Jack Elder is a photographer by passion, a newspaper writer by trade. That’s the truth now and has been the truth often, mixed with and between a life filled with trades and passions.
At 74, Jack’s accrued wisdom comes from a life lived broadly, and from his intellectual interests in literature, philosophy, religion, music …. He’s a trivia team’s ringer, or would be.
A child of an Army officer, he lived here and there. An adult of his times, Jack lived the Sixties and protested a war his dad served in as a high-ranking officer.
In the previous half of this two-part Humanitou conversation — “Jack Elder + The Zen of Photography” — we focused on Jack’s craft with a camera. Here, we tap into the broad range of a modern Renaissance man’s story.
It’s one of love and loss, history experienced and insights from an intellectual life.
Humanitou: You have a well-worn bayonet on your coffee table. I’m curious.
Jack: That was picked up off the ground by an ancestor of mine on the battlefield of Appomattox, Virginia. It’s been floating around in my family for a long time and I ended up with it.
Humanitou: We’re talking about a Civil War-era bayonet. … I’m almost speechless. You have a war artifact from nearly 160 years ago lying on your coffee table with odds and ends, like so much loose change. How did that come to be?
Jack: No better place to put it. (laughs) If you look around here, you’ll see all kinds of odds and ends of objects that get picked up.
Humanitou: You lost your wife, Johanna Goodman, last fall. Do you feel able to speak to your understanding of love, marriage, relationships?
Jack: Relationships are funny things. I would say for the first half of my life I never really figured them out very well. I’m not sure the women involved did much better than I did.
I was married once when I was very young. That marriage lasted, I guess, six years. Then I had three very serious girlfriends that I lived with for some number of years. And before I met Johanna, I’d been single for 15 to 20 years and dated off and on.
The women, and sometimes me, didn’t really want to be tied down. They had things they wanted to do on their own, and I got used to that. That seemed to be the kind of people I was attracted to, so I didn’t worry about it much.
And I didn’t really think of relationships as a separate entity. I thought more about getting to know interesting and attractive people, and letting that just work itself out and see where that would go.
Relationships, to me, to be successful need to be very accommodating of each other. If there’s a felt need by one of the partners for the other person to change, then the relationship has failed.
My wife and I, we agreed on lots and lots of things, and I was glad she was an artist. I became very instrumental in helping her sell her work.
I’d photograph her work, put together her books for her. It’s one of the skills that I have. I’ve learned how to do publication layout and design.
I’ve joked that if it goes on a sheet of paper, it’s probably something that I can do. Either write it or shoot it, arrange it or design it, whatever.
But she and I, we just got along really well. We were interested in each other’s work. We found each other’s personality very interesting. We enjoyed each other.
In my life and my social life and my romantic life, most of the people over the years that I got to know, were younger than me for whatever reason.
At some point, I decided I needed to find a woman my age to grow old with. She was of a similar mind and had come to a similar conclusion. She was my age and we thought, “We’ll grow older together. That’ll be fun.”
Humanitou: I’m sorry you didn’t get as much time for that as you’d both hoped.
Jack: Yeah, she was diagnosed with cancer in July of last year and dead in October. It was all very quick, very fast. It was discovered very, very late.
There’s decisions you have to make. At my age, I’ve known a lot of people who are now dead. I guess, starting with my parents. One of my children died. I’ve had many friends who have died. So, it’s something I’ve had a lot of occasion to think about.
I do firmly believe life is for the living. You go on with your life. The world doesn’t stop because of your loss.
At 74 years old, my wife died. I thought I knew what my future looked like and now I don’t. So, what can I realistically expect? I can expect to work until the day I drop dead. What else happens along the way, I don’t know.
The decision to go on living or not is probably the first one. It’s a very real sort of question. It arises naturally and for valid reasons. And it didn’t take me long to resolve it: Yeah, I do want to go on living.
Humanitou: You have experience as a writer and photographer, as a journalist in all facets. You also have years of experience in other professions, such as being a teacher, a bar manager, a van driver, a camera shop manager, a textbook salesman. And you’re a very well-read man with creative energies.
A word comes to mind: Renaissance Man. Your thoughts?
Jack: I have a lot of interests. I have a lot of skills. I haven’t had what you’d call a very well-managed life. I have no savings to speak of, or stuff like that.
I never thought a whole lot down the road. A lot of the things I’ve done in life I’ve done because they looked like they’d be interesting or fun.
I spent about five years from 1970 to mid-70s as what some would call a hippy-dropout-farmer in extreme rural West Virginia, living among absolute hillbillies that’d been there for generations, and barely could read and write.
I have a sort of a personal creed, which is real simple and I don’t tell it to many people: Tell no lies, cause no pain, try to learn something.
They’d turn on the TV and develop a very bad self-image, because all those people (on TV) are beautiful and well-to-do, and “Look at me. I’m dirty and live in this shack.”
I learned an awful lot about the people of Appalachia. In that part of the world, an awful lot of what you learn to do is hands-on. Enormous number of manual skills that those people are masters of. Problem-solving. Field expediency, the Army called it. Stuff like that.
I learned an awful lot from those people. If my car breaks down, I can probably fix it. Things you have to know if you’re poor and you live in the middle of nowhere.
Humanitou: You had a college degree in English at that point. You chose to go there and live in that environment? This makes me think of Kerouac, Ginsberg, the Beats. You’re a little younger than that group. Did they have influence on you with their work?
Jack: Considerable, I would say. I spent most of my years in high school and all my years in college reading literature and history books.
When I got out of college, I went to work in the college textbook industry as a field representative. You read all these textbooks and you read all the competing textbooks, and you spend your professional life talking to people that teach these courses.
I’ve never lost a game of Trivial Pursuit. (laughs)
That’s where a lot of the random knowledge comes from that I possess a lot of. It also explains a lot of my interests. My outlook on life is fairly academic, I would say. I bounced in and out of the textbook business for about 15 years.
I always had better ideas than my bosses. So I would, periodically, find myself looking for jobs.
Humanitou: Did On the Road or Howl, or another work, especially touch a nerve for you? How did they influence you?
Jack: I wouldn’t say any particular book or work had that profound an influence. I think bodies of work did. Like, in terms of how old I am, I found myself older than all the hippies by about five years.
There were a lot of things I liked that they were doing, and a lot of things that I didn’t.
They were anti-intellectual and I didn’t care for that at all. At the same time, I was too young to be a Beatnik. The Beatniks were highly literate, very educated, essentially a literary movement that spun off in a lot of ways.
Humanitou: I’ve not thought about that distinction before. Clearly, I’m way too young for to be of either of those generations. Will you elaborate on the anti-intellectual aspect of that hippy culture?
Jack: A lot of them dropped out of college. A lot of them were real scornful of books and learning, and the system, in general. There were a lot of exceptions to it but, for the most part, it was not an intellectual movement.
It was an aesthetic movement, a lifestyle-oriented movement that had to do with fun, social experimentation, drugs, which the Beats were into that a lot, also.
What I admired about them, they had learned an awful lot from things like the Civil Rights movement and Women’s Liberation movement, and opposition to the Vietnam War. All those things brought with it a lot of social awareness.
There was a very democratizing thing that was going on with the hippies, in particular, that broke down all sorts of sexual and racial differences among people. It was very inclusive.
And it was very critical of a lot of the same things the Beatniks had been critical of, the cookie-cutter culture of the 1950s.
There was a great willingness in both movements to question the status quo. “I’m not going to do anything because it’s what I’m supposed to do.”
They had those things in common.
Humanitou: And you as well?
Jack: Yeah, and me as well. That had been going on with me for a long time in a variety of contexts. Arguments with my dad, who by that time was a General in the Army. I went off to military school as the Vietnam War was being debated whether it should happen and Kennedy was still president.
I wrote a term paper with an emphasis on the diplomatic history of Southeast Asia. I came to the conclusion that we really ought not to fight a war over there, that what’s going on is people are using communism because the communists will help them, but their cause is nationalism.
One of the things we could easily wind up with in Vietnam was four or five different countries, something akin to Yugoslavia, and that would be all right. There was no reason to go there and fight a war.
Humanitou: My dad was drafted and went to Vietnam.
Jack: My dad was in Vietnam, as well.
Humanitou: Did you protest?
Jack: Yeah, I did. I went to a couple of the gigantic marches. One of the first marches on the Pentagon, I went to that. There were a couple of very huge demonstrations in downtown D.C.
One of them, there is a photograph taken by helicopter way above it. There had to be half a million people. All of downtown D.C., the entire mall, the side streets. Constitution and Independence Avenue. From the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial, just jammed.
Humanitou: This was the late Sixties? The war didn’t end for several more years. Do you feel like the protesting helped shutdown the war? Or was it a matter of using the voices you had even while, maybe, feeling like they weren’t being heard or respected?
Jack: In the beginning it was that way. By the time it ended, the powers that be were very much listening. You could see the change in the crowds at the protests.
The first protests were when I was in college at the University of Maryland and working at the Washington Post. The first protests were, essentially, college students. They’d come from all over the East Coast to protest, mostly, at the White House. They weren’t the hippies.
You could see that change, just by looking at the crowds. You could see the average age increase. People in the crowd began to appear more and more affluent. The demographics of opposition to the war changed a whole lot.
People say the Tet Offensive had a lot to do with that. I think that’s true, as far as a point in time. There was a feeling of enough is enough.
Humanitou: The Tet Offensive was 50 years ago this year. Using that as a point in time, have we learned anything about anything? As a collection of people, our government, as voters or however you look at it?
Jack: No. (laughs) I don’t think so. At least, not enough.
Humanitou: Is there one thing you hold as a concrete life lesson from all this experience, something that is a shaping or guiding principle?
Jack: I have a sort of a personal creed, which is real simple and I don’t tell it to many people: Tell no lies, cause no pain, try to learn something.