasons. As records of what a photographer was trying to accomplish during the time he was taking a set of pictures, contact sheets provide an unadorned glimpse of the thoughts on the photographer’s mind, not only at the moments when he released the shutter but during the moments between exposures as he proceeded from one to the next. Since many, if not most, pictures fail to conform to the idea the photographer was reaching for when he took them, it is a view that many, if not most, photographers prefer to keep to themselves.

After rummaging around for a while, however, my father eventually pulled out of the back of one of the file drawers, not a file folder, but a tattered gray 10 x 12 clasp envelope containing, when he opened it, two dozen or so yellowing envelopes of his late mother’s fancy stationery, with her old Baltimore address on the back, stuffed with negatives and little contact strips. “I don’t know what order these are in,” he confessed, “but you can see the envelopes are labeled.” Indeed, I could see, on the outside of each, as he pulled them out, where he had typed, long ago when he put the negatives and contact strips in, information about the contents. On one, after the place and the date, he had typed “John Cabot at 300,” which referred, he explained, to a visit by his friend, John Cabot, to his parents’ house at 300 Kerneway in Baltimore–not at all what I was looking for. But after this on that same envelope he had typed–on the heavy gray Royal whose front curved so gracefully up toward the dark demi-lune from which the keys emerged, which I could see even now on his desk beside his iMac —“Southern H.S. Riot” and, following this on a line of its own, “negro children at play at school and in alley.” Then after that, at a later date, in red pen, he had added, “Balto Ev. Sun Reporters.” I was pretty sure that this was the material I was looking for. He placed the clasp envelope on the desk together with a loupe and walked over to one of his built-in shelves and pulled out the green leather-bound album containing the prints he had made in a rented darkroom in 1956. Beside each of the prints he had written, with a blue fountain pen, in the beautiful clear script of his younger years, on the once-thick, once-gray paper on which he had dry-mounted them, captions describing and occasionally commenting on the pictures. “I think that’s all of it,” he said. He switched on a bright light over his desk, gave me a searching look with his pale blue eyes, and, saying something about being upstairs if I needed him, turned and left the room.

Envelope 1
Envelope 2

The photographer Lee Friedlander has said that what first attracted him to photography was the discovery that a photograph always ends up containing more than you thought you were putting into it when you took it. You might think you were only taking a snapshot of your uncle in the driveway but you were also recording your house in the background, your parents on the step, the dog or your brother or sister on the lawn, the various types of trees growing in the background, formations of clouds in the sky, a bird flying by or a dandelion blooming in the grass—all of which rearrange themselves in importance the further away you recede from the moment when you took the picture, so that now it is the dog that stands out for you, now your parents, now the clothes your parents are wearing, now your uncle, and now the house or even the random bird that happened to be flying through the frame. As Friedlander wrote, “I might get what I hoped for and then some—lots of then some—more than I might have remembered was there.” I thought of what Friedlander had said when I began looking at my father’s pictures, because it seemed to me that the world they depicted was more complicated than the one my father may have thought he was describing or intended to describe.

What drew my attention first were some pictures on some of the contact strips of light and shadows in alleyways, which kept revealing more the longer I looked at them, yet were not pictures my father had printed and put in his album or, I understood, would have printed. They were too amorphous, their subjects not clear. In one—a horizontal shot—light falls down across some buildings on the left to light up a cat sneaking across a dirt yard in the center, a dog sitting on a stoop in the right foreground, and, in the background, a man doing something with a crate and a small child watching him.

Alley 1
Only the dog seems aware of the photographer, and stares complacently back at the camera while the man works at the crate and the clear bright light of a sunny day pours down. In another—vertical this time—my father has gone a little further into the same alley, but pointed his camera just to the side where the child was, but now there are two children playing on a step with what looks like a hammer and perhaps some parts of the crate from the earlier picture. There is a mysterious pile of trash in the foreground, and in a shadowy area next to the boys a tin washbasin is overturned over something sticking out of a 50-gallon oil drum, and there is a chair that looks as if it might be broken. In yet another picture, also vertical, this time of a street scene, some girls are buying ices from a fruit vendor with a horse drawn carriage. While one of the girls reaches down to the sidewalk, apparently for a coin she has dropped, a young boy sitting on the front of the wagon reaches around to take something from a bushel basket behind him. Across the street a younger man walks toward an older man in a hat, both passing separate empty storefronts containing signs that read Store for Rent. At the top of the frame, against a row of windows, a street sign reads “North Pine St.” on one side and “Pin Al.” on the other, and at the bottom, in the foreground, a white flag of unknown design droops from a short black flagpole beside a fire hydrant. In the very near right foreground, a black intrusion in the frame suggests the edge of a doorway that my father must have been hiding behind when he took the picture.
Alley 2

I liked these pictures, which my father had passed over at the time, first of all for the world of details they presented about a time long past, but also for the fact that they told as much about the photographer as they did about the places they depicted. I understood why my father hadn’t printed them. In the pictures in the alley, I felt quite sure that what interested him was the children on the step and the man with the crate. But the figures were too far away even for his often severe cropping, and, as I sensed, he didn’t feel comfortable venturing further into the alley. Similarly with the photos of the girls buying the ice (because he took several), there was too much extra material in the pictures distracting from the scene that interested him. If he had tried to crop out the suggestion of the doorway in the foreground, the flag, the street sign, the hydrant, and the people walking by, he would also have had to cut into the scene at the cart. Although his project with these pictures was clearly experimental, he seems to have had a definite idea of what would make a good picture, and he didn’t want to include anything extraneous to that idea. That the point of photography, at least as Friedlander sees it, is just the inclusion of those details, which give photographs a wider scope of meaning than even the photographer can always understand at first, was not something that my father, who was trained as a journalist to strive for clarity, may have been able to see. In his photographs, he once explained, he was always striving to be different from his own father, whose snapshots of friends and family were often taken from a distance, at boring angles, with too much extraneous detail obscuring the subjects.

As it turned out, I discovered as I kept looking through the pictures, my father very often hid behind doorways, peered in from the entrances of alleyways, or even pointed his camera through car windows to take his pictures; and rarely, in these pictures in South and West Baltimore, did he photograph adults who were looking directly into the lens. This was so different from his other pictures, visible beside these on the contacts, but taken outside of this neighborhood, of people he knew and felt comfortable with, that I found myself starting to smile, except that I couldn’t because the difference was actually painfully sad, and pointed to other things that made me uncomfortable even as the pictures kept drawing me in. Because of course all of the pictures that fell into the uncomfortable category were of African-Americans.

It was clear that an important part of the project, as it developed, became, for my father, to document the experience of people, mostly African-Americans, who lived in a part of the city different from the one where he had grown up; yet it was also clear that this young White Ivy League graduate felt conspicuous and awkward wandering around in unfamiliar neighborhoods with his camera, like a tourist where a tourist shouldn’t be. His pictures were often taken at odd angles, as if quickly grabbed, and, though later cropped and straightened in the printing, often taken from behind something else—partly the pictures of a tourist, perhaps, but also the notes of a sort of spy.

The captions in the green album gave an obvious name to the source of my discomfort. In my father’s meticulous handwriting, in the ink from that blue fountain pen, they carefully recorded what my father thought his prints documenting: “Some balto negroes, 1956”; “a group of negro children around noon in mid-Sept,—alley near corner Dolphin St. and Penna Ave.”; “negro school children on school yard near Fremont and Balto Streets—in the midst of slum clearance project.” For what purpose was he writing these almost scientifically particular descriptions that isolated groups of children and adults and labeled them with the word “negro”? Although perhaps not considered offensive in itself at that time, in repetition, and in the context of that album almost exclusively of pictures of Black people, the word suggests an objectifying attitude that is more simply defined as racism.

That afternoon in my father’s office, looking through the negatives and contacts, as well as the album, I found myself in a quandary. On the one hand, I knew that, though trained as a journalist and historian in college, my father’s experience of life was still narrow. As far as I know, the only Black people he knew personally at the time of his life of those pictures worked for his parents as cook and handyman. (His experience was so narrow, he told me once, that it was not until five or so years after his time in Southwest Baltimore, when we had moved to Brooklyn Heights, that he made his first friends who were Jewish.) On the other hand, I also knew that the disquieting effect of the captions was not simply the product of prejudices imbued in my father by his family and upbringing, which he was in some way trying to escape with this project. The captions were, I think, also a conscious, if awkward, attempt to imitate the caption-style in Life and National Geographic magazines, and the vocabulary and syntax were as much products of a larger systemic racism in the news media at that time as of his own. It was almost as if, given the experience his world had given him up until that time, even his attempt to break out of his racist limitations could not help but be done in a racist way.

The more I looked at them the more I saw how the pictures and album were fraught with the pressure of a self-imposed project, something he was doing for himself, his attempt, as he had said, to take part in the excitement he could feel around him, not only in the work of photojournalists such as Eugene Smith and Bruce Davidson, but at such places as the Museum of Modern Art, which had recently hosted the exhibit organized by Edward Steichen called The Family of Man. Years later I would find two photography books published at that time by MOMA on my father’s shelves: the catalogue for The Family of Man, and The Photographs of Henri Cartier-Bresson. My father’s pictures showed that he was not Bruce Davidson or Eugene Smith or Cartier-Bresson, but you could tell he was trying to be, and hanging over my understanding of the photographs for years was an assumption that if he had made only the slightest turn at this point in his life, and forced himself to acquire the skills, he might have put himself in the direction to become a more sensitive and committed photojournalist who could make personal connections with the subjects of his photographs. Looking through this material now, though, I was beginning to have a different view.

*    *    *

The most interesting of my father’s Baltimore pictures, in many ways, were the ones of the “riot” at Southern High School. In early September, 1956, a group of white students staged a walkout to protest the busing of African-American students to their school as part of Baltimore’s attempt to integrate its school system. Two years earlier, when the first African-American students had come to Southern, violent protests had broken out, and the school was prepared for similar demonstrations this time. But in newspaper reports from the time and in my father’s descriptions, the student walkout turned out to be far from the riot the school had feared. In a caption to a series of prints in his album, my father even called it a “lark” for the students involved. “Various scenes,” he wrote, “during walkout of 500 (284) students at Southern H.S. in a early fall lark, with racial integration only a vague excuse.” (The number 500 was a rival newspaper’s estimate of the students involved, the 284 in parentheses the Sun’s.) My father was not alone in drawing sanguine conclusions. “One-third of the students involved,” wrote an unnamed reporter in the Daily Sun the day after the incident, “were half-heartedly protesting integration. The rest apparently used the walkout as an excuse to enjoy the early September sunshine.” Nine days after the incident, the Sun referred to the walkout as “a half-baked attempt to protest racial integration at the school.” As an entry-level reporter, my father would have been present at the walkout only unofficially, observing the event, in a sense, on his own time, while more senior reporters covered the story. Part of the responsibility for the apparent peacefulness of the demonstration was thought to rest with Dr. Sidney Chernak, the principal of Southern High, who called in police and had them circle the school and let students who were going to school through and keep those who refused to go out. When the city school superintendent ordered that those who skipped school be suspended, Dr. Chernak invited them back if they would return with a parent to meet with him or other faculty members and pledge to accept integration. According to Dr. Chernak’s 2004 obituary in The Sun, most of them did.

My father’s pictures from the walkout are divided between ones of the police and ones of the students and passersby. In the pictures my father actually printed and put in his album, everyone in one way or another seems to be enjoying the sunny early September day, supporting the concept of the walkout as a “lark.” Those prints are all cropped versions of the original photographs. In his cropping, my father zeroed in, as was his wont, on the subjects that interested him—a mass of white students forming along the sidewalk opposite the school, for example, or, oddly, a pair of young white women, one of them pregnant and pushing a stroller with a child in it, who are being watched by another pair of young women, also white, flirting with a guy on a motorcycle. “Life comes full circle in South Baltimore,” my father wrote in his caption on these young women, I suppose referring to the contrasts and similarities between the pregnant one and the ones who are flirting, who seem about the same age. In another print, two groups of White and Black students—one of boys, the other of girls—separately but with seemingly equal fascination read two different copies of the same newspaper (not The Sun) containing the same article about the “strike,” as if—in my father’s cropped version—all are in it, somehow, together.

Paper boys

The pictures he didn’t choose to print or crop, however, suggest a different story—one not recorded in the Baltimore sun or in my father’s memory. It could, in fact, be a story only I can “see” now—though goodness knows others must have seen it at the time. In one photo, a group of seven white boys proudly holds up an open copy of a newspaper (not The Sun) whose dramatic headline reads “500 Southern High Students Strike After Incident on Bus.” My father doesn’t remember if these were boys who had participated in the strike and been allowed back into school or ones who hadn’t attended the strike and gone to school as usual (two of them are holding books), but whichever they were they seemed to expect that the photographer, also white, would understand and sympathize with their self-congratulatory enthusiasm. As I looked at this picture I found myself wondering whether a group of African-American students at that time and place would have given such entitled smirks. (Not interviewed or even mentioned in any of the Sun articles that I read about the walkout are the African-American students against whom the walkout had been called—or their parents.) Images form us perhaps; between the time my father took these pictures and the time I looked at them sixty years had gone by, and so many other images of the worst kind of brutality committed by White Americans on Black Americans had passed before my eyes that I could not look at this particular group of students and their “lark” and not see danger— a danger amplified by some other photos on a different contact strip of police officers on a rooftop across from the school demonstrating, during a seemingly casual conversation, a series of fancy moves with their nightsticks. The moves reminded me of other moves with other nightsticks, canes, clubs, bare fists, and worse weapons in other cities and towns, then and in later years, recorded not only with still cameras but with video cameras and cell phones, even up to what happened at the hands of Baltimore police to a 25-year-old African-American man, Freddie Gray, in 2015.

Newspaper cover crop
Sillhouette head

As I looked at these other photographs I wondered if on some level, even unconsciously, my father might not have been feeling something of the violence behind the scene, even if he chose not to show it in his prints. Why else did he take three in a row of those cops performing a sort of law enforcement dance on a rooftop, even though, back in the darkroom, he passed over them in favor of pictures that matched the safer, more agreeable idea among the white observers that the day had turned out a generally pleasant one, an excuse to skip school? Of course, I was not in a position, all these years later, to say that these observers were not accurate, at least on some level. It was just that, looking at the contact sheets now, in my father’s office in New Hampshire, the scene seemed so much more fraught. Even though I am white, all these years later the angles of the nightsticks made my heart beat a little faster, and the conglomeration of boys with the newspaper made my adrenaline run. I thought again of Friedlander’s observation and wondered if there wasn’t a way that photographs could be said to transcend the photographer, in that they could reveal things that the photographer may have felt and observed but for one reason or another couldn’t acknowledge—or be aware of—at the time he took the pictures. It was as if, in a larger sense, by giving you an unfiltered view of the photographer’s mind at the time he took the pictures, and especially by showing you what the photographer might not want you to see, contact sheets could help, in some limited way at least, free the images of whatever the photographer’s bias or limitations might have been and allow the world, in a sense, to speak more directly for itself.

I wondered what my father’s own view of this material might be now. Since he took these he had lived through the same times as I, had seen the same violent imagery, and had read others’ accounts of the blockbusting and slum clearance he had observed in Southwest Baltimore. He no longer used the word “negro.” Could it be that his difficulty locating the negatives and contact sheets in his office spoke of the possibility that he had developed a diffidence toward that earlier material and his earlier self? All of this, I saw, would be worth asking him about when I went upstairs. But another idea was forming, not about photography but about my father, and I wanted to think that one through first.

*    *    *

As I mentioned earlier, in the late 1980s, my father announced that he had decided to stop taking pictures. He had recently left his job as a magazine publisher in New York City and moved with my mother to Vermont (eventually they moved across the Connecticut River to New Hampshire). It was a time of changes for him, and one of these changes, it seemed, was going to be to start focusing on words rather than images. Photography, he kept saying, interfered with his relationships with people. “I realized,” he wrote me once, “that my camera had become a barrier between me and everyone else.” By always feeling that he ought to take a picture of something and record it on film—that he ought to be that paparazzo of my childhood—he ended up thinking too much about his camera and missing out on opportunities to connect, especially with people in his family. On the practical side, his eyesight, never great, had worsened, and he could no longer see through the viewfinder well enough to focus. Everything was becoming a blur.

For me, then in my late twenties, my father’s decision to give up photography seemed a strange and unnecessary act of self-denial. He was, I still believed, by nature a photographer, and I couldn’t understand what I saw as his unwillingness to commit himself to something he was so good at and enjoyed so much, and that gave pleasure to others. At the time his brother had given him a darkroom kit so he could set up a darkroom in Vermont, but—inexplicably to most of us—it still remained in its box. Even the problem of his eyesight was easily fixable: camera manufacturers produce interchangeable diopters at different magnifications that would have allowed him to continue using his cameras with perfect functionality. But any mention of “taking up photography again” seemed to embarrass him, as if we were suggesting that he start building ships in bottles. To me at that time there was something frustrating about his denial of something that had seemed such an important part of his life, almost as if he were punishing us for believing about him what we had. Was he really, instead, going to devote himself to the art of conversation?

People give an impression of what is important to them, and that impression becomes, in the eyes of the people around them, a defining characteristic. People seem to want something they can understand in another and to want to think that the other person believes in something—has, in effect, a plan. But sometimes the characteristics we see in a person are not ones the person sees in himself, or values in himself. Sometimes people can’t express what they really value and keep it hidden.

In 1955-1956, during his senior year at college, my father gave up thinking about most of his academic and extra-curricular activities and focused almost exclusively on his senior thesis in history. (I say almost exclusively, because he also managed to start dating my mother during that time.) He had chosen to write about a now-obscure mayor of New York City, Seth Low, who had been elected to one two-year term, accomplished some useful reforms, but then been voted out of office—largely, my father argued, because he was too unbending in his principles and not enough of a politician. Researching this project, my father took trips to New York City to visit the New York Public Library, the New York Historical Society, and the New York City and Columbia University Archives (it must have been on one of these trips that he saw The Family of Man), and spent hours in the library back at college working on his argument and putting together his paper. That spring, just a couple of months before he started as a police reporter in South Baltimore, he received the college’s highest honors on his thesis, which was eventually published in the New York Historical Society quarterly. So impressed were his college classmates by his achievement that nearly fifty years later, at a lunch I gave my father for his 70th birthday, two of them volunteered his senior thesis as the thing they remembered most about him from those early years (none mentioned photography).

B swett portait

All these years later, after moving to Vermont and announcing that he was giving up photography in favor of more direct communication, what my father ended up doing was writing. He got himself a job as a business reporter on a regional newspaper, and then, some years later, worked for his brother-in-law, my uncle on my mother’s side, as an investment researcher, writing reports on businesses. On his own, he began writing books and publishing them under the imprint of a press he named after the road he and my mother lived on. The books were mainly portraits of members of his family—a great-grandfather, a grandmother, distant ancestors, even his mother—and they were distributed mainly to members of his extended family. But he also published an account of the sailing trip he took across the Atlantic with four other men, which sold in some local bookstores, and traced the history of a branch of the family from Ireland to Chicago. And he became deeply involved in a book that he is still working on as I write this, about an ancestor, Robert Poole, who ran an ironworks in Baltimore. Poole was an industrialist who, for a time, was one of the richer and more powerful men in Baltimore, part of a network of wealthy insiders who supported and promoted each other in running their businesses and in running the city. Poole’s firm was famous, among other things, for gaining the contract to supply some of the underlying structure for the dome of the U.S. Capitol in Washington.

That day he handed me the materials from South Baltimore and left me alone in his office, my father was just beginning the project about Poole, whose life he thought would be of wider interest, and about whom he was finding much more to say than he had in his previous books. On his desk, aside from the iMac and the Royal typewriter, were books about iron production and Baltimore history, files of letters and newspaper clippings and google printouts, a small white pad with scribbled notes, and the usual stacks of empty pads and cups of sharpened pencils and rubber bands that he liked to keep on hand. Pinned to his walls were the original plans for the Capitol Dome drawn by the Capitol architect, which he was in the midst of studying in order to confirm the weight of the iron that would have been brought from Baltimore to Washington for the project. Neither of us had made a connection, when he handed me the green album, between the 19th-century Baltimore of his great-great grandfather’s iron works and the Baltimore of 1956 of the album. I was looking at the album as a clue to him, and he was thinking he was doing me a favor for one of my own projects by letting me see it. But there were connections to be made, I felt quite sure, between the Baltimore organized for the benefit of industrialists like Poole and the later one of slum clearance, school desegregation, and The Wire.

As I sat there at my father’s desk, it seemed to me that, whatever his photographs might be telling me after all those years, the project of taking them, which I had seen as a clue to his more serious engagement with photography, might have been a clue to something else. It may have been true that his photographs depicted a Baltimore that was more complicated than he had tried to portray or fully seen when he took them, but this may also not have been the main point. Maybe, in the end, the main point lay in those captions, not in what they said (the racist tone of which my father would, I thought, be the first to acknowledge now) but in their intent. Each was so carefully written, and each pointed to a larger story that their author wanted to tell but somehow never did—a story of the tearing down of blocks of houses in Baltimore to make way for public housing projects, the breaking apart of neighborhoods to benefit real estate speculators, and the apparent racialist attitudes of the newspaper he worked for. He might simply have wanted to tell a story of people in different circumstances than his own. Even in his cropping you could see he was trying to get to an idea rather than let the scene take him over. Maybe to him the pictures were in fact illustrations for this idea, rather than an end in themselves.

As it turned out, he never had a chance to put together these, in effect, notes toward that idea. He had been working at the newspaper, and taking the pictures of Southwest Baltimore, for only three months when he was drafted into the U.S. Army and found himself a private soldier, first at Fort Bragg, in North Carolina, and then at Fort Ord, in California. Along the way he became engaged to my mother, and the following fall they were married. They lived briefly in Baltimore before moving to Washington, where my mother taught 3rd grade and my father worked in army intelligence. Then I was born and my father got a job on a newspaper in New York and left the army and we moved to Brooklyn, where my sisters were born. The pressure of a self-imposed project beyond the family stayed on the back burner for more then 50 years, until my father found himself embarked, in his eighties, on the book about his great-great-grandfather. What all this makes me think is that, whatever I thought my father was doing, photography may really have been in his mind just a hobby, or at least a substitute for this other thing. What we all thought was something he wanted to get back to may for him have been no more than a distraction from what he really cared about. Perhaps he had acted like a crazy paparazzo while we were growing up, and made such a practice of getting his film developed, reviewing contact sheets, and getting prints made and mounted, not because he believed himself to be a photographer, but because photography was there. It was exciting, he was good at it, people responded immediately to his work. It was fun, it was a way he could express himself, and a way he could enjoy his children. It may even have been the calling that he should have followed. But it was not his idea of an end in itself, and that, for my father, has always been the main question.

In the end, it now seemed to me, it was these books, these written documents, that he had cared most about all along, and the clue contained in the green album was not in the cropped prints, nor in the racist captions, nor even in the original uncropped negatives (the limitations of all of which were now abundantly clear to me), but in the fact of the album itself, a document that, like the books he has been making, exists only because he himself made it. If the album never became more than what it was, this may have been because my father came to recognize its limitations and never tried to make it what it wasn’t. What it ended up standing for, to him (I seemed to see) was a kind of signpost of the possible, evidence he could keep with him, even if on a back shelf, of his own larger intentions and his hope one day to get back to them.

As I put the materials back on his desk and went upstairs to rejoin the family, I thought that instead of speculating about all this I should probably just ask him. But I wasn’t quite ready to do that just yet. My mind was beginning to move from my father’s projects to my own, and I wanted to keep this latest myth about him intact a little longer.