Thursday, June 4, 2009

Photo Mugging


As this first week of June winds down, so does the graduation season. Many commencement ceremonies have taken place already in the city, releasing hoards of job seekers and setting adrift the "what next?" crowd. It's an exciting time, a milestone—one you want to record for posterity. And it's pretty safe to say that when you record it, you want to do so without background interference. What follows is a significant confession. Consider it also an apology to countless high school graduates from the year of, I think, 1985. We don't know what came over us; we just couldn't help ourselves. I remember that it started as an accident. My mother and I were in New York City, at Lincoln Center. I don't think we'd seen any performances—perhaps we'd come from the library branch there that focuses on the performing arts—but anyway we were there around lunchtime. The weather was lovely, perfect for sitting in the seasonal cafe that in those days was always set up in the plaza. This dining area was sectioned off from the rest of the outdoor space by a rectangular configuration of large planters giving root to boxy, shrub-like plants. At the time we were seated, just next to the greenery, the plaza was empty. Soon, however, scores of youth in blue caps and gowns (and white tassels, if memory serves me well) flooded the open space around us with their families. They had just received their diplomas, probably walking across the stage at Avery Fisher Hall. We heard the noise of celebration, and of course we were curious to find out what was going on. In order to see, we either had to stand up, which we weren't going to do, or else peek through the plants, which was easier and of course much more discreet. How were we to know that a family photographer would be releasing the shutter of his camera (I remember it was a man), right at that exact moment? We were a bit to the side of the assembled group, but not by much. Clearly we'd gotten in the picture. We pulled back from the plants, horrified for a millisecond before the hilarity set in—and not before seeing a look of puzzlement on the photographer's face. He'd seen something . . . but didn't seem to be sure what it was. Often I think people just don't see the unexpected for what it is. Why should he suspect, as he was readying the camera, that a couple of white faces would peek out from the bushes? I say "white faces." Not that I would usually make an issue of race, but in the interest of cultural irony, this might be the time to mention that the graduating class could easily have been from Harlem or some other neighborhood that, at that particular time in the city's history, was almost exclusively black. The reversal of some horrible, racist kind of stereotype came to mind: while perhaps at some time, some white people imagined blacks as savages living in the jungles of Africa (god knows, there are probably some ridiculous drawings of black faces peering out of the bushes somewhere), here we were, two pale-faced fools in the background of an otherwise civilized tableau of educated black people. And did it end there? Of course not. As I said before, I don't know what came over us, but we saw extreme humor in the situation, and so we went on a spree of what we later came to refer to as "photo mugging." The space in front of the planters, on the other side from our table, seemed to attract a lot of groups looking for a scenic shot, so we had plenty of victims. We'd wait until someone counted "One . . . Two . . ." and on three we'd part the leaves and peek out, then vanish again. It's incredible that no one noticed, or if they did they didn't say a word. From the cafe side, we realized at some point that our bad behavior was very much on display, and eventually we called off the photo mugging for the afternoon. We'd start laughing uncontrollably, however, each time we thought of the days or years to come—the surprise of seeing our faces in the photos (remember, this is before digital cameras, so the contents of the photos were unknown until the process of film development and printing was complete), and then the class reunions. We imagined friends talking later: would they compare notes and shake their heads, amazed to see us in several sets of photos? It's a story we have told each other many times over the years, wondering at our own nerve. Are we ashamed of ourselves? Maybe a little. Feeling remorse? I admit, not a lot. It remains one of our greatest, craziest collaborations. Of course we'd never do anything like that now. In a digital world of instant editing and PhotoShop capabilities, we'd never stand a chance. Class of 2009, consider yourselves lucky.

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