Here’s a little cautionary tale from the life of one of the Crazy 8 Press crew. Don’t worry, it’s not too long, you won’t learn anything of lasting value, and it’s illustrated with cool old black and white photos of New York City and old bums, and it has a link to free content. Who doesn’t like free content, right?
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Today, I posted my one hundredth and final flash fiction story (well, really only ninety-nine of them are mine) on Tumblr, all written in the last one hundred and five days. (Click me! Click me! You can find all one hundred stories right here…or click on the pictures to go directly to those stories!)
Every morning since June 1, I awoke to a stack of old black and white photographs and a self-imposed task, the meeting of which only I had any reason to care about. No, I take that back. Even I didn’t have any real reason to care about meeting this ridiculous story-a-day deadline I’d inflicted upon myself, but once I got started, it was hard to stop.
What happened was, I was looking for some way in which to showcase some of the photographs taken in and around New York City more than two-thirds of a century ago by my father, Sidney (1921-1992). Sidney picked up a camera shortly after World War II, joined a bunch of camera clubs and photography organizations, learned how to process and print his own film, and over the course of the next decade and a half, took thousands of pictures.
One of his favorite subjects was the area of lower Manhattan known as the Bowery, then a rough neighborhood overshadowed by the Third Avenue elevated subway line. The Bowery was, according to a 1919 magazine article, “filled with employment agencies, cheap clothing and knickknack stores, cheap moving-picture shows, cheap lodging-houses, cheap eating-houses, cheap saloons,” with a reputation as the city’s “Skid Row.” The Bowery was little changed in 1950, an age in which there were no sympathetic synonyms for the vagrant population he recorded with his camera.
I’ve been looking at many of these photographs for my entire life. I’ve had a half dozen framed photos hanging in my home for decades, but it wasn’t until recently that I was able to gather them all in one place and look at the body of his work.
Now, show the non-writer type a photograph and their response is usually to the photograph, such as its subject matter, it’s location or composition, or the way light and shadow play against one another.
Not the writer, though. The first thing we do is zero in on the faces or the way someone is standing and think, “I wonder what his story is?” A picture, whether it’s a posed or a candid shot, is a moment frozen in time that can capture something of the heart and mind of its subject, making it worth the proverbial “thousand words.”
Not that we can ever know what was actually going on in their minds at the moment the shutter snapped and captured them for all time. But we can certainly see the raw, base emotion in their eyes and expressions and that’s all a writer really needs to get started.
Looking through the photos, I started to see the stories in many of them. The first story, “His Lucky Day,” written and posted on June 1, just about leapt out at me, a tiny moment in time, of significance to no one but the lucky man himself. Not every story came so easily; some photos I looked at every day for weeks or months until they revealed their stories to me. Others started off going in one direction, only to take a sharp turn somewhere along the way and become something altogether different. But all of them brought me back to a time and place that still bore a resemblance to the New York I remember as a little boy, even if the Third Avenue Elevated line was gone before I was born.
Among the stash of photographs are countless family snapshots, candid and posed, and shots of my father and his friends, clowning around on the street or in front of the neighborhood candy store. I started to include those in my story-a-day series, featuring my parents, brother, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, even myself in one story, based on a picture of me with my great-grandmother.
There are about a dozen photos for which I wrote a haiku or used a one-liner to satisfy my daily quota (because some days, I just needed a break!), but the one hundred flash fiction stories (some are more “flash” than others) based on one hundred photographs clock in at around 34,000 words, including the five hundred words of the one hundredth and final photo flash fiction story, a piece of memoir written by my father for a writing class he took during his retirement years, “Whistling in the Dark.”
I thought it only proper Sidney should have the last word and picture.
Photographs by Sidney Kupperberg
© Paul Kupperberg