For the maiden voyage of my Blog, it would seem logical that I should write something about the project that I am working on presently – a book called “Beginnings” which consists of pictures from my youth in New York City from 1987 to 1990, and some additional pictures that I took of my father and of the city during my last visit there in February of last year.
This book was slated to be published this fall by Robert Delpire, who had published my first book, “Là ou Ailleurs”, back in 2006, but due to his deteriorating health, he retired from his illustrious career at the start of the summer this year, so the book will be done with another publisher. The delay can only be viewed as favorable intervention by the gods who, in their prescience and wisdom, saw the necessity of further fermentation and ripening.
Two years ago, when I began working on the book, I decided to call it “Shelter” but it dawned on me that the word Shelter might suggest helplessness and passivity, which is not at all what the book is about, so I changed the title to “Hunger“, but it didn’t seem to resonate with anyone whose opinion I sought. Cécile suggested “Before“, as in before I became Jehsong Baak, the man who I am today. And Philippa thought “SRO 341“ would make a good title (as in my room number at the sleazy single room occupancy hotel where I lived when I first arrived in New York) and it is indeed an enigmatic title, but very few people outside of New York City would know what an SRO is. And then Angela suggested “Burn“. I liked Burn, still do, because it conjures up images of the inner fire of an angry young man, which I surely was, and it could also refer to a sacrificial incineration of something that needs to come to an end, but the word does not work well with the picture of the pretty girl and the helicopter on the cover of the book.
Then, this past Wednesday, I saw Angela again and she said, “What about Beginnings?“ I loved it because it’s simple and appropriate without being overly intense (like Burn). I also liked it because “Beginnings“ made me think of one of my favorite films of the last few years -- Mike Mills’ “Beginners“. It is a painful and moving account of a guy, played by the always amazing Ewan MacGregor who has intimacy issues, largely stemming from his relationship with his dysfunctional parents, especially his dying father who comes out of the closet in his 70s. So “Beginnings“ it is, unless the angels plant a superior title in my dreams, or maybe Angela, who is so good with words, will come up with something even better.
The picture of the lovely girl and a helicopter may be somewhat misleading to those who will pick up the book once it’s published. The cover may give the idea that the book is some sort of confessional by a chronic jet-set playboy, when in fact the book is more about my tormented youth lived on the razor’s edge in New York and my perpetually conflictual relationship with my father. But as Woody Allen says at the beginning of Manhattan, “…let’s face it, I wanna sell some books here.“
Here is a brief background summary on how the picture of the girl and the helicopter came about. She was not my girlfriend, although I certainly wouldn’t have minded if she had been. She was, as she appears to be in the photograph, a fashion model. Perhaps she still is. I cannot remember her name. It was December of 1989 and I was a college dropout working for a fashion photographer who I did not get along with on a catalogue shoot in St. Croix in the Virgin Islands. A few days after we arrived, we were hit by Hurricane Hugo. The entire crew, about 7 or 8 or 9 of us, were removed from our hotel rooms and placed in a villa on the golf course that was the highest point on the island. Sometime after midnight, the roof in the part of the villa where we were all huddled together came crashing down. We were one or two seconds away from getting squashed like bugs. We remained stranded on the island for about ten days, during which time tempers flared and the photographer and I almost came to blows. We returned to the hotel, which no longer had any electricity or running water so we had go to the beach if we wanted to wash up. The expensive seafood in the hotel kitchen freezers was quickly thawing so we were served endless lobsters and crab legs and jumbo shrimps. I participated in a rotation of men who stood guard during the night (with a handgun loaded with bullets within my reach…first and only time in my life that I held a real gun in my hand) as some of the native islanders had started to break into the hotel to loot. The mostly wealthy European and American clientele was starting to freak out.
The U.S. Army (or was it the Coast Guard? I can’t remember) finally arrived and cleared the runway so that planes could take off and the weary vacationers could return home. We were given the green light to head to the airport on the tenth or the eleventh day and I was standing next to the van waiting for the members of our crew to arrive when the beautiful model whose name I cannot remember walked towards the van and a helicopter appeared out of nowhere and circled the compounds. I sensed a possible something coming together, photographically speaking, so I quickly pulled the Rolleiflex out of my backpack but things were unfolding too quickly and I wasn’t really sure of what I was doing. The girl was fast approaching the van and I could see her t-shirt flapping in that way that we sometimes see in romantic movies or in a beer commercial. The helicopter slowly descended to the ground. Time seemed to be slowing down and I started to see things in slow motion. There was no time to flip open the Rollei’s waist-level viewfinder or to think about what the exposure should be or to even guess the focus. I just cranked the shutter and fired instinctively just as the girl walked past me to get into the van.
The crazy thing is that a couple of years later, in a moment of sheer madness, I threw out the negative of this miraculous picture along with 99.9% of all the pictures that I had ever taken (you can read more about this when the book comes out). A trace of the pretty girl and the helicopter still exists today only because I happened to have taken a photograph of two wet prints that I had made from the original negative hanging on a clothesline in my bathroom, just a few months after the Hurricane Hugo adventure in St. Croix. This is why I am convinced that this image has to be on the cover. It captures in a lovely way the idea of things that disappear or get lost, and how certain things manage to get saved, despite whatever foolishness we may at times engage in. Sometimes, there is magic that has to stick around because it is part of our destiny, because it is too beautiful.
I am sure that I will someday run into the woman in the picture. She must be in her late 40s by now and still beautiful, and I would guess with two or three kids. I owe her a print of this picture and a copy of the book once it’s published. And I need to thank her for unwittingly playing the perfect model in what may go down as one of my most iconic images ever, intentionally recorded or not.