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...

Stanley Kunitz, at 100, August, 2005.
All Photos © 2005 Marnie Crawford Samuelson, All Rights Reserved

"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...

Stanley Kunitz "just looking." This is the cover for The Wild Braid, W.W. Norton, spring 2005.

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.

Stanley Kunitz, inspecting.

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 looking."

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.