I still find a great value in considering the styles of Horst, Helmut Newton, and Richard Avedon even when looking at pictures older than I am. There is a great deal to be learned from images of the past, both those captured on film and those captured in our memories. Are we actually learning, though, or are we just looking at the pictures?
I remember my father taking pictures on a 35mm brownie, one of those where you looked down at the top of the camera rather than a viewfinder in the back. This approach made it very easy to remove the tops of heads from his subjects, and there was no preview to let him know an error had been made. We had boxes full of chocolate-toned black and white pictures that were little more than a collection of knees and ankles and dress shoes.
Perhaps that is why I’m drawn to the images of photographers I respect from that period, especially those I had the privilege of knowing: Horst, Newton, Avedon. I can look at those pictures and feel what they were seeing. Attempting to recreate those emotions in images such as this one is challenging, and I usually end up staring for several minutes when I’m done, making sure that, regardless of how the image affects anyone else, it makes me feel the right feel.
I could probably stop at this point and most people would be satisfied; indeed, I’m sure that ending now would be the more prudent and politically expedient thing to do. So, if one is in a hurry and doesn’t wish to stay for the sermon, I do understand. No, not really, but I’m trying to be nice. Sit down, I’m not done.
When I asked my father what they meant, because even at three I wasn’t enough of a prodigy to be reading all that well, he explained in the most gentle way possible that the sign allowed the store owner to remove anyone who wasn’t being nice or acting up. That was a language to which I could relate. I knew what it was like to have to leave a room because of my behavior. His explanation made perfect sense.
It wasn’t until I was older that I realized what those signs were actually meant to do: dodge federal desegregation laws. People of color were not welcome in large parts of rural Kansas and Oklahoma during this time. Some laugh when I say I didn’t have a non-caucasian classmate until 1974, but it is a very sad truth. The sign may have said “anyone” but everyone of a reasonable age new it was directed toward people of color.
By the mid-70s, most of those signs had disappeared. I would occasionally see one in a rural feed shop, or a truck stop where rowdy patrons might legitimately warrant such a warning. While no one was crazy enough to assume we were past all our challenges to civil rights, we at least felt we had turned the corner toward a positive direction.
That was until yesterday, when Indiana made it legal to discriminate against anyone simply by claiming that to serve them would in some way violate their (the store owner’s) religious principles. In other words, if I claim serving anyone over 65 violates my religious principles, I don’t have to serve them. If I claim serving people of a specific ethnicity violates my religious principles, I don’t have to serve them. If I claim serving people of a specific sexual orientation violates my religious principles, I don’t have to serve them.
And this time, no sign is required. One doesn’t know until they attempt to shop, or make a purchase, or take a seat at the counter (don’t tell me you don’t remember that picture), whether they actually will receive any service or not.
Simon Peter, Thomas (called the Twin), Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples were together. Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.
Just as day was breaking, Jesus stood on the shore; yet the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, do you have any fish?”
They answered him, “No.”
He said to them, “Cast the net on the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in, because of the quantity of fish.
That disciple whom Jesus loved therefore said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on his outer garment, for he was stripped for work, and threw himself into the sea. The other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, but about a hundred yards off.
When they got out on land, they saw a charcoal fire in place, with fish laid out on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, 153 of them. And although there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” (John 21:1-13 ESV)
Try to grasp the picture here: seven naked men in a boat, called to by an eighth man who was supposed to be dead. One is so taken that he jumps into the water, swimming toward shore, leaving the others to row the 25-foot, single mast, wooden boat heavy with roughly a ton of fish, on their own. They come up on shore, smelly, still half naked, looking like something the cat dragged in, and this baffling man has made a fire and cooked them food. He is violating a host of both religious and social principles when he looks at them and says, “Come and dine.” That strange man’s name: Jesus.
Anyone who thinks Jesus was white, or even came in contact with anyone light skinned, is wrong. He was a Jew raised in Egypt. His hair was short and curly, his beard rough, his skin dark and leathery from working out in the sun. He almost certainly had a distinct accent to his voice and in a society that valued speaking Greek, he spoke a little-used and socially despised dialect called Hebrew.
Anyone who thinks Jesus was immensely popular is wrong. Sure, he had his friends who occasionally traveled with him, but they were laborers, too. A handful of women, including his mother, made sure he didn’t starve, but there was nothing fancy. He could draw crowds in when he spoke, but they never stayed. He was considered more of a side show, a distraction in a life that was brutal and difficult, without a lot of entertainment.
When he died, hardly anyone noticed, and no one outside his circle of closest friends cared. He was buried quickly. The only legal record of his death is a questionable court document, and even that might have been altered. That whole religion thing? Yeah, that didn’t happen until over 100 years after his death, a construct primarily composed of people who hadn’t even known the person they claimed to worship.
Our founding fathers saw fit to give both religion and personal speech a form of carte blanche when they wrote the Constitution because they understood, first hand, what happens when either is muted by government, not because they themselves necessarily held to Christianity or any other religion. There were as many mixed religious views among members of the Continental Congress, perhaps more, as there are now. Their intention was to provide freedom, not create a bully club with which to discriminate against anyone different.
This law allows, should they decide to do so, the Muslim owner of a convenience store to refuse to sell gas to women whose heads are not covered. This law allows those with Aryan belief systems to refuse service to people of color (here we go again). This law allows any endless array of discrimination as long as one claims it is being done as a matter of conscience.
When I look at pictures from the early 1960s, one of the things that becomes evident is just how limiting society was then compared to how it has been recently. There were fewer choices, life was more segregated, and creative expression was discouraged. I look at those pictures and am reminded of how much progress we’ve made. Why would we want to go backward?
There is a great deal to be learned from images of the past; namely that we don’t want or need to go back there. Not even in Jesus’ name. The example set by the person allegedly being worshiped should be followed. To all, even the naked, smelly, unwashed, socially unattractive people of the world, he would say, “Come and dine.” Jesus would not support RFRA. Why should anyone else?