THE COLOR OF MONDAY
What happens when a picture is not worth a thousand words?
BY HILLARY FRANK
On May 9, 2002, a couple of hours before the first morning light, a man in Bremen, Maine, stepped into his yard, doused himself with gasoline, and lit a match. By the time the fire engine arrived, the sheriff’s department had already extinguished the blaze and pronounced the man dead. The figure in the grass was badly burned but still clearly recognizable as a human being.
The following day, my dad received a Priority Mail package containing seventeen rolls of film and a suicide letter from Dan McClain, his friend and creative soul mate of twenty-eight years. The note, handwritten in angular, stretched-out script on Daniel J. McClain Design letterhead, explained that the pictures documented Dan’s short time living in Maine, and that he’d planned on getting them developed when things got easier for him. But “things never got easier,” he wrote, and “there is no one else in the world I trust more than you to see that this gets done.” He told my dad to “take a close look” at the photos, then asked, “Can you see what I saw?”
This is a pretty charged question when you consider that it is one of the last things Dan asked of anyone before he died. My dad wasn’t shocked when he got the call about Dan’s death the previous day; Dan had a history of suicide attempts. But getting the letter, the package — that was a surprise. The profound sadness my dad felt over losing one of his closest friends was softened just a bit by the thought that he’d made it to Dan’s checklist of things to do in the hours before he killed himself.
My dad is a photographer. He makes a living shooting portraits for annual reports and school view books. But his real passion is capturing the absurdity in everyday life. He almost always has a camera with him. He’ll be walking down the street and suddenly he’ll stop in his tracks and say, “Oh, that’s a picture.” I’ll have no idea what he’s talking about until I see him crouching and focusing his lens on a businessman scratching himself all over or a guy taking a nap under a truck fender.
One of my favorite photographs of my dad’s is called “Man in Crowd.” He took it at the Miss Nude America competition in 1974, a few years before I was born. While all the other photographers were snapping pictures of Miss Nude America, my dad chose to document a crowd of people as seen from behind. One pudgy man in the foreground stands out. That’s because he’s naked. Well, except for that Kangol cap. The Miss Nude America competition was held at a nudist colony but was open to the public, which meant there was a mix of nudists and non-nudists in the audience. My dad found an image that is funny and strange and makes you wonder, Could that really have happened? It’s the kind of picture that makes most people laugh. But not many people can spot these moments in their own lives. Not many people get what my dad means when he says, “Oh, that’s a picture.” Dan was one of the few who did.
My dad met Dan in the halls at Time Inc., where Dan was an assistant art director for People magazine and my dad was a freelance photographer for Money and Fortune. My dad immediately admired Dan; here was a guy who’d moved from Kettering, Ohio, to Manhattan at eighteen and by his mid-twenties had made it pretty far up the graphic design ladder on no college education. The day Dan asked to see my dad’s portfolio, my dad happened to be carrying around his personal work — his “Oh, that’s a picture” pictures. My dad says he could tell that Dan latched on to those photos right away. Occasionally, he’d pass over an image that didn’t grab him, but when he saw something he really liked he’d have this sweet, quiet way of looking absolutely delighted. Dan got that taking photos like these was not as simple as pushing a button. And it wasn’t as simple as just spotting compelling moments, either. Photographers like my dad believe that the art of great photography is getting everything right while the film is still in the camera; that is, the exposure has to be spot on, the image must be in focus, and the composition must be perfectly framed in the viewfinder. No cropping allowed later on. And because Dan understood that all of these ingredients went into making pictures that were worth printing, my dad took Dan’s understated delight as a huge compliment. My dad got into the habit of bringing new pictures to Dan whenever he went to Time Inc. And every time Dan smiled in his subtle but radiant way, my Dad knew he’d really nailed a shot.
Eventually, Dan became art director at Audubon magazine. One day, on a whim, my dad called him up and said, “Hey, Dan, you all at Audubon take yourselves too seriously. You oughta cover the buzzards returning to Hinckley, Ohio, rather than the swallows returning to Capistrano.” Dan hung up the phone and called my dad back in five minutes. “Pack your bags and get over there,” he said. He wound up giving my dad a six-page black-and-white spread in the magazine. There was a shot of a few people buzzard-watching with opera glasses, one of a ranger holding a buzzard on a leash, one of locals and tourists enjoying the annual Buzzard Festival pancake breakfast. It was the first time Audubon had run pictures with a sense of humor. Before that my dad had done editorial work for magazines like Car and Driver, Esquire, and The New York Times Magazine, but at Audubon, and later on at Oceans magazine and Field & Stream, Dan’s subsequent employers, Dan gave my dad a kind of creative freedom that he hadn’t experienced at any other publication. For over a decade they collaborated on projects documenting naturalists. A couple of my dad’s favorite pictures from that time include a mammalogist standing side by side with a stuffed buffalo in a natural history museum diorama, both staring straight into the camera, and a close-up portrait of an entomologist behind a screen watching brother and sister moths mate. These assignments, my dad says, were for him what photography was all about. Throughout their careers together Dan gave my dad little or no direction. My dad knew that meant Dan had faith in his ability to see. And to my dad, compliments don’t come better than that.
I was sitting at my desk in my Chicago apartment when my parents called to tell me about Dan’s suicide. I spent the rest of the afternoon staring into space, unable to comprehend how such a gentle guy could do something so violent to himself. Later that night I broke down crying and decided that it was very important to dig through some old boxes and find a painting Dan had given me when I was a kid. It’s a watercolor, about the size of a tea bag, of a dog walking past a fence in the moonlight with a confused-looking cat perched on his back. I hung the picture by the door to my apartment, thinking it would be good to make myself remember Dan as much as possible.
The first thing I remembered was the time when I was six years old and my parents had dropped me off at Dan’s office at Audubon for a meeting. They had recently asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, and I’d told them I wanted to be a painter. They’d exchanged worried looks and said, “How about a graphic designer? They make more money.” I didn’t know what a graphic designer was, so they took me to Dan to find out. As soon as my parents left, Dan pulled out his book of color samples — page after page of every imaginable shade of the rainbow, each with its own ID number. He let me run my fingers over the chips and asked me to point out my favorites: the smoky blues, the zingy oranges. After that we sat at his desk to talk. Dan’s voice was quiet, and he said so little that I felt like I had to listen hard. Like every word was important. I had this feeling that he wasn’t only telling me how to be a graphic designer but how to be a grown-up. He asked questions in a way that made me think my answers really mattered. He wanted to know if I thought that each day of the week had a color. I stopped breathing for a second. “Who is this guy?” I thought. “How does this adult know that I assign colors to the days of the week?” I’d never talked about it with anyone before. Still reeling from his insight, I nodded, and he asked what color I thought Monday was. I said, “Red.” He told me that he thought Monday was white. Silent, empty white. He said it peacefully, and his open hand gestured in the air, as if he were painting the emptiness. I knew this man was different from any other man I’d met; he was a man who understood the world of children. He understood there were things that children didn’t talk about even with each other.
As I got older, I met with Dan a couple more times. Ostensibly, it was to discuss my future as an artist, but we would talk about other stuff, too. Once, when he lived by the beach, he told me that he took walks along the jetty to escape the torment of everyday life, and did I know what he meant? I told him I did. Of course I knew what he meant. I was sixteen. Again, I was impressed by his ability to read my innermost thoughts, but this time there was something a little dispiriting about it. I didn’t want to believe that the desire to escape didn’t go away when you grew up. I felt kind of sorry for him.
The last time I saw Dan, after I’d graduated from college, he told me about how he’d been driving home from Maine recently and came across an image so arresting he had to pull over to take a picture. He said that when he got out of the car he knew there was only one person in the world who’d understand why he’d stopped. That person was my father. When I got home I asked my dad to show me the print. It’s a black-and-white image of the facade of a brick building with a sign that says james v. smiley school. The school building itself looks fairly dreary, but in each window there’s a paper smiley face, and each smiley face is wearing a Santa hat. Dan was right: my dad loved the whimsy of seeing smiley faces plastered all over the James V. Smiley School.
Looking at the photograph, taking in the oh-that’s-a-pictureness of it all, I realized that Dan felt the same way about my dad as I had felt about Dan. He seemed to get me in this profound way — the assigning of colors to the days of the week, the wanting to escape. My dad was that for Dan. And I think what Dan was saying in his suicide note was that he hoped my dad saw him that way, too.
Thinking back on it now, it seems incongruous that the image I most associate with Dan is of a bunch of smiley faces. Though Dan never talked about his depression with my dad, my dad was painfully aware of it. As an adolescent, I learned the term manic-depressive because I heard my parents talking about an incident involving Dan. Something about him threatening to jump out of his office window. Before that there was an episode involving a knife. And in between there was a possibly non-accidental bike accident. As close as Dan and my dad were, Dan never talked about this part of his life with my dad. Dan’s ex-wife once told my dad that Dan didn’t want my dad to think of him “that way.” But once a person actually does commit suicide it’s impossible not to see his dark side. And my dad didn’t like to think about Dan’s dark side — he liked looking up to Dan, he liked seeing him as this flawless talent. So when he received Dan’s undeveloped film, he hoped to get another glimpse of the brilliant man he knew. He couldn’t help but think, “Portfolio!” He was like a pirate unearthing buried treasure; he just knew there would be golden pictures on those rolls, and he’d figure out exactly where to get them published. He was honored that Dan had known he was the right man for the job. My dad took the film to the photo lab and dropped off all seventeen rolls with these instructions: “Don’t screw this up.”
And then Dad got the contact sheets. He looked them over at the lab with his magnifying lupe, expecting to find gorgeous shots — pictures that made him smile, pictures worth pulling off the road for. Nothing jumped out at him right away, but still, he marked up a few frames with his grease pencil that seemed to have potential. When he got home he looked at the contact sheets again, this time realizing that the ones he’d marked up were out of focus and the wrong exposure. For the next couple of days he kept going back to the pictures, thinking there had to be at least five to ten strong ones in there somewhere. Finally, he showed the contacts to my mom and told her despondently, “I don’t think there’s anything here.” Nothing that warranted being published in a book, or even a magazine. Mostly, they’re posed pictures of Dan’s family. Then there are some abstracts of icy twigs on a dock, shadows on the side of a house from a ladder. My dad calls these “snapshots” — just regular old pictures, not “Oh, that’s a picture” pictures. Now, not only was my dad devastated, he was pissed. He’d unlocked this treasure chest only to find foil-wrapped chocolate coins instead of gold. The bewildering thing is, my dad is certain that had he taken the images on those rolls of film and shown them to Dan, he would’ve politely passed. And my dad is convinced that if Dan had actually ever seen the film himself, he never would’ve sent it off.
I recently asked my dad how he would answer Dan’s question, “Can you see what I saw?” He thought about it for a minute, then said, “I wanted to get it. I wanted to see what he saw.” And then he quickly jumped back in and added with a twinge of anger, “Yeah, I saw what you saw, but, uh, I don’t want to use the words, ‘So what?’ There were other things I know he could’ve seen on a better day that would’ve been profoundly more interesting.” This was something new for my dad. He’d never been disappointed by any of Dan’s work before. Connecting with Dan was never an effort. And now, when it seemed more important than ever to see things the way Dan did, he just couldn’t.
At the end of Dan’s letter he tells my dad, “Dick, the truth is the joy and wonder and mystery were too much for me to bear.” It seems as if Dan was hoping his final photographs would reveal to my dad this joy and wonder and mystery, and that my dad would be so overwhelmed by the beauty he’d understand why Dan could not keep living. But instead, what Dan showed my dad in that film was his raw, unedited world view. He showed my dad that what he saw was not always sophisticated or polished. It was sometimes blurry and grainy and dull. Maybe, without really meaning to, Dan actually let my dad in on how he saw Mondays. Silent, empty. White. &