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Reggae Scrapbook
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Peter Simon is now taking bookings for lectures at colleges, corporations, and various other organizations.
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"Through the Lens: A Life Filled with Friendship, History, and Addiction"
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On the Vineyard III




Peter Simon's Barefoot Trajectory in Photos and Prose

By Doug Cabral

"I and Eye: Pictures of My Generation," Peter Simon. Little, Brown and Company. 2001. $45.

Drugs, reggae, rock, communes, counter-culture politics, rebellion, sex, nudity, baseball, and beauty. Peter Simon's handsome, revealing new book unwinds this barely tamed Vineyard summer kid's trajectory from barefoot youth and innocent activism to the narrowing focus of barefoot family man and businessman middle-age.
With more than 310 illustrations in black and white and color, beginning with Peter's solid photojournalism of the '60s and '70s and ending with his lovely, though more prosaic, color images of '90s Vineyard scenes, here is a life in pictures. The tour includes his comfy youth, his college period, his commune period, his nude bathing period, his rock period, his reggae period, his Mets period, and it ends in the Vineyard wisteria period. It's a fun, weird trip.
But the book does not exactly deliver what its subtitle promises. These are not pictures of a generation. The kids who went to war rather than protest it, the ones who loved the music but ended up on the assembly lines, the ones who gaped at the free lovemaking but went to church every Sunday with the folks, the ones who tried the drugs and fried: they are not part of this book's scene. Peter Simon is not Diane Arbus.
Rather, these pictures add up to a glimpse of some of the cultural influences at work in the last 40 years, seen through an acute and engaged journalist's lens. Here are unique images - Peter Simon images - of some of the forces that, for good or ill, remade what we imagine was the simple world of our parents. Here is what a well-to-do, prospective boomer saw and felt as he was swept along in the mayhem and joy and abandon of it all.
Thank goodness this boomer-to-be took his camera.
I must confess a bias. Peter and I have been friends for 30 years, working and playing. In the early '70s, when Peter was beginning to center his full-time life on-Island and I was managing editor of the Vineyard Gazette, he worked hard to persuade me that the paper needed to shift its photo focus to images with more bite to them, images with people in them, not just birds and trees. He was right, of course, though the cause was ultimately lost.
Over time his argument made an impression on me, but also over time he built a cottage industry for himself of Vineyard landscape and shorescape photos, calendars, and posters, and wedding photography and family album shots. Photojournalism became photo-business, and Peter moved on.
"I and Eye: Pictures of My Generation" is the story of a privileged kid from a high-profile family who wandered about some before accepting the burdens and rewards of middle age. Powerful and demanding parents, gifted and ambitious siblings, and a well-developed sense of insecurity encouraged him to find his place, led Peter to pick up his camera.
"Of course," he writes in chapter 1, Growing Up Is Hard to Do, "being the only son of a father who founded a publishing company, loved the piano, and was an avid amateur photographer must have been an influence as well. Having three older sisters and a strong-willed, charismatic mother provided a somewhat overwhelming female environment in which to define and establish a reasonable facsimile of a male identity. But at least I was coddled and nurtured lovingly throughout my early childhood."
With his Nikon and a solid measure of talent, plus some unusual access, he caught Martin Luther King Jr., candidate Bobby Kennedy, clashing anti-war and anti-Communist protestors, poet Allen Ginsburg, Robert McNamara explaining the inexplicable to unbelievers in Harvard Yard, rundown Boston tenements, naked fellow communards, Muddy Waters, Mick Jagger, Keith Hernandez, Jackie Robinson, Jackson Browne, Keith Richard, sister Carly, and James, Dylan and Joan Baez, and on and on.
Off the big stage, Peter made his camera part of his personal life.
"Always one to photograph my immediate environment," he writes about the commune life, "I replaced my harsh city images with pastoral, soft-focus, silky pictures of the natural beauty that surrounded us. I also took some intimately bizarre snapshots as we went about our daily life - from menial chores (cooking, cleaning, feeding the animals, mowing, raking, planting, harvesting, and so on) to extracurricular activities (holiday feasts, dancing, and tripping). Everyone loved my role as the overqualified house photographer and eagerly awaited my semi-monthly showings of slides and prints around the large dining room table. I placed my career on hold. No longer was I on the 'firing line' of the movement, seizing all the historic moments I could find. My income took a nosedive, but so did my cost of living. Nine could live cheaper than two."
And there's the endearing essence of "I and Eye." It's about Peter's life and Peter's eye, and fortunately, everyone, including rock stars, political leaders, gurus, naked friends and lovers, went along. So Peter concluded naturally enough that "everyone loved my role" and eagerly awaited the show, and he went on adding image after image to the photo-archive of his life.
This is not a Vineyard picture book, thank goodness. It is not a Vineyard exploitation book, in the well developed and bubbly tradition where the novelist or photographer celebrates the beauty of the place, deplores the overcrowding, and promotes, promotes, promotes. It's a fun tour of life as some enthusiasts lived it in the late 20th century.
The images, many of which have been published before in magazines, newspapers, and Peter's own books, will seem familiar even if you never saw them when they were originally published. If you lived the life, "I and Eye" will remind you of the power of it. If you watched it, Peter's pictures will show you what you missed.

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