Pictures on a wall: Jules Alexander's indelible gift

My wife and I have long disagreed about pictures on the wall. It's not that she’s opposed to them, or even that we’re far apart on personal tastes. But when it comes to design flourishes, Lisa prefers to tread cautiously while I'm given to impulse. Admittedly I haven't helped my case by repeatedly hammering new holes in the wall, hanging a new picture, only to discover that it's A) not the correct height, or B) completely crooked. The remnants of these poor decisions are pockmarked throughout our house, certain walls looking like we've come under attack by snipers.

And so now whenever I come home with a new picture to hang, Lisa prefers to discuss it at great length, perhaps bring in an outside consultant, then mull it over for several months before we ratify a decision. I mention all this because the only pictures that required no discussion at all were the ones taken by Jules Alexander.

Photo courtesy of the Alexander family

Photo courtesy of the Alexander family

I had known Jules for several years by the time he offered to photograph our boys. I had covered golf in the area, and had written a fair amount about his two golf pro sons Paul and Carl, and in addition to being a legend, Jules was the type of guy who you fell into conversation with easily. In 2008, not long after I had written a profile of him for The Met Golfer magazine, Jules kept suggesting I bring Charlie and Will over for him to photograph. In my typically neurotic way, I was uneasy with this invitation because of how it might be perceived: here I had written this fairly glowing story about a famous photographer, and to return the favor, the photographer would now shoot my two boys for free.

Alexander's classic of Ben Hogan at Winged Foot, 1959

Alexander's classic of Ben Hogan at Winged Foot, 1959

Of course Jules didn't see it this way. He had a unique gift he wanted to share, and he considered me a friend, so to not let him photograph my family would be a breach of some social contract. We agreed to meet at his house one afternoon in June.

At this point Charlie was three and Will was not yet six months. To think back about that afternoon is to revisit the early frenetic days of parenting. We probably had to wait for Will to wake up from his nap, and had only a narrow window before they needed to be fed. When our kids were young, we were guilty of thinking our world hung in some delicate balance, and one small disruption could knock the whole thing into disarray.

What I remember about the shoot is how simple it was, how Jules led us onto his back lawn, made a couple of silly faces at the boys, and started snapping. At no point did I think, Wow, this is going to be an amazing photo. It was all pretty quick, and I don’t remember Jules needing to say much.

I've thought a lot about what makes great photography, as someone who admittedly doesn't know much about it. With a dozen or so Instagram filters at my disposal, it’s easy for even me to produce a pretty picture now and then. But what separates a master like Jules is an ability to see something the rest of us miss. It was there in those photos of Hogan that have defined his career. And it was in the pictures he took of my boys: the light, the clarity, the expressions he managed to draw out of them even in that brief visit that were quintessentially them. Of course I say all this from the highly subjective perspective of a father looking at his kids. But even the people who visit our home for the first time and don’t even know Charlie and Will end up being drawn to the photos of them hanging in our kitchen.

We used to have only two of those pictures, symmetrically hanging side by side in our dining room. But as years passed and I'd see Jules every now and then, he kept insisting that I bring the boys back for an updated portrait. Of course I wanted to take him up on it, but I still felt like I was imposing. And besides, life is just busy -- school and work, summer camp and hockey games. It’s sad to say now, but Let’s go have our picture taken by a world-famous photographer was an elusive thought.

Then one day last summer, Charlie, Will and I went to play golf. We were meeting a friend at Westchester Country Club’s Par 3 course when we saw Jules lingering behind the 10th tee, a camera hanging from his neck. Delighted by the surprise, he told us the camera was an antique film kind, and he was looking for the right opportunity to test it. Even approaching 90, it was apparent Jules' passion for his craft hadn’t waned. He directed us to a bench, offered only a few short directions, and then went to work. He was done within minutes, and a few days later, he called our house telling me to come pick up the prints.

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Now there are three prints hanging over our kitchen table, all featuring Jules’ elegant signature in the bottom right-hand corner. I’ll likely never own a work of valuable art, unless you count the three indelible pictures from a legend. When it came time to place them on the wall, Lisa knew even my clumsy hand would have a hard time screwing it up.