A Lost Camera Case Opens Memories of a Photojournalist’s Life
Ben Martin traveled the world as a Time/Life photographer, and his images—and the equipment used to make them—spin a fabulous tale.
I periodically check messages on a website I maintain for my deceased former husband, Ben Martin, a Time/Life photographer. The other day I read a message from “Tracey” that brought back bittersweet memories of the man I married fifty years ago, July 3, 1971.
. . .Today I purchased an aluminum camera gear case that belonged to Mr. Martin at a flea market/antique store in Bristol, TN. My research introduced me to the work of Ben Martin and brought me to his site. As an amateur photographer I am humbled and honored to have it. I only wish it could talk! LOL.
Tracey attached a photo and I recognized the battered Halliburton case as one of many camera bags that perpetually cluttered the entryway of every place Ben and I had lived in New York, Zurich, Paris, London, and Los Angeles. That camera case, and many similar to it, traveled the world with Ben on Time/Life assignments to cover war zones, political campaigns, fashion shoots, earthquakes, papal visits, arctic explorations, and space launches. The last I saw of it, along with tripods, lenses, and pre-digital-age camera equipment, was at an estate sale in Ben’s boyhood home in Salisbury, North Carolina.
I met Ben by fluke when, as a young actress new to New York, I was hired to model in a fashion shoot for Time magazine. The job paid $50, a fortune in 1963 when the rent on my little garden apartment was $59 a month. I was less ecstatic when I arrived at the photo studio and the stylist gave me a handful of stretchy nylon that turned out to be a long-sleeved black lace “onesie” body stocking. I congratulated myself that I’d had mime and dance classes that day and was wearing black underwear.
As I stepped out of the dressing room, the photographer arrived. He was tall and ruggedly handsome, with camera bags slung on the shoulders of his beat-up trench coat, and he had a suntan—in November! He apologized for being late, saying he’d just got off a flight from Venezuela where he’d been covering a general election. Then he looked at me and asked, “Why are you wearing underwear? And isn’t that thing on backward?”
Mortified, I slunk back into the dressing room to shed my bra and panties, certain I was about to become Time magazine’s first Playmate. Dazzled and already smitten, I posed but was too embarrassed to look Ben in the eye. Afterward, he offered me a lift in his Fiat and dropped me off at 59th and Fifth Avenue. I waited until he’d roared off before turning into the Playboy Club employee entrance. We dated several weeks before I got around to telling him that my part-time job was working as a Bunny serving highballs half-naked.
We lived together in the West Village through much of the pulsing disco-era Sixties, with Ben traveling on assignment as a photojournalist and me doing stage work and the soap Dark Shadows. After Time posted Ben to their Paris bureau, I finished filming a feature in New York before joining him. We married, moved to London, and I continued working as an actress. But it was soon apparent that I’d married a “travelin’ man” and that wasn’t going to change with wedded bliss. During our first year of marriage, we were together 32 days.
By 1987, we were living in Los Angeles and our marriage was collapsing. Friends were astonished when we separated.
“You seemed so happy, the ideal couple.”
“He stopped traveling,” I quipped.
The truth was we’d both gone our separate ways, which became evident when we spent more time together. He loved his work, as I did mine, but as he hopscotched around the world, absent for long stretches, we were left with little time to nurture the family life I yearned for. Whenever I could, I’d join him in some exotic locale, including a month-long photo safari in Africa for a Time cover story, but often Ben was in war zones and covering news stories while I had acting work.
Our eventual divorce was amicable enough that we eschewed warring attorneys (and their fees), divided our stuff, helped each other pack up and parted without the lingering afterbite of alimony. Unspoken was the knowledge we’d always have each other’s backs. Ben returned to the charming antebellum house in North Carolina where he’d grown up. I remained in Los Angeles, working as an actress and writer.
It was a painful separation for both of us, recognizably harder on Ben. He was used to doing the leaving, not being left. Ben did not remarry. I did. It took a while, but Ben and my husband Geoff Miller, the founding editor or Los Angeles Magazine, became friends. Aside from journalism, they had jazz, Mexican food, and me in common. I didn’t realize how mended our bond was until one afternoon when I got a call from a surgeon at Johns Hopkins telling me that Ben was in recovery, his prostate operation a success. Some 2,500 miles and a marriage away, he’d appointed me his “next of kin” and emergency contact.
Ben was always a welcome houseguest. After Geoff was diagnosed with Progressive Supranuclear Palsy in 2008, Ben instinctively pitched in to assist me in caregiving whenever the three of us were together. After Geoff passed away in 2011, Ben and I stayed in touch, calling each other at least once a week. The chats were daily after Ben became housebound with pulmonary fibrosis. One day when I couldn’t reach him after repeated calls, I feared the worst and alerted his neighbor to check on him. The following morning, I flew to Salisbury to arrange his funeral.
His house and car were sold and his photographic equipment, books, artwork, and household furnishings were disposed of in an estate sale. What I acquired was his life’s work. I couldn’t bear the thought that his photographic files, composed of prints, negatives, transparencies, contact sheets, caption material, and ephemera from his long career as a photojournalist could end up in a landfill or musty boxes rotting in someone’s cellar, the fate of archives belonging to so many illustrious photographers.
Besides, I knew the stories behind the pictures. One of Ben’s first big assignments was covering the Nixon/Kennedy presidential debates in 1960. When Ben’s photograph of Richard Nixon, with his sweaty 5 o’clock shadow, was published in Time, Nixon claimed it cost him the election. When Ben photographed him years later, Nixon showed up with an electric razor in hand, saying, “You’re not going to get me twice.”
Ben was still a schoolboy with a box camera when he worked for the local Salisbury Post newspaper photographing car wrecks on the interstate and “riding with the revenue” on midnight busts of moonshine stills in the hills and hollows of North Carolina. He became the youngest member (age 17) of the National Press Photographer’s Association. Ben, who was mentored by W. Eugene Smith and hired by Life picture editor Wilson Hicks straight out of Ohio University, photographed for Time, Life, People, Fortune, and Sports Illustrated for 33 years.
Unlike many of his Time/Life colleagues, Ben retained copyright to his photographs. Periodically, his photographs were shipped back to him in massive tea chests that were stuffed with loose transparencies and negatives in glassine sleeves. I was pressed into service as “staff,” sorting and cataloging a trove of pictures dating back to 1957 and knew the treasures to be found in the archive.
· Jack and a pregnant Jacqueline Kennedy arriving backstage for the Nixon-Kennedy presidential debate, September 26, 1960.
· Jacqueline Kennedy with John and Caroline arriving for President John F. Kennedy’s funeral, November 23, 1963.
· Malcolm X, pensive in profile in one frame, laughing into the camera in the next, March 2, 1964.
· Fidel Castro playing baseball and Che Guevara smoking a cigar in Cuba, August 4, 1964.
· Coretta Scott King bussing Martin Luther King Jr. on the cheek following his speech in Montgomery, Alabama, at the culmination of the Selma March, March 25, 1965.
Wearing cotton gloves and poring over a lightbox, I’ve come across unexpected images with a shock of recognition:
· Harper Lee, a friend of Ben’s, photographed in her New York apartment shortly after publication of “To Kill A Mockingbird,” 1960.
· Leonard Bernstein, with a satyr’s grin, pointing his baton at Ben “playing the Leica” while embedded in the Philharmonic’s percussion section, 1960.
· Thelonious Monk and his Baroness, Nica de Koenigswarter, romancing after hours at the Five Spot in Greenwich Village, 1963.
· Mike Nichols, the collar of his trench coat turned up, smoking a cigarette on a New York rooftop, 1964.
· Maria Callas in rehearsal for “Tosca,” her triumphant return that became her final performance at the Met, 1965.
· Twiggy and boyfriend Justin de Villeneuve cavorting at home for Time’s “Swinging London” cover story, 1966.
I’ve come across packets of negatives of composers, authors, actors, politicians, sports figures, and personalities famous in their time, now all but forgotten. Taking on the job of organizing Ben’s archive is the last best thing I can do for him and his own legacy. When I finish, everything will be donated to the Briscoe Center at the University of Texas, Austin, where Ben’s archive will join those of many of his Time/Life colleagues, available for future generations to view and study. I’ve had my own time to revisit history with these precious images, including my life with Ben. Fifty-odd years later, the photographs are a poignant reminder of the man I loved, married, and seldom saw.
Tracey’s sweet message on Ben Martin’s website also reminds me that the gear he carried with him around the world is scattered everywhere to be found and used by other photographers, who may never know anything about Ben or his work. If only his camera cases could talk, what stories they would tell.
Actress/author Kathryn Leigh Scott has written four novels: September Girl, Jinxed, Down and Out in Beverly Heels, and Dark Passages. Nonfiction titles include Last Dance at the Savoy, The Bunny Years: The Surprising Inside Story of the Playboy Clubs and the Women Who Worked as Bunnies, two books on lobby card film art and a trilogy of books on caregiving: Now With You, Now Without, The Happy Hours and A Welcome Respite. She played four roles in the original ABC-TV Gothic series Dark Shadows, appeared in a cameo role in the Johnny Depp/Tim Burton film Dark Shadows, and wrote Dark Shadows: Return to Collinwood. Recent feature films include The Eleventh Green playing Mamie Eisenhower, Three Christs, and Woody Allen’s A Rainy Day in New York. She played George Segal’s girlfriend Miriam in The Goldbergs. She’s currently writing a book about her great aunt, a traveling saleslady and suffragist. She resides in New York and Los Angeles.