Garry and I used to vacation on Martha’s Vineyard.
Before you decide this means we are or were “rich,” Garry had been sharing a house with a bunch of other people from Channel 7 and other Boston TV stations for years before I moved to New England. This was not their first house. There had been others, but this was the most recent and favorite because of its location. The group knew each other well and had been sharing this house or another for years before Garry and I officially became a couple, though we’d known each other and been involved off and on since college.
After I came on the scene, we continued to share the house, though it grew more awkward as many “housemates” paired off and moved on with their lives. Eventually, the problem solved itself when the owners of the house decided to cash in and sell it.
It had originally been a boat house for the New York Yacht Club. At some point, it was converted to a summer residence. Right on the water, halfway between Vineyard Haven and Oak Bluffs, it had a great dock and was just across Ocean Avenue from the hospital.
The house was currently owned by a pair of orthopedic doctors who worked at the hospital on the Vineyard and maintained offices across Nantucket Sound in Falmouth. A dock for the docs was useful and tax-deductible. Our rent paid their property taxes and perhaps left a bit of money over, though not much. Waterfront real estate on Martha’s Vineyard is expensive.
Mostly, I think they kept the place because of the dock and because we were amusing, all television folks, photographers, reporters, directors, producers … plus their insignificant others. We didn’t trash the place and were always up for a ride in their insanely over-powered Boston Whaler.The ferry ride from Falmouth to Oak Bluffs took 45 minutes. Either of the doctors could do it in just over 7 minutes. I don’t think they actually touched the water once they left the channel. They more or less flew.
It was an interesting and wet ride, exhilarating and terrifying and a heck of a lot faster and easier than the ferry. Cheaper, too as long as you didn’t need to take your car across.
After the doctors sold the house, the group split up. Several of the couples, including Garry and I, had married by then. Garry and I found a charming place in Oak Bluffs with a long staircase down the bluff to a small, private, sandy beach. We could bring our dogs. The house had two bedrooms, so we could invite friends to join us … a big bonus.
We rented during the off-season to make it more affordable and to avoid the mid-summer crush. We rented two weeks in June and two more in September. With both of us working, it was affordable … for a while.
Some years before the doctors sold the house, Garry had covered a story about Alfred Eisenstadt and Lois Maillou Jones, both of whom had been given Presidential Medals of Honor for their work. After the story, we became friends with both artists. Eisenstadt was in his early 90s and Lois Maillou Jones was in her mid 80s, Eisie told Lois she was “just a kid.” We laughed, but time has changed our perspective considerably.
I had been an admirer of Eisenstadt’s work as long as I’d been taking pictures. I took my first roll of film on Martha’s Vineyard in 1966 when I had stayed at the Menemsha Inn where Eisenstadt resided from late spring till just after Labor Day. Books of Eisie’s work — that was what everyone called him and he preferred it — were all over the inn, in bookcases and on tables. Most featured landscapes of Martha’s Vineyard that Eisenstadt had taken over the decades.
I was using my first camera, a Practika with an excellent Zeiss 50mm lens but no light meter. It had a crank film advance. This was a barebones camera perfect for a beginner. I had to really learn how to take pictures. I had to get a light reading using a handheld meter. I had to focus. No zoom lens, just that 50 mm prime, so my feet did the zooming. I learned the basics of photography that many people of the digital generation never learn.Many erstwhile photographers have never encountered a non-automatic camera. Maybe it doesn’t matter. But then again, maybe it does.
My camera had been a gift from a photographer friend who had moved on to more expensive gear, but with that Zeiss lens and a good eye, I followed Eisenstadt’s path. I discovered where he’d taken each picture, then figured out how he’d gotten the perspective, framed it, and not only duplicated his shots down to the clump of grass he’d crouched behind to create the impression of a foreground, I even added a few original ideas of my own that worked out surprisingly well. It was most surprising to me since I didn’t know what I was doing. I was just winging it.
My first roll of film was declared brilliant. It was, except that the photographs were Alfred Eisenstadt‘s pictures reproduced by me on my camera. I learned photography by following his footsteps and seeing what he saw. By the time I was done, I’d learned more than any school would have taught me about perspective, angles, and what makes a landscape something better than ordinary.
When I actually met the man himself, it was like meeting your favorite movie star. I was dumbstruck, not something that often happens to me.
As we got to know Eisie better, I asked him to autograph his books for me and he did, but he didn’t just autograph them. He went through each book, photograph by photograph. He was in his early 90s and forgot many things, but he remembered every picture he’d taken, including what film and camera he was using, what lens was on it, the F-stop and most important, what he was thinking as he shot it. He could remember exactly what it was about the image that grabbed his attention. It was a wonderful education that money could never buy.
For example, the picture of the sailor kissing the nurse in Times Square on VJ Day, he said he was walking around Times Square with his Nikon and he saw them, the dark of the sailor’s uniform against the white of the nurse’s dress and he shot. He knew it was what he wanted. The light, the contrast, perfect. Great street journalism looks accidental … but it isn’t. It’s, in my opinion, the most difficult of all the various types of photography because you have to see your shot and grab it, get it right the first time with no framing, no planning and if you miss it, it’s gone forever.
Were we close friends? Close enough, considering the late date at which we entered his life. At that point, he spent most of his time in the company of Lulu, his former sister-in-law who took care of him. She was a lovely, warm, sweet lady who sometimes needed an afternoon off. We were happy to Eisie-sit and let her go to town for an afternoon. Eisie was interesting and funny, but high maintenance. He did not suffer from a lack of ego strength.
We spent time with him every summer for about five years until he died, and we were honored to be among those invited to the funeral.
The funeral was closed to the public and although it was sad because Eisie was gone, we also found things to laugh about. Knowing him was special and some memories are worthy of laughter.
I don’t think he’d have minded.