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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

Since the mid-1980s, along with occasional off-island assignments, Peter has turned his lens primarily on the Vineyard, the charms of which continue to enthrall him. The disadvantages of the island, he says, are far outweighed by its pleasures. Year-round life on the Vineyard, he admits, “is not for everyone. Some people have greater mountains to climb, wider bridges to be crossed. But for those of us who enjoy the simple pleasures of life here, there is no other place to live.”

In summer, spring, or deep snow, whenever “the perfect combination of my mood, good weather, and good lighting comes together,” Peter says, he grabs his camera and feels inspired to capture the moment. Peter’s luminescent photographs of Vineyard beaches, ponds, and wildlife add a serene elegance to the music-based photos in his gallery. A dozen of them, ranging from sunsets over Aquinnah to children tiptoeing through the tulips in Tisbury, are featured each year in his Vineyard Calendar.

In 2001, Peter was all set to publish I and Eye: Pictures of My Generation, a coffee-table book featuring his reminiscences and photos. On September 11, Peter had embarked on a publicity tour when he got the news from Lower Manhattan. As the entire country descended into shock, the book received no attention and sold poorly, triggering a personal crisis that spiraled into years-long depression. Peter numbed himself with alcohol, and by 2004, he had checked into rehab in Florida. “If I hadn’t stopped drinking, I’d be dead,” he admits.

In 2008, as part of a personal renaissance, Peter and Ronni opened the Simon Gallery. Inside, visitors can see pieces of his life’s work—an endeavor that, as evidenced by his photographs of the memorial for the victims of the Boston Marathon bombings, is very much still in progress.

Now 66, Peter Simon can smile as he looks back on a life behind the lens. Yes, he did miss one Boomer crossroad: In August 1969, he had tickets to Woodstock, but traffic and booked-up ferries kept him mired on the Vineyard. Otherwise, the photo journey he began by snapping Robert Kennedy’s campaign stop in Riverdale, New York, managed to touch every heartfelt moment of his generation. Simon has often been called “the Forrest Gump of photography,” and he never sold out by seeking the big bucks of fashion or advertising. “I only photographed things I cared about,” he says. “I didn’t know then that the photos would have historic value. It was all very much in the moment.”

Much has been written about the legacy of the Boomer generation—the war protests, the communal experiments, the marches, the music. It truly was a long, strange trip. Peter Simon took the trip. But unlike the rest, he took along a camera, too.

Bruce Watson is the author of four narrative histories and the e-biography Jon Stewart: Beyond the Moments of Zen (NewWordCity).

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