"When you make demands on reality, sometimes you have to wait" Ben Lifson said during one of our lengthy conversations about photography in June of 2010. I was working on a long-term project photographing New York City's swimming pools and asked Ben if he would review my work every few weeks and advise me through the project (one that ended up taking three summer seasons to complete). We spoke on the telephone, Ben from Middletown, Connecticut where he was teaching at a community college and me from my apartment in the East Village where I lived while working as a photography editor at Time Inc.. I have a notebook filled with the many marvelous things Ben said, list of books I must read (Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar), painters I must study (Canaletto, the master of 'the view'), details on the structure of a sonnet as it relates to the rhythm in a picture, and on the thematic use of color in contemporary film (Irm Vep by Olivier Assayas).
Ben's passion for beauty was always expanding.
This quote by Ben surfaced from my memory last week when I opened up the New Yorker magazine (July 18-24) and saw a picture of the Naumburg band shell in Central Park at dusk by David S. Allee. Grass defines the bottom edge of the picture, and an enormous American elm tree practically fills the rest of the frame, which is aglow in greens and blues. David Allee makes picture in the field of architecture and his eye is well informed by his work in urban planning before becoming a photographer. There is always a lot to discover through his frames.
White studying the picture: four bikes tied to a rail, people in the far distance standing before the coffered limestone dome, the deep layered ridges of the elm's enormous trunk, and, to my delight, a raccoon staring back at me from the crook of the tree. What were the chances that the raccoon was present the whole time David was framing his photo? I speculated that the masked bandit had climbed the tree and was settling in for an evening of music, the perch being its 'house-seat'. I know that photographers spend countless hours behind a lens, perhaps standing on a ladder, waiting for the light, or the wind, or a moment….this is part of the craft that photographers share with painters, and journalists and what my father, the author Gay Talese, calls "the art of hanging out".
I asked David to talk about the shoot.
"That tree is surrounded by a small fenced-in area of grass and as I was approaching it I noticed the raccoon hanging around the base of the tree. He quickly climbed up the tree while I was setting up and was very curious about what I was doing, watching me while moving slowly around the lower branches. I thought it would be great to get him in the shot but the exposure needed to be at least 5 seconds and he wasn't sitting still. My assistant, Michele, pointed a flashlight to try and encourage him to move to a good spot in the frame, as well as adding a little light on him. I just kept shooting, hoping he'd sit still for 5 secs. A few times he climbed out of the frame or around to the other side of the tree but Michele and his flashlight brought him back. This went on for at least 10 to 15 minutes. Honestly I thought it wasn't going to work. But eventually, in the second to last frame, he climbed into that perfect spot in the tree at the top of the trunk and held still. I knew at that moment I got the shot."