Chris Earnshaw is an odd and brilliant and sloppy man who vibrates with great joy and grand melancholy. For decades he has ambled through bandstands, major motion pictures and demolition sites, searching for prestige and permanence, all while being ignored on the gray streets of a humdrum capital.
“You know, I believe in the inevitability of the spirit,” he says. “I’ve heard about people gripping the rails of their deathbed, thinking the void awaits them. But that can’t be it, can it? There must be something next, something beyond, for all of us. I don’t want my life to end with people not knowing, or people saying, ‘He could’ve been something!’ ”
So several years ago, he put rubber bands around some of his photographs.
The photos were mostly Polaroids from the ’70s and mostly of Washington, but from a certain angle that saw past its monumentality. The images went straight for the city’s brickness, its wrought-ironness, its grotesquerie, its deterioration and destruction. There were portraits, too, of its nameless inhabitants. The photos were crimped and smudged, though, and seemed like one man’s trash.
Chris took the Polaroids in fistfuls to Georgetown, to the office of a man named Joe Mills, the head of photography at the Dumbarton Oaks museum. Joe flipped through the photos, offered a kind word about their strange beauty and shrugged off their rumpled owner.
But Chris kept coming back. He insisted that he had a notable volume of work, a legacy, until Joe said: “Fine, I’ll sort through them. But you have to bring them all in.”
And so Chris did. Three thousand of them, in plastic bags and green metal filing drawers. The photos showed a city that was going, gone.
Polaroids hold a lot of detail, but at a remove. The intricacy isn’t immediate. Whole worlds are caged by those small frames. You can’t see that at first. But scan them into a computer, enlarge them 200 percent, and —
“It was like hacking through the jungle and finding El Dorado,” Joe says. “Like stumbling on Tutankhamun’s grave.”
Time cracks, crumbles. It might be 1973. Or 1982, or 1995. Cranes bend and swing over the capital, which rewards a certain kind of ambition, savors a certain kind of history, the kind that’s carved into granite and marble. The rest is just bedrock for glass boxes that go for $800,000 apiece.
Which means it’s around 2013.
Jimmy’s maroon Chrysler minivan has no shocks, and its back end bounces like a jet ski as they head out of Chinatown, bound for the track.
“Opening day at Laurel!” Chris says, scarfing chili in the passenger seat. The gas gauge is keeled over on “E” but Jimmy always gets them there, to the track and back for $20.
The clang of construction comes from the gaping hole near Mount Vernon Square, and Chris is off: “The Home Savings Bank, built in 1902! √ It was one of the first high-rises in D.C. to have both commercial and residential.√ The 1902 building was much harder to tear down than that 1967 prefab, the NPR building, much uglier of course.”
The Walmart going up at Mount Olivet Road NE.
“I think it means ‘gentrifiers welcome.’ They’re trying to kick all the native peoples out.”
At Montana and New York avenues.
“A hundred years ago, it was called the Devil’s Bowling Alley, because of the gambling joints. THE WILD WILD EAST OF WASHINGTON, D.C.!” Chris cackles at his own narration.
“You’re like an elephant,” Jimmy says. “You remember everything.”
A day at the races! Wrinkled khaki pants. Oxygen tanks. The cigar smoke and musk-malt cologne of functional alcoholism. You can still catch a whiff of glory, in the nerves and manure and money, the gentlemanly gamble on split-second greatness.
“The track,” Chris says, “is out of time.”
His wallet is held together by a fraying blue rubber band. He plucks out three 10s, two 20s and a 100 and places them on the counter in front of his favorite teller.
“Wendy is the keeper of all my secrets. I knew her as a freckle-faced young girl.”
“Pace yourself, okay?”
“Trying to take care of business, Wendy. I’m happy when I’m gambling, Wendy. I’m just gonna do a little something for myself. Wendy, you’re a princess.”
“Why don’t you try to get yourself organized.”
“You got a fresh rubber band? This one just died.” He picks out a sinus pill from a Luria’s jewelry tin. “I’m happy, Wendy.”
“Yeah, Jay,” Wendy says, calling him by one of his many sobriquets, this one an ’80s vintage, from back when she was 25 and he was a payday drunk, just starting to get fat, betting on the trotters, roaring out to Bowie and Laurel in his green ’72 Chevy Impala with a sixpack riding shotgun, tearing back and forth between tellers and televisions after hitting a trifecta, fists in the air, bellowing, “Jay! Jaaay!! JAAAYYY!!!”
One of his grandfathers owned part of a horse in Suffolk County, N.Y., and spent whole racing seasons in the pink bosom of Miami Beach. His grandmother’s middle name was Coolidge, a nod to an apparent kinship with the 30th president of the United States. Chris, whose birth was announced on page 29 of the New York Times — Mrs. Samuel Earnshaw Has Son; “The child will be named Jonathan Wetherbee” — keeps his spare change in a dirty Ziploc bag, and he keeps the bag in a taupe tote with the rest of his precious garbage, and he wields his wooden cane not as a crutch but as a totem of lost nobility.
One minute to post. He goes outside to the stands in his burgundy blazer and black felt cowboy hat, the attire for his latest nickname, the Cowboy Poet. He clutches a small bouquet of betting receipts that represent his last $41.
“C’mon, 9,” he shouts at a 33-to-1 horse named Bates Motel, raising his cane.
It comes in second to last.
He goes over his tallies, in case he miscalculated, but he never miscalculates. Which means he’s done, dead, toast, totaled.
“I don’t have a thing,” he says, the September sun sitting off balance.
“I don’t have a thing,” he says, the horses headed for the paddocks.
“Jesus,” he says, the only man left in the stands.
Joe Mills has been in charge of photography at the Dumbarton Oaks museum for decades. On the side, he likes to rescue marginalized artists from obscurity, insanity, what have you. He considers that a solemn duty. Can you imagine what’s lost out there, he says, from the garages and attics of the world? Masterful outsider art that’s ignored or incinerated because the artist seemed nuts. Because the artist is nuts. Because the artist couldn’t frame the art properly for the world to see it. He knows that the proper organization of a scattered body of work can bring it out of oblivion.
Joe can see through chaos, because Joe once lived in chaos.
And so he believes that Chris Earnshaw is a great artist. One of Washington’s best photographers, in fact.
But Chris’s ability to exhume and perform a story from a single image is a different kind of art. For him, the Polaroids hold a talismanic power. By looking at them, he can resurrect what is gone and forgotten.
Take this one: A shot of a drunken bum, a motherless pietà heaped on a stone curb at 35th and M streets around 1974. Divinity in dereliction.
“That was Freddy,” he says. “He was one of Georgetown’s most visible people. He was a growling, very hirsute, crusty-faced creature. He hung around Dixie Liquors because people would buy him vodka and beer to amuse themselves watching him get totally polluted. But that was a real person, Freddy.”
Ten years after Chris photographed him, Freddy froze to death in a phone booth, prompting a neighborhood outcry that led to the creation of the Georgetown Ministry Center, which helps the homeless.
“He was once an architect. Can you imagine that man once in a suit, sitting in an office, designing buildings? And now he’s stinking, has several inches of dirt on his face, like a mask.”
Lunch is on, then off, then on again, depending on how they’re getting along on the given day.
Yes lunch. “Joe and I are meeting at the Safeway at noon.”
No lunch. “Chris is being difficult.”
Yes lunch. “Joe and I have smoothed things over.”
Chris Earnshaw and Joe Mills are kindred spirits who can be passionate foes. They are now also photographer and printmaker, respectively, and artist and curator. They’ve got a baguette, mustard packets, loose supermarket roast beef and a heap of liverwurst. They are inspired by each other, not listening to each other, at each other’s throats about everything. Art. Film. Life. Death. It’s June 2012 at the Wisconsin Avenue Safeway.
Chris: “He can make prints and I can’t.”
Joe: “Wipe that off your face, will you.”
Chris: “Just let me finish eating this, Joe. Jesus.”
Joe: “Well I gotta look atcha.”
Chris: “That’s why I bring a lot of napkins along.”
Joe: “I’m an artist in a poetic way.”
Chris: “I did not know how it would be properly marketed until after my death.”
Joe: “He could never show it to people because of the chaos around him.”
Chris: “I was confined by the limitations of the Polaroid!”
Joe: “You were liberated by the limitations of the Polaroid! I don’t think you understand the nature of the work.”
Wet snow is falling.
A church is coming down.
November 2013. Chris is 60 years old. He’s bellowing up 16th Street NW in a cossack hat, with a stack of Street Sense newspapers, toward the Third Church of Christ, Scientist, a brutalist fortress that has been a point of fascination and ridicule since its 1971 construction.
“Help the homeless!”
He crosses I Street into the construction zone, swinging his cane, concrete chunks precipitating in front of him, noise everywhere. He raises a disposable CVS camera.
A neon-vested construction worker steps in his way. “This sidewalk is closed,” the worker says.
“Who got the bells?” Chris shouts. “The church?”
“Yeah,” the worker says.
Chris backs off, looks up at the broken shell, blinks away soggy snowflakes.
“It looked so strong and they just took it down.”
His guitar is in pawn.
“I’m in a bit of a pickle.”
He’s gotta stop crashing with friends, finally find a place of his own.
“I just want to record things. I don’t want to be a street person.”
Summer 2012. The Greater New Hope Baptist Church on Eighth Street NW. There is the cool perfume of piety. He has a queue number for lunch. He’ll make a couple of bucks picketing for the carpenters union and a couple of bucks selling Street Sense, a D.C. newspaper written and distributed by the homeless, even though he hasn’t been homeless in 25 years. He is, rather, the bard of Street Sense. The Cowboy Poet. A man of dauntless eloquence.
Soft light comes from antique milk-glass fixtures, which lend a luster to the neediness. On a nearby chalkboard, a list:
A pastor with a Bluetooth in his ear starts giving out cartons of ancient pasta near a lectern. Chris knows this building. It was dedicated as a synagogue in 1897√ and transformed into a Christian church in the 1950s√. Its two domes were removed in 1970 and never replaced. Its original character remains encoded in stained glass on the side of the church, blocked by neighboring buildings.
The rose window, he whispers, has a Star of David.
And by God it does.
Lunch now, in a back room with white silk roses and down-and-outers taking turns at a buffet of fried charity.
“I did this partially to see how the other half lives,” he says of the picket line, the newspaper vending, the reliance on the kindness of strangers. “But I’ve become the other half.”
The woman who answered the door was both his mother and his jailer.
“Is Jonathan around?” his classmates asked from the front stoop.
“Oh, no,” said Ruth Besson Earnshaw, closing the door, her son locked in his bedroom upstairs. “Jonathan is in a far-off land.”
He was Jonathan Wetherbee Earnshaw then, but at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School he preferred to be called “Ainsworth Spofford.”
Ainsworth R. Spofford was the sixth librarian of Congress, from 1864 to 1897. In 1905, he wrote a letter to The Washington Post opposing the thinning out of the crowded library:
Our “unrivaled collection of literary trash” represents — what? Simply an authentic record of the literary attainment of the United States, at every stage of intellectual progress, from the dry-as-dust sermons of ... the seventeenth century, to the latest fruit of the reason and imagination of the writers of to-day.
Save everything, Spofford said. Save even things that don’t deserve saving.
“I’m Ainsworth Spofford!” Jonathan cried throughout the halls of BCC. “I’m Ainsworth Spofford!”
His mother was born in 1910 and grew up near Park Avenue, the daughter of the vice president of a lead mine with an office on Wall Street. A star tennis player at Smith College, she graduated magna cum laude in 1933 and studied dance under Martha Graham.
His father, Samuel Willard Earnshaw, was born in 1912 and raised in Brookline, Mass. Yale undergrad, Harvard law. Clerk for a future Supreme Court justice.
They met in a New York chorus and married in 1938. In 1941, Ruth named their firstborn Martha, in tribute to her teacher, and a dream deferred. Then came baby No. 2 (Sam) and then in 1945 the family moved to Washington when Mr. Earnshaw got a job with the American Trucking Association. Then came another daughter (Ruthie), then Jonathan Wetherbee in 1953, about seven years before everything started to fall apart.
They were good years. Golden. Green. Front yards sloping in upper Northwest D.C. Maids making the beds, making dinner. Morocco-spined editions of Thackeray, stacks of Life and National Geographic. His parents sang in the Cathedral Choral Society.
His sister Ruthie took him on jaunts into the city: the skid-row surplus stores and curiosity shops on I Street between 7th and 9th, the flophouses around 5th and G. It was a taste of the déclassé for a couple of bourgeois kids.
Around 1960, Mr. Earnshaw started a private law practice and Mrs. Earnshaw went mad.
This was three years after a mastectomy and aggressive radiation at Garfield Hospital. Mrs. Earnshaw broke down into manic depression. She was hospitalized and underwent electroshock therapy. After a while, Mr. Earnshaw refused to take her to doctors. Instead, he began to withdraw from his family, hiding out in his law office downtown, where over the next two decades one glass of wine became two, three, four.
Alcohol couldn’t keep everything at bay.
An administrator at the National Cathedral School for Girls was on the telephone.
You have to come get your wife. She’s chasing your daughter around the parking lot.
Mrs. Earnshaw kept a serrated kitchen knife in the attic. It was a comfort, knowing she could end it all up there, but she always hesitated. She didn’t want the blood to leak through the plaster ceiling, she explained to Jonathan, and scare him and Ruthie.
By this point, Martha and Sam were off at college. Mr. Earnshaw made a phone call to his brother Charles, who drove down from Massachusetts to spirit away a traumatized Ruthie for her last year of high school.
As Ruthie and Uncle Charles were leaving, 11-year-old Jonathan came to the door and said, “Take me with you,” but they didn’t, and he watched them drive away. It was now just him and his parents.
“I’m sure he must’ve felt totally abandoned by us. The four of us are smart, and he was by far the smartest. He is a genius. And unfortunately he didn’t have the advantages we did. In his own way, I think he’s contributing more to the good of the world than if he’d gone to Harvard and become president. I admire him thoroughly. He can be a little hard to take sometimes. ...”
— Martha Earnshaw Mayne, Chris’s oldest sister
Joe: “It has something to do with your memory. It’s almost photographic.”
Chris: “It’s almost like — it’s that old saw about the psychometric value of an old object. ‘By closing his eyes and feeling vibrations of an ox cart, he can see the whole street’!”
Joe: “Your memory does not have a sense of time passing.”
Chris: “It’s like I’m experiencing it now.”
Joe: “You don’t let time put pain in the past.”
Chris: “My mother saw me devouring vast tomes like a vacuum cleaner. She was in wonder of me. ‘You will be something,’ she said. Why do I come across as such a ragamuffin? I’m speaking the King’s English!”
Joe: “You are sometimes a tornado to deal with.”
Chris: “I drove a dozen music teachers here insane.”
Joe: “By me having the master set [of photographs], I can protect it from the whirlwind of your life.”
Chris: “I could end up in potter’s field in Southeast in an anonymous box.”
Joe: “You’re very apt — don’t take this the wrong way — to get in your own way and talk about people who’ve held you back. You carry it around like an open wound.”
Chris: “Can I just put it in my own words for just five seconds?”
Chris: “I’m not just an idiot savant.”
Joe: “What do you want in life?”
Chris: “I’ll be honest. I want domestic stability. When I was young, I was living wild, drinking bottles of Bud and throwing them against the wall in Cleveland Park. I wasn’t in control of my art. I want a safe place to get myself together until I reach the pinnacle of art.”
Joe: “What if you’re risking the window closing on this?”
His father, who worked at 15th and New York, took him for walks around downtown Washington, pointing out buildings he treasured, taking him to photo exhibits of Walker Evans, Ben Shahn and Marion Post Wolcott. His mother took him to second-run movies in Georgetown such as “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” She also would lock him in his bedroom when he displayed too much energy, or make him run around the back yard in circles until he collapsed from exhaustion.
The spectrum had yet to be mapped, but he was on it. Decades later, bipolar disorder was diagnosed, but in elementary school he was just a weirdo. He drooled in class. He was always spitting when he talked and ate and laughed.
His mother would call him “a real Parsifal,” the innocent fool in Wagner’s opera who achieves maturity by pursuing the Holy Grail.
By the time he got to high school in 1968, Washington was entering a new age of destruction. A construction boom on the heels of World War II had wiped out a first round of capital landmarks: grand federal buildings from the 1790s, art moderne structures from the 1930s. From 1954 to 1960, the government’s urban renewal program erased a second round, particularly historic African American houses in Southwest. After the ’68 race riots charred fat swaths of the city, the capital was becoming one big cauldron of demolition.
The boy known as Ainsworth Spofford ventured into the city to collect rubble from the old buildings his father had shown him. Chipped bricks, dusty cornices, chunks of cornerstone and keystone. He sneaked into shells in Foggy Bottom. He excised stained glass and peeled cracked tiles off buildings that were moments from the wrecking ball. He bribed construction workers to snag relics from areas he couldn’t reach.
He carried around the purloined archaeology in bags during school, where classmates were either put off by or drawn to his eccentricities.
“He would always be at my house.”
Margaret Welsh, classmate, object of his affection.
“He thought I was something special, and I really wasn’t. I wasn’t special. He thought I was.”
Word got around that Mrs. Earnshaw was keeping him locked in his bedroom, that she would leave food by the door. A group of classmates, including Margaret, wanted to release Ainsworth Spofford from captivity. So they snuck a ladder under the mimosa trees, and leaned it up against the Earnshaw home.
He climbed out of his bedroom and into the second phase of his life.
He was 16 and a runaway, homeless for the first time but not the last. He panhandled for candy money around Georgetown University. He picked up $1.75 an hour washing dishes. He liked the Huck Finn of it.
His parents had given him a Polaroid camera, with a brushed-steel body, accordion bellow and leather strap. It became an appendage. He shot endangered buildings with the camera. He began stockpiling Polaroids, counting to 60 as they developed and then peeling the negative from the positive, scratching rambling captions and profound fragments on the back.
“the end of everything”
“all the old was being swept away”
“A last look”
He was transfixed by decay and rot and abandonment. He talked with construction workers about the philosophy of destroying things.
He returned home, finished high school at Walt Whitman, enrolled in Montgomery College and studied D.C. history. He aspired to be an actor and filmmaker. He began to write a screenplay about a man named Billy Luck, a tragic hero who boozes his way around the ghettos of Washington, looking for deliverance. A professor dismissed it as an escapist travelogue of a privileged young man with delusions of ignominy. That criticism stuck in him like a splinter.
All the while he kept going downtown, taking photos.
Demolished in 1971: The Lemon Building, on New York Avenue, 41/2 stories of gable-roofed, iron-grilled Victorian beauty.
Demolished in 1973: The Romanesque revival McGill Building, 908 G St. NW, with its art nouveau brass doorknobs and corbels thought to depict Leonardo da Vinci.
Demolished in 1974: The art moderne Capital Garage, 1320 New York Ave., its facade of limestone and glass ornamented with low-relief sculptures of 1920s radiator grills and headlights.
Chris rescued a few of the Lemon Building’s embellished bricks. He took portraits of people, too. Blues musicians, brick stackers, hippies, girlfriends, children. Allen Ginsberg in Lafayette Park in 1972. Andy Warhol at a 1975 book signing at the Woodward & Lothrop department store.
“I went to shoot buildings,√ I came away with people,” he scrawled in pencil on the back of a Polaroid of a man named Frank Paine Sr., “fighting to the last on Defrees Street,” which was wiped from the grid in the early 1970s because Congress was embarrassed to have such poverty in close proximity.
Washingtonians closed ranks against developers by forming a group called Don’t Tear It Down, which eventually led to the D.C. Historic Preservation Act.
Jonathan, in the meantime, worked at his father’s law office and studied blues guitar. In the spring of 1976, his parents packed some of his belongings in brown grocery bags and told him he had to go. He was 23, and they could feel themselves unraveling.
A few months later, while sleeping at a friend’s mother’s house, flames startled him awake. The whole house was on fire. Jonathan sprang toward a window. He remembers pushing himself through the screen into a freefall. His skull just missed the metal edge of an air-conditioning unit on the ground.
The house was destroyed. His friend’s mother and her boyfriend had burned to death.
“Jesus wanted you to live,” an attending nurse told him at Suburban Hospital in Bethesda.
He was briefly suspected of causing the fire, but autopsy reports showed that his friend’s mother had been quite drunk at the time, that the deaths were accidental. Perhaps a cigarette in bed, a county fire investigator remembers. Mrs. Earnshaw blamed herself for her son’s brush with death, and drove to the Ellington Bridge, prepared to jump, but police prevented her from getting over the railing. She was hospitalized again, and this time Jonathan knew he could not stay.
So he asked his father for money and went to New York to become a movie star.
“One of the things I’ve said for a number of years is, ‘You’re only as crazy as you think you are.’ I’ve said, ‘There’s really nothing wrong with you.’ I’m wondering if it’s a societal thing, the way people are treated. Once there’s this diagnosis it’s locked in stone....”
— Henry Kidder, Chris’s childhood friend
While Chris was photographing the crumbling capital, Joe Mills’s psyche broke wide open. It was 1971. He was 20 years old and went full schizoid. He thought that he could read his mother’s mind. He thought that he could predict baseball and football scores. He thought that nothing was real. His mind accelerated and didn’t stop until it went clear over a cliff and into the hospital, where he watched episodes of “Jeopardy!” in a haze of thorazine because that was part of his secret mission.
Joe was born in 1951, the godson of the infamous senator Joseph McCarthy, in Beloit, Wis. His family moved to Washington around 1960, after his father made some money in the stock market, and settled into a house with a pool in a tony enclave of Arlington. Jack Mills, already an operator in GOP politics in Wisconsin, had capital ambitions and he lived accordingly: a Shelby Cobra two-seater in the driveway, a membership to the men’s-only Burning Tree Country Club in Bethesda.
Joe began reading Kafka, Camus and Sartre at age 14, and drinking heavily at age 16. Around this time, he took his first photography class at the Corcoran School of Art and Design.
His father wanted him to be a lawyer or an accountant but Joe wanted to be a photographer. He studied photography like a religion. He went to the Rochester Institute of Technology, where during long, lonely hours in the library he discovered the French street photographer Eugène Atget, who showed Joe his future by pulling him into the past.
Old Paris began to disappear in the 1800s. Under a modernization edict, wide boulevards vanquished quays and courtyards from the 16th century.
As the 19th gave way to the 20th, Atget walked away from an acting career and prowled the streets in obscurity with a wooden camera and tripod. He photographed doorways, staircases, alleys, balconies, mannequins, knife grinders and whores. He was drawn to architectural flourishes and off-center compositions that illustrated his growing isolation from the present.
He saved the past on glass negatives, then developed and printed his photos in his fifth-floor flat. He was one of the first photographers to treat the medium as a serious art form.
In 1920, he wrote a letter to the city’s director of fine arts: “I may say that I have in my possession all of Old Paris.”
He sold 17,000 prints to public institutions but died mostly unheralded at age 70 in 1927.
Atget was rescued from obscurity by American surrealists. Berenice Abbott, a budding American photographer, bought his collection and took it to the United States a year after his death. A June 1929 headline in the New York Times declared that Atget’s work revealed “with sympathy every phase of life in the city he loved.”
In 1968, the Museum of Modern Art acquired Abbott’s collection of Atget’s work, cementing his immortality, putting him in books for Joe Mills and Chris Earnshaw to discover in their formative years. Here was a master photographer, sidelined by his present and revered by the future, who captured the city as it was, not as it wanted to be.
Open call. The new Bob Fosse movie. The Palace Theater in Times Square. Late 1978 or early ’79.
Chris was going by Johnny now, and he was onstage in flared navy slacks, a black T-shirt and dress shoes, surrounded by leggy chorus boys and girls wearing Lycra and bandanas. Fosse was directing the opening sequence of “All That Jazz”: a cattle-call dance audition.
Fosse saw how badly Johnny danced and was inspired to feature him front and center. He was a gangly goon who hitched and wobbled as he tried to mimic the dancers to his left and right. He was a beat behind, going against the movement of the masses. He looked like a punch line: a man who acted like he had talent but didn’t.
Fosse’s editor intercut shots of Johnny fumbling through the audition with shots of audience members pointing and chortling. In a sequence of 700 extras, in which everyone was moving one way, Jonathan Wetherbee Earnshaw moved the other way and became, for those 15 seconds of film, a star.
His New York years were a gritty cocktail of glamor and hustle. He joined the Screen Actors Guild and found his way into the background of a couple of dozen motion pictures shooting in New York in the late ’70s and early ’80s. He is the bellhop who says “How are you?” to the Sylvia Plath figure in the film adaptation of “The Bell Jar.” Fifty-five minutes into “Manhattan,” he crosses West 66th to buy a movie ticket as Woody Allen and Diane Keaton emerge from Cinema Studio. He was a finalist for the role of Bruno in “Fame,” he claims, but lost out because he was late to the final callback. For six weeks he reported to Astoria Studios for Francis Ford Coppola’s “Cotton Club,” playing a club patron for a daily wage of $77.85. He blew his earnings on the cheap thrill of a 10-to-1 shot at off-track betting.
He counted on his father for a modest allowance while cycling through a string of jobs. He bussed tables and boiled chicken wings. He was a doorman and towel boy at a Times Square porno joint called the Zoo.
He photographed the winos of the Bowery and the ’70s sleaze of Times Square as it was papered over by the ’80s building boom.
He took his guitar to jam sessions in Washington Square Park and called himself “Jay” and “Johnny Bear Shaw.”
He had a cinematic romance with a beautiful Estonian woman who also appeared in “All That Jazz,” and they broke up at Windows on the World the night of May 30, 1979, partly because her mother insisted, he says, and partly over a $1,000 fur coat he bought her with money he didn’t have.
He once played guitar on “I Can’t Turn You Loose” at Black Rhino Bar with John Belushi on drums and Duck Dunn on bass. At dawn, Belushi signaled the end of the set by collapsing on the high hat. This is how he remembers it, anyway.
As the Earnshaws’ health failed, Jonathan was the only child to check in on them, at their small house in Bethesda where they lived among towers of yellowing newspapers, with mice scurrying in and out of the oven. He was the only child who could stand them as they fell apart.
By the mid-’80s, his New York spree was going sour. Fame was a phantom. No one could see his talents.
Samuel Willard Earnshaw died on Dec. 24, 1982, of congestive heart failure. He was 70.
Ruth Besson Earnshaw died Feb. 16, 1985, of cancer. She was 74.
Chris retreated back to the capital on a Greyhound. In the wake of his mother’s death, he cracked. For 18 months, he staggered around in a state of panic and profound disorientation. He couldn’t keep a job. He socked away his photographs and assorted junk in storage units. He stowed away in garages and bathed in friends’ apartments. He cultivated an acute sense of self hatred. He wanted to be found dead.
He was Billy Luck, the tomato-can tramp in his college screenplay, which he was still working on. He had built Billy’s world in his mind and now his meticulous imagination had brought the story to life, with him in the starring role as a man who became a drunk to revel in the rubble of life, who dreamed of glory but had wedged himself on the underside of a corrupt and crumbling capital.
Billy would lose every race except the last one. Scorsese would direct.
He started calling himself “Chris,” to escape the sing-songiness of “Jonathan.”
He played the blues and swilled booze at the Vegas Lounge.
He sang Rodgers and Hammerstein for quarters in Farragut Square.
He tried AA, backslid, got thrown out of meetings.
A friend promised him a meal for every day he stayed sober. That, and his devotion to making music, finally compelled him to enter recovery. Jan. 17, 1992 — his 39th birthday — was the day he stopped demolishing himself.
After his breakdown, after psychiatric treatment, after reentering the land of the living with the help of family and antipsychotic drugs, Joe Mills married his high-school sweetheart and moved into a cottage in Falls Church. He had found stability at home, which meant he had to look elsewhere for intensity.
He took to K Street with his 35mm. He ran toward scenes of poverty, illness and danger. He shot from the hip at close range. He photographed amputees, secretaries, street prophets, bus passengers. He got within inches of scabs, goiters, fist fights.
He took 50,000 photos over the course of the ’80s, which he would eventually exhibit to acclaim in an exhibit called “Joseph Mills: Inner City.” He might’ve shot Chris Earnshaw, who at the time was the kind of street character whom Joe would seek out and photograph.
Joe also worked in collage, dissecting images from Life magazines and reassembling them as surrealist nightmares. In 1997, he had a solo show of that work in the basement of an abandoned beauty salon in Chinatown.
Chris attended the show, drawn to the dilapidation of both the space and the artwork. That’s where he first met Joe. Several years later, Chris started showing up at Joe’s office, Polaroids in hand.
Unlike a photographic negative, a Polaroid is a finished product: It develops in front of your eyes into a fixed image. Yes, the photo could be bent or twisted as it developed, or coated or cropped afterward, but there was no way to play with the soul of the image.
That changed with computers, scanners and photo-editing software. A digitized Polaroid can be manipulated on a computer. Its raw tones can be managed and arranged with the click of a mouse.
This is what Joe did with Chris’s work — Polaroid by Polaroid, year by year, spending a couple of thousand dollars — in the basement of his house in Virginia. He tinted paper he bought at secondhand bookstores and used it to turn hundreds of the scans into larger, more dramatic amber-colored images that recall Abbott, Atget and Alfred Stieglitz. To him, this process merely released the inherent genius of the photos — their raw content, their pure composition, their lack of pretense — from the confines of their small, pedestrian Polaroid frames.
“Someone once said that Atget let the camera compose itself, and he remained faithful to it,” Joe says. “That describes an understanding that’s lacking this day and age, where you have the idea in the head, and then you try to make the idea, and all of a sudden you are limited by what your personal preferences are in life.”
He could be describing the modern era of Instagram, wherein 300 million amateur photographers arrange the world to fit their preconceptions or reflect their aspirations.
“And that,” Joe says, “is a very closed-off form of creativity.”
June 2015. The Safeway on Wisconsin Avenue NW. They’re being loud.
Joe: “They’re mine. You get the money but I manage it.”
Chris: “I have a broader vision than putting the scans out to flea market.”
Joe: “I had to stop you once. ... I promised to keep the 750-print master for an institution. I simply can’t let it go into the wind.”
Chris: “I am quite cognizant of the value of it. This is my body of work.”
Joe: “I understand, but how valuable something like this is — ”
Chris: “Maybe after I’m dead, those will appreciate in value.”
Joe: “Maybe not.”
There has been some interest in the work, but the art world has been slow to accept photography printed in ink. Chris donated prints of the blues musicians to the new National Museum of African American History and Culture in D.C. A museum in Houston has acquired three of the prints. The National Portrait Gallery bought two bluesmen prints for $1,500.
Joe thinks Chris is a mooch, a layabout, blowing his disability and Social Security checks at the track, abusing the kindness of friends who treat him to lunch.
“I’m not his agent,” Joe says. “I’m just — there would be a better word for it. I’m not making him money. I’m championing his work. I’m dedicated to saving it. Not saving him, because I don’t think I can do that.”
Chris says he doesn’t need salvation. He already has restored so much of his life. He worked in the White House correspondence department during the Clinton presidential transition. He plays guitar at King Street Blues in Old Town Alexandria. He sometimes consults for the film division of the National Gallery of Art. He has a longtime girlfriend who has stood by him and shares his love of art and music.
“I’m not Joe Mills’s Pygmalion,” Chris says.
“Joe thinks I’m still sick, like he was,” he says.
“I don’t want to come across as another Eugène Atget pulled up out of the sewers,” he says. Atget “was ready to pack it in and let cancer eat him away, even with Berenice Abbott’s help. I don’t want to fade. I want to be around for Act III.”
“I think there’s something really charming about the photographs. [Chris’s] obsessive knowledge of Washington is stunning. But this is the second time we’ve seen Joe swoop into a body of work and then make prints for that artist — and we really, in a lot of ways, can’t tell the difference between his work and the artist’s work.”
— George Hemphill, founder of Hemphill Fine Arts
Road trip. Ray’s driving.
They pass through a toll on I-95.
Chris rummages through his bag. “I’ll give you a dollar.”
“This f---ing guy,” says Ray, his downstairs neighbor. “He’s gonna give me a dollar.”
“I’m struggling, man.”
“You’re struggling. Lay off the races.”
The pair is leaving Washington to go to an auction in Philadelphia at Freeman’s, the oldest auction house in the United States.
Photographers on the auction block include Henri Cartier-Bresson, Herb Ritts and Chris Earnshaw.
Chris slips a violet wildflower through the lapel of his wrinkled navy jacket. “I’m a recognized photographer and I don’t want to have a lot of fanfare,” he murmurs, unrecognized.
He stakes out a whole row of seating, surrounding himself with his bags and hors d’oeuvres. “I think this is going to be a great success for all involved. Ray, you want me to peel you a grape?” He tries to wedge some folders of material back into his tote bags, but the contents spill out: scraps of drawings, scarlet autumn leaves that he has scooped up from the ground, snatches of the “Billy Luck” screenplay, which he’s serializing for the Street Sense newspaper.
“Isn’t this a good time? I like a good chèvre.”
The auction begins. When Lot 79 is announced, Chris perks up. His Warhol photo is a 14-by-11-inch archival pigment print on waxed antiqued paper, prepared by Joe. There it is, on a projector in an real live auction house. The suggested bidding is between $800 and $1,200. There are no in-person bids, but one $500 online bid.
“Going once. Going twice.”
The Warhol is gaveled for $500 to an online buyer. Chris claps once, turns around to shake the hand of the stranger behind him. He gets half, and will put it toward paying rent on the storage unit where he keeps his relics.
Back in the car, Chris is riding high, going on about horses. “Nothing feels as good as winning a big race with your girlfriend at your side. My grandfather Charles Earnshaw won more than he lost.”
“Maybe you’ve paid back what he won,” Ray says, hand on the wheel, the car wrapped in nighttime.
He pays a toll and steps on the gas. Chris looks back at the tollbooth operator.
“Someday we’ll come through here,” he says, “and there won’t be any more humans.”
“I’m not sure what the analogies are. A writer who has a great editor, or a filmmaker who has an extraordinary cinematographer? Joe has found that punctum, that point that translates Chris’s vision into something extraordinary. . . . You could almost say there’s a harmonic resonance between their psyches.”
— Stephen Perloff, editor of Photo Review
A year and a half later, from high to low. In Franklin Square he sits on a bench, a little hurt, a little bitter, a little crazy, but no more so than the shirtsleeved multitude pouring out of the nearby Metro station — “like a waterfall upended,” as he puts it. He regularly sees a social worker and a psychologist, but recoils from the “miasmic palpable despair” of his behavioral health clinic.
Then lunch, at 14th and H streets NW. He’s out of money. His instruments are pawned again. He’s still not being taken seriously as a musician. He feels impermanent. Like it’s too late to be something.
But isn’t acknowledging one’s failures necessary to appreciating one’s glories? What about the totality of one’s life?
“Totality,” Chris repeats. He ponders. He looks out the window. He points across the street, at the architecture that rises above a chain restaurant.
“That’s the Peoples√ Life building.”
It was commissioned by a real-estate group founded in 1912, a year that glows in his mind.
“That’s the year my dad was born. The year Titanic sank. The year Fenway Park opened. My dad died in 1982. I think about the totality of his life. He marched with Dorothy Day. He clerked for Felix Frankfurter. He was general counsel of the New York Railroad at 26. He helped devise railroad routes for wartime America. He had a Tudor mansion. I ran away from home once and when I came back I went to his office. His desk was disheveled. Bottles of wine everywhere. Pipe ash all over himself.”
He pauses in this oral history.
“My father was the forgotten man. Only eight people came to his funeral, and two were professional mourners. So when I think of totality. . . .”
He walks outside and looks at the Peoples Life Insurance building across H Street.
“In the 1910s, the Arts and Crafts movement had revolutionized architecture,” Chris says, neck craned, cane aloft, pedestrians sidestepping him and looking at their phones. “Look at the spandrels, the lines of trim! It’s really an intelligently designed building.”
It is, if you bother to look up.
Chris turns 62. He moves into a room at St. Mary’s Court, an affordable housing complex for senior citizens in Foggy Bottom, the neighborhood of his birth. His eighth-floor efficiency has a view of the Kennedy Center but no furniture. Brass plaques at St. Paul’s Parish, two blocks up 24th Street, bear the names of patrons whose remains are interred on the grounds. Among them:
Samuel Willard Earnshaw
Ruth Besson Earnshaw
Now their youngest child lunches in the St. Mary’s cafeteria with fellow resident Sergei Tolstoy, the legitimate great-grandson of Leo Tolstoy. Sergei is 93 and mostly deaf. To talk with him, you have to write on his dry-erase board, which says “My Kitchen, My Rules.” He and Chris met at the Bowie racetrack 32 years ago, riding up in one of Jimmy’s jalopies. Tolstoy lost everything at the track. He moved into St. Mary’s 24 years ago and wonders how he has lasted so long.
“They tell me that’s because I have blue blood,” says Tolstoy, sitting in St. Mary’s cafeteria, a gold cross buried in his white chest hair. “But every time I check, it’s red.”
“My mother was related to the Dauphin!” Chris says, shoveling cream of broccoli soup into his mouth, but Tolstoy can’t hear him.
Later, he hauls the last of his junk into the elevator, up to his new room.
“W.C. Fields wrote script ideas on napkins,” Chris says. “Chuck Berry’s first notes for ‘Sweet Little Sixteen’ were on dry-cleaning receipts. You have to save the genesis of art!”
The screenplay for “Billy Luck,” he says, is the pinnacle of his art. It says everything about him and his city. It is the story of a man at wit’s end, a 50-to-1 shot, who noses over the finish line ahead of everyone who said he couldn’t, in a city that elevates the illustrious but trims the fringes.
In reality the screenplay is scribbles on hotel stationery and typewritten tangents on lunch-special menus from 30 years ago. It is tatters of grease-stained paper that have settled at the bottoms of his bags.
In the summer of 2015, after years of touting the photos to editors and gallerists, Joe catches the attention of the Historical Society of Washington, D.C., which wants to exhibit Chris’s images for seven weeks.
In preparation, Joe prints 59 of his favorites.
So beautiful, he thinks, tears in his eyes. And nearly lost.
He will put them in walnut frames, and for a moment the chaos will be ordered. It is, in the end, a collaboration, but the exhibit’s title will honor a particular vision: Chris Earnshaw’s “District.”
Chris signs and titles the prints in pencil.
“A Face From the Past”
“The Soul of Wrecking”
Just like he used to do as a teenager, in 1974, while standing at a place such as 10th and I streets, downtown.
“Slowly, inevitably, central Row disappeared from its corner on 10th,” he wrote, with sympathy for his city, on the back of a Polaroid of row houses.
Now that block, in the winter of 2016, is the northern edge of City Center, a 10-acre kingdom of luxury commerce and $2 million condos. Churches and flophouses and theaters and homes and pubs are now Hermès, Burberry, Longchamp, Ferragamo.
Charles Dickens once called Washington “the city of magnificent intentions.”
Chris Earnshaw lives there still.