Photography, portraiture and prayer


I love taking photos, though I seldom refer to myself as a photographer.  There aren’t many titles I happily wear.  More often than not, George will suffice.

Compared to painting and sculpture, I’m not seriously interested in the art of photography.  And quite seldom do I think of famous photographers as great artists.  Of course, I was delighted in 1996 to conduct a phone interview with famed fashion and portrait photographer Richard Avedon, so I could learn about his father’s life as a furrier in Woonsocket.

Though I would never pay a significant amount to purchase a photograph, I’m a fervent collector of photos.  Indeed, I have created about 100 albums of my own photos over nearly 40 years.

Early in my career as an album-maker, perhaps a few hundred prints would fill a volume.  In recent years, a typical album, handcrafted in Italy, protects about 700 horizontal and vertical prints.

I am particularly busy taking photos when I travel, but I habitually take photos in my East Side neighborhood and elsewhere around Rhode Island too.  I’m far more interested in taking pictures of cities and towns than forests and pastures, though I have shot a favorite seaside spot in Maine for nearly three decades.

Photography raises questions about how I perceive my local and far-flung travels.  Usually, the word “vacation” does not apply.  Betsey and I are as busy as possible when venturing near or far; seldom do we go somewhere merely for relaxation.  Fortunately, neither my wife nor I need to escape burdensome responsibilities or nagging chores.  Indeed, when completing a brief or a lengthy journey, we’re usually quite happy to return to our quite comfortable home and our daily rhythms.

The number of photos I take in a day or during a month-long journey has increased exponentially over the decades.  For example, as a student in Florence, Italy, in 1969, I probably took fewer than 10 rolls of black-and-white prints.

Instead, to record my observations, I kept a daily journal.  I also purchased slides in museum shops to use in lectures when I became an art history professor.

Eventually, I took tens of thousands of my own slides and carefully organized them by subject.  Fortunately, I still have a slide projector and a few extra lightbulbs!

My embrace of color prints surely increased after I met Betsey, since I wanted to celebrate all the happiness she brought me.  And the number of prints fabulously increased after Molly and Michael were born.  And I also sought to further portray my parents and in-laws when they became grandparents.

Despite my relative disinterest in technology, my life significantly changed again, less than a decade ago, when I began to experiment with digital photography.  Not that I ever purchased a cellphone to use for making calls!  Now I can easily shoot a few hundred digital shots in an afternoon, or 3,000 or 4,000 on a two-week journey.  Of course, becoming a grandparent also may have contributed to my output.

So what do I plan to do with my scores of albums and others that I continually create?  Our kids will surely be welcome to whatever they want, but they’ll never have enough space for most of them.

I actually inherited my album-making obsession from my mother, but my siblings and I didn’t know what to do with the dozens she left behind.  I still feel ashamed that we couldn’t preserve more than a few.

I’m always striving to improve, and often I do, but for no obvious reason. Ironically, I take many of my best shots when I’m in a hurry or in some sense abandon control.

Nearly five decades ago, when taking drawing and painting classes, I began to learn about composition – how to perceive and organize the elements of design.  And I’m still searching for that perfect arrangement.  But I have also learned that luck may allow everything to magically fall into place.

Yes, serendipity may be the secret to a wonderful journey.  Beyond my quite deliberate efforts to plan a daily itinerary, I hope to see and experience the world in fresh and unimagined ways.

Given that Betsey and I are Italophiles – we know and treasure that country in so many ways – I recently gave myself a challenge.  Why not put aside such familiar subjects as museums, palaces, plazas, churches and synagogues, and create a photo essay about people?  So I examined digital photos from five trips, Milano to Messina, and selected about 75 portraits.  I had no idea that I had so few – or so many.

Not surprisingly, most of the Italians I portrayed were hotel staff, waiters, shopkeepers, drivers and other people whom tourists routinely encounter.  Nevertheless, these were individuals I somehow cared about – even if for only a few days or a few moments.  Most seemed proud to pose in their beautiful uniforms or garments, often amid stately or elegant surroundings.  While some gestured in dramatic ways, others merely grinned or nodded.

Instantaneously, these Italians became old friends – even if I didn’t know their names or never saw more than a few again.

Then I pondered why I haven’t taken many similarly endearing portraits in Rhode Island.  I wish that I had an answer.  Perhaps the most basic is that here at home I’m reluctant to bother strangers, or sense that they don’t want to be bothered.  Often when I encounter fellow pedestrians, they seem afraid to say hello.

Rather than preserving the past, photography, at its best, is a mechanism for seizing a moment.  Thus, photography also allows me to experience what I don’t know and acknowledge so much that I never will.  Photography is also prayer, for it allows me to celebrate the miracles of love and vision.

GEORGE M. GOODWIN, of Providence, is the editor of Rhode Island Jewish Historical Notes.