A Life of Moments – Photographer Gary Samson
Memory defines our personal sense of self. Photography does that for a family, a community or sometimes an entire world. But capturing key moments in a world that has moved from the darkroom to the smartphone in a generation takes a special eye.
Growing up on the East Side of Manchester, Gary Samson gave scant thought to the fact that his parents were immigrants. They made a point of not speaking their native French and named him after Gary Cooper, so he’d seem as American as possible. “There’s no need to tell your teachers or your friends that your grandfather was a farmer in Quebec,” his mother told him. A few years later, when he began taking an interest in Manchester’s history, a late-’60s craze for urban renewal put much of the evidence of that history in the path of a wrecking ball.
Samson never did learn French, nor could he keep old mill buildings from being torn down. But he would find other ways of bridging the gap.
It’s unfair to say that Samson’s mother deprived him of her native tongue and leave it at that, because early on she gave him another language. “My mother loved the films of the 1930s,” says Samson. “She would tell me about the actors, whether it was Katharine Hepburn or Clark Gable or Spencer Tracy, so I kind of grew up learning about American culture and life by looking at these 1930s and 1940s films. And I thought, I want to try to experiment with film.”
Images on film, at first moving film, became Samson’s second language. When he was 12, he saved for three months and bought an 8-millimeter movie camera. “It wasn’t that I just shot some film and projected it,” he explains. “I would take the film, cut it apart, and reassemble it to make a finished piece.” At 17 he got a job as an usher at the King Cinema in downtown Manchester, where he could watch movies for free. “I realized early on that photography was going to be my way of saying something about the world.”
Manchester historian Robert Perreault, who worked with Samson at the cinema, remembers him as “the only kid walking around Manchester with a Nikon 35-millimeter single-lens reflex camera.” In those days, the Millyard was still completely intact. “When I was 16,” Samson tells me, “I became really serious about still black-and-white photography. I would go down there and spend hours walking along the edge of the canals or across a bridge or down the streets that separated the mill buildings, and I would photograph. I saw great beauty in the mills.”
Between his junior and senior years in high school, he held a second job as a custodian at the Manchester Historic Association. “They would let me look through the photographic collection,” he remembers, “and I would pull open the drawers in the library and look at these beautiful 8-by-10-inch albumen prints that were made from glass negatives that documented the rise and fall of the Amoskeag Manufacturing Company.” Another employment perk was that when historically significant buildings were slated for demolition, he got wind of the plans early. He would hurry to the sites and document the destruction with before and after shots.
After high school he studied photography at the Franklin Institute in Boston, then landed a job as a lab technician in the University of New Hampshire’s photographic services department. His job involved developing other people’s pictures, and it never occurred to him that he might make a living taking photographs himself, until one day he was promoted to manager of photography and university filmmaker. From there, it was only a matter of time before he discovered grant funding, and he was well on his way to his first serious film.
In 1973, he secured a $3,000 grant, found a UNH student with an interest in his subject to write a script and made his documentary debut. “A World Within a World” relied on oral history, narration and the animation of photographs from the Manchester Historic Association collection to tell the story of the lives lived inside the walls of the Amoskeag Manufacturing Company, once the world’s largest textile plant, in 30 minutes. He expected it to premiere to a half-populated room of local history buffs at the MHA, but instead he had to project it seven times before the line that wound around the block, despite the February cold, was absorbed.
In another film, made shortly afterward, Samson used the device of a contemporary young woman who stumbles upon the belongings of her grandmother, a former millworker, to imagine what her life was like. Samson’s own paternal grandmother had worked in the mills, but since she never learned English, he never had a chance to ask her about her experiences.
These early films were meant not only to document the legacy of the Amoskeag Company, but also as a tribute to the thousands of lives spent in its employ. They were Samson’s way of showing his friends and neighbors that their families’ lives had value — a fact that seemed lost on many in the Manchester in which he grew up. “This was a very significant historical site,” he says, “[but] I guess people were just too close to it and couldn’t appreciate that.”
He clearly remembers showing the film to the Manchester Chamber of Commerce in 1976. When it was over, a few of the city leaders approached him. “We’ve made a disastrous mistake, tearing down all those buildings,” one of them said.
Gary Samson speaks in soft tones and chooses his words thoughtfully. “Find what you care about in the world and photograph that,” he used to tell his students at the New Hampshire Institute of Art, where he taught from 1982 until his retirement last year. One thing Samson cares deeply about, in addition to using imagery to transmit history and culture, is his art. He likes to think he will be remembered most for his portraits of people in their environments.
It was this style of portraiture that drew English and folklore professor Burt Feintuch to Samson’s work when they met at UNH in the 1980s. They have since collaborated on several illustrated ethnomusicological projects, traveling up and down the continent together. “Gary used to talk about environmental portraits,” Feintuch says, “and there was a strong overlap between this and what I would call ‘cultural context.’”
Cultural context and artistic sophistication often find equal weight in Samson’s photographs. In the early 1980s, he learned of a woman living alone on Cartier Street, on Manchester’s West Side, a few steps from Sainte-Marie Church, the heart of French-Canadian New Hampshire. The woman was in her 80s, had spent most of her life in Manchester and spoke no English, yet she lived a perfectly integrated life. Her name was Violette Leclerc. When Samson met her, she agreed to be photographed but said that he mustn’t show the picture to anyone. Samson agreed to her terms and made an exposure in the kitchen, using only the apartment’s available light.
The black-and-white photograph encapsulates Leclerc’s domestic world, offering a microcosmic glimpse into the self-contained social reality of West Manchester’s “Petit Canada.” Using visual language reminiscent of Velásquez or Sargent — a poised verticality, sharp lines and stark chiaroscuro — the image concretizes Samson’s ideal of photography as “a collaboration between the photographer and the subject in the subject’s natural environment.” We see this in the woman’s subtle smile, which suggests playful conspiracy. She is seated on a chair with her hands folded in her lap in front of her kitchen table. The table is set with a lace cloth, a pair of silver candlesticks and a silver cake stand. In the background are the gleaming white of fridge and stove and the metallic sheen of stovepipe and kettle. Her carriage yields something to the viewer, but she remains firmly in control of her domain. Even so, the other chairs pushed in around the table hint that she is lonely. “As soon as she saw the photograph,” Samson recalls, “she said, ‘I love it,’” and she gave him permission to publish it.
Subject consent has always been important to Samson, who doesn’t believe in “stealing” portraits. “A subject’s willingness to share something about their life will shape the way I view them, and that will cause me to photograph them in a particular way,” he says. It’s remarkable how the Leclerc photo illustrates the advantages of this philosophy — the way her facial expression seems to say, “This is our little secret.”
But Samson’s reluctance to be confrontational in his approach does not mean he limits himself to staid portraiture. He’s always pushing outward. “I need to put myself closer to the edge of being uncomfortable,” he says. “It’s a big mistake to feel that you’ve arrived, because then you stop growing intellectually and aesthetically.” Like his favorite artist, Francis Bacon, he tends to work in phases. He thinks in terms of long-lasting projects, each an exploration of some new direction.
About 10 years ago he became fascinated with the nude female figure. The appeal was partially aesthetic — something like the formal, almost geographical, contemplation of line found in the nude photography of Edward Weston, in which you’re never quite sure whether you’re looking at a vegetable, a sand dune or the muscular ripple of a woman’s back. But he was equally motivated by a desire to do something akin to what Alfred Stieglitz did in his many years of photographing Georgia O’Keeffe. “I wanted to do four extended portraits, over the course of a decade, of four women,” Samson explains.
The portraits were to be studies of the whole person over time. One of his subjects, Maya Tihtiyas, told me, “I feel like he strives to capture the essence of me, clothed or nude.” Nudity, then, is just one dimension, a reflection of the fact that all people, depending on when you catch them, are sometimes dressed and sometimes not. But the nudes in a given series can be isolated and made to take part in a particular tradition in fine-art portraiture that reaches back millennia. It was a conversation Samson was keen to join.
As a naturally shy person, however, he confesses that he first had to develop the ability to seek out subjects willing to pose nude. “I think I was more shy than he was,” Tihtiyas said. “I was intimidated, because he is so professional.” Be that as it may, Samson has been working regularly with a handful of women throughout New England for several years now to build up a comprehensive body of work, and last year he finally had a chance to exhibit some of his collection at the Vermont Center for Photography in Brattleboro.
Beyond portraiture, Samson has also published collections of photographs based on journeys to New Orleans, Cape Breton and Ghana that invariably showcase his sensibility, adaptability and skill at capturing the fleeting moment. Next, he hopes to embark on what he’s calling the New Hampshire Landscape Project. “No one for a long time has really looked at the state of New Hampshire in a cohesive way,” he says. “I’d like to photograph it in my own way, using a view camera, probably in black and white, and definitely including urban-scapes. But I’d like to do something that’s really quite thorough — three or four years, a real slice of time. This is New Hampshire at this moment.”
Samson prefers to shoot with a view camera — one of those accordion-like contraptions you see on rickety wooden tripods in old movies. Put simply, a view camera’s movable film and lens planes afford an organic means of accenting what the naked eye perceives. When he aims his camera and releases the shutter, he sees what you and I see, but it’s Samson’s talent to make us see something more. He takes a shared impression of reality into the seclusion of the dark room, uses technique to imbue it with an aesthetic idea and emerges with a work of art.
Painter James Aponovich — a longtime friend, former colleague and occasional subject of Samson’s — characterizes photographic art as intellectual, in contrast with the physical creativity of painting. “You are given only what reality has to offer,” Aponovich says. “You can alter that in some ways, but you take what’s given as an image and then you work with that.” Photographers tinker with plane of focus, depth of field, parallax and light to compel viewers to see objects differently. It’s not unlike the interpretive work historians do, using hard facts to build a cohesive narrative, and perhaps it’s the archivist in Samson, as much as the photographer, that takes this habit of perspectival coaxing beyond the darkroom curtain and into the annals of photographic memory. All this is to say, Samson has role models, and he wants to make sure their lives remain sharply in focus.
When he was making films for the University of New Hampshire, a colleague told him he knew someone in the state who would make a great subject for a documentary — Lotte Jacobi. At that time, she was already a world-famous portraitist of the highest caliber. Jacobi was Jewish and had fled Germany in 1935 when she was already nearing 40. After abandoning most of her work in Berlin, she started fresh in New York, where she remained for 20 years, photographing such luminaries as Eleanor Roosevelt, W.H. Auden and Thomas Mann. In 1955 she settled in New Hampshire and stayed for the rest of her life.
Samson paid Jacobi a visit when she was about 80. They talked, and he showed her some of his work. She eventually agreed to let him make a film about her life, stipulating, however, that the film must be in black and white. Samson pushed back. Wouldn’t it be striking, he hazarded, to shoot in color and then cut to her black-and-white stills at appropriate times, thus dramatizing the effect of her work? Looking back, he marvels at his boldness in contradicting one of the 20th century’s great artists. “Well, I don’t know about that,” she replied, in her undiminished German accent.
A short time later, it happened that they were both on a trip to Peru with the University of New Hampshire. Samson shot some film footage of Jacobi at work. When they got home, he showed it to her. She turned to him and said, “Thank God I did not talk you out of shooting color. The film should be in color. You know what you’re doing!” Samson says that from that moment on, she trusted him as a filmmaker. Three years later, the film was released.
As she grew older, Jacobi had to think about her legacy. The Library of Congress wanted her collected work, as did the University of Maryland. She made it known to the University of New Hampshire that she would leave her papers and photographs in its care if Samson were allowed to aid in the immense task of cataloguing. The university agreed. There were 47,000 negatives to file, and for each one, a proof sheet had to be made before the negative was put in an archival envelope labeled with descriptive information. For six years, Jacobi and Samson met once or twice a week and made it through the first 15,000 negatives. Samson later archived the remaining 32,000 with Jacobi’s daughter-in-law Beatrice Trum Hunter, whom he also photographed for Yankee magazine, shortly before her death in 2015.
Jacobi was, to Samson, more than a towering art-world celebrity. She was a mentor and friend. During the 13 years of their acquaintance, he often watched her work. “She taught me how to be good to people and create an environment where they could function and be comfortable,” he says. One of her most important lessons was to always let the subject “rule the frame,” which he still regards as the correct balance in the dialogue between artist and subject.
While Jacobi would doubtless have avoided oblivion even without the help of Gary Samson, the same cannot be so readily said of his other hero. In 1977, Samson and his old friend Robert Perreault were given funding to hunt for old photographs of Manchester that were not already in the Historic Association’s collection. Perreault remembered seeing photographs of an unusually high artistic quality in books about Manchester published in the 1920s and 1930s. They often led back to a single name, Ulric Bourgeois. Finding no record of the man himself, he called a woman with the same family name who lived at an address once associated with the photographer. Charmed that he’d addressed her in French, the elderly woman, who was the photographer’s daughter, invited him to visit. When he did, she brought out a hitherto unseen trove of her father’s work. Perreault excitedly called up Samson. “Gary,” he said, “I’ve just hit a gold mine here.”
Bourgeois arrived in Manchester from southern Quebec at the turn of the 20th century, when he was in his mid-20s. His career coincided with that of Lewis Hine, the great social reform photographer known for his grim and stirring visual record of child labor, but Bourgeois offered a more nuanced view of early 20th-century Manchester, one that was graced with pastoral notes from beyond the city’s clattering factory compound. While Hine’s hallmark was light and shadow, Bourgeois specialized in an airy dynamism. He could wield a view camera as though it were a 35-millimeter, Samson tells me, lending an easy cinematic quality to dense and intricate scenes.
Samson and Perreault have both worked to preserve and publicize Bourgeois’ photographs, but for Samson, his story has special significance, because he discovered him just he was himself maturing as a professional photographer. The fact that he was a French-Canadian, who — in Samson’s reading of his images and life story — felt somewhat alienated from the world around him, also resonated. Salvaging Bourgeois’ legacy became allied to Samson’s mission of persuading those with a stake in Manchester’s unsung Franco-American and industrial past to feel confident that their history was worth something. Bourgeois provided a succinct symbol and spoke to posterity in a language Samson could understand. He became an essential prop in his environmental self-portrait.
One day last spring, Roger Brooks, chair of the New Hampshire State Council on the Arts, called Gary Samson and said he needed to talk in person. It was important. They set a time, but after hanging up, Samson began worrying. Had he done something wrong? For years, he had been deeply involved in all manner of arts initiatives in the state. “How serious is this?” he asked himself.
The two men first met in about 1990, when Samson photographed Brooks’ house in Concord for a city heritage project. They’d been on friendly terms since, but this didn’t seem like a social call. When Brooks arrived at the New Hampshire Institute of Art, Samson gave him a tour and distracted him with talk of his current projects. He told stories about the surrounding neighborhood, where defining moments in his life had been spent: his boyhood home was a few hundred feet to the east; his first job was next door at the Historic Association; and for 35 years now he’d been walking the institute’s halls. Jacobi came up at one point, and an upcoming annual trip to Greece with NHIA students, but when Samson got onto the opioid crisis, Brooks knew he had to say something.
“I’m going to stop you now, Gary,” he said, after listening for 40 minutes, “because I didn’t come here to talk about bad things. I’ve come with good news.” He explained that he’d been sent by the Arts Council and Gov.Sununu, who had recently decided that, after half a century of making photographs and films, teaching photography and championing his fellow artists, it was high time Samson was honored for his contribution to the artistic life of the Granite State. “You’ve been named Artist Laureate,” Brooks announced.
“He was flabbergasted,” says Brooks, with a delighted chuckle. Samson says he was so surprised he nearly fell over. “You’ve made my day,” he said. “You’ve made my week,” he then added, as the news sank deeper. “You’ve made my life!” he said finally.