Monday, April 30, 2012

Regarding 'James, Near Lathrup, Michigan. 1979'

I knew the guy was there with the camera. He was hard to miss. It was a big camera, and he was a white man with long hair and a funny accent. I didn't have a whole lot of experience with such things.

I don't know if that date is right or not, but if it is I was eight years old when he took that picture. I'm going to be 39 next year. If he said what it was for, I don't remember. I heard --this was much later, after the photo was in the newspaper in New York-- that it was in some magazine originally, but I never saw that. I never saw the picture at all until maybe three years ago when all this business came up.

I do remember that day, though. It was summer, and I had gone to stay with my grandmother in Michigan after school got out. I rode the bus with my older sister from Oakland. It was a long trip out there, and my sister was only four years older than I am, so we were  both children. My mother was working at a printing factory, and she worked the third shift in the summer when we weren't in school because she could make a little extra money. My father was in Detroit, but we didn't see much of him. My sister and me had been spending summers with our grandmother for at least a few years by that point.

My grandmother was originally from Chicago, but my grandfather's people were from Michigan, and the house where that picture was taken was his old family place. They went back there to live when my grandfather was dying --no rent, you know, and it was what he wanted. At that time most of the rest of the family had moved off to the cities --Detroit, Flint, Gary, Chicago-- for work. That place was old and I remember when it was a mess, but my grandmother was the hardest worker I ever knew, and she cleaned it up and made it her own.

I liked going there. It was a lot better than the place we lived in Oakland, which was a big, crowded tenement in a bad neighborhood. When we were in Michigan we could pretty much come and go as we pleased. It was still like a small town back then.

Anyway, the photograph. No, my name is not James. It's Robert. I don't believe the man ever asked me my name; I think he just put that on there: James. Which was my grandfather's name, and that's his old car I'm in, which was out back of the house and no longer ran. One of the cats that was around had had a litter of kittens. There always seemed to be a bunch of kittens, and I think I was probably messing around with one of them when that photographer came walking up the alley. For a while he just stood at the edge of the yard and took pictures. He didn't ask, but I didn't care.

That picture of me in the front seat of the car with the kitten in my arms and my eyes closed, that was definitely him asking. And then after he took some pictures he asked me to take off everything but my undershorts. I didn't think nothing of it at the time. No, he didn't ever touch me or anything. He just wanted the picture that way, I guess.

When I finally saw it at the museum in Chicago I mostly thought that 'James' on there was strange. But, yeah, he definitely asked me to take off my clothes. People probably thought that poor black kids just ran around in their undershorts all the time. Still, I wouldn't have said anything about it, or even seen the thing, if it wasn't for the fact that my sister saw the newspaper story and called the writer. After that I talked to a few people, I guess. Reporters. One of them took my sister and me to see the photo at the museum.

The picture was bigger than I expected. I suppose I can see why people think the whole deal is fishy, but like I said, the guy never laid a finger on me, and there's a picture of me hanging in a museum. How many people can say that?

That might be the only photo that was ever taken of me as a child. I don't remember any others. Other people might be upset, but I'm not mad about it. All I asked is that they change the name so it's right. If there's going to be a picture of me out there in the world I want my real name on it. My full name.

My sister wants the man to give me some money, and if he decides to do that I certainly won't have any objections. The rest of the fuss, though, I don't want anything to do with that.

The kid was wearing a white t-shirt and faded jeans. The interior of the old car --a big Chevy-- was very dark. The cat was all white, and there was murky sunlight pressing in on the cracked windshield but not penetrating. I knew the picture I wanted. The kid was on his back in the front seat and had the cat in his arms.

I wanted the white cat against his black skin. That was really it. I wanted all that darkness, all those shades of black, and the white of the kid's teeth, the white of the cat, and the sunlight on the windshield. Right then that was the best picture I could get. I was young and excited to be in America and making pictures. I probably had some exotic and stupid notions. I didn't then and I still don't see myself as a reporter, but I do regret not asking the kid's name. You could get away with it then, though. I was taking so many photos and was constantly in motion. Very, very seldom --even now-- would I take that much time trying to set up a picture, which is why I remember that day so well. I can even remember stopping for a hamburger and a Coke and sitting there listening to Jimmy Reed and feeling really wound up; I knew I was going to get some good pictures.

I hadn't been in the South yet, but that town was the first place that sort of had that look and feel that I associated with the South. A day or two earlier I'd been in Detroit, I'd been in Chicago, and then all of a sudden I was in this place that felt...I don't know, Faulknerian. It was a small town in the industrial outskirts, just barely, but it was old and rundown and still had a rural feel to it. It sounds corny, I know, but I was very excited to stumble into that place. This was the America I was looking for. Obviously Robert Frank had had a huge influence on both my visual imagination and my ideas about America, but I thought I could get somehow closer to the subject. I could be warmer. You know, I don't think of Frank as warm.

Anyway, yeah, I'd do things differently now, but the truth is that nobody thought anything about it or asked any questions for more than 25 years. It was just a good picture. I'm truly sorry there's been this controversy, and I understand it, but I still think it's a good picture. That kid was beautiful.


  1. This somehow reminds me of Bruce Davidson: "Girl holding kitten", mixed with pictures by Danny Lyon and Mary Ellen Mark. All good things.

  2. As I was reading this, I was thinking Robert Frank, and then you go and mention him late in the story. I think of the photo with the very white baby against the very black nanny.