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SEEING LIFE THROUGH A LENS
Memorial Day, 1963. Chadwick Place. Across the street, the Good Humor man jingled. I skipped along, holding hands with my two big sisters, ages five and seven, to buy ice cream. But on the return, their grasp on my little fingers loosened, and I jutted across the road by myself. My neighbor told me years later that he looked up after hearing the screeching tires and saw what he thought was a Raggedy Ann doll floating in air. (I never liked the comparison.)
I’ve always been grateful that in Glen Rock there was a four-foot-wide grass median between the sidewalk and the curb, which made for a soft landing.
My parents raced out, terror-stricken, saw their baby son lying in the grass, unconscious. A neighbor drove Dad and me to the hospital. Although in shock, Dad reasoned it would be faster than calling an ambulance.
Luckily, I only had a mild concussion and a bruised arm. Nearly 60 years later, I remember the hospital room that faced Dietch’s Zoo, a children’s amusement park in Fair Lawn. Like in a black and white photo, I see a hospital orderly mopping the floor, silhouetted against the windows near my bed. While recovering, I dreamed the miniature trains from the zoo were circling my hospital room while circus music played.
In first grade, I had to leave school early one day to get my brain scanned. The gluey substance used by the medical technicians, leaning in to attach electrodes, took days to wash out of my hair. Then, there was a court appearance. The judge sat me on his lap and asked if I remembered anything from the accident; half a lifetime ago for a six-year-old. “I don’t remember being hit,” I said, “but I remember the dream about the trains and the doctor coming to visit me at home when I was in my crib.”
I was the last kid allowed to cross the street by myself, a big deal in suburbia. Being forbidden to cross Prospect Street like all my friends seemed like a cruel joke. A bustling thoroughfare, with bus and truck routes, yes. But it wasn’t like crossing the Garden State Parkway. But to my parents, it was. They kept a close eye on me for probably longer than they needed to. I don’t fault them. They’d almost lost me. When I was 11, things finally started changing.
One winter day, I opened the door to a closet I rarely bothered with and slid my hand into the back of a shelf I could barely reach, looking for the binoculars I sometimes used for birdwatching. Instead, my fingers found a leather case that held a heavy camera, silver and black, a banged-up relic from my dad’s Army days. On top were three silver dials, in front were three rectangular windows, and on the back were two glass viewfinder holes. This was no 1971 Kodak Instamatic. This American-made camera, a Clarus, was a thing of beauty. But it had a light leak, so dad bought me a used Minolta Hi-Matic for 50 bucks.
I immediately found something that gave me a purpose to explore beyond my neighborhood and beyond – at least slightly – my parents’ protective watchfulness. A few years earlier I was finally allowed to cross Prospect Street and ride my banana-seat bike to Coleman school. Now, older and wiser, I had a mission, fueled with curiosity and an insatiable appetite for understanding how the world functioned. Learning photography gave me wings. I left my cocoon searching for new meaning, capturing moments on film, and observing people. I started shooting for The Glen Echo, the high school newspaper, and pursued a photojournalist career at college.
Taking pictures has been a constant. I worked for the national news, business magazines, attended film school, and I’ve been a cameraman for CBS News for 18 years. With a camera at the ready, I’ve loved turning corners and discovering something magical — often beautiful, sometimes not. It’s been a privilege and a passion to travel and go behind-the-scenes with the rich and famous, and also meet regular folks living off the grid. I’ve photographed popes, presidential campaigns, protests and parades, visited America’s heartland, national parks, toxic waste sites, and covered catastrophic weather, medical breakthroughs and beauty pageants.
Ever since my parents gave me the greenlight to hop back on my bike and, later, entrusting me to cross one of the busiest roads in Glen Rock, I’ve been on an amazing journey, fortunate to have been an eyewitness to history. I am grateful, too, for the green grass that saved my life.
And that camera? That saved my life too, allowing me to find my way by taking unexpected photographs and learning a great many life lessons while living through the lens. I wouldn’t have it any other way. 📷