Personal Project; The Poet And The Photographer; A Photographer Translates A Poet’s World
Two-time American poet laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner Stanley Kunitz collaborated
with noted Boston photographer Marnie Crawford Samuelson to translate a man's
life and his garden into a profound and touching union.
"Something was obsessing me to want to photograph Stanley Kunitz in that garden on Cape Cod," Crawford Samuelson says, "a chance to be alongside someone in their creative realm. Stanley was 96 years old when I first photographed him and for me he defied all the stereotypes about aging. I felt my photographs would offer me a chance to tell a story that hadn't been told.
"I didn't really know where it was going when I started. I knew I wanted a reportage that would be fluid, informal, and with a connection to my subject's creative spirit. The gardening was not incidental--his choices, his contact with the earth, the simplicity of it all...
"It felt meditative and I remember reading about the photographer Hiro
and how Art Director Alexey Brodovitch encouraged him to photograph a pair of
shoes over and over to get to the essence of his subject.
"The garden felt like this kind of experience, photographing one man moving through a small space with nothing overwhelming, just his carefully chosen subtle flowers and trees."
When Crawford Samuelson approached Kunitz with her idea in 2001 she was granted an okay but the actual project was delayed until the fall of that year rather than the time she had anticipated, which began with his arrival from New York to Provincetown in June. The photographing continued each year until the fall of 2004.
The big question photographically was how do you photograph in this small area over a period of time and not keep taking the same photograph? Gardening is a very narrow range of activity and you see the same elements in the picture--the pail, a shovel...
One solution for Crawford Samuelson was to take her portraits from the back
occasionally as Kunitz walked away, carrying his pails and his walking stick.
"These seemed as vital to me as a portrait approaching," Crawford
Samuelson says. "I had asked Stanley at the very beginning not to do anything
for the camera so there are fewer actual direct to the camera frontal portraits."
Crawford Samuelson took a particularly striking frontal view of Kunitz as he
sat meditatively, hands folded, among the greens in the garden. It is titled
"in touch with the untouchable."
Crawford Samuelson's gift is her ability to observe the unanticipated, for instance in the contrast of his walking stick. "It defies our expectation," she says. "We would be expecting him to be leaning on it at times when he seemed less certain of his step. By the end of each summer, though, he was in rhythm with the garden, stronger and stronger, carrying his pails and dragging the walking stick behind him."
I have known Kunitz for over 35 years as a neighbor in Provincetown and am particularly drawn to the photograph which graces the cover of the small and delightful book, The Wild Braid, published by W.W. Norton, the result of this odyssey with Kunitz, his literary assistant, Genine Lentine, and Crawford Samuelson.
In the picture he is old and as bent as his favorite tree. He stands looking
at his garden. When asked to title the image he said, "Just looking--just
It is a tender photograph. It is the man I have known, just looking, contemplating, totally involved with what he is seeing in this small garden that had once been but a sand dune, a heap of sand that he had transformed, adding kelp and seaweed with old pieces of flotsam and jetsam, to create a terrace to grow his flowers.