Monday, April 20, 2020

Photographers You Should Know: B.A."Tony" King

The Greatest Photographer You Never Heard of (but should have): The Long and Productive Life of B.A. "Tony" King

In 1982 my wife and I and our 14-year-old son hooked a Starcraft pop-up camper to our Mercedes 240D sedan and began a long, rambling trip from our home in northwest Georgia up through Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York City, and on up the coast, arriving late one afternoon at tiny Dock Square in Kennebunkport, Maine.
Curling up with a good book at the Kennebunkport
Book Port (Now sadly no longer in business)

The wife and son headed off to window shop, while I was drawn as with a magnet to a small bookstore, named appropriately, the Book Port, located up a flight of stairs above one of the shops. Nosing around, I picked up a book of photographs by B.A. King. I had read about him in photographic magazines the previous year, so I was immediately interested. The book was titled My Maine Thing, and as I turned its pages I was enthralled.

My well-worn copy of My Maine Thing.

My wife is descended from an old Maine family, but her parents had moved to New York when she was quite small, and then on to Miami when she was six. This was her first time back, and my first time ever in Maine. I found the whole experience enchanting, and the book became symbolic of my own "Maine thing." King's simple but elegant, mostly black-and-white photographs resonated deeply, and still do nearly 40 years later. Although I had read about him, this was my true introduction to the relatively obscure man whom I came to consider one of the very greatest American photographers of his era.

In a time when so many photographs scream "look at me!" Tony's pictures, at first glance, don't look like much. Most of them are quiet, few have what we would describe as impact. Like the man himself, they are full of unsuspected depths, insight, and wit. Many have a gentle mystery about them. Yet, almost all of them came out of the everyday fabric of his life. I could talk about them endlessly, but you really have to see them. I have a print which he gave me, which is at once both one of the simplest and yet one of the most satisfying photographs I have ever seen. It is a young girl's white party dress hanging on the bare wooden interior wall of a New England beach cottage. That's all. Just a 35mm available light shot, probably on Tri-X. How can it be so good? You have to see it.

The White Dress
(from My Maine Thing)

Needless to say, I bought the book. Then went on, over the years, to acquire most of his other books. It was not, however, until 1990 that I first contacted King, beginning a sporadic conversation by letter, email, and telephone which lasted until his death. He was gentle, soft-spoken, and unfailingly gracious. In my book Rock City Barns: A Passing Era (Silver Maple Press, 1996) I credited him as one of the four photographers who have taught me to see beauty in the commonplace. (The other three are Fritz Henle, Elliot Erwitt, and Robert Doisneau.) My pictures don't look anything like Tony's but his example has helped me learn to see and photograph both the beauty and the mystery of our world.

The Wind Harp
Tony says this a wind harp. To me, it looks like someone
just abandoned a harp to molder away in a field.
(from This Proud Place)

(All photographs except for the photo of my copy of My Maine Thing copyright Judy and Tony King Foundation, 2020.) 

To be continued. . .

Soli Deo Gloria

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