THE tripod, that's what took these pictures.
The camera was 35mm, a Nikon as it happened, but knowing that, in the context of these photographs, is like knowing who made the gearshift knob on the winner at the Indianapolis 500.
Sidney Tabak, the photographer, says: "I'd always use the tripod. That way they know I'm there. They get involved. I'm not bouncing around doing candid shots. I'm not pretending I'm not there. I set up the tripod, I can talk with them, watch them, then get the picture. I approached them with a lot of respect."
A long time ago, everybody used tripods. Then cameras got little and quick and we said ahhh, wonderful, now we can take pictures of people the way they really look. Which shows how much we knew about pictures. And people.
"This is a study of people in their environments," Tabak says. "Of people in the places where they're most relaxed and at home. They can be pround of themselves."
A few words about them: By the book, by the conventional American wisdon, Anthony Pisciotta, the chicken man, should be proudest of his swimming pool in Silver Spring, his son the doctor, another the lawyer, another the stockbroker. Or maybe the fact that in 1938 he set the 120-yard high hurdles record at Roosevelt High School, 15.8 seconds, and it stood for 20 years. But you should see this guy handle his chickens, the quick grace. After 40 years at Arrow Poultry on 5th St. NW, what doesn't he know? Unless you've never in your life eaten a chicken (or unless you happen to be a chicken yourself) who are you to say he shouldn't be, and isn't, proud?
Ivan A. Hall has fixed watches for 39 years, and his son is following, him, but in these strange digital times, it's getting cheaper to throw away a watch than fix it, and there well may be no second 39-year picture to be taken of the son.
Jasper Lee ran his Gulf Station for decades, and has now retired to an armchair beneath a reproduction of the Mona Lisa, where Tabak made a genuinely funny picture of him. The joke's not on him -- it's on us, but it's hard to say why. Something to do with the fiercely formal composition, with the Mona Lisa staring even more stupidly bland than usual.
Willy Smith has been cleaning and blocking hats for 25 years. Think of the eyes he has for a good, cared-for hat. Think how in these times there are hardly any hats left, much less eyes like his.
"I wanted pictures of people standing up strong, standing up very proud," says Tabak. I'd go into a place and say I was interested in people with unique occupations, and occupations that were dying out. They'd get interested. We'd talk. I'd set up my tripod."
They'd pose. When people pose they're working as hard as they can to tell you something about themselves. You always get a truth, of one kind or another.
It goes deeper than the Kurt Vonnegut line about "You are what you pretend to be." If you pretend, the most important thing is, you're a pretender. What could be more real?
"I live at 16th and R," Tabak says. "I like the community feeling. I don't like big impersonal stores. I like to walk around and to business with people I know. I narrowed the subjects down to people in places I could walk to, or take the bus or subway to. I'd walk in and ask. They weren't surprised."
That's another thing. There's little honest attention short of a Nobel Prize that people think they don't deserve. They're right, of course. Modesty, as John Kenneth Galbraity likes to point out, is a much over-rated virtue. (Were it intrinsically good, someone would surely practice it alone, thereby inventing some new kind of vice, no doubt.)
Consider, finally what a good and useful life you'd know you'd had were Tabak to knock on your door, looking for something unique and irreplaceable, then offering, as he set up his tripod, to find it in your face.