Death of a Photographer
Keepsakes I coveted from my friend Steve’s estate were a poem signed by Laurence Ferlinghetti and a lithograph by John Lennon of his chin resting on Yoko. Alas, I was outbid on both. Steve didn’t leave a will. He lived alone, unmarried, no children. The city had emptied his apartment, boxed up his possessions and sold them in lots at an auction showcasing things of the recently deceased in a non-descript warehouse on Church Street.
It was Wednesday when I found Steve’s body. I didn’t recognize him at first. He had been dead at least two days. His naked body was ashen and bloated. He was slumped on his knees trying to reach for something, presumably the phone to get help as he came out of the shower. The Medical Examiner’s Office told me that the cause of death was arteriosclerosis cardiovascular disease. In other words, he suffered a massive heart attack.
We had arranged to have lunch on the preceding Monday. Uncharacteristically, Steve didn’t show. When he failed to respond to emails and phone calls, I called Baruch College, where he taught spreadsheet macros part-time, to find out if he’d shown up for his class. He hadn’t. I had a copy of his keys, so when I entered his East 2nd Street walk-up, I feared the worst.
My voice breaking, I called my wife. Then I called the police. For a passing second I considered using my cellphone to take a picture. It wasn’t necessary. My last image of Steve was already seared into memory.
I’d known Steve for four decades, having first sold him a gram of hashish in college. In the ensuing years, we camped in the Adirondacks, survived an outdoor rock concert, and drove the Pacific Coastal Highway. When he moved from Albany to the city, I agreed to temporarily put him up in a spare bedroom until he could find his own place. He stayed 4 years.
Besides a confidante, he was my tech advisor. His computer became my first PC. His daisy-wheel, my first printer. He taught me about word processing and armed me with knowledge that launched my career writing about technology for the fastest-growing special-interest category of the time, computer magazines.
I was with him when he he spied the Lennon hanging in a shop on the Upper East Side. It seemed a lot of money, especially for Steve. Who knew the artist would be murdered, and this print in a series of 250 appreciate?
Though Steve graduated law school, he failed three times to pass the New York State Bar. He made ends meet through a series of temp jobs and cutting costs by occupying one room in a tenement without sunlight. While his contemporaries moved onto careers and families, he stayed 20 years, probably the only tenant in the building not enrolled at NYU. It was here that I made my gruesome discovery.
Flashback 5 years to a time when he suffered a nasty fall from his electric bike, his passion for bikes suddenly diminished. He fell instead for the pleasures of digital photography. He acquired a full-frame camera and determined to venture outside nightly to take pictures.
Despite a lack of material success, Steve never complained. He viewed New York City as his living room. He took his camera to the ends of every subway line. I soon was referring to him as Esteban de Nueva York.
He’d be out on the coldest nights. After all, Steve was born and raised in upstate Watertown whose greatest asset, he said, was a radio station that beamed Yankee games from fabled New York City. He mocked how the TV weathermen in the city hyped inches of snow when he was accustomed to feet. One time my wife bought him a pair of toe warmers, chemical-induced heating pads he stuffed under his socks. The heat dissipated in one night. No matter. Steve was living his childhood dream, having traded small town life for the big city, the entertainment center he called home.
Street photography became Steve’s passion for the rest of his life. He shared his work via an email list that grew from 30 to more than 300 recipients. He posted his work on Flickr, tagging images under such subjects as NewYorkCityStreetArt, Subways, ConeyIsland, Homeless and 5Pointz. A European art magazine published his work.
Steve backed up the data from his camera on a hard drive, which he cloned for my safekeeping. Even today, the drive holds nearly 10,000 images. I post a few on his birthday.
I have regrets, including the time it was inconvenient to visit him in the hospital where stents were inserted in his heart, and he was clearly scared. (The Medical Examiner’s Office surmised that one or more of these stents dislodged, the result being fatal.) Of course, Steve had visited me when I’d been hospitalized, but I couldn’t be bothered to do the same. I also regret refusing to talk to him for several months after we both fell for the same woman at a party. I took my shot and missed. He succeeded.
When I think about Steve, I’m reminded of my father’s musings before he died at 89. He told me how much he missed his late, best friend, Jerry, with whom he’d regularly breakfast at a cafeteria near the Empire State Building before heading to the office. The two of them called it “The Breakfast Club,” a meet-up that stretched back decades. As a youngster I’d sometimes join them, watching them kibitz and comment on the news.
Like them, I shared many meals with Steve, almost always over burgers, fries and Cokes. We conversed nonstop, cracking jokes and commenting on the world. We went to countless movies, too. Steve was best man at my wedding.
Besides the Lennon and the Ferlinghetti, I wish I had his camera. The equipment and lenses were worth $6,000 new. It wasn’t the camera that mattered as much as the memory card inside. It would have contained Steve’s last pictures.
Funny thing about the camera. It wasn’t on the auction list, though his rear-projection TV, Blu-ray Disc player and Dell computer were. You could walk around the warehouse and touch them. But not his camera, by far his most valuable possession. It was missing in action.
It took me months of phone calls to the Office of Public Administrator, County of New York, to find out if they had tracked it down. Was the camera stolen? Had one of the workers clearing out his apartment simply pocketed it?
After some investigation, the underappreciated but sympathetic clerk I’d been pestering concluded that what must have happened was that a camera bag and its contents had carelessly been packed into a lot of dishes and bowls. The auction house listed the lot as “kitchen items.” The successful bidder was in for a grand surprise amid the cereal bowls.
No, said the clerk. She could not reveal the name of the purchaser. All sales were final.
Steve would have found it ironic. How could someone who never cooked have had his prize possession mixed in with a bunch of kitchen utensils?
I imagine what might have been on the card. They were the shots that he hadn’t had the opportunity to transfer to his computer, curate, email and post. Steve had visited so many neighborhoods, from isolated to touristy. The images might have shown graffiti murals on the eve of destruction. Or a drained kitchen worker seen through an alley door of a Chinese restaurant. Or a man with a stump for an arm beating a drum in Times Square. Or a homeless person asleep under a ratty blanket, only his hands showing.
His last photographs are lost. Still, compared to what Steve had amassed on each of the previous 1,825 nights, the loss of a card now seems insignificant.
In the lithograph, Lennon appears to have drawn himself as one contented dude. I like to think that Steve was that way, too.
Nine years after the death of my friend, I call up a picture of the framed Ferlinghetti that I hastily shot at the auction before it was sold. One line goes:
“All night under the cyprus tree”
Stephen P. Andrus, 65, died on December 5, 2012. Friends scattered his ashes in Tompkins Square Park near his apartment the following May.
To see Steve’s gallery including images of the homeless at night, go to: