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A Generation Caught on Camera

A new documentary chronicles half a century of iconic photography by Vineyard Haven’s Peter Simon.

A new documentary chronicles half a century of iconic photography by Vineyard Haven’s Peter Simon

Photo by Alison Shaw

Strolling along vineyard haven’s narrow, picturesque Main Street, visitors to the Simon Gallery are often stopped by photos hung in the window. A brooding Jim Morrison. A shirtless Bruce Springsteen. But celebrity alone does not draw visitors through the door: It’s also the way that, in these images, familiar icons seem like friends.

Once inside, gallery visitors gawk at an entire generation inside frames. It might be Joan Baez resting her arm on Bob Dylan’s shoulder, or Jerry Garcia fingering a guitar. And is that the Beatles at Shea Stadium? Martin Luther King framed in light? Robert Kennedy? Allen Ginsberg? John Belushi? Even Lady Gaga and the crowds of Occupy Wall Street?

Is there any cultural crossroad of the last half-century to which Peter Simon did not take his camera?

Most afternoons, Simon sits in his gallery, a slight, unassuming man in a New York Mets cap. Congenial but reserved, he seems to see the world through a lens, even when his cameras are not handy. If asked, he’ll tell the story behind that balcony shot of Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant, or his huge portrait of Bob Marley, defiant but vulnerable with spliff in hand. But the shyness that first put Simon behind a camera keeps most of his stories hidden inside him. Luckily, his journey is now on a new documentary DVD, Through the Lens: Celebrating 50 Years of Personalized Photojournalism, which traces Simon’s lifelong quest to capture the iconic images of the Boomer generation.

“I wanted a chance to explain my fifty years of work,” Simon says of the three-hour-long DVD, which will be released in summer 2013. “I wanted to get very personal about hang-ups and insecurities, alcohol and recovery, the death of my father, and how that still hurts me. But there’s a lot of joy and celebration in my work as well.”

Simon’s father, Richard, co-founder of publishers Simon and Schuster, introduced Peter to photography. Highly cultured and highly driven, Richard played Tchaikovsky on the family piano and never went anywhere without a camera. When Peter was nine, his father gave him his own camera and showed him the magic to be made in a darkroom. Later on, skinny, buck-toothed Peter found sanctuary behind the lens, and he made friends by handing out the photos he took.

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