Sunday, October 29, 2017

Grey & Barbara & Life & Loving

     The year was 1961. She was a journalist with Life magazine. He was a photographer assigned to work with her. In what could have been the opening scene of a Hollywood romantic comedy, their relationship got off to a rocky start. His six foot four stature gave her pause as did his old jeans and wrinkled shirt fashion style (accented with dangling cameras). And what to make of that odd South African accent,  that "attitude". 
     But there was work to do, a story to be told and they got on with it. Then, after only a few hours of collaboration, her first impressions began to shift. She sought the essence of a subject in words. He did the same in images. They might make a good team. Apparently he thought likewise:

     "That night, when we got back to the hotel, he walked me
     to my door, kissed me lightly, and told me I was going to
     marry him. After three more days of working together,
     I agreed."

          - Barbara Villet on meeting her husband, Grey Villet, as told 
          in a Middlebury Magazine profile by Sara Thurber Marshall

Web Image

     The following decade was tumultuous. Vibrant young leaders emerged and then were lost. There were massive protests against discrimination and an unpopular war. Economic and cultural upheaval shook the country. The Villets helped make sense of it all 
with thought-provoking photo-essays in the pages of Life. That was until 1972, when the magazine ceased weekly publication. In an experience many other Americans have shared, they had the rug pulled out from under them, their livelihood taken away.

Life magazine covers

Books by the Villets

     They landed in southern Washington County where Barbara sold real estate and Grey built houses. He died in 2000. Barbara still lives in the house that they shared on the banks of the Battenkill. I have a few acres of "getaway" woodlot next door and see her occasionally when I'm there. Sometimes her little dog comes over to say hello...friendly visits I always enjoy.

The Battenkill

     In these days of Instagram and Snapchat, carefully crafted photo-essays that take time, patience and empathy to create have fallen out of favor. In some small way, blogs seem like the digital heirs to magazine photo-journalism. The best of them use images and words to deeply probe a subject. Maybe that's why I'm drawn to the Villet's body of work. They showed what could be done with camera and text guided by sensitive intelligence.
     In recent years Barbara has been active in preserving her husband's artistic legacy. Here's a look at some of her efforts:

     * Grey Villet -- Photography is a web-site with biographical 
     info and a selection of his work.

     * Rights, Race & Revolutions is an exhibit currently on display
     at the Folklife Center at Crandall Library in Glens Falls.
     Large scale prints of some of Villet's iconic images.                   

     * The Lovings - an intimate portrait with Grey's photographs
     and text by Barbara is a book about the landmark civil rights
     case giving couples of any race the right to marry and paving
     the way for freedom to marry for all. Available at local 
     bookstores and libraries.      

     * The Loving Story is a 2011 documentary by Nancy Buirski.
     It's about the case and uses many of Grey's photos. Available 
     from local libraries. 

     * Loving is a 2016 feature film dramatizing the case. Starring
     Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga as Richard and Mildred Loving,
     with actor Michael Shannon appearing as Grey Villet. 
     It's an interesting portrayal of the photographer at work.            

     Villet's portrait of the Loving family has been the subject of renewed attention in recent years. No doubt that's because of the debate around same-sex marriage equality. In a heartfelt statement shortly before her 2008 death, Mildred Loving said, "I support the freedom to marry for all. That's what Loving and loving, are all about."
    It's easy to become blase' about what we consider to be our inalienable rights. Isn't this America where there's "justice for all"? But the current political climate reveals the naiveness of such assumptions. The Loving case is a reminder to never take even the most basic of rights for granted.
     Villet's images from the time brought up personal memories. Back in the early '60's my grandfather managed a textile mill in Glens Falls. It was on Elm Street across from where the Downtown City Tavern is now. Today the building has been converted into luxury condominiums. Back then the company had decided to close the facility and move production to North Carolina where wages and costs were lower. Now days they would have gone straight overseas.
     My grandfather became manager of the new southern factory, prompting my mother and I to take a bus trip down to visit. At one point, maybe in Virginia, there was a bus stop where you could get something to eat. We innocently walked in a side door and sat at the counter, not really noticing that we were the only white faces in the room. After a few minutes a kindly older gentleman came over and said "You folks may want to go around the corner and in the front door. This part is for us." There were segregated dining areas, something we had never experienced up north. And this in my lifetime!
     In North Carolina most of the workers at the weaving machines were black women - probably because they could be payed the least of any segment of the population. I was struck by how fond they were of my grandfather, a gruff, no-nonsense white boss. In retrospect I think I know the reason. I don't believe he was particularly progressive. But he certainly wasn't overtly racist either. What he looked for in people was common sense, competence and hard work, traits his employees had in full. If you did your job he treated you with dignity and respect. That was all the women wanted.
     Villet saw the Lovings at a human level. Two people who simply wanted to commit to and care for each other. Sure there were big civil rights issues involved, fundamental constitutional decisions to be made. But Grey's perceptive compassion for Richard and Mildred as individuals with personal and emotional needs set the tone for much of the subsequent coverage. He "got it", saw the essence of their situation and caught it on film.
     At the Crandall exhibit there is only one photo of the Lovings. Given that the entire photo-essay can be seen in Barbara's book, this makes sense. It allows room to display the wide and varied range of Villet's other work. Whenever I'm at the library I focus on one particular set of images - maybe the Smith family of Vermont or the Cow Creek, West Virginia tragedy. Last time it was the portrait of Celestrina that transfixed me. She's a little girl from the slums of Lima, Peru who has just been given a crust of bread. Villet caught the happiness that morsel of food brought in both her smile and her eyes as she looked into his camera and into our hearts.  

"the work will tell" - Grey Villet


     Along with the Villet photos here's a couple of other 
     exhibits that might be of interest...         

     Grandma Moses at the Bennington Museum until November 5 -

     And at Middlebury until December 10 -  

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