The American photographer takes us to the streets of Washington DC, where in the 1970s he documented the comings and goings of its inhabitants.
“Ah, but I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now” — the repeated last line in every verse of Bob Dylan’s masterful My Back Pages reminds me of the pinball effect that occurred when I first saw some of my analog negatives converted to digital files. It quickly transported me back to the beginning of my now fifty-year career, and told me that at 70, I’m still young enough to learn.
While adjusting to life in the early days of the pandemic, I realized it was time to dig into my ‘back pages’ and see who that older man was. Digital conversion had become easier, and when I allowed my mental muscle memory to take over, it was clear that all my years of darkroom learning could now help create a proper archive. Those hundreds of hours of ‘exercise’ paid off as image after image appeared on the screen. And most satisfying — yet still humbling — is the realization that I’m the same voyeur that I was, and that the clarity of my vision is alive and still searching.
My first fixation with photography came from the Friday delivery of Life Magazine, as well as by Edward Steichen’s “Family of Man”. Studying those classic black and white pictures must have prompted a desire in me to make some sort of order from the chaos of daily life. By the time I came to Washington in 1969, I had discovered that photography simplified things to the point where some of the complexity of the world could be contained by the click of a shutter. The plain fact that a 35mm SLR felt like home allowed me to drop to my knees so I could be on the same level as three kids building a world in a cardboard box, or calmy choose to hold the camera low and by my side in a sly grab of an unfolding moment.
By 1973, while working in the darkroom at the National Portrait Gallery, I began wandering the “old” part of downtown DC, the area of the city that still had some soul. From the fresh strawberries in the window of the Blue Mirror Grill, and the RKO Keith’s movie house (where it is rumored that JFK would sneak out of the White House in a raincoat and hat to see the porn that showed late at night) at one end of the fifty or sixty block core, to Reeves Bakery & Lunch Counter, Cavalier Clothes for Men, and the Waffle Shoppe at the other, DC’s urban grid was home to strippers and lawyers, artists and government men, and suburban matrons shopping downtown at the old-school department stores like Hecht’s or Garfinckel’s or Woodward & Lothrop.
It was energizing to observe the chaos and randomness of big-city street life that I found there after growing up in small-town Alabama. I approached people with my camera because it felt effortless and natural; neither hesitation nor fear were part of my visual toolbox. Shooting from the hip gave me joy and taught me to watch and wait while observing life as it streamed by.
After leaving the Portrait Gallery, I was staff photographer at the National Zoo for five years where I welcomed the chance to shoot medium format, followed soon by a 4x5 field camera. Perfecting my technical skills, I spent the subsequent years shooting studio and location work for editorial and advertising clients who demanded those larger formats and a command of sophisticated lighting. I practiced my craft with the continuing goal of making fewer and fewer mistakes.
When digital capture came along in the early 1990s — and flipped the industry on its back — it would be ten more years before I finally took that leap. Digital opened a portal I could walk through where I was reacquainted with the “older” man I was back then, and as soon as I released the camera/computer/software genie I felt like the darkroom clock in my life began to spin backwards. That camera resting around my neck introduced a new chapter in my life’s passion, a return to what grabbed me about photography in the first place.
Maybe not unsurprisingly, it was the application of digital technologies that allowed me to embrace the analog years of my back pages bringing full circle this wonderful way of moving through life. My father often said that memory is like a muscle, and that if you exercise it regularly it will stay strong. This simple reminder must have served me well because when I see how I saw those many years ago, it is evident that my memory muscle was embedded in my observations of the world.
Hippocrates is credited with the aphorism “Ars longa, vita brevis’” which translates roughly as “art is long, but life is short.” Put another way, honing one’s craft is a never-ending process that requires massaging memory so it serves the potentially lengthy arc of art. Perfecting a skill set so it is second nature should mean relying on the basics as a bedrock foundation in concert with instinct so one is free to watch, wait, and capture.
By Max Hirshfeld
Max Hirshfeld is an American photographer who grew up in a house full of books and music to parents who survived Auschwitz and settled in small-town Alabama. His father, a child prodigy who played piano with The Warsaw Philharmonic at the age of nine, pushed him to explore the arts with a curiosity born from generations of intellectual and artistic pursuits.