Geometry of Grace: The Heart of Victor Barreda

October 16, 2014

This photograph accompanied an article about Victor Barreda in October, 1988. The caption read, "Barreda takes time to chat on the stairs of the school with Chris Shaw, left, and Jamie Laprade." (Herald File / Bob Eddy)

The French photographer, Henri Cartier Bresson, believed enduring images are rooted in strong geometry. Good photography needs no explanation.

In this image, there are three people. On what are they sitting? Imagine, for a moment, the scene with the people removed. We’re left with a series of bright stripes of light coming from above, flaring into the lens from repeating horizontal surfaces.

Ah, now we understand. These are stairs descending toward us. How do we discern this? The stripes thicken slightly and the treads broaden as the stairs approach, disclosing more of their surface to our eye.

Now, let’s consider the people.

Triangles

They compose a triangle standing on one point and tipping to the right. The person at the top is leaning, twisting, and looking down to the right, reinforcing the dynamic tipping quality. We see both eyes and, following his gaze, are brought down to the next person in the triad: a girl.

She has continued the twisting initiated by the figure above, and is turned fully around. We view her from the side, her body tightly tucked, creating another triangle. Her face is turned upward toward the first figure, but our eye continues down to the left, following the angle of her arm and leg, through the bright splash of light, to the third figure.

A boy? Probably, but we can only assume this, as his body has continued in the rotation of forms and he is turned fully away from us, looking up to the person at the top of our scene. The cycle is completed.

At the end, we are left beholding again the person at the top. He is older than the other two. He is elevated. The children look up to him, into the direction of the light, spilling over him.

From the geometry of the photograph we surmise this man is looked to for counsel, and is prepared to give it. As he speaks the children are rapt in listening. Perhaps he is a teacher.

We know, as yet, none of the story, but perceive all of this, almost in an instant, when we look at this image.

A Remarkable Man

The man in this photograph is Victor Barreda. My assignment was to take his portrait at Randolph Elementary School, where he was the custodian. I didn’t know anything more than this when I was sent out to take his portrait. What kind of custodian, we find ourselves asking in view of this photograph, is this?

Victor Barreda was born in Peru, the youngest child in a family owning an hacienda more than 17,000 acres in size. Before coming to Vermont, he had been the personnel manager for a coppermining company employing 2,200, director of an anthropology field research station, and a professional soccer player.

Louise Sulitan, a North American anthropology student, and Barreda were wed in 1973. Together they raised their family of three boys, Greg, Mark, and David, on the family’s hacienda until 1980, when a new government made a move necessary. The Barredas came to Vermont.

South American university degrees meant little to North American employers and, while Louise was eventually able to find a job teaching in South Royalton, that option and many others were closed to Victor. Undaunted, he found work where he could, beginning as a janitor in South Royalton, advancing to become supervisor of Randolph’s elementary school properties a few years later.

Beth Ingpen tells this story beautifully in her 1988 Herald account. This great man, overcoming difficulties that might have crushed another, had found Vermont a fruitful place to raise his family of sons, piecing together a new farm of 110 acres in Tunbridge and finding honest, meaningful work to supplement his farming income.

The Portrait

As I entered the school that October day, Principal Steve Metcalf took me aside for a quick briefing.

“Victor,” he explained, “is much more than a building supervisor here. His gifts extend far beyond maintenance. He’s an important member of our staff.”

Though Victor could handle a mop, his greatness showed in his relationships with people. He was a wise, compassionate soul; Metcalf wanted me to capture this in my portrait.

Walking through the school, we found Victor speaking with students downstairs outside the old gym and cafeteria. Classes were changing and the hallway was buzzing with activity. Metcalf asked the two children if they would like to be in a Herald photograph, assuring them he’d speak to their teachers.

They were thrilled to be able to continue their talk. Victor was in the middle of a story. The hallway emptied and, knowing they had a bit more time, they moved to the stairs as I busied myself readying a Nikon FM2. Intently involved in the story, they unconsciously and naturally gave me my photograph. Angling the lens to minimize the flaring from the bright morning sun you see in the upper right corner, I began shooting. This was perhaps my third image. Hearing the camera, they turned, as if asking for direction. They didn’t receive any. I had my portrait.

Things Change

Randolph’s Main Street grade school building where I took this photograph was torn down in August 2003. A few months later, Victor Barreda died tragically in an automobile accident. Steve Metcalf, also far too young, has passed away.

I feel the coolness of that lower hallway, remember my conversation with Steve Metcalf, and am struck by Victor Barreda’s extraordinary humanity every time I come across this photograph.

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