I have chased girls fearlessly with a lens before my face. I have shaded faces in order to
express emotion with body poses. I have turned any person into every person. My
method is to jump.
Jumping makes a great picture. The frozen pose is what photography is noted for. The ability to freeze a smile is what Kodak sold consumers. My earliest camera efforts were freezing in air the flight of my friends from steps, fences and even garage roofs. The rooftop dogs captured by Elliott Erwitt, a LIFE magazine photographer, made him my first photographic hero. Philippe Halsman, my second hero, was another LIFE magazine photographer of authors, scientists, politicians and movie stars. His trademark after every portrait sitting was to ask his subject to jump. Photographing jumps is what helped me finally approach the accomplishments of my heroes.
A DeJure movie camera came to me at the same time my Zeiss Contax still camera did, when my grandfather died. My neighborhood comrades were only too happy to dive for my lens from great heights into leaf piles and snow banks. Seeing a movie of a jump, however, was not as enjoyable as a still picture of a jump. One of the best things I discovered in my college film making classes had to do with stillness. A movie of a pasture, for example, in which grass swayed slightly, conveyed more peace than would a still photo of frozen grass. It took a movie to prove slightness of movement. Extreme action, however, was very capturable in a still picture and viewable for an indefinite period of time no matter how short the duration of the action.
When I pay attention to memories, I have to work hard to remember any moving images, even from good movies. The mind seems to collect only still pictures. It is the in-between-ness of life that is most precious, the moment between when a body leaves the ground and when it lands. Nothing more proves that I was in action than a glimpse of me in the air.
My friend Geoff helped make the first jumping pictures of me in high school. He woke up early enough to drive over to my house and wake me up before 5 a.m. We drove to a hill with a clear horizon before sunrise. I put the camera on a tripod with a long lens, composed the frame with Geoff standing at about a third of the distance from two sides of the frame, and we traded places. I jumped and he clicked.
At about this time I decided to start a lifetime photography project. A book by Elliott Erwitt featured a naked woman in two frames which were not published in the wholesome LIFE magazine. In the first picture the woman stood on a seamless paper and had a big belly. In the second picture, the seamless background was the same, the woman’s face and hair were the same, but her naked belly was flat. On the floor at her feet was a baby who, comically, seemed to have fallen out of the woman between shots.
Could I do a similar project, free of nudity, so that it would be eligible for LIFE magazine? Mr. E.E. depicted birth before and after. How about trying growth before and after? E.E. used no clothes. I wanted big clothes. E.E. implied falling. I would imply flight. I was young. There was time for a long project.
I was about six feet tall. I bought some pants and a shirt that fit me and that would only be worn once per year for the next, possibly twenty years by my next model. All that was required now was the right subject, some new neighborhood boy who could start posing for me from birth onward.
Matt, one of my most cooperative jumpers, moved out of the neighborhood at about this time. A young couple moved into his old house, named the Hortons, who had the perfect baby. Both Mr. and Mrs. Horton were quite tall, so their son probably had exactly the genes needed for the jeans I had bought. The Hortons were nice enough to slide over their crib in the nursery to make room for my seamless paper. At my request they dressed their two month old son, Rob, in the big costume of my choice.
The new denim was stiff. The pant legs stretched three feet out in front of the bunched up oxford cloth shirt out of which peeked Rob’s brand new human eyes. The idea was to shoot multiple pictures of the same person on the same background wearing the same oversized clothes before he fit into the clothes and as he grew into them.
If almost two decades were required for this infant to become man-sized and for me to become published where Elliott Erwitt and Philippe Halsman were published, that was fine with me. I went through college, moved to LA to work, and came back home to Michigan every summer to photograph Rob in the same jeans and shirt. By his early teens Rob was able to deliver himself to my makeshift studio in my parents’ house and put on the apparently shrinking costume which stayed in my childhood bedroom closet for the rest of the year. The only times I communicated with Rob were for the annual picture. I am very grateful to Rob. His cooperation made possible the biggest project of my life.
When Rob was fifteen years old it seemed possible to complete the project. The shirt would stay tucked in by itself, the trousers would snap snugly around his waist, and his feet would stick out the bottom with no buckle in the pant legs. This called for a final shot. What would be appropriate to conclude a boy’s swim out of wrinkles? Why a jump shot, of course. Rob took my direction. He raised a fist, smiled, and leaped a few inches upward.
It was time for me to contact the editors of LIFE magazine for the first time. I packed up Rob’s jumping picture along with his early portraits wearing messy folds, and I mailed them to the LIFE magazine offices in New York City. The pictures were published in LIFE in October of 1993. A German magazine called GEO published the same series again in 1995. An Italian Magazine called Focus published it again in 2000.
It is good philosophy to jump. A musician will testify that what moves us in song is not simply melody, but the interval or the jump between notes. Whatever I dread, whether applying for a job, asking for a date, writing a paper, cleaning the kitchen, or taking a bath, it only seems hard until I jump into action. I may jump too high and fall too far, but it is more fun than standing still.
by Ben Swets 22 June 2000
composed by B.A.S Last updated 6 Mar 2004