At Port With Charles Todd

At Port

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.

35 thoughts on “At Port With Charles Todd

  1. What a beautiful and emotional story! I read it with pleasure. I am sure your uncle would like this picture. It is classic and has so much atmosphere in it. I do like it as you might guess! So Todaro changed to Todd?


    1. Thanks Chris. I never discussed photography with him. He died a couple of years before my first Minolta. Yes, three of my uncles changed their names.. although to be honest, this was quite common among Italian-Americans of that generation (Dean Martin…Tony Bennett.. the list was quite long in the entertainment industry).


      1. Hi John, I know a lot of people started with a new name in the US, not only people from Italy. Even if you never discussed photography with him I think his eye for compostion and yours, and the detailing you put in would have created a bond. If he would like the medium I am not sure. Thanks for sharing this. Nice to learn a bit more about you while you are telling it.


        1. All good points Chris…as I was telling Lynn down below, there weren’t a lot of painters at that time would’ve been willing to validate color photography. All that would come later. It was 1973…my uncle sensed my interest in art and I’m happy to have that memory.


        2. You are a lucky man with an uncle like that! And your talent is not coming out of the blue sky it seems 🙂
          He did not know colour photography but now we all like to go back to black and white and film effects on digital. I tweaked a picture of a friend that I liked to make it more stronger; i painted the silhouette in black in Lightroom. What do you think :


  2. That’s a very fine photograph! I would like to think that, even with the Art Students League background, he would be/have been generous with your photography. That he gave you the wheel was perfect – that’s an uncle for you. And also uncle-like to me is that, in a sidewise kind of way, he opened your eyes to other ways. The image in the hospital brings back a time long ago when I visited a friend in a long-gone Brooklyn hospital (I can’t even remember the name but it was a bad one). It was about 1973. He was lying there in a large, bare ward, shivering, with only a light blanket and maybe a glass of water by his side. Nurses were few & far between. It was another world, and a horrifying one. You know the light in the photo has a very painterly quality…


    1. Thanks for such an interesting comment. It wouldn’t surprise me if your 1973 hospital was the same one my uncle was at (about the same year too). I never brought up photography with him (my first camera was a year or two off in the future at the time of his death).


    2. I was thinking about this some more Lynn.. Color photography didn’t really receive critical validation until the late 70’s. A lot of artists from that era (especially painters) would’ve been unwilling to grant equal footing to anyone’s photographs… especially color.


      1. Absolutely true. It wasn’t taken seriously. It might have played a supporting role sometimes, and I’m sure there are exceptions, but…not like today. And of course painting still commands more respect but there’s a lot more room now for other media – it’s like a cacophony out there sometimes, right? (I bet our paths crossed at some point – it’s such an intriguing thought, the crowded NY streets walked so many times, all the people who may have been there…)


  3. That’s a great photo, so much atmosphere. Of which kind I’m not sure, which is good, I think: have to look at it for longer.
    I really really enjoyed the text here too. I like your writing, you do it well.


  4. A very moving and accurate tribute to our uncle. Now, if we could only locate those post office murals that he worked on. Thanks for this!


  5. This is such a stunning photograph, and you write so well. Other people’s lives are so endlessly fascinating aren’t they, particularly ones of family..motivations, feelings, secrets, this story has so many questions to it, and the photograph is full of them too..great post!


  6. The lighting and angles in your photo evoke somehow the personality of your uncle as you painted him in your narrative. Beautifully done. You could write a good short about him. Or even a novel. Or include him as a lovely side story in a novel to give it the right complexity. I wonder if you might have any of his past work. I know you mentioned he was doing murals for the post office. I would think that these murals would be taken down or smeared or painted over, after a some time. It would be great to see his work so we can appreciate what you saw in his work.

    There are many people like him, in this world. I have a friend who was a prolific writer when we were in school. Instead, she spent most of her life writing uniform offering circulars for corporate investments.

    Thanks for telling us his story. I enjoyed getting to know him. I love this photo.


  7. Lynn and I were discussing cameras when she linked to your blog for me. I knew nothing about you or your story, but I instantly knew you were a painter. A photographer with a painter’s eye … and soul. Your work is beautiful, gentle.


    1. Thanks George. It’s nice to hear from you! I’ve been photographing since 1975 but there was a bit of fine art (and art history) before that.


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