By Paul Beckman
For fifteen years I have been the photographer that you pass just after you enter Sears or K mart or any number of the large discount or department stores. I work for the GOLDEN IMAGE COMPANY and I receive a modest salary plus a percentage of the pictures I sell. The picture packages range from the $1.99 “COME ON” 5×7, to the deluxe $159.95 “I REALLY LOVE MY CHILDREN” grouping. I am best at selling the $39.95 “FAMILY PACKAGE” which consists of one framed 8×10, four 4×5’s in folding cardboard mattes, and one dozen wallet-size photos. For this package I make an extra $8.25. It is the rare customer that doesn’t go for this deal. I don’t push to sell the big orders because I believe them to be a rip-off; but I do let people make up their own minds and buy them anyway if they choose. Usually the poorer the family, the more they spend. I tried to tell them that it wasn’t necessary, but out of pride they would then spend more than they could afford, so now I just keep my mouth shut and write down their orders and take their deposits.
I used to be someone. I was a real photographer. I worked for the AP and UPI, and in June of 1958 I had the cover of LIFE. I used a 35mm range finder Leica with a regulation 50mm lens—nothing fancy for me. I specialized in unusual angles and great faces and in the early days I worked opposite Weegee on the New York Mirror doing night-time crime and fire scene stuff.
I got my first camera when I was nine. It was a used Kodak Autograph model. It had a bellows and was called an Autograph because on the back of the camera there was a metal pencil and a flap that opened up so you could write on the negative (through the paper backing), what you had just taken a picture of. The camera was always with me and Dad took to calling me “Shutterbug.” The name stuck. In fact, I used to sign my work “SHUTTERBUG” when I was in the big time.
In my pro years I would take my camera with me on my days off and shoot. I was never without a camera. Everywhere I looked I saw an image that cried out to be recorded and saved. Often times I had shows, but more often I saved the pictures for myself, or as gifts for friends.
In my bedroom on the nightstand is a picture of my parents and me at an amusement park. We are all smiling and I would guess that I was probably in third grade when it was taken. There are two other pictures in the house—both in the living room.
One is the framed LIFE MAGAZINE cover of the Pope’s visit to New York. He was standing on the steps of St. Patrick’s talking to thousands of people and I was behind him, shooting into the sun, and took the picture silhouetting him in front of the crowd. It is a great picture and won honorable mention for Picture of the Year.
The other picture is an 11×14 black and white showing five little Negro boys laughing and splashing in the water at Coney Island. I was walking along the beach one Sunday and they were in chest-high water, standing in a row, smiles as big as their faces, slapping the water and making it rain down upon themselves. My camera caught five smiles and water droplets in midair.
Not too much later I heard sirens and saw an ambulance speeding past me. I ran back to see what was happening and I saw four of the five boys and a crowd gathered around the fifth boy on the ground. A hysterical Negro woman stood over the ambulance crew as they worked frantically to revive the boy, and only after fifteen minutes had passed did they give up and cover his face with a blanket and take him away.
All the time this was going on I was taking crowd shots, pictures of the other boys, bystanders, the screaming mother, the ambulance crew, and I shot and shot until I was out of film and then I went home to my darkroom. I should have been exhausted, but I wasn’t. I couldn’t develop the film fast enough. I knew I had some great shots and I made a contact sheet, which is just an 8×10 sheet of paper with all of the negatives printed on it. It’s from that, with the aid of a magnifying glass, that I select the best pictures to be printed.
I worked in a frenzy and looked at the wet contact sheet and picked out the picture of the five boys and made the 11×14 picture of them and it was my best picture. It was still wet when I took it into my living room, tacked it to the wall, brought out a bottle of Four Roses, a glass, and sat and looked at the five smiling faces and drank until I passed out.
In the morning, hung over, I went about my business in the house—but I paused every time I went near the picture. The boys couldn’t have been more than five or six. One minute they were so full of life and the next . . . one was dead, and I couldn’t decide what to do.
None of these pictures was going to the newspaper. That much I knew. In fact, I never ever printed any of the others. I destroyed the negatives and contact sheet.
My dilemma was over what I should do with the 11×14. I wanted to do the right thing. I thought it was possible, maybe even likely, that the parents of this young boy might not have any pictures of him, and maybe I should see if they would like this one. But on the other hand, it could be insensitive of me to give them a picture of their little boy just minutes before he died—especially with his four smiling friends still alive standing next to him.
I still don’t know what I should do—what would be the right thing. I did make myself a promise that I wouldn’t go back to being SHUTTERBUG until I resolved the issue; and so tomorrow I’ll be at Wal-Mart from 10-3. Come on down and pick the background color of your choice for your child’s portrait. The prints will be ready in two weeks and I heartily recommend the $39.95 package. It is my suggestion as the best value, but feel free to make your own decision from any of our wonderful packages.