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Wednesday
Jun092010

Stephen Jay Gould

In March 2002, I was assigned by The Chronicle of Higher Education to photograph the late Darwinian scholar Stephen Jay Gould. I’d photographed him twice before – for PEOPLE – and knew that he did not like having his picture taken. He had opined, “You have a strange profession” and, of course, he was right. I think those shoots had gone relatively well because he got to take home the props. . . a giant stuffed panda (The Panda’s Thumb) and a plastic flamingo lamp (Flamingo’s Smile). This time the photo was for a serious publication. I went to see him hoping to trade on good memories of the past and the quality of the publication. I’d also read a moving op-ed piece he wrote for The New York Times about distributing pies in Lower Manhattan after 9/11. I wanted to talk to him about that.

When the editor gave me the assignment details, it was clear that Dr. Gould had not warmed up to the photo experience. He stipulated that the entire shoot be no more than fifteen minutes. The Chronicle wanted a portrait of him in his Victorian office with the manual typewriter he still used for his writing. They also wanted photos of him talking for a separate Q & A box. 15 minutes!

On the day of the shoot, my assistant and I arrived early in order to be ready for our nine hundred seconds. While we were planning logistics with his secretary, Dr. Gould ambled into the reception area and said, “Oh, you’re here. I can only give you five minutes.” I said, “I thought we had fifteen minutes.” He said, “I’m changing the rules.” I then mentioned our prior photo sessions, hoping that might help. He remembered, remarking that one of the images of him was in the National Portrait Gallery. “Usually you have to be dead to have your picture there. I can give you five minutes.”

Then I moved on to discuss the location. “Could we shoot in your office with you at your typewriter?” He said, “How long will it take for you to get ready?” I said, “15 minutes and we will work quietly around you.” He said, “No, too disruptive.”

So there we were, five minutes, no location. We went to work and found an interesting spot in the museum, moved a fossilized shell model into the background, lit the space and practiced the shot. Finally, he came down the hall and said, “Ready?” I said, “Yes, here’s your mark.” He said “What’s a mark?” I pointed to the spot and he went to it and stood with his hands pressed to his sides, looking at the camera like a felon in a police lineup – or perhaps a third grader posing for a school photo. I asked him if he could move his hands to one side. He said, “No”. I asked if he could tilt his head slightly. He said, “No” I explained that they wanted a series of him talking and asked if he could talk with me. He said, “No.” I said, “You could practice your lecture.” He said, “After thirty years of teaching, I think I know it.” And he managed all of these replies without appearing to be talking. He had moved his hands together and they were twisted in an odd way. I suggested he change them because they looked strange. He responded, “I could give a flying fuck!” And then he laughed at his own response. “Click.”

He said he could not stand much longer. He was tired. We found a stool for him to sit on. He sat. I took more photographs and continued my unrequited monologue about his op-ed piece, photography and anything else I could think of that might get through. He remained mute but attentive and then his assistant came down the hall and said there was a call from a doctor in New York. At that point, I thought I had all we could get and said, “Well, I guess that’s it.” And he got up and walked down the hall and turned and said, “Nice to see you again. Sorry it couldn’t have been more. Got a lot going on.” And he gave a kind of half wave with his left and disappeared.

In the end, the film looked great. The truth is that if the shot is well composed and lit and conceived, it’s entirely possible to manage with a short amount of time. He looked good. He’d lost some weight. I didn’t know that his cancer had come back. In the end, it wasn’t the smiling picture that was best, but rather one where he looks still and direct, a pose with a complete lack of artifice, with clear, liquid eyes.

When I learned of his death from cancer two months later, that knowledge transformed the experience. He had, in fact, been gratuitously hostile – but even at the time, I knew it wasn’t personal. Looking back, I thought about his situation on that March morning. He had a new book. He was still teaching and at the same time he was taking calls from his doctors in New York while also enduring the entreaties of yet another photographer. I had been given a glimpse of the complexities that lie beneath the surface that photographers enter, capture and leave. Often without a trace.

-Richard Howard´╗┐

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