John Gastaldo : Photographer

Behind the Image

Twenty-seven years ago I was living on the East Coast and working for the Advocate newspaper in Stamford, Connecticut, 45 minutes from New York City.  It was a small daily and after several years I was getting bored and wanted to chase bigger stories.  Suburbia can do that to a newspaper photographer, but especially one raised in Lower Manhattan.  Then one day I heard a report from the late CBS Radio reporter and colleague Fran Schneidau about the umpteenth trespassing action of a lady named Margaret Ray.  You'd remember her as the lady who in the late 1980s and early 1990s was profoundly obsessed with late night talk show host David Letterman.  She'd make her way up to his home in New Canaan, CT and trespass on his property.  All the New Canaan cab drivers got to know her and would phone the police after they dropped her at his house from the train station.  She always claimed to be Letterman's wife, was arrested eight times and eventually got sent to psychiatric hospitals and served time in jail.  One of the last times she was arrested(it could have been her last time in CT), I decided to get a photo of her.  Maybe it would be worth something, I thought.  Not for the Stamford Advocate, your typical "family newspaper," but maybe for a magazine or photo agency.  

I drove the ten miles to New Canaan police station and waited for her release on my lunch hour.  I remember it being a warm spring day and I thank the bailiffs who woke me up from my brief catnap under a tree.  I ran over to the sally port, stood over the rail, and waited for her.  When she came out, she noticed me, and I thought, smiled.  Now when I look at the photo, I see a broken smile.  She looks troubled.  One hand is clutching a tissue in her shackled hand, and in the other, an unsmoked cigarette.  To this day this photo has never been published, social media, print, or TV.  

I put the image in my files and concentrated on getting to a bigger newspaper.  Five years later, she was released from prison for stalking NASA astronaut Story Musgrave in Florida and moved back to her beloved Colorado.   She had been prescribed the anti-psychotic drug Haldol for her schizophrenia but eventually stopped taking it. "I'm all traveled out. I chose a painless and instantaneous way to end my life in the valley I loved," she wrote in a last letter to her mother.  Then Margaret Mary Ray, aged 46, knelt in front of an oncoming coal train.  After her death, Ray's daughter, Anna-Lisa Johanson, completed the picture of a woman who too often found her way into late-night comedy.  She said that her mother was "destroyed by a mental illness just as deadly and just as painful as cancer." "And unfortunately we are not at the point in our society…where we understand this disease and treat those who have it with the compassion they deserve."  This is a reminder that today is May 1st, spring is here, but it's also the first day of Mental Health Awareness Month.  

Here we are, seven weeks into the abyss that is the Coronavirus Shelter in Place and I thank my lucky stars that my family continues to enjoy good health. I hope you and yours are feeling similarly.  We remember those who've succumbed to this disease, think of their families and say a prayer. At some point we'll get back to a routine, even if wearing a mask is part of the process, a small price to pay. 

Events requiring my photography have all been cancelled, from celebrations and fundraisers, galas, runs, walks, races and chasing real news. Organizations are using what they have and rethinking spending ANY money at all this year, just to survive. We normally complain about a lack of time.  Everybody does.  "Not enough hours in the day," we say. Can't do that anymore.  

Time, work, and money. It's hard to complain when you have so much of one of the three.  Even at the expense of the other two.  What to do with all that time? Do things for free for at least for yourself and hopefully someone else.   For someone who creates art, it should be a no-brainer. Van Gogh, Picasso, O'Keefe, nor Kahlo never created art just to make money.   

Their compulsion was their propulsion.  

We all have talents.  For me, it's photography.  For you it could be any number of things. My cameras compel me to pick them up and create.  

Others' work also compels me. Many days of the year I get out and cover events or scenes purely for enjoyment. 

I make it my business to mark those events on my calendar.      

Thanks to social media, that work finds a home and sometimes helps me to target opportunities for paying gigs.   
Some weeks ago, I passed my neighbors in the hallway and asked them if they would be up for it a free photoshoot.  I hadn't done a studio shoot in weeks, but for some reason needed to create something.   Artists know what I'm talking about.  There's just so much "other" art you can watch before deciding to do your own.   The impetus can be envy, boredom, or the motivation to do something because you've never done it before.  For me, it was a combination. So, I "popped up" the studio in some free space and created what you see.   
Before we lose this special time, I encourage you to do your "thing," whatever that may be.   Paint, sculpt, burnish, varnish, videograph, photograph, read, write a song, learn a song, write a short story, the great American novel, a blogpost, etc.  Oh yeah and maybe clean the house and shine your shoes.  Because before you know it, we'll be back to routine and wonder what happened to that precious time during those crazy months in 2020/2021.