Addressing a long-held ambition and frequently-broken new year’s resolution, I have begun tearing into thousands of negatives, mostly 35mm Tri-X, some 4×5, contained in many boxes on shelves across a side wall in my basement. The vast majority have never been printed (and often for good reason) and in too many cases, the negatives have become separated from their proof sheets and never-databased listings.
One discovery in this absurd mess is a series of 1977 negatives taken during one of my more memorable photographic junkets to Arizona and Mexico with Lee Romero.
I met Lee shortly after he and his girl friend had traveled from New York and wound up in Venice Beach, CA, where they started a small gallery in a then-non-gentrified section of town just inland from the beach. Lee had parlayed his previous experience as a New York Times photographer into a day job with the Los Angeles Times. He was in the process of mounting a new group show when I happened to walk in with my portfolio. I was rather astonished when he looked at my photographs for awhile, then dropped what he had been doing to restructure the show and provide me with a separate, solo section for my work, bumping at least one other photographer. (The aggrieved displaced victim of this spontaneous act would later become a fast friend, although my relationship with her early on was a bit stony.)
Weeks or months later — time was a blur then — Lee invited me to join him on a road trip to Bisbee, Arizona, an old near-ghost-town and former copper mining center where he knew some people who were transforming the area into something of an art haven. On the way, we had driven through the southwest California desert area where Lee had been born and raised, and survived much laughter, jokes, stories and other indulgences along the way. We arrived late at night, but immediately went to the local St. Elmo Bar, a hangout for artists and assorted locals, and met Lee’s bartender friend, Harold. We stayed in a “historic” ramshackle sort of Victorian hotel and laid plans for a trip to nearby Naco, Mexico, just over the border. In addition to the attached above photo of Lee and some patrons of the bar in Naco where we spent many hours, some of the other photos that I resurrected from that sojourn are assembled here. Probably telling that almost all of the photographs from that adventure were made inside bars, dimly lit with all that implies.
Later on, Lee moved to San Francisco to accept a photography job at a leading newspaper there. At that time, I took over the management of the gallery until its demise at what we still believe to be a conspiracy by a local realtor who wanted the building for development purposes. (This was just an early incident in the hyper-gentrification that was to overtake Venice. Now the median price of a home in the neighborhood is nearly $1 million, and the likes of Google and Microsoft inhabit the very street where the gallery was once situated, transforming the already surfeit of trendy boutiques and restaurants into what is known as Silicon Beach.)
The last time I saw Lee was somewhat later, maybe a year or two on, when he gave me shelter in his painting studio loft (yep, the guy is a hot painter, too) when my old Alfa Romeo became temporarily indisposed after driving to SF. During that few days, I joined him on one of his photo assignments to document an up-and-coming boxer in fighting action. Somewhere, I also have negatives from this small chapter that have never seen the light of day; perhaps I will find them sometime. (Somewhere I think I also have some examples of a pastime that Lee enjoyed, whereby he affixed his own hilarious and often outrageous captions or cartoon speech bubbles to his and others’ photos.)
In the meantime, here again are some of the 33-year-old photographs I scanned from negatives found today that document in part that wild-and-crazy adventure with Lee and our entourage in 1977.
UPDATE, FEBRUARY 2013: Although we never subsequently made direct contact, I later discovered that Lee had returned to the New York Times. Over the years I often visited the online LENS section of the Times (http://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/) where I continued to follow Lee’s frequently-published photo essays and writings. I especially liked his project where he photographed the scene of some other famous photographers’ earlier work, juxtaposing the originals over his own current recording. Another remarkable story was his ‘Round Midnight project, photographing New York in the wee hours. And much more great work from Lee can be found in the NYT web pages.
Lee also was interviewed for the 2013 documentary “Get The Picture“:
Lee retired from the New York Times on 2/1/13 and was remembered in this fine blog tribute by one of his colleagues there.