Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Who Was Robert James Campbell?

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The woman in the photo shown above is named Jessica Ferber. The photos spread out around her are the tip of a very large iceberg that floated into her life 13 years ago — a stash of photos, negatives, notes, letters, documents, and other materials that were left behind by a homeless man in Vermont who died in 2002. Ferber had just graduated college when she volunteered for the task of going through the deceased man's belongings, just to see if there was anything of value.

She ended up with more than she'd bargained for. The homeless man, Robert James Campbell, had been a professional photographer, and his work indicated that he'd had close ties to the New York jazz scene of the late 1950s and 1960s. Ferber, who had studied photography in college and was working at a photo processing lab at the time, immediately fell in love with Campbell's photos and felt compelled to answer the questions that the materials were raising: How had such a talented artist ended up homeless? Why had he held onto so many of his photos and negatives? Why did Google searches turn up so little evidence of his photographic career? Why had only two people — both from the homeless shelter where he had stayed — attended his funeral?

In short: Who was Robert James Campbell?

Ferber's 13-year attempt to answer that question became an obsession. She changed to a night job so her days would be free to research, cut back on socializing with friends, and learned everything she could about the jazz world that Campbell had inhabited. (She's written a good synopsis of the project here — highly recommended.) Her odyssey has now resulted in an excellent book, called Rebirth of the Cool, which features a few short essays and dozens of Campbell's photographs, many of which are stunners. Here's a sampling (if you can't see the slideshow below, click here):

You can find some additional info and photos here.

Ferber's story feels very familiar to me. Just as Campbell's belongings dropped into her lap, the Manhattan Trade School report cards dropped into mine. We both felt a strong responsibility to explore these materials and do right by the people behind them. And we both ended up sharing those people's stories with the public.

But Ferber went deeper than I did. Her project appears to have been the defining experience of her adult life, while the report cards have always been one passion among many for me. Even now, there are many dozens of report cards whose backstories I could (and really should) still investigate, and perhaps I will at some point when I have more time, but the project is back-burnered for now.

Does this mean Ferber is more obsessive than I am? Does it mean I'm lazier than she is? Does it reflect the fact that her project is focused on a single person who died recently, while mine encompasses hundreds of people, many of whom died decades ago? I think all of those things are probably true, at least to some degree.

In any case, Ferber's project is a winner, and Rebirth of the Cool is a great book. Don't miss.

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