This beautiful image of James Baldwin appeared in my FaceBook feed today. It contrasts sharply with photos of my father I revisited this morning while clearing my desk. While all the pathos, passion and drama of Rachmaninov's Third Piano Concert exploded on the CD player, I stared at the three images: two of them taken from a distance and a closer shot on his front porch. His face is indistinct in all of them. "I don't have a single decent photo of my father," I thought.
It requires special attention and intention to capture photos of dark-skinned people. Formal school photos were never a problem but as a minor celebrity in my small town, my picture appeared in the newspaper from time to time. I hated those pictures: they were always either under-lit or over-lit, turning my face into either a featureless dark blob or a mosaic of shine and shadow.
My name in the caption and, in the best cases, the recognizable pattern of whatever I was wearing were the only clearly identifiable features of the photo.
I look at the Baldwin photo, and the several others of him that have appeared recently as part of an ongoing celebration of him this year in New York, and I see pain; but he is not my father. I also see triumph and intellectual vibrancy in Baldwin's face. The Baldwin photographs reveal an artist, a complex human, a black man.
My sister, who is currently willingly estranged from my father, is sending me a camera. It was to be a bon voyage gift for the trip to Brazil. I decided this morning I will make a trip "home" in the next few months and attempt to take a decent photo of my father...if he'll allow it. I'm ready now to see him, to read whatever's there in his face, in his eyes.