About twelve years ago we took a trip in June to Bar Harbor and the northeast coast of Maine. June is the foggiest month of the year and we were visiting a state that pretty much wrote the book on the stuff. On the morning of our flight home from Bangor I took a series of pictures of the Margaret Todd.
My wife waited back at the motel with our three year old while I put the Hasselblad through its paces. She’s always had more patience than me.
“Todd” is a name that strikes a chord because long before I was born it was the name that three of my uncles adopted. Seventy five years ago, they were running from something that no longer matters to Italian Americans. When I was a kid growing up in Florida, none of that concerned me. My uncles were strangers with no children who lived in other places. The only one we’d hear about was the one who’d send us a Christmas card.
Every year it was signed “Charlie”.
Charles Todd, my uncle, came with an interesting story. I grew up aware that he was a portrait painter and that he’d studied at the Art Students League in Manhattan. Years later I realized that he had been there at the same time as Jackson Pollock. Many other artists were present including Thomas Hart Benton who was on the faculty. Whether my uncle studied with Benton is unknown and his training at the Art Student’s League remains a mystery. Once, during the 1980′s, I ran into a woman at an art show who had modeled for my uncle at the Art Student’s League. Her memories of my him were laced with emotion.
Sadly, my uncle’s artistic aspirations were derailed by the Great Depression. For a short time, he was employed by the WPA to paint murals in Post Offices and other public buildings. But my uncle wasn’t destined to be a career artist. He spent the rest of his life delivering mail in New York City (the irony of which he must’ve appreciated). Over the years, he picked up his brushes on weekends, or when he received occasional commissions for portraits.
My uncle’s mystique grew as I arrived in my middle school years. Sometime around 1968 he won a city-wide art contest held by the Postal Service for its many employees. He made the cover of The Daily News. I own a copy of that newspaper along with the two paintings which were featured on the cover. It’s all down in my basement in storage.
In the mid ’60′s when we spent two summers on Long Island, I discovered that my uncle didn’t have much interest in bygones. We’d sometimes meet him at Sheepshead Bay where he kept a boat. The man I got to know was a droll, quiet guy who who sported a pencil-thin mustache. There was a likable sense of weariness about him, a quality which I found in no other relative. He had a wife (whom I never met), and she was not the woman he loved. One day he showed up with Eleanor, a sexy woman in her late fifites who knew how to lose her past. Later, it became fairly obvious that the woman in shorts leaning against the dock had been modeling for him for years.
She was also my aunt’s best friend.
After that, his affairs were discussed in hushed tones by my parents. I now know that there were many complexities in his relationship with his wife, but because of my youth I formed a mental picture of a lonely and beautiful woman which I carry with me to this day.
My uncle loved the sea. Despite the advancing years, he bore a striking resemblance to the wiry guy in the black and white Navy photograph which we kept in the box with the pictures. One afternoon when I was about ten or eleven he invited us out on his boat. My brother, father and I drove to the marina in Brooklyn. Eleanor was there, and everyone was a little tense. We climbed onboard, assembling awkwardly in the cabin. My uncle slowly guided us out of the harbor and then leaned into the throttle taking us swiftly to the middle of the bay. He idled the engine; it was breezy, a little choppy–and no one had much to say. With a cigarette between two fingers, Eleanor opened a cooler and handed us cans of soda. My uncle, who had no patience for small talk, placed me at the wheel. We took off. In amazement, I steered the boat for several miles. I felt like I’d been granted an unexpected right of passage.
I only saw my uncle a few times after that. Once during my late teens he visited us on a frigid autumn weekend. I hadn’t seen him in a while, and because of my advancing interest in art I was really looking forward to a chat. In retrospect, it was a memorable day. My uncle and I had a one-one-one: a short but satisfying conversation under a pallid florescent light. We were in the basement in the room that my father filled up with second hand furniture. It was the only time I ever heard my uncle talk about the old masters.
The last time I saw him was in a musty hospital somewhere in New York City. He was dying, but I can’t remember why and was too overwhelmed to inquire about it at the time. He was in pain and waved us off because he wanted no visitors. I’ll never forget that day.
It was another thirty years before I’d photograph the Margaret Todd. I have a hard time imagining my uncle with any interest in color photography. He would’ve been polite enough to critique my images because I was his nephew. He was a well-trained colorist during a time when other things mattered to artists. In another sense, I can easily envision him admiring the Margaret Todd because for him, she would’ve evoked the sea. What I’ll never know is whether the graceful lines and soft colors of my photograph would have had any further meaning.