Not to long ago I was describing to a friend my method before I photograph someone I have never met. This often happened in my Robson Street Studio which was at the corner with Granville. The building has been torn down. I told my friend that I would scan my subject and note positive features and negative features. After a few short minutes I knew (very important) what I could not do. What was left was what I could do. I likened this machine-like method to that of a computer. It was then that my friend said a most startling thing, “No, not like a computer, but a computer scans like a human being. You must thus say it is very human.”
This process also brings to mind the very early Star Trecks (Odisea del Espacio in my Mexico City of the late 60s) with their onboard computer that only Mr. Spock seemed to know how to use. The computer had an almost (but not quite) sexless/synthetic voice that would utter stuff like, “Computing,” “Cannot compute, not enough information.” When it was the latter it was exactly as it was a few years later at the banks when my teller would say, “I cannot help you Mr. Waterhouse-Hayward, or computers are down.” There was a finality that went along with the preciseness of the zeros and the ones and with no space for anything in-between.
As I sat with my friend in Mexico City last week, a friend who has an incurable prostate cancer we talked about our mutual pasts, our mutual friends and asked each other questions which began, “Whatever happened to…?”
My friend was an elegant man who spoke many languages and had traveled the best and most beautiful cities of Europe and the Orient. As he lay in bed I saw his many pairs of shoes and loafers and knew that they as well as his beautiful suits and sweaters were toast.
By the wall there was a watercolour that resembled Tulum in Mexico. But it was not so. It had been given to him by the Hungarian countess and it was a picture of Ragusa, now known as Dubrovnik. I told my friend I had been in Dubrovnik and I had visited the nearby island of Lokrum where Maximilian, the Emperor of Mexico installed by the French in the 1860s had had a summer home. I told him I had seen an ashtray with the ashes of his last smoked cigar before he went to Mexico and his eventual fate in front of a firing squat at the Cerro de Las Campanas in the now State of Querétaro. My friend helped me buy a coffin for my dead mother and somehow was present when we buried my grandmother Lolita near Cuernavaca in the State of Morelos. My friend insisted on telling me the story. It seems that two “pelados” (ordinary men) were tripping over the ground in an effort to take my grandmother’s coffin to its resting place. My friend indicated we should help and the four of us finished the job with efficiency. My friend said, “I could not but think that your grandmother who was a haughty woman would have approved of the fact that the two lowly men were being helped by two of a better class.” We spoke of going to see French films at the Cine Chapultepec on Paseo de la Reforma in Mexico City. We refused to see the close-to-one-hour of government propaganda news reels (featuring presidents of Mexico cutting ribbons to the latest Social Security hospital). This meant that there were few seats left and we would sit in separate areas of the theatre. When the inevitable bidet jokes happened we could hear each other laugh. We were the only ones who knew about bidets.
My friend and I spoke of many other things. He was exhausted and he would fall asleep. I would walk back to my hotel to freshen up and return for another bout of conversation. Flying back, with the memory of his tears as I said goodbye to him I suddenly came to me that a man unlucky enough to suffer from the indignity and pain of prostate cancer has one positive advantage going. This is an ability to tie loose ends, order one’s life, the past as best as one can, and to make sure that the future is an easy one for those who are left to deal with the eventual paperwork needed to handle a dead man. For such a lucky man, death is no longer a surprise but something that is faced slowly, little by little until resignation settles in (I am guessing here). By being with him I was helping him defragment his life. Files were being pushed back and forth. Loose ones were placed with others. After defragmenting one’s life the body may be exhausted but the mind will be lightened, loosened up and ready for what may follow. We defragment our computers. This is an extremely human activity which a computer can only, at best, mimic.
Originally published at blog.alexwaterhousehayward.com.