From the Night Factory
9. Princeton: Poverty and Privilege
Circumstances had me composing parts of this essay in a Princeton bistro, writing in my pocket-size Moleskine carnet (the sketchbook version because it is not ruled and I am unruly). The dilemma was competing deadlines. I was composing this essay in bits and pieces while Ms Keogh, my more significant other, who is taking a course in digital photography at Bucks County Community College, had an assignment to compose a photographic essay. She had selected for her theme, “Princeton: Poverty and Privilege”.
This assignment required multiple sallies into Princeton, New Jersey to capture photogenic material. Princeton is not much more than twenty miles up the road from where we live, and I accompanied her on two of her expeditions. My role was no more challenging than to keep her company, but her mission had incited my competitive nature. I brought along my two cameras, a 35mm SLR loaded with a roll of Plus-X that had expired over a decade ago and my new digital Sony NEX-5N on its first battery charge.
After dropping Ms Keogh in the seediest part of town, I drove off to park the car in the town’s center. As she photographed in a low income neighbourhood, where the bodegas sell the locals individual cigarettes for seventy-five cents, which is illegal, I was trying out my new digital camera in the dim light of the majestic interior of the Princeton University Chapel. Ms Keogh and I would meet later for lunch and then together shoot pictures inside Princeton Cemetery. (I forgot to look for the grave of Sylvia Beach, founder of Shakespeare & Company in Paris.)
It was on our second expedition that she lost her Moleskine carnet and had to share mine. I look at it now and see our notes intermingled. According to my notes, I was sitting on the steps of the United Methodist Church, waiting for Ms Keogh to come out of a consignment shop for upscale fashions. Acorns falling from the street's tall oaks surprised me by bouncing on the pavement like rubber balls. They also produced loud clunks as they hit the roof of a parked Volvo. Then Ms Keogh called me away from my reveries; I remember it was to look at Talbot shoes and a Schiaparelli fur hat.
We separated again. She went off with her camera, and I went to see photographs rather than take them.
I have not been a particular fan of sculptor George Segal. His plaster-like figures seem raw, his subjects ordinary. Mine is probably a pathetic, untrained taste and no one should waste their time on my opinions of art. I tend to judge art by how long I could enjoy keeping it company; would I have that in my house to look at day in and day out? However, the Milberg Gallery, which is upstairs at Princeton University’s Firestone Library, was having an exhibition of Segal’s photography, not of his sculpture.
I did not know George Segal was also a photographer. I toured the exhibit, but was again unimpressed by the artist. His images were uniformly dull. They were not more than indifferent snapshots to me, taken without ever bending his knees. I spent most of my time admiring the camera he used, which was exhibited inside a glass box. It was an old Leica M Rangefinder, a camera I admire and one I briefly used forty years ago – borrowed from a friend. That camera was never mine, although I wished it was.
After visiting the library, Ms Keogh caught up to me and together we went to see an exhibit at the Art Museum, only a short walk deeper into the campus. It was a diverse collection of images representing the entire history of photography from its earliest chemistry to today’s digital. The subjects were architectural, yet diverse. Here were buildings captured in moments of time, a brief spell when reflecting light was intercepted by an emulsion that was then forever changed by its influence, a moment preserved.
On Saturday it snowed. Two to three inches tumbled out of the heavens, wet and heavy. We don’t usually get snow in this region as early as October. Despite the snow, Ms Keogh made her way back to Princeton without me. I was to have dinner with my dear mother, who I try to see at least once a week. And while my mother and I ate comfortably in a local Italian restaurant, Ms Keogh was trudging through the slush and snow trying to fulfill her assignment.
For this assignment, she arranged to meet with an acquaintance of ours, a woman with a remarkable knowledge of the goings-on in the town of Princeton, particularly its underbelly. Ms L took Ms Keogh for a tour on foot. It seemed Ms L knew everyone of interest, would greet them by name, and the others she knew about. Herself a colourful character, she arrived in Princeton as a runaway youth who took shelter at night hiding inside the Firestone Library after it had been locked, sleeping, underneath the benches.
A dilemma arose for Ms Keogh. Her photographic essay was coming undone. The photographs she wanted to take would be too difficult to acquire. The poor of Princeton are primarily Hispanics, mostly Mexicans, but also from Costa Rica and Ecuador. They were an invisible population doing the town’s grunt work, cleaning, maintaining lawns, working in the back rooms and kitchens. They were not only invisible because they went about their labors unnoticed and disregarded, but also because they wanted to remain anonymous and not risk deportation, or causing another member of their family to being deported, or merely being evicted from their over-occupied homes. People wishing to remain invisible do not want their pictures taken.
Ms Keogh took 397 photographs during her expeditions to Princeton and only ten satisfied her grandiose project, too grandiose for an assignment which was due this morning. Nevertheless, even though she should be working her next assignment, she can’t leave this one unfinished. She is going back to shoot more images. Deadlines are not the point.
Mr Bentzman will
continue to report here regularly about the events and
concerns of his life. If you've any comments or
suggestions, he would be pleased to hear from you.