Friday, February 17, 2017

Put on Your Readers

These things are happening and this is the medium I use.

That about sums up Richmond-born photographer Leroy Henderson's explanation for why he's spent over 40 years taking pictures of the world around him, a philosophy he didn't share with the crowd at the VMFA until almost the end of his talk tonight.

Waiting for the talk to begin, I noticed a woman across the aisle shooting pictures with a disposable camera. Just as my brain was registering how long it had been since I'd last seen one, the two young photographers behind me picked up the thread.

Check it out, she's using a disposable camera.
That's funny, I was looking online for disposable cameras, but they're running like 5 or 10 dollars each. That's crazy!
What's wrong with that? Sounds about right. Where can you get them any cheaper?
Are you kidding? At thrift stores in Pennsylvania, they're going for 2 or 3 dollars.

First they appropriated old Polaroid cameras and now, apparently, they're into disposables. These kids today.

Leroy's first camera had been a Brownie Hawkeye (which I knew of only because my Grandmother had had one), followed by a small bellows camera he'd sit on the piano just so he could admire it. I was amazed to hear that when he went in the army, he was allowed to carry his camera ("I had a very progressive first sergeant") and took pictures of his fellow soldiers cleaning their guns and drilling.

But we didn't see any of those photographs tonight, instead focusing on his work from the 60s, 70s and 80s, all in black and white, before a brief foray into color work from 2016.

It's striking to look at images such as his from the '60s and '70s because the world they captured looks so quaint and old-fashioned.

A black waiter in a white uniform serves a white family in a train's dining car. A young black boy sits in front of a poster of old white guys: Nixon, Humphrey, Rockefeller, McCarthy, Reagan and George Wallace. Multiple images of immaculately-dressed children navigating muddy Resurrection City on the Mall during the Poor People's Campaign in '68.

When a photograph of a young black ballet student standing in front of a bas relief at the Brooklyn Music School came up, Leroy said that photo had been very good to him, meaning he had sold a limited run of it. One of his customers had been Oprah, who had asked for a 10% discount.

Some people got a lot of nerve, that's all I'll say about that.

A 1973 shot of a family strolling through Central Park showed a shirtless Dad, Mom in short shorts ("Some of you all might not know, but those are hot pants," he explained) and two naked children, both with shoes and socks on.

But what had caught his eye and tickled his fancy was that the toddler girl had a purse hanging on her naked shoulder.

Lots of famous faces showed up, too. An older Rosa Parks looking at a poster of Malcolm X  at the Black Political Convention in Indiana in '72. A hip-looking young Jesse Jackson in MLK medallion, bell bottoms and vest. Muhammed Ali with the Jackson 5 ("To Ali's right, that's Michael, back when he was still black"). Angela Davis at a rally in '75 just after she'd been taken off the FBI's Most Wanted List, speaking behind bulletproof screens.

The photographs taken last year in color were jarring, as much because everything else had been black and white as because they'd been shot at anti-Trump rallies during the campaign, making for a vivid reminder of how early the resistance began.

Because there were so many great photographs to see and stories to share with the crowd, the talk ran long, but no one was going anywhere as long as this talented, humorous and insightful man was talking.

The last part of the evening was dedicated to him sharing how touched he was by the VMFA's attention to his body of work.

Earlier, the VMFA's director had said the museum is dedicated to correcting the fact that Leroy has never been given proper credit for his place in the annals of American 20th century photography.

Seems they've not only bought many of his photographs, but are determined to amass the best Civil Rights photo collection in the country. Could our museum be any cooler?

Leroy said he was impressed that so many interested people had come out to hear his talk tonight, but mainly that he'd been lucky enough to do what he loved for so long.

When I interviewed him a few years ago, the renaissance of interest in his work had only recently begun, but even then, his sunny attitude about life oozed gratitude for how life had turned out for a Richmond boy possessing a way with a camera.

Afterward, I wasn't the only one who headed upstairs to the photography gallery to take in the just-opened exhibit, "A Commitment to Community: The Black Photographers Annual Volume 1," which included several of Leroy's pieces but also pretty much laid out the compelling state of black photography circa 1973.

One showed a trio of cops at a protest rally who'd been pushing the crowd - including Leroy- from behind with nightsticks. He whipped around and caught the unpleasant looks on their face, nightsticks pointed, at close range.

A masterful move, but he he also acknowledged that it would be too risky a thing for a black man to do in 2017. But photography is Leroy's medium.

During the 8+ years I've been writing this blog, I can't count the number of times someone has suggested I add photos to it. I'm not sure if they get tired of reading all my verbiage (there's a reason this blog is called what it is) or just prefer illustrated tomes, but it's nothing I'd ever consider.

I'm just going to quote the most talented photographer who ever wanted to take my picture and leave it at that.

These things are happening and this is the medium I use.


  1. Naturally the medium you use is fine, besides "it's your blog". However there's nothing wrong with on occasion breaking the mold or taking the exception.... at your discretion of course. creativity comes in many forms...sometimes adding a little spice is just right. You of course have used photos before.. (your legs) so you've already gone there. Obviously that was your desire, the rest is for the imagination. funny world we live in ...isn't it? cw2

  2. Hey CW, how's it going? Always nice to hear from you.The blog template requires a picture in the "About Me" section, which is the only reason I used one.

    So far, I haven't been inclined to put photos in the body of a post, but never say never!

    So glad you're still reading...