Sanders Is Running

May 28, 2015

Then-Congressman Bernie Sanders writes a speech under the shade of a tree at the Randolph Rest Area during a brief stop on the campaign trail in the early 1990s. (Herald File / Bob Eddy)

Announcing his candidacy for the Presidency this week, Bernie Sanders has entered a contest few think he has a chance of winning.

This isn’t the first time.

His 1981 Burlington mayoral victory, by just 10 votes, was dubbed “a fluke” by local press. The Board of Aldermen, in meetings described as “a circus,” refused to seat his appointees.

By the following year, however, the obstructionists were gone, and Pulitzer prize-winning Doonesbury cartoonist Garry Trudeau was popularizing socialist Sanders as head of the “People’s Republic of Burlington.”

Four terms later, Bernie directed his attention to Vermont’s House seat in Washington. Running as an independent, he lost to Peter Smith in his first bid, but bested him by 15% in 1990.

In Washington, Sanders served eight terms as Representative before election to the Senate in 2006. In 2012, he won reëlection with 71% of the vote. He is the longest serving independent in U.S. congressional history.

A Chance Encounter

One pleasant afternoon in late August, 1992, I was headed to Burlington and stopped at the rest area just north of Randolph on Interstate 89. For many years this facility has been closed, but it was still in use at that time.

Climbing from my car, I spied Bernie Sanders lying on the grass under an apple tree, engrossed in writing. There were only two cars in the lot. We were alone there.

He was in the midst of his first campaign for reëlection to the House. Taking my cameras from the car, I approached him, introduced myself as a member of the press, and asked if I might take some photographs.

“Be my guest,” he said, pausing briefly from his work to explain that he was on his way to deliver a speech at the Labor Hall in Barre.

“I’m taking advantage of this wonderful day to put my thoughts to paper before I head up the road.”

For the next five or six minutes I moved around Sanders, taking photographs. I shot twelve frames, composing the scene as I proceeded. In the contacts of the shoot, you can see how the image developed throughout the session.

Big Feet

I began by shooting eight frames with horizontal, or landscape orientation of the camera. There is a simple explanation for this. Bernie Sanders is a big man. I wanted to get his entire body in the shot, and initially this seemed the best way to do it.

Folks meeting Sanders are often struck by his large size. I know I was that day. Working a crowd, he moves stoop-shouldered through the room, making himself smaller, down to the level of those he’s engaging. Uncoiled that afternoon on the grass, however, his legs seemed to stretch out forever. Added to this, he has big feet! I’d guess they may even be size 14. I know it sounds odd to be thinking about shoe size while photographing a U.S. congressman, but even now, almost a quarter century later, I remember having this internal conversation as I worked out the geometry of this Sanders portrait.

The first two frames are taken from near where I would finish the take. Bernie is there, the angle’s good, but the other elements in the frame, a piece of tree and fragment of building across the top, are confusing.

Moving to my right, I placed Sanders beneath the open sky in frames three and four. The tree in back helps the composition, but the trunk and picnic table to the right clutter the scene. I shoot here from a lower perspective, and will return to that vantage with success a bit later.

In frames five and six I come a bit closer. Still, the elements in the frame detract rather than add. It’s all rather a jumble.

In the following two shots, I return to my original composition. I intuitively know this is the angle I want, but it’s still not working.

Sanders is isolated against the mown grass in frames nine and ten. The breakthrough here is the switch from horizontal to vertical framing. Yes, I can fit him into the vertical view; no, this is not the photograph I’m seeking.

The Image Takes Shape

The composition really begins to coalesce in the next frame. Here, I’ve gone back to the landscape view. Additionally, however, I’ve taken that lowered perspective I mentioned earlier. This places Sanders’ recumbent torso along the horizon of the land. The view elevates him. As low as he is to the ground, I am still lower, shooting across and up to the congressman. Now we can feel the power and presence of this man. He lies not simply on the grass, but atop the earth.

Additionally, the building at the back is now adding to the image. The roofline echoes the angle of Sanders’ form, reinforcing and strengthening it. Bernie’s trade-mark dress shirt, open at the collar, and unruly mop of white hair pop against the dark tones of the wall behind. His frame lies proportionally well against the segmented spaces of the architecture. Note how his upper body is framed by the two vertical white stripes, while his legs have plenty of room to unfold against the lengthened side of the building.

The photograph is completed in the final frame. Here, by turning the camera back to vertical orientation, we retain the positive features of the previous frame, and add one critical element. The tree now arches above the entire scene.

This tree completes the portrait, leading our eye down and into the scene, to this lone individual gathering his thoughts in his quest to speak truth to power, to advance the hopes and dreams of all Americans, not just a privileged few.

Tell The People

Before parting that day, I thanked the congressman for his service and wished him well. Looking up from his notes he said, “Tell the people I write my own speeches. . . these thoughts are my own.”

From time immemorial the view of a person seated under the out-stretched branches of a tree has symbolized wisdom. Under this tree, artists have depicted sages and philosophers and saints for centuries.

Bernie Sanders is no saint; but then, there was a time when most thought he was no mayor, no congressman, and no senator. Now Bernie Sanders is running for president.

Oh, and he asked me to tell you, he writes his own speeches.

Here, in sequence from left to right, are the twelve frames taken of Bernie Sanders writing a speech in Randolph during his 1992 campaign for reëlection to the U.S. House of Representatives.

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