About a week ago, my brother told me about reconnecting with an old friend of his, Jay Colton. Though their friendship had only just been rekindled, he just learned that Jay died suddenly while at the working at the Paraty em Foco International Photography Festival in Brazil. Jay was a beloved figure in the photography world with a longtime career as photography editor at Time magazine.
I had not seen Jay since I was a young girl, but the Colton brothers—Jay and his brother Jimmy—are seared into my memory, part of the teenage boy legends that made up Parkway Village in the rebellious sixties and seventies. I was just a little girl then, hearing them thump past my door in the narrow hall to my brother’s room, or showing up, gangly-limbed and starving, eating up my mother’s meals.
To me, the Colton brothers were quintessentially Parkway, with its pioneering, mixed families—half Japanese, half American, their father Sandy Colton a well-known photographer, their mother the first woman and first Asian photography editor at Time. Jay, my brother and other friends went off to Nova Scotia one summer, living in a tent on wild, open land, coming back to tell tales of falling asleep while they were hitchhiking, so they were forced to lie across the road (not sure if that one was true). It was Jay who instigated the May Day protests at Jamaica High School during the peak of student rebellions. The principal at the time, Louis Schuker, was a legendary conservative, who enjoyed slamming down on this new breed of ‘ruffian’ boys. So Jay, my brother, and a few others were expelled. (My memory, in fact, is that only the dark-skinned boys were singled out) My parents were furious; they fought Schuker and the permanent record mark was dropped for my brother. Jay, though, spun off. Around this time his home life fell apart as his parents separated and his mother left; I remember my mother lamenting that there was no one home for “those Colton boys.”
Life speeds, careens, blurs. We all moved on to our adult lives. Over the past decades I have lost track of most of the Parkway people, and certainly my brother’s friends, who were so much older. In this day of the internet and Facebook, though, in a flash, you can reconnect with a dim figure from the past, and zap, the naturally severed wires are suddenly soldered together again. Thus, over thirty years later, my brother reconnected with Jay, attending an opening of his first solo photography show on the Lower East Side, and even agreeing to speak about music to Jay’s teenage son, who apparently is as rebellious as his own father, however bohemian and risk-taking he continued to be.
After we hung up, I went to Jay’s website, and scrolled through Jay’s images of the Kumbh Mela and Kashi (Varanasi), one of India’s holy cities. It was almost too much to take in at the same instant, a one-two punch, right in the gut, dislodging someone who I thought of as fixed in a time, a place. Just as I was getting to know who Jay had become—someone whom I might have grazed past downtown, or at an exhibition, or through an acquaintance; someone whose sensibility and formation accorded with the atmosphere that we all grew up in—I learned he had died forty-eight hours earlier.
There’s a way in which we demand that our memories stay fixed and for me, those two brothers—Jimmy-and-Jay—were not just themselves, but fixtures of a time, a place. The Colton brothers would always be two alike-looking, lanky, moody brothers, traveling on to fulfill their parents’ legacy in photography. I knew vaguely that both were in magazines and photography, though I didn’t know the details. If I had thought harder, I would have realized our worlds might have slightly crisscrossed in our adult lives.
For many of us, it is the atmospherics of earlier generations that shape us. A Parkway kid too, I became a shadow girl’s imitation of those older boys—dressing in vintage men’s coats and sailor pants I had bought with my cousin on King’s Road, London, cutting school to see foreign films at the Bleecker Street Movie House, reading Beckett on the subway, listening to Joni Mitchell and Dave Brueback. My era was the seventies, which I desperately hated—I hated the music, the Farah Fawcett fashions, felt I had missed out on something, and was strangely out of step.
In my drawer, I have a novel manuscript that I can’t get quite right–about a Czech photographer and his Indian wife and assistant, and their troubled, yet rich relationship to their rebellious son. The novel is saturated in post war and sixties photography. Unwittingly, unconsciously, I, the kid sister, had invented characters that sprang right out of the soil of Parkway, of those times. I had never been in the Colton home, but I knew enough to hear it was filled with photography, and it does not surprise me that Jay went on to become a beloved figure in that world.
For the past week, I have been asking myself: Why are you so affected by this news—of someone you only slightly knew, and whom you certainly did not even have contact with as an adult? I believe it’s because, when we learn of someone from our childhood who has passed away, we cannot help but feel it’s as if those young boys were struck down. To me, especially since Jay went on to fulfill what I would imagine for him, he was both that boy and the promise he became.
But the truth is, Jay did go on to become an adult, one who produced fascinating images and was much loved by his friends in the photography world as evidenced by the memorials and articles that have been posted by those close to him. For more on his work, please visit: http://www.jaycolton.com/ and http://www.anastasia-photo.com/artist.php
A tribute by his brother Jimmy: