No Smiles For The Reverend Dodgson Or Brother Stanley RepucciMonday, March 02, 2009
As the change in how the world and in particular those in Vancouver view photography, its purpose and its attraction I find that what I do is no different from re-gapping sparkplugs. It seems to me that my portrait photography is as obsolete as that skill (I was pretty good at it) of adjusting the gaps of the four sparkplugs of my Mexican VW beetle. After cleaning them and adjusting that gap with my precision gap tool I would take the VW up a hill and listen for engine hesitation. I would stop to rotate the distributor a bit in one direction or the other until the engine sounded just right.
For the 11 years that I have been taking portraits of my granddaughter Rebecca I have been criticized by the family for not making her smile. The first picture here, one that I took in 2004, is my favourite portrait of Rebecca. I have a beautiful 16x20 inch print, nicely framed on the wall next to my bed. When I wake up in the morning or before I turn off my reading light at night I look at it and my heart aches at her beauty and that look on her face.
On my first year at the Catholic boarding school in Austin, St Eds (1957) there was a curious Catholic brother, curious because he could alternate friendliness with a cold, almost nasty seriousness. I was scared of him. His name was Brother Stanley Repucci CSC. Our nickname for him was “The Fat Sh..”. Brother Stanley had a fondness for pizza and he would go by all the school dormitories on Friday or Saturday evenings recruiting boys who might want to accompany him for pizza. In those days pizza joints came with red and white checkered table cloths with wicker Chianti bottles with candles. When I had the money, this was infrequent, I would tag along. Brother Stanley taught me to crave pizza at all times.
Brother Stanley taught physics and biology. He had a busy schedule as he headed the school’s rifle, bowling team and the Boy Scouts. He was always surrounded by young boys as he was in charge of the Cubs that were in the 8th grade.
Brother Stanley was tough and he never ever had any kind of discipline problems. It was Brother Stanley who concocted ways of making us excel in his classes promoting competition in unusual ways. Once, in our biology class, he asked us to open up some frogs and sew them back together. The boy, whose frog survived, would get a prize. More often than not the prize was a box of cigars. I think that because of it few of us ever smoked. Brother Stanley understood the mind of boys.
In our innocence and naivety we never thought that Brother Stanley had any kind of ulterior motives for his interest in us. In fact in my four years of boarding I was never aware of any scandal of any kind. Even in those days when we talked to prefects and our Brother teachers in their rooms the doors were kept open.
Brother Stanley died some years ago and his picture in the school web site lists him as Mr. Stanley Repucci. I found that odd and I wondered. But my fellow classmate and distinguished law professor at St. Mary’s University at San Antonio, Lee Lytton III and I both agreed on the reason. Brother Stanley left the order, got married and had children of his own.
There are many who think that the Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (Lewis Carol) may have had an unhealthy relationship with Alice Liddell. Both Lytton and I believe that Dodgson and Brother Stanley had a healthy love of children. They loved to inspire, entertain and nurture them. Brother Stanley and the Reverend Dodgson treated children as adults. In this century we are too rapid to judge and think the worse of people. The idea of a healthy love for children that is not a motherly or fatherly one is suspect. I guess I am almost safe when I take pictures of Rebecca as an adult because I am the grandfather.
The most useful advice (it felt brutal at the time) I have ever received from anyone came via Brother Stanley. I had decided to drop his physics class. It was too difficult and I did not want a low grade in the course to affect my high average. With that scary face of his (when he was serious) he looked at me squarely in the eye and told me, “It is hard to quit. It is hard for you to quit now. But you will find that it becomes easier when you practice. One day you will be an expert quitter.” I have never forgotten and when possible I have stuck to my guns.
I don’t think I ever baby talked to Rebecca and when she faced my camera I gave her no instruction. I respected her for what she was and is, a little adult. I have taken her to ballet and dance with somewhat adult material and I have spoken to her candidly about stuff that would have shocked her other grandmother. But I feel that Brother Stanley’s guidance is the correct way to educate a young person.
When my daughter Alexandra was 14 she was going through some rebellion. She was sometimes rude and uncommunicative. I decided that I needed to make a father and son road trip, even if she were my daughter and not my son. I had a, bright blue Fiat X-19 mid-engine sports car. I bought Bruce Springsteen’s The River, removed the top from the car and headed with Ale to San Francisco via the coast highway. On our first night we arrived somewhere in Oregon (note the picture of Ale by the Oregon coast, below). We went into a motel and the man behind the desk looked at us in disgust. It suddenly occurred to me what the man thought. How could I correct the situation? I knew how. I loudly told Ale, “Call your mother, if not she is going to worry.” The man looked at me with derision and threw the room keys at me. It was only then that I began to understand that people think the worst and that an extension of this would be my unsettling (to them) portraits of Rebecca not acting like the child that people perceive her to be. The world needs cameras that are pre-programmed to sense big smiles. That need has been recently filled.
Rebecca’s mother, my younger daughter Hilary is most often smiling. A great many of the pictures that I took of her through the years find her smiling, smiling with my mother’s and my crooked smile. But the pictures of her sister are another matter. There are many pictures that seem to be precursors of a style that I would learn to hone with Rebecca.
I think of Brother Stanley and how serious he was but how he could also be jovial. If he were to look at my pictures of Rebecca I am sure he would seriously hand me a box of cigars. And he would then smile.
Alexandra Elizabeth's Happy Melancholy
The Serious Ones