Scales was born in San Francisco in 1954. As a young child he would accompany his mother, Barbara, a painter, to art classes at The San Francisco Art Institute and UC Berkeley. At age 11, he was given his first camera – a 35mm Leica – by his father, Emmet, an audio engineer and an amateur photographer. When he was 13, Mr. Scales began making photographs of the Oakland Black Panthers. These photographs – of leaders like Stokely Carmichael, Bobby Seale, Eldridge Cleaver and other political activists of the 1960's – were regularly published in The Black Panther Paper from 1968 to 1971. At the age of 14, Mr. Scales’ work first appeared in a mainstream national news publication, Time magazine. He later became a successful editorial photographer, while also working in the entertainment industry on record covers, film posters and publicity campaigns.
Mr. Scales produced record covers for a variety of artists, ranging from pop groups like The Jacksons to Los Angeles punk bands like The Go-Go’s. In 1979, he was recruited to be the photo editor of The LA Weekly newspaper, part of the startup team that launched one of the most successful and well-established weekly newspapers in the country.
In addition to his photographic work, Mr. Scales devoted many years to live-music production as a road manager, production director and equipment manager for performers like Minnie Riperton, Airto Moreira, The Cate Brothers and Cher.
Though largely self taught, Mr. Scales received some training as a teenager from the photojournalist Stephen Shames, and later developed a relationship with the photographer Garry Winogrand while documenting life on the streets of Los Angeles.
In all, Mr. Scales spent more than 40 years as a documentary photographer – those documentary photographs have been exhibited at museums throughout the United States and Europe and have appeared in numerous photography magazines, books and anthologies, as well as in the permanent collections of The Museum of Modern Art, The George Eastman House and The Baltimore Museum of Art. A one-person exhibition, "Pictures From America by Jeffrey Henson Scales," sponsored by The Visual Studies Workshop in Rochester, New York, traveled throughout the United States from 1996 to 2001.
In 1985, he wed Meg Henson and began using the name Jeffrey Henson Scales. In 1998, Mr. Henson Scales became a photography editor at The New York Times where he edits The Year in Pictures, The Week In Review as well as The Book Review, and since 2005 he has also been an adjunct professor at the Tisch School of the Arts of New York University. He and his wife own the Harlem-based photo archive, HSP Archive, and the multimedia production company, Henson Scales Productions.
Shortly before his death in 1988 the extraordinary writer Raymond Carver wrote a poem titled Gravy. Carver’s gravy was the 10 years he gained being “alive, sober, working, loving, and being loved by a good woman” after he quit drinking. The photographs in That Year of Living by Jeffrey Henson Scales resonate with the good fortune that Carver felt with his extra time and enliven the overlooked potential of the genre of street photography.
In 2008 Henson Scales was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Cancer and photography have played major roles in marking turning points in his career and his path forward as an artist. For many years he had worked as a tour manager for the singer Minnie Riperton. When she died of cancer in 1979 he quit working as a tour manager for musicians and became committed full-time to his personal photography. He was living in Los Angeles at the time and had met and befriended the photographer Garry Winogrand. The friendship taught Henson Scales that he had to take pictures every day in order to realize his potential for making images that held personal meaning. After Winogrand died of cancer in 1984 Henson Scales moved to New York to continue to make photographs in what he considered the documentary photography capital of the world.
By that time he had met and married Meg Henson whose essay in this catalogue is a remarkable tribute to their honest, romantic, and enduring relationship. It was through Meg’s tenacity that they found the particular treatment for Jeffrey’s cancer that was eventually, and successfully, performed outside the United States. Meg was also the force that urged him to get up, get out, embrace the transition, and make photographs again. At the time he had been working for several years as the photography editor of The New York Times Week in Review and The Book Review, where looking at photographs had nearly replaced his passion for making them.
The pictures that are included in That Year of Living began as an exercise in the process of healing and concluded in renewing his passion for engaging life on the street. Most of the photographs in the series were made in and around Times Square where Henson Scales works. The energy of the street mirrors the character of New York and the tradition of street photography is more closely associated with New York than any other city. The numerous photographers who have captured and choreographed the chaos of life moving by on its way to someplace else have defined an important chapter in the history of photography. Most contemporary photographers have been happy to keep that a closed chapter feeling there was no more to say about something that is in constant motion yet perceived as remaining the same.
Even without knowing the back-story about the circumstances that led Henson Scales to make these photographs, they are still easily read as images that are about a transformation. In almost every image there is a central figure that emerges out of the crowd to claim their presence and define their personal place. In the photographs the individuals don’t stand out from the crowd but are recognized for the important moment they have in constructing the pleasure of observing. The photographs are a celebration of a instant where one thing, one gesture, or one look becomes, not so much a decisive moment, but a vital pause of recognition that makes everything else around it illuminated with promise.
Michael Simms wrote that Raymond Carver’s stories, “have pathos and radiance and yet are grounded in realistic situations which every American can recognize.” Jeffrey Henson Scales has always been attracted visually to the hardness mixed with joy, sadness, determination, and bewilderment that define our public experience and a life lived in full. In the photographs in That Year of Living he finds a balance between pathos and radiance along well-traveled and well-seen city streets where the journey is the destination and the rest is just pure gravy.
Jeffrey and I had been told by a mutual photographer/friend, for over a year, that we needed to meet each other. I have always loved photography (and photographers), and after a year or so, he introduced us. He was visiting Los Angeles, and invited Jeffrey to my home. Jeffrey came with a lovely young woman he was dating, and when they arrived, we were well into a pint of Jack Daniels and smoking Camels without filters. Jeffrey did neither, but we discussed and argued photography, among other things. Jeffrey would bring photographs from his car, one at a time, as it grew late. It was enchanting, the gasoline of the bourbon, the fire of our common passion.
I was extraordinarily impressed with his work. As the night wore on, his date became tired, and asked Jeffrey if they could go. Jeffrey responded, “Sure”’, and as he rose, he turned to me and asked, “Can I come right back?”
It was the most honest and romantic question I’d ever been asked. He returned without his friend, and we have been together ever since, married for nearly 26 years. We moved to Harlem, and have lived our lives together, collecting images, words, paintings, and lifetimes of experiences. We have raised a wonderful girl into an amazing woman. We have planted trees here, and once, led a march against violence against black women and girls.
None of this made a difference when he was diagnosed with cancer in the autumn of 2008. Seeing your life partner in pain is excruciating. You wish to take it from them, even within yourself. The notion of their non-existence is unthinkable. You weigh your options, and ultimately you take the biggest long jump you can, hoping to land a winner.
After researching the treatment options, we chose to go to Toronto, for a nerve-sparing procedure that would save both our lives together, and our lovemaking. I refinanced a mortgage on our apartment, Jeffrey had the procedure, and we were back in New York within 4 days.
I remember the Toronto airport being nearly empty when we left, and I ran as fast as I could, pushing Jeffrey in a wheelchair, and riding on the back. It was as if we were outrunning consequences. Yet, without belladonna and morphine, an unbearable pain roared up within him, and we spent New Year’s Eve in Sloan Kettering Cancer Center’s Emergency room, with me crying like a woman whose husband was dying, while he was calmly being managed for a common complication, with the procedure he’d endured. Our paid-off mortgage on our apartment had been refied, and as he healed, the mortality of our coupledom seemed as tenuous as it had been when we’d gotten his cancer diagnosed. A few thousand dollars later, we bought the best digital SLR available at that time, within our shrinking financial parameters. He fidgeted with it for a couple of weeks, before I demanded that he go out and shoot.
Jeffrey has been a street and commercial photographer for decades, but we went to Riverside Park, with the winter blowing cold off the Hudson. He immediately began shooting, and wandered off, toward the naked trees, the sky, the river, and atypically, avoiding people.
Yet the first images he took, were at the bottom of the hill, at Morningside and 110th Street, where Morningside Park languishes, yet dangerous, like a fist, beneath Columbia University. The trees were stark, some naked. Are they dead? Thousands of trees die every year in New York City. We don’t know if they’re dead until spring, since they are indistinct from those simply hibernating. They stand together, leafless and potentially lifeless against gunmetal skies, or the ludicrous blue it can occasionally silhouette, a mirthless joke of our thanatophobia.
When we looked at the images, I was struck down by those leafless trees. I was leave-the-room weak from looking at those things that pointed at me in an accusing, or God help me prophetic way. Still, they were mesmerizing and autobiographical. I recalled his romantic question from the lens of our circumstance. Could he come right back? Would he come right back?
He went back to work at the NY Times within a month, and shot on the street on his off times. Because of what we politely call our unpredictable bodily functions (“accidents”), I packed a small tight bag for him to leave at work, of a total change of clothing (which he never needed). I assured him that nothing could stand in his way [a lie]. Yes, death is in all our paths, but if that, or an unanswered call to nature, meant that either of us had arrived at our destination, so be it. The letting go, ultimately, is still a freedom; even if it is one you’d rather avoid.
These early images were ghostly, some even ghastly, hard to behold. The Olds, who persevere here, despite the growing economic burdens they represent to so many, trudge through crowds of Youngs and tourists alike; the bone of this place. These portraits of lived-in faces are surrounded by hordes of those whose lives seem to lie before them. Yet, we all share our common straddling of the chasm of mortality. Who, after all, is elderly? Is it the dying young, the centenarian, or those in the vast middle?
None of us really know. We know from Rwanda, from Auschwitz, from the the Lords’ Republic Army of children in Uganda, or World War I, where the flu epidemic stole millions of souls indiscriminate of ordnance...
One photograph Jeffrey made of the face in the crowd was of a woman. Her face hangs there, haunting. It scared me. Me! Me, who scares others; me who will not back down. Inside, I was in the fetal
position in the corner, weeping. Outwardly, I was doing everything. When Jeffrey went back to work, it was as heroic as anything I’ve ever known. Tits up and eyes dry, I rediscovered another one of the things I love in him. He is willing to face that, the hard and the bad, virtually emotionless. I am only acting. He is better at it. In his rare cruelties, he is genuinely at his most truthful. He is my man.
As spring came, as the leaves returned to the trees, and the heavy dark coats gave way to the sexiness that spring fever brings, his images reflected it ALL. He reflected it. His color returned, along with our intimacy. His photographic jokes returned, his hard drives filled and stacked into terabyte visions. He had come right back. But we really don’t come back the same. Just as he had come right back our first night together, we were different. We had warped scarily and magnificently into another us.
On 9/11, we had the grace to be together. I had a photo assignment to shoot a rich child’s bedroom. Our daughter assisted me, and Jeffrey came along to take the files back to the Times once I was done. But before we’d left, the television newsreaders were nattering about a plane that had crashed into one
of the World Trade Center towers. We knew nothing but scattershot newsbytes and a wildly driving stranger, screaming, ”They did it again! They did it again!” as we tried to hail a cab.
We arrived at the rich boy’s apartment to photograph his rich things. We were greeted by a giant man, in a small robe. The furniture was over-sized, and the wife was bustling about, explaining the provenance of this, the purveyor of that. A heretofore invisible uniformed housekeeper materialized too, as we were all summoned by the big rich man in his very small robe. We were called into their living room to watch their big rich television. Jeffrey sat next to the giant man, on the oversized couch, looking child-sized in comparison. We watched in horror, all of us, as the buildings fell.
We packed my kit, and went across the street and ate breakfast. People were crowded around a man who had a transistor radio, at a newspaper stand. For the first time in our lifetime in Manhattan, we were all, strangers, searching each others’ eyes. The streets slowly became carless and full of people walking north, some crying, some dazed. Most were determined, steel-eyed. I remember thinking, oddly, about that romantic moment so long ago. Can we come right back? Will this place, this city that contains parts of the whole world, be struck again? Will we all be destroyed? Will my husband come home tonight?
Soon after, I sat with a woman whose portrait I was to take before 9/11, in Tribeca. Her husband was ‘missing’. We never said it, but we both knew he was not coming back. I held her as she wept, saying words without meaning. I babbled. We both knew. We here, those left behind, are not the same. And so it is, that we never quite know, if we will indeed come right back. The collection of images Jeffrey took in that year of his own coming back reflects that to me. I know that some day that will not be true. But Grace, this time, allowed him to come right back, after cancer. That year of 2009 was neither a safeguard nor a cure-all. It was the promise to every single one of us—that one day we will not come back.
Jeffrey Henson Scales, my beloved soul mate, my best friend, did come back. We are not the same. We are both different, more cognizant of that scythe that hangs over us all. I see it in these photographs of that year that rang in with Happy New Year! and cheers and squeals, and fireworks, while my own thundering heartbeat was muted by the shameless racket of my own sobs, as I sat alone in the waiting room of the cancer hospital. But he did indeed come right back, in 2009.
Meg Henson Scales, 2010