THR Web Features   /   August 17, 2020

Story of a Photograph

Chartres Street, New Orleans, 1974

John Rosenthal

( Chartres Street, New Orleans, 1974, by John Rosenthal (detail).)

My father’s Yashica LM was stored in a closet and taken out only for ceremonial occasions—a birthday party, Easter, Thanksgiving. Various combinations of family—and sometimes extended family—would be photographed after my father counted to three. The occasion was entirely ritualistic, and therefore decorous. Smiles were required, and, as my brother and I got older, formal clothing. It was a misery. My brother and I disliked dressing up—and my mother’s impatience while my father fiddled interminably with the camera settings would often turn ugly. That was the extent of my father’s foray into the world of photographs. Decades later, these images, along with their captions in albums, are the only cohesive testimony to my childhood, which is otherwise scattered about in fragments of memory. 

In 1974, on Chartres Street in the French Quarter, I was learning to take different kinds of photographs—“art” photographs that were not rooted in what Walter Benjamin called “the cult of remembrance.” I was after something so ephemeral that it could exist only in a poem, or perhaps a photograph—the glance of an eye, an unexpected juxtaposition, the luminosity of something tossed away. And in fact the man who approached me on Chartres Street looked like he’d been tossed away. He held a pint of whiskey in his hand. He was bruised. He seemed to be bringing me bad news. But no, he wasn’t. “Take my picture?” he said. “Sure,” I said, and looked at him closely. Would he make an interesting subject? That sounds crude, but it isn’t. My passion was to make interesting photographs, to exhibit them, to sell them. “Okay,” I said, and I directed him to move a couple of feet to the left so the street was behind him. “I’m going to count,” I said. “Keep your eyes open at three.” I spent a second or two looking for the right vantage and then I counted slowly to three and took the photograph. He stared at the camera until he heard the click, nodded his head, and said, “Do you have any spare change?” I said I did and gave him a couple of bucks. “Thanks,” he said, and moved on. I never printed the photograph because it made me feel—with some justification—like a tourist in someone’s sad life.

Chartres Street, New Orleans, 1974, by John Rosenthal.


Now, more than forty years later, the picture moves me. He was certainly a beat-up guy. I can’t imagine his childhood, but I believe it contained a father or a mother who insisted on counting to three and taking his photograph—probably for the same reason my father took our picture: to leave a record that would resist the unraveling of time. I say this because I’m sure that as I began to count to three, he was stirred by some childhood memory. I don’t mean he posed; he wasn't a guy who could pose. But when I got to three, he straightened up ever so slightly and—you can see it—he thought about smiling. It’s there. The unforgotten reflex of a family life. “Take my picture,” he said, and like his father, I did.