More on arts & culture from The Atlantic Monthly.

Green Days and Photojournalism - Page 2
1 | 2

did. And we left on Wednesday, a night flight on a DC-6 to New Orleans; and for a few weeks, almost two months, life was finally absolutely perfectly all that I had ever wanted it to be—as I look back on it, a sort of delayed schoolboy dream of adventure, travel, excitement, even professionalism.

In the few days before leaving New York, Thornton seemed more distracted than ever. For one thing, I think he was having trouble with his agent—he had recently acquired an agent—over the oil wildcatt screenplay. I don't know what the other things were. "Don't overlook the retreat movement," he said. "And make sure you get the captions right." My colleagues at Newsfront were full of expert advice. Tom Cavanaugh counseled me on the expense account. Jim Phillips had once had stomach trouble while on a story in Baltimore; he advised me not to eat anything while I was out of the country. Bill Loomis, and indeed all of them, commiserated on my having Bourke-White as a traveling companion. I had never met Bourke-White. She had been traveling with a band of South Korean guerrillas recently, and had been resting up from that experience in California. Her nerves had been badly shaken in Korea, according to reports. She had been taken out of Seoul on a stretcher, someone said. My friends, however, seemed less concerned with her health than mine. "She'll work you to death," said Loomis. "All you ever do on a Bourke-White story is lug cameras. She has five cameras for every picture, and she shoots ten rolls of film for each frame they use. It's a real bitch of a job." I didn't know what he was talking about—a real bitch of a job. Clearly that was the professional view. I said that I wouldn't let her push me around. I didn't say what I thought: that it sounded like the best deal I'd ever had, and that I'd have gladly carried Bourke-White herself in order to go on it.

We met at the Life photo lab, just before leaving the airport. Camera cases and equipment all over the floor. Bourke-White was a handsome woman, graying hair. She wore a peasant skirt, I remember, and was alternately worrying at and joking with two lab technicians who were trying to fix a tripod. Her manner to me was polite, almost formal at first, and enthusiastic about the story. "I think this is going to be fascinating," she said. "I want to know everything there is about the Jesuits."

The plan was that we would spend a few days in New Orleans, photographing the Tulane astronomer, and others, before heading down to Belize in British Honduras. Early summer in New Orleans. Hot, steamy—the first time I had been there. I was constantly excited—rushing between shooting dates to bars and jazz places, tearing around the tiny French Quarter as if the next turn in the street would doubtless reveal the never-revealed but always anticipated depravity of the city.

Bourke-White, I thought, was terrific. In the first place, she was intent on the Jesuit story, and so I didn't have to sell her on an idea that I was only dimly familiar with myself. In the second place (or maybe in the first place, after all), although she was then probably twice my age, she was nonetheless a striking figure—quite dashing, full of energy, and really very nice. She had been everywhere. She seemed interested in everything. Having a drink with Bourke-White at the Roosevelt after work seemed, in fact, a hell of a lot more fun than having a drink with Ralph Morse, or even with Alfred Eisenstaedt. She was also, evidently, a woman who had gone far in what was then very much a man's world by energy and skill, as well as by a very definite ability at handling men. She would take a great lump of a Jesuit, sitting in his chair in a university, and somehow get him not merely to do something, to move, but also to reveal something of himself, his buried life, in motion and expression. And when he didn't want any more pictures taken, when he proclaimed himself tired or late for something, and she still wanted more—then she would wheedle, joke, cajole, become aggrieved, dramatic, sexy, anything at all in order to get four more pictures. She would handle me too. "Don't you think it might be better to shoot Father Hagerty in that fascinating astronomy lab rather than by the lake?" And: "Don't you think what we want to do is go to that fine lobster place across the river?" And: "Don't you think we ought to tell the waiter to chill the wine a little longer?" And: "You just tell me when to be ready in the morning, and I'll be there. Probably about nine-thirty would be right, don't you think?" She was imperious at times, but (so I thought) graciously so. "Please take the Hasselblad case," she'd say, "and the two Nikons, and, oh yes, the tripod. Can you manage?"

Of course I could manage. At times I remembered what my colleagues had said about how I should stand up for my rights—that I was a reporter and not some photographer's assistant. But none of that seemed to make much sense just then. I cheerfully lugged the Hasselblad and all the rest of it, arranged to talk to Jesuits I needed to talk to in intervals when she wasn't photographing them, took down my endless captions in little notebooks, and felt finally almost professional and exhilarated.

e flew on to Central America. First, Belize in British Honduras. The hotel was on the water. White stucco. Neocolonial. It had just been completed, apparently, and we were among the first people to stay in it. Pelicans on the dock posts outside. Mangoes for breakfast. We had two rooms on an upstairs floor. "Two rooms?" the desk clerk had said. "Yes, of course," the clerk said. Sometimes I felt like her son. Mostly I did not.

We were together most of the time. In the evenings, after work, sitting in the near empty patio of the hotel, the air heavy and sweet, she told me snatches of her life—of starting to take photographs in Cleveland, of traveling with Erskine Caldwell, whom she'd been married to, and of a trip to Russia, something about India, where she'd been on assignment during the civil war, about music, or anyway musicians. I gave her selections from my life, conscious that it had not yet existed, or perhaps had just then begun to exist: the girl I had broken up with; journalism, about which I had many grand ideas; even Jesuits. I remember walking back with her one evening—we had been having dinner with the Jesuit bishop, a kindly, intelligent man, covered in robes and rings despite the hot night. Stray dogs trotting down the empty streets. Buzzards sleeping in the trees. I was aware of Bourke-White beside me. She was certainly not my mother. I was certainly not her son. What were we? No, certainly not what the desk clerk had thought. In truth, never in my life up to then, what with boarding schools and all those later variants of school boy- conceived conquests, or thoughts of conquest, had I ever felt open or at ease with a sexually attractive woman. Possibly, then, we were friends.

In Belize, I remember the mission schools we photographed—she photographed. I remember breakfast on the hotel balcony, drinking sweet, gritty coffee, reading the local morning paper, full of alternating accounts of agricultural committees and violent crime. I remember the heat. A group of German machinery salesmen. I remember Bourke-White seated on her bed, loading film. And I remember the balls of crumpled paper that were always in the wastebasket, on the floor beside the wastebasket. "Are you writing something?" I asked. "Yes," she said. "I'm not an easy writer."

We left Belize to go down the coast. Two Jesuits had a small mission in a fishing village. Dugout canoes. Choppy blue water. The smell of seaweed. There was a colony, perhaps a dozen families, of Carib Indians who lived on an outlying island. Jesuits visited them each month. We went along. A sailboat filled with camera equipment. The water was full of salt, light blue, and looked quite evil. We were shown a grinning man who had his arm taken off by a barracuda some months earlier. An enormous feast of fish upon the beach. Blessings from the Jesuits. Toothy laughter and hoarse, crackling singing.

We went inland now toward the chicle plantation. More Jesuit schools along the way. The chicle plantation had been closed by some disease. Father Hertzberg—tall, fierce, unshaven, Germanic—took us down a winding river in a rickety motorboat. He had an old handwinding gramophone along, and played jaunty 1920s music into the silences of the riverbanks. We spent the night in a clearing beside the river. The next morning about a dozen women and children appeared out of the foliage. Father Hertzberg said a small Mass, and heard confession. The women grinned disbelievingly at Bourke-White. Back on the coast, we heard of yet another mission, small remote outpost of Jesuits, high in the mountains near the Guatemalan border. "How do we get there?" Bourke-White asked. "You go through the jungle. It takes about two weeks," the Jesuit said. Instead, we walked on a dirt road for about five miles, and then took a rickety bus back down the coast to San Jacinto, a province seat. I had thought we would then work our way back to Belize. Bourke-White asked me to call an air charter service in Belize and charter a bush plane to fly us over the jungle. The charter service said they wouldn't do it. "Then we'd better try to get Pan Am in New Orleans and see what they have," said Bourke-White. "Don't you think?" Unbelievably, it was arranged. ("Ask them if Ed Joyce is still around," Bourke-White said. "He flew me in a bomber over Anzio.") Two days later a DC-6 landed on the primitive grass airfield at San Jacinto. It seemed a big plane—occupied by the two of us, and three gangling young men carrying equipment, and by the Pan Am crew, which included a steward and what seemed at least a forty-day supply of Argentinian champagne.

We sipped the champagne and flew above the jungle, above the foothills of the mountains, above the mountains. We were told the village was near a plateau, and that there was an airfield. We circled over seas of grass and treetops. The pilot had a map. I had a map. "This must be the place," the pilot said. "It doesn't look like an airfield to me." "Of course it's an airfield," Bourke-White said. "Just put us down. You're terribly good. You'll see how easy it is." We led down over an expanse of grass, lying between mountains. On the side of one of the mountains were white houses, even a church. "See, how lovely it is!" said Bourke-White. Then: "Oh, you are such a good pilot." We came in low. "My God, planes have landed here?" the pilot said. "Now, don't worry," Burke-White said. "It's all grass." We thumped along the field, or mountain, or whatever it was, bouncing at times into the air—then stopped. "Jesus," the pilot said. "That was just wonderful," Bourke-White said. Stairs were put down. In the distance, across the waving grass, a man in a pith helmet was leading a team of mules toward us. "Now be sure to send us the bill," said Bourke-White, going down the stairs. "Life magazine. Rockefeller Center." "The bill?" the steward said. "Well, you didn't expect us to pay cash, did you?" said Bourke-White.

We climbed all afternoon on donkeys up into the mountains. There was a trail of sorts, mostly loose stones, and at times very steep. I thought it terrifying—bumping along atop some tiny steed, its feet periodically stumbling, slipping, my own hands clutching the pommel, the burro's mane, anything. Bourke-White seemed quite at ease, invigorated. We went through a tropical cloudburst—a sudden darkening of the sky, wild lightning in the distance, and then torrents of rain. We put our ponchos over the equipment. Everyone was soaked, then steaming, in the sun that followed. Bourke-White was whistling. "Isn't this marvelous?" she said.

It was, too—especially when we reached the village, San Miguel. White buildings scattered against the side of a green mountain. Red tiles. Atop the mountain there was a flat area with a church, and several other buildings. Father Timoney's parish. It felt like the top of the world—sky and clouds just above one's head, and green, dark green mountains, and then jungle rolling off in either direction as far as the eye could see. We were billeted in the schoolhouse. Two tiny rooms upstairs. Cool wooden floors. The smell of plaster. A large shy woman brought us tortillas and a kind of tea.

At night I couldn't sleep—the room seemed hot and airless—and went outside. A full moon in the sky. Someone was standing on the far side of the courtyard, near a fountain. I went over. Bourke-White. "I guess I couldn't sleep," she said. She looked strange in the light. "Is there something wrong?" I said. "Of course not," she said, almost annoyed. We went back in. The next morning the sun already was burning hot when we woke up—eight o'clock or so. We went with Father Timoney, once again on muleback, to follow him on his rounds. The four of us—Timoney, Bourke-White, myself, and Joaquin, one of the boys—trotting along on mules down one small valley, up again to another hillside. Clusters of small houses. Shacks really. Tin roofs. Papery walls. The children seemed scrawny and listless. Bourke-White took pictures everywhere. There was one old man, evidently dying, whom Father Timoney stopped a while to talk to. The shack was so dark inside that you could barely make out his face, which was old and gaunt and yellowed. Bourke-White wouldn't allow us to leave. "I need more pictures," she said. I had seen her aggressive before, but somehow not like this. A woman, the old man's daughter, motioned to Timoney. Timoney said that we must leave or anyway stop taking pictures—the old man felt that the camera would steal his soul. Bourke-White began to cry, or something like crying. "But this is so good," she said. "We must stay longer. We must."

hat night, back at the mission, I woke up once and heard her pacing the floor. Some other time I thought I heard someone outside my door, but nothing happened and I was too deep in sleep. The next morning she was sick—the large shy woman told me. I went in to see her. She seemed feverish, pale. The room was hot. I noticed more crumpled balls of paper on the floor. "Were you writing?" I said. "Writing?" she said. She seemed not to understand. "It's just a bug," she said. "It will pass in a day or less." I spent the day talking to Father Timoney, and working over my notes in the shade of the courtyard. I found a bottle of native rum and brought it to Bourke-White. She still seemed feverish but less pale. That night there was some sort of native celebration—singing, the music of guitar-like instruments, a kind of wailing, much drinking, dancing, loud voices. In the middle of the night, half asleep, I heard something fall in the next room. I went in. Bourke-White was sitting at the side of her bed. "I'm sorry I woke you," she said. "It was a jar or bottle. Clumsy of me." I picked up the jar. There were more balls of paper beside the bed. I picked one up. "I'm not writing anything," she said. "There's something the matter with my hand or arm. I'm trying to fix it." "Does it hurt?" I asked. "No, it doesn't hurt." She laughed. "But it makes me clumsy. Now go to sleep."

In the morning she was better, but not really well. Father Timoney came by. The old man in the nearby village was going to die soon, he said, and he was going back to him. We all went back. Bourke-White no longer seemed fragile and I wondered if she had ever been. The room was dark as before but now there were candles. The old man lay upon the bed. His eyes were open. He spoke in a soft but rasping voice to a woman beside the bed. There were other people in the room. A child was lying down at the foot of the bed. Father Timoney said some words in Latin. One of the women started to sing what sounded like an Indian song, which others joined in. At one point the old man smiled, or seemed to smile. I looked at Bourke-White. Not having cameras, or at any rate not holding, working a camera, she seemed grave and uncertain. We went outside. "My God," she said, "how is it possible not to be afraid of death?" "I don't know," I said—it wasn't a subject I thought much about. "That room was so hot," she said. Then: "Don't you think somebody here might have some water, or one of those cold teas?"

The old man died that afternoon. We stayed with Father Timoney another two days in order to photograph the funeral: a strange, colorful procedure, half pagan, half Catholic. Bourke-White by then was completely professional, which I found reassuring. I remember her the last day there, an afternoon when we were taking photographs of Timoney against the tiny church. He was seated on a low wall, the range of mountains stretched out behind him. It was as always a sun-filled day, but this time there was a breeze, the sun felt cooler. A nice day. Bourke-White stood atop the wall, surveying the scene, her scene. Her head was very erect. Her eyes bright and close to laughing, as they often were. She jumped down from the wall. She had nice legs, I thought. "Come on," she said to me. "We've done it. Let's go."

I remember the trip back down the mountain. Parrot-like birds in the trees. The air still cool. The mules slipping and sliding, but I was an old hand at mules by then. It seemed like a marvelously happy time. We detoured several hours to see some ruins of a Mayan temple, a huge thing like a hill now, covered with vines and leaves, green, beautiful. Bourke-White took more photographs. We were in no hurry, nothing seemed to require any hurry, and for a moment there I had the feeling that we would never leave (perhaps as a child feels on vacations), that this is how it would always be, forever, Bourke-White taking photographs, and I munching dried fruit and chocolate and scribbling captions. But then we left. Back to the coast. Back to Belize for two hours. Back to New Orleans. In New Orleans we were to rest a few days before continuing to Texas and California and Alaska for more Jesuits. Instead, I had word waiting for me, via Bill Thornton and Selective Service, that I had been drafted. I went back to New York and to the Army. Bourke-White continued herself on the story, which appeared the next fall in Life. Fourteen pages. Photographs by Margaret Bourke-White. I had a Christmas card two years later from Father Timoney. He had been transferred to Samoa. He said we should visit him.

have thought of Bourke-White often since that time. I saw her again briefly, right after the Army—I had already departed from Life, and she was on her way that afternoon to California. She was going to photograph the coastline from a helicopter, I think. We said a cheery hello, good-bye on the street. I remember the wind was blowing her hair, gray hair. The usual camera cases were on the sidewalk. I saw her once after that, about seven years ago, not too many years before her eventual death from Parkinson's disease, which had been the paperball disease that neither of us had known about in San Miguel. I was visiting a friend in Connecticut. "Do you remember the photographer, Margaret Bourke-White?" my friend said. "She lives down the road." I went by there on impulse. I knew she had been very sick, had nearly conquered Parkinson's, had nearly conquered ... She was different that day in Connecticut—so many hard things had happened to her. She was also much the same—the eyes, that brave look. We talked briefly about the old days at Life—that distant place or country where we had both once met, where she in fact had spent, or given, much of her life, and which I (on another orbit) had been passing through. The old days. Old friends—many of my old Newsfront colleagues indeed were now running the place, although the mood of the place seemed to have changed. They were now tilting at television, shaving costs, worrying about the advertising. Bourke-White sat in a chair in a dark corner of the room. She seemed tired, but still with such vibrance. I remembered the old man in the dark room. I said then: "That night in the village, late at night—were you afraid?" She nodded. "I didn't know of what. Later, I wasn't afraid." I said: "It must have been hard on you that I was so very young." She smiled a bit. "No, that wasn't the hard part." And: "You really were so green." And then: "But the old man frightened me. I thought I had seen everything, but I had never seen him before." Shortly, I got up to leave. She waved. "Good-bye." I said good-bye. Good-bye.

1 | 2

What do you think? Discuss this article in Post & Riposte.

Copyright © 1987 by Michael J. Arlen. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; August 1972; Green days and Photjournalism, and the Old Man in the Room - 72.08; Volume 230, No. 2; page 58-66.