Thursday, November 20, 2008


Henry and I were talking about our dads last night, thinking of what we had saved, as mementos of their presence now passed.

I showed him what turns out to be the only object of his that I keep on display in my room, a small carved cufflink box that sits on my dresser next to the clay mask of Agamemnon and the crude little figurative clay statuette that still bear the fingerprints of Lynda. If Bill's imprint on my life is yet visible, it is most obvious in the mirror and the viewfinder, but an observant visitor would find it also in the eclectic collection of objects o n my dresser and my desks, all carefully arranged for my convenience and aesthetic pleasure.

He asked if it was ivory, which, though I told him it was not, it is. I stumbled on the answer because it's actually from an animal that one would not ordinarily expect to harvest the now politically incorrect material known as ivory: a whale.

One of the most interesting and possibly the grandest adventures upon which Bill embarked--literally--was his trip on a whaling expedition to the Antarctic as a free-lance photographer for LIFE magazine when he was in his early twenties. The carved ivory box, which sat on his dresser until I picked it up the day after he died, was just one of the mementos he had from that trip. He also had a piece of baleen--the krill filter in their mouth--and a bizarre looking shell-shaped piece of ceramic-looking material that was actually the inner ear of a sperm whale. He also had a lot of photographs, of course, and a yellowed copy of the magazine in which they appeared.

Now LIFE magazine is still around, I guess, but in the sixties, it was still a very famous and even important magazine, perhaps even the most read and loved by Americans--though LOOK was a stiff competitor--at the time. This made my dad, by association as a photographer, somewhat of a celebrity for me during those middle school years when I could, and did, bring my Dad in to talk about his adventure for show and tell. He would bring all the stuff, including a sperm whale tooth that was inscribed with skrimshaw and the little cufflink box carved from an even larger tooth. He'd answer every question, too, from facts about whales to the goriest details that the teacher would let him get away with. The stories at home were uncensored, thankfully.

His photographs of the expedition were quite good. Over the years, he would retell the adventure as we looked through the magazine or perhaps reviewing old slides one day, and I honestly never tired of it. I learned, first of all, that it was Ant-arc-tica, with the hard 'c' before the 't'. He told me about toilets flushing the opposite way below the equator. He talked about the equator crossing ceremony, the penguins that came to visit the boat and, mostly, about the hard work and rough conditions that the men who called themselves whalers endured.

I saw--over and over again--the bloody and brutal pictures of the whales being cut up and shoved into tiny--compared to their once majestic girths--holes in the deck of the ship and cannot still forget the grim faces of the men who did the hacking and slicing with long-handled knives, ropes and winches.

This was no modern day factory ship. It resembled, in many regards, what it really was: the last of the American whaling fleet to ever set to sea; a vessel not too far removed in time or size from the original Yankee whalers. The methods for catching, killing and cutting up these giants changed but little up to the end. Harpoons were not thrown by hand, but fired from a crude gun, and the final death blow was often not delivered till the ship drew up alongside. Bill took pictures of the whole process, but he concentrated on the faces.

When he talked about it years later in front of groups of gaping mouthed middle schoolers, we were interested in the blood and gore, but he was most interested in relating what it had been like to work with these tough and dedicated sea-going workmen. His photos resembled those of Weston's New York or Brassai's Paris; studies in dark and light, images of sharp contrast in the form of powerful human portraits.

He was, even then, outspoken in his opposition to whaling, and used his experience as a cautionary tale. This was long before 'Save the Whales' ever entered the American consciousness, and from his point of view, one that had little to do with saving the planet and everything to do with simply being humane. In some ways, his was an experience not unlike Upton Sinclair's, and he was never hesitant to speak about the injustice that he felt was being perpetrated on these wonderful animals.

I don't know what happened to the inner ear, not the scrimshawed tooth or the baleen or even the original copy of LIFE that he saved, but I do know where the cufflink box is, and, more important, where the photographs are. It's time I brought them out and collected them in a book. As the curator of these items, it is up to me to see that they are both preserved and documented, for his sake as well as mine. After all, my interest in photography links me directly to Bill, more than a mere memento on the dresser.

1 comment:

d2 said...

i have the inner ear.