Thursday, April 26, 2012

I recall early on, a visit to my studio of a wild pack of young jackals.  Young men from Long Island who had taken the ferry across to Peck Slip and on up into Broadway.  There were three or four of them, the loudest being the smallest of course.  I don't remember his name but I do remember the lad whose image I captured that day.

His name was Caleb Edwards.  I remember it perfectly as he hailed from Jamaica, New York.  My beautiful Phebe had family not too far from there and when I laid eyes on him, I could see something of her in him.  Or maybe it was his resemblance to my brother Jacob.  He was the quietest of them.

The lot were a rowdy bunch and I heard them coming before they bounded into my rooms.  Quieting down as they surveyed my establishment, the pipsqueak wondered as to "how's a person goes about gettin' their p'rtrait taken."

I was myself, a young man once.  I realized that there were those who's heritage had much to be allotted for.  While my own familiar and religious upraising had provided me the means to converse in a more Christian manner, I displayed no ill will in repsonding to his crass choice of words.  I merely replied that the sitter should consider his pose, see that his personage was as he would like it captured and, once formalities had been arranged, the process would begin.

Pipsqueak continued to speak on behalf of the lot.  "See here" acknowledging the young Edwards with a nod of the head, "this hard case is Caleb Edwards.  Caleb's going to be the next champion of fisticuffs in America!  We're in town from over east across the river on Long Island.  We've scraped up enough money to pay for his portrait."

Needless to say, I was only too happy to oblige them.  Upon conducting the necessary items of business, I suggested the party take a seat while I conferred with the young pugilist.  It was difficult to get much out of him, including a display of emotion.  He was a cautious young man.  Slowly, I gained his confidence and he began to tell me of his personal life.

A mutual decision among the group had been to position the sitter in the formal pose of a bare knuckler.  The years of disciplined labor had certainly hardened Mr. Edwards.  His strength was unquestionable.  Arms taut, wrists and hands like steel cables.  Neck and head tanned from the sun's rays.  I offered him use of my comb to smoothen his hair and he kindly accepted.  It was only then that his countenance eased and a smile appeared across his handsome face.

While we explored various positionings, he offered me a glimpse into his world.

The son of a farmer, he had only the most rudimentary of schooling.  His father had no use for such matters and made it clear to young Caleb that he and his younger brother were needed on the fields rather than filling their minds with letters and numbers.  From the age of 10 he knew nothing of life other than tending the potatoes, corn and other sundry vegetables they managed to grow.

I thought of my own early years on my father's farm and how differently our circumstances had gone.  His escape from the drudgery would rely entirely on his fists.  I had hoped for his sake he could see himself through.

Once the mercury had settled on his daguerreotype, the lot of them were off.  I caught Caleb's eye as he was walking towards the stairs that would lead him out of my life.  There were thousands of them in the years to come.  A nod and a polite thank you crossed his lips and I never saw or heard from him again.

©The J. Paul Getty Museum

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