Eavesdropping in the Archives: Six Artist Portraits


On Photography

The following photographs are taken from the archives of Lester Sloan, who was a photojournalist for Newsweek, where he documented the 1967 uprising in Detroit, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the kidnapping of Patty Hearst, and the O. J. Simpson trial, from the late sixties until the mid-nineties. The captions are transcribed conversations between Lester and his daughter, the writer Aisha Sabatini Sloan. They have been edited for concision. They are offered here in the spirit of an eavesdropped conversation. While this is a work of nonfiction, the stories relayed here are recollections, prone to the vicissitudes of memory over time. Aisha’s questions and prompts to her father appear in bold. Lester’s thoughts are set in a lighter typeface. 


Hoop dreams. You know where this picture was taken? Around the corner from my mother’s house, I think. No—across the street. The house that used to be across the street from my mother’s house. Where Mr. Ringo’s house used to be. Mr. Ringo was the guy who lived across the street from us, and I used to cut his grass and help clean up his house for extra money, and I always enjoyed that because he had a magazine I’d never seen before. He got National Geographic delivered to his door, and he also had other magazines like Life and Look. But he was a reader of magazines and books. This is such a colorful picture. It is. Think about the control you have to have to dribble a ball, pick it up, jump up, pull your arms up as far as you can to overreach the guy trying to block your shot, put the right arch on it so it’ll go over his fingertips and into the ring of the basket. It didn’t surprise me later on when a few basketball players started taking ballet lessons because they discovered that the body control you need to be a great dancer is the same body control you need to develop as a ballplayer. You look at this and realize it’s possible for a kid from the hood to be Nureyev.


When I think about this—look at this picture—I think, Here’s the guy who leaps six feet in the air, it seems, and does a pose, but even when he’s sitting on the floor he can do something that draws attention to himself. That one finger seems to be one of the signature motions of his genius. He was just. And I’m sure that—all the ways they could—they could have been holding hands and all that, but this one finger touching draws your eye to—into—the picture, like a street sign or something saying, no standing here or right turn only. Like the Sistine Chapel. Okay, I see what you’re talking about. What do you think? Hmm? What do you think? I see. I see it.


The Olympic Committee hired me to shoot all the people making posters for the ’84 Summer Olympics, and David Hockney was one of them. What do you remember about David Hockney? He wasn’t full of himself, he was just “Wanna see what I’ve been doing lately? What do you think?” David Hockney was showing you his collages? At the time I thought, This is sorta crazy. Building a narrative with images. His mother was there? What do you remember about that? She was a lady who loved her son and her son worshiped his mother. I didn’t ask, What is the living arrangement here? Is she here all the time? or anything like that. [Both laugh.] Were you a fan of his work? Yeah. I liked that it was ordinary people doing ordinary things. It was sort of like scenes that a baby would create. How so? Their simplicity. It wasn’t a drawing or a painting of Superman, it was just a guy that jumped into the swimming pool. Did you see the picture he made of his mother: the collage? I love it. What do you like about it? It reminds me of pictures I took of my mother sitting on the porch, sometimes by herself, sometimes with Aunt Cora Mae. It just represents a moment. There was a guy in the neighborhood who took care of my mother, and, no pun intended, he would kill for her. What do you mean, “No pun intended”? [Laughs.] Did he? I asked him once, “What’s the deal with you coming around here, hanging around my mother?” He said, “You know, when I was in jail, my mother died, and they wouldn’t let me out to come and see her. So I picked somebody to be a mother to me, and it was your mother.” Well, that’s a pretty full-circle story. That’s what art does for you: it takes you on a journey.


I took your grandmother to visit Dr. Seuss. And we sat in his living room and watched the whales migrate to the south. You could see the whales out his living-room window. He was on the ocean? He lived near San Diego. The ocean was his backyard. Didn’t you have a story about a student who said something about Dr. Seuss? Oh, this was a Black student. He said Dr. Seuss taught him how to rhyme. Rap. Why do you ask? Because some of his books have been called racist. Before white kids started to rap, they said rapping was racist. I don’t think people would call rap racist today. But once upon a time they said that. Do you not believe that Dr. Seuss is racist? I wasn’t a Dr. Seuss fan or anything. I just photographed him. He was cordial. I can’t say that I’ve read everything he’s written. It’s interesting, right? That he could have had that positive effect on your student at the same time as he was doing some harm? Lyndon Johnson was a racist, he called people n*****s and then he passed the Civil Rights bill. People are complicated. Once, I was staying with a friend and he had to run out for a second—I was using the phone and I was looking for a pen and paper, and on the paper was something he had written about a colleague who happened to be Black, and he called him a jive ass n*****. So, when he married [Black celebrity], he was very happy to become the best friend of the American Negro. Ah, the hell with ’im. Is he still alive? Don’t know. This is a person who married [Black celebrity]? Yes. So, can I name this guy? Oh no. Why? First of all, what business did I have reading his mail?


It was Rodney’s idea to put the cigarette in his hand. He didn’t smoke it or anything, I don’t think he smokes to this day. The picture reflects the father more than the son, though the son takes good instruction. He was an old soul then. I guess he was about ten or eleven at the time. What do you mean it reflects the father? What does it reflect of Rodney? Rodney was always about the movies. You give him the name of a movie, or a star or an incident, and he will tell you more about the picture than you actually want to know sometimes. He’s—we had a mutual friend who used to refer to Rodney not by name but by “Just like in the movies.” Rodney was a movie fanatic. We were playing that the other day, we were talking about movies, who starred in Shane, and he gave me the name of the star, when the movie was made. That’s one thing about him that never changed. He may have gotten older. Smoking was something, a habit, he may have gotten from watching some of his favorite movie stars. You light up a cigarette and then he’ll mention a movie, and then he was off. What’s his favorite movie? If I were to guess, it would be a movie that—not Humphrey Bogart but, um, I can see the singer in the movie, who was a very famous Black entertainer in New York. Casablanca? Casablanca. Was Rodney like this when you were kids? Rodney was never a kid. He was always Rodney. Even now that Rodney is eighty years old, he’s still a kid. You said he was never a kid. He was never a kid, he was always a character from some movie he had seen, or, even when he was a younger person, he was always living a scene from one of his favorite movies. I remember once I called him, I had a habit of calling Rodney wherever I went in the world. Once, I was in Paris, I was on the Champs-Élysées, and he said, “What are we drinking?” And I said, “Glass of wine, Macs.”


That’s at a press conference with Jackie Gleason. It doesn’t really look like him. That’s when he made the movie The Toy. What’d he say about it? He said he made it because he owed somebody a favor. It wasn’t his favorite movie. Think about it. He said, “I’m supposed to be the toy of some white kid.” It’s sorta degrading. Did you take a picture of him during that stand-up act when he was wearing the bodysuit? A line from his own mouth: “I didn’t have to give up a thing to get this TV show.” And he’s standing there with apparently no genitalia. Do you think he seems ashamed? No, I don’t. You know, a lot of this came at a time when Richard Pryor was thinking about his image: “I’m not going to use the N-word again, because it’s derogatory. I’m not going to do anything to bring shame to the race and also bring shame to me.” So it was—I think he was probably questioning a lot of things he was doing and saying. I took that picture when I took a picture of Richard Pryor for the cover of Newsweek. Did you try to search for his TV show in your Maps app? No, I typed it into Google. That’s the Maps app. Well. It told me the year his TV show came out.


Lester Sloan worked as a staff photographer for Newsweek for twenty-five years, received a 1976 Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University, and has worked as a contributor for various publications, including Emerge and NPR’s Weekend Edition

Aisha Sabatini Sloan is the author of the essay collections The Fluency of Light, Dreaming of Ramadi in DetroitBorealis, and Captioning the Archives. She is an assistant professor of creative writing at University of Michigan. Her column for the Daily, Detroit Archives, received the 2021 National Magazine Award for Columns and Commentary.

Captioning the Archives, with text by Aisha Sabatini Sloan and photographs by Lester Sloan, will be released by McSweeney’s in November 2021.