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H. Michael Barrett

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H. Michael Barrett: With Lindbergh's Photographer

With Lindbergh's Photographer: In the early 1970s I worked in Washington DC as an evening-shift desk clerk at Columbia Plaza Apartments, just up the street from the Watergate Apartment complex which became so widely known during the Nixon presidency. I was in my early twenties, and even though I lived in Arlington, Virginia, on a nice enough day I would sometimes walk all the way in. On foot a person has the opportunity to notice a lot more than in a vehicle, and one day I just happened to glance in the window of a certain photographer's studio. What caught my attention, at least initially, were the quaint little windows of a shop that seemed very European in character. And being intrigued, I stopped and peeked in, until I saw a wall filled with photos. This wall display was just to the left of the front door, and while I couldn't make heads or tails of the matter, I was particularly struck by the fact that there was a large photo of famed aviator Charles Lindbergh in the center. This prompted me to try the door, but the shop was closed for the day, so I made a mental note to go in on the first opportunity. I greatly admire Lindbergh for his peace campaign prior to WW2, wondered if the owner of the shop was perhaps a kindred soul, and looked forward to the visit. On the day that I returned the shop was open, and as it seemed an especially formal place, I entered with some self consciousness and hoped to avoid any kind of faux pas in this unfamiliar environment. A small mechanical bell mounted over the door clanged gently as I entered, and as it took a moment for anyone to appear, I again turned my attention to the mysterious set of photographs mounted up on the wall. Then an elderly gentleman entered and greeted me. Although he was a bit shorter than my own 6' 3," he exuded a manly and athletic confidence in himself. Also, because of his White hair and equally White gotee beard, he had somewhat of a theatrical appearance. When this old gentlemen asked how he could help, I told him that his set of Lindbergh photos had really stirred my curiosity, and I could see at this point that this was an entire set of enlargements of Lindbergh in Paris in 1927. "Are you an admirer of Charles Lindbergh?" he inquired. "Yes, and as it isn't every day that anyone encounters a full display of photos about him, I was wondering what the story is that's associated with these. For a few moments this man's quiet made me feel a little uncomfortable, as if I was really there only by myself. This lasted for a few moments, but then the old gentleman smiled and seemed to be looking through my eyes to some extraordinary time and place far removed from his studio. "Did you see the film with Jimmy Stewart, The Spirit of St. Louis?" "Yes, I saw that. It was great." "Do you recall what Lindbergh was thinking just before he landed?" "Yes, when Lindbergh peered down in the dark he saw an incredible number of automobile headlights, and such an enormous number of people swirling about that it made him wonder what on earth they were all celebrating." "What else was he thinking?" I had to chuckle at that, but Stewart did a great job of verbalizing Lindbergh's thoughts, and so I said: "He was wondering 'Where the heck am I going to land?' " The old gentleman now wore the widest grin I'd seen him display to this point, and a peculiar kind of youthful energy seemed to propel all his gestures. "Where was he going to land? Yes, exactly. And now that we've taken care of all that...." I thought for a moment that he was about to toss me bodily from the shop, as he seemed to have an almost manic kind of energy, then he began again: "I was a photographer assigned to the Expeditionary Forces in Paris after WW1, and I happened to turn on the radio in my hotel room and heard the announcer say that Lindbergh was approaching. He also said that people were coming from miles around to greet him. Well, I'm only human, and I was as caught up in the excitement as everyone else. I realized that I had my car parked below, with its top already open, and so I swept my camera into my arms and rushed down to get in. I didn't need a map to LeBourget Airport, as every vehicle was headed that direction and I only had to drift along with the traffic. Oh, the crowd, I never saw as many people in one place and probably never will again. But you must understand, I was quite concerned about my big camera, as there were so many people moving about that I feared someone would knock it off its tripod. And without that camera I couldn't do my job. Anyway, I carried it to safely far away from the terminal, and set it up in the dark. There was no one nearby, the area was quiet, and to be quite honest about the matter, I was beginning to feel like the world's biggest fool. After all, I had driven all the way down here, had risked the destruction of my camera, and now I was standing in the middle of nowhere just hoping to see Lindbergh's plane land somewhere in the distance. Was I going to photograph anything? Ha! That wasn't very likely. Then I heard the motor of a distant aircraft. And my first thought was "Who would be crazy enough to try coming into this airport tonight?" I certainly didn't think it was Lindbergh, as there were all those important people and the crowd waiting for him much further over at the terminal. They must certainly know something, I thought, and I felt really isolated and left out of it all. The aircraft I had heard was now approaching to land. And while I realized it was a long shot, I set my camera up anyway right where I stood. The little plane came lower, lower, then touched down. And the pilot had to coast a bit before he could stop. At this point I was beginning to feel kind of strange, as I not only realized that it was probably HIM, but the plane came to a halt right in front of where my camera was sitting on its tripod. (His eyes were as wide as possible for emphasis now) As the distance and framing needed no ajustment, it was as if God had sent me. I'm trained to do what I do, so I automatically bent forward into my usual photographer's posture and caused the flash to ignite. Now forget what you saw in that Jimmy Stewart movie at this point, because it does not show you what really happened. It does not show me taking that photo, and it does not show Lindbergh sticking his head out and saying: "Did you get that?" And I'm thinking, this is some madcap dream, I'm going to wake up and my wife is going to start laughing when I recount it. But no, this is really happening. "Yes, I got it!" I shouted back to Lindbergh. "I'll be staying at the such and such hotel" he says, come on over in the morning and we'll do some more. By this time the crowd realizes that it's him and comes running from all directions. My god, what a frightening experience for us to be standing there with thousands of people running straight at us at full speed. What you saw in the Jimmy Stewart film then becomes pretty accurate, as all those people surge around and lift Lindbergh up and overhead as is done with any conquering hero. I did my best to disappear in the confusion, and pretended nothing at all had happened in front of that camera. Had I not been so discreet, someone would certainly have tried to grab it from me. And I don't know if you know this, but even parts of his plane were ripped off by souvenir hunters. It was difficult to sleep that night, as I was so hyped up by everything that had occurred. But to be honest about it, I didn't think the police would really let me anywhere near the hotel or Lindbergh the next morning - but they did. Lindbergh kept a clear head and remembered to leave word about expecting me, and that is how I got these photos of him with the various politicians and later the private portrait that he sat for. Did this miracle really happen?And sweeping his arm in a dramatic arc that concluded with his finger pointing toward the display, he said: There, my son, the camera does not lie" After hearing the old gentleman's remarkable story I just stood there with that same peculiar expression that he had begun with, but then I snapped back to reality and asked him one more question: "Is it possible that I could make an appointment for you to take my photo as well?" "Yes," he said, and that was taken care of about a week later. When I received my photo I was mesmerized by its ethereal quality. My family and friends said it was the best photo they had ever seen of me. There was a sort of oval fade-out around this portrait, and it resembled the kind of photo one finds in books about poets. It raised my spirit whenever I saw it. by H. Michael Barrett I am the author of this article, the details of which were only written down about a month ago, so the exact words in the conversation are subject to correction. And as I have long since forgotten this photographer's name, and even had to use a link someone else posted here to a photograph that merely looked appropriate to what the old gentleman described, anyone who can further document or correct the photographer's story is asked to do so. Thank you, HMB

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