Photographer Don Snyder 1934- 2010

Tangled Up in Blue

By: - Sep 13, 2010

Don Don Don Don Don Don

The recent passing of the photographer Don Snyder has created a conundrum.

Those who knew him well, including a number of distinguished artists and photographers, readily state that he was remarkable. He is recalled as an alchemist and magician in the dark room; a master printer and inventive visionary. Don was also a gifted and generous teacher. A guru. There was a vast knowledge of all aspects of the medium from the history of photography, to endless formats and equipment. He knew how to coax and bring to life all of the information embedded in a negative.
Despite his originality Don found it difficult to succeed in the business and marketing aspect of the art world and commercial photography. This was particularly true during the more recent decades during which I lost contact. He died without a will leaving vast archives and no resources to properly evaluate and preserve them. A body of work of great value is at risk and represents a quagmire to sort through.
Settling the estate and solidifying a complex and daunting legacy looms as perhaps yet another unrealized project. It readily indicates a genius able to focus on the excitement and challenge of creating challenging work but with limited ability to archive, promote, and market it.
It would take a dedicated curator and exhaustive research to bring together all of the exhibitions, projects, illustrations and publications that comprised his career. The one ready landmark is the book Aquarian Odyssey in which, curiously, I appear as a nude model, painted silver, in the Green River .
Back around Woodstock I frequently visited the Berkshires as one of many guests of the artist/ photographer, Benno Friedman. He was a class or two behind me at Brandeis. While living in New York a friend, Jim Jacobs, took me to the Berkshires for a weekend. That first time I stayed in the belfry of the church/ home of Ray and Alice Brock. It is where that famous Thanksgiving dinner occurred. It resulted in Arlo Guthrie getting busted when he tried to dump the garbage. I returned for Thanksgiving in the church and at Benno’s in later years. It is an ongoing gathering which I no longer participate in.
It was an era of love, peace and happiness. We believed in community and the muse Moosh Magik who danced in the embers during visionary nights of color and light. It seemed we could change the world or at least make it more beautiful. Memories of dawn on cold clear winter nights. Alone on the snow covered lawn, listening to the sounds of dogs barking, somewhere in the distant hills.
In addition to the main house there are two other smaller cottages on Benno’s property. Don and his wife Mikki lived in one. I remember the summer when she was pregnant with the eldest Deegan and then her brother Ariel.
The first time I met  the poet/ photographer, Gerard Malanga, Don photographed us together. He was doing a project that entailed wearing multiple neckties. I never saw the image but Gerard is trying to track it down. It is buried somewhere in an archive, his, or Don’s.
While not really a hippie, Mikki was, Don wanted to document the era and its unique sensibility He had an ability to fade in and out of the zeitgeist. In it enough to know the players and ethos yet out of it sufficiently objectively to record its signifiers.

Don always seemed to have ideas for projects. He was the first person I knew to use a fisheye lens. Of course it quickly became a cliché. But he was on top of all the new gizmos and chemicals. There was a frenetic curiosity and experimentation.

Much of my involvement was serendipitous. Like Woody Allen a lot of times I just showed up. Such as  when Arthur Penn was shooting Alice ’s Restaurant in the church. Our friends were working as extras on the set. There was also a Terry Southern film with Stacy Keach that was in production. That weekend my girlfriend Arden Harrison and friend Jim Sillen were used as extras in End of the Road (1970). I was miffed to be passed over.

Playboy did a story that was largely unflattering to the scene. The late Liza Condon took exception to being characterized as a “bony beaked German scientist type.” I did a cover story for the Boston Herald Traveler Sunday Magazine.

There was another story called “Alice’s Breast Flaunt” that ran in a super market tabloid. Everyone thought I wrote it. Not true. There was a similar scandal when scabs took over the Cambridge Phoenix, before The Real Paper. A story ran that I was accused of writing. Again, not true.

Don was shooting a project. He asked me to participate. Behind  graphic designer Jerry Martin’s house there was access to a bit of the Green River. As secluded private property we often went nude swimming. The river wasn’t deep enough to swim but you could cool off and sun bathe.

There was some silver body paint and Don smeared it on me and another couple. We cavorted as water sprites while Don shot from the river bank. I can remember him smiling like a satyr and working from different angles.

Like a lot of what he shot the film went into the freezer for several years. It was expensive to process color film.  So the color was fresh and rich when he later lined up a publisher. I looked it up on line and Aquarian Odyesey is now a rare book that sells for more than a hundred bucks. My copy is signed.

On another occasion I was around when Benno was shooting illustrations for the Alice’s Restaurant Cook Book. That’s me and some friends with an apple in my mouth in the chapter on Stuffing. Being in that book impressed the heck out of my writer friend Dennis Metrano. Oh well.

When Matuschka e mailed me that Don died I called Gerard. I asked them both to contribute to an obituary. For similar reasons both were reluctant to add to this report. As close friends they were being drawn into a difficult situation. The emotions that entails were too daunting to write on him with any objectivity. At least for now. Gerard did pull together what follows. There has been an exchange of complex and emotional e mails with Matuschka but nothing usable. There were other suggestions of those who knew Don and might contribute. There have been e mails but no results.

I contacted Benno who knew Don perhaps better than anyone. There was a brief and poignant response. In January he suffered a spinal injury while skiing. He has made remarkable progress. But recently there was a devastating setback. He has his own struggle to deal with.

Yesterday I told Astrid that I was giving up on trying to write an obit for Don. More and more I felt not qualified. I didn’t really know him or the work that well. But it fell to me by default. Nobody has stepped up to write about Don.  It would be just another Snyder project that never saw the light of day.

Having slept on it well here we are. Flawed and inadequate as it is. The hope is that it will provoke others to come forth and add to this dialogue. I am sure Don would like that. I can see that sardonic, knowing smile on his face. My thoughts about him and the era we shared remain tangled up in blue.

What follows was written by Gerard Malanga

Don Snyder, 1934-2010

        My last contact with Don was on Saturday afternoon, August 28th.  He had tried reaching me earlier in the day three times successively, but each time I picked up the phone, there was no one at the other end.  He couldn't hear me and I couldn't hear him.  I called him back finally a couple of hours later, and we had a fun-loving conversation, as usual.

        He'd given me the news that Ira Cohen, a  mutual friend, was holed up at the Chelsea Hotel while his apartment was being fumigated for bedbugs.  Don was joking in his mad-cap way about how he was in better shape than Ira. That was no small feat since he himself was under a cloud with emphysema not to mention being slowly swallowed up by his archive (a lifestyle he and Ira shared). He had accumulated to such an extent as to make him neck-in-neck with Ira for the Collyer Brothers award in hoarding.  Boxes upon boxes of prints were piled 8 feet high in the bathroom and counting. You wouldn't wanna get caught under the avalanche.  His situation had simply gotten out of control.

        The reason he called was to tell me that he was finally going to draw up his Will in the next week,  naming me as his executor.  Don died alone in his flat sometime on Sunday, the very next day.  I don't even wanna think through his last moments.

        Don's legacy in photography is two-fold.  First, there are the photographs themselves amounting to a staggering body of work, both in color and black & white, that started in the late 1950s with his historic Coney Island Inferno series which still remains unpublished. The work ended with the ongoing farewell series to his cat Bonsai, also unpublished.  His book, Aquarian Odyssey, published by Norton in the '70s, remains an enduring classic.

        So much work accumulated that he was way ahead of himself in catching up to the present.  There are thousands upon thousands of negatives, slides, transparencies and hand-painted prints but fewer silver prints.  It became daunting.  He never looked back.

        Don went from being a master alchemical printer to making color laser photocopies and then assembling them into storyboard portraits.  He was mercurial and fastidious in the approach to his work, no matter how it came about.  Early on, he'd printed for Eugene Smith, and Diane Arbus, and now he was printing for me!  Photography, it seems, never left him for a moment, but buried him alive.

       His legacy also extended into his knowledge about all aspects of photography and his skill in teaching what he knew to others.  In this respect, he became the classic mentor.  I was one of his protégés.  It was like nothing for us to be stumbling out of his darkroom into the predawn light looking for the nearest diner after an all-night marathon where in one particular session, I recall, he'd printed 100 of my portraits for a show I was soon to have at Bennington College, in 1980.  The bathtub became one enormous chemical trough for treating each print.  Don was the man.  He could talk endlessly for hours on the kinds of papers to use; on f-stops and lenses; and he'd make sure you were listening and also taking notes.  He could solarize blindfolded.  He was also a wizard in the classes he taught at S.V.A. for a spell.

Don is gone
but his legacy lives on.
I pray it does.

Shanti Don shanti.