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Family Portrait: Last Christmas with my Brother

12/25/02 12:00AM By Philip Baruth

Last year about this time, my older brother Joe told me that he wanted to give me something fairly unusual for Christmas: he wanted me to bring my family back to Rome, New York, to his photography studio there, and he wanted to shoot a family portrait for us. He'd send us the proofs and then he'd blow up our favorite -- blow it up big enough to hold its own over the mantlepiece.

So Annika and I and Gwendolyn drove home for the weekend to my mother's, and we dropped by his studio, an immaculate little space full of albums and blow-ups from weddings that he'd shot. Joe had been taking portraits long enough to know how to make the camera flatter us, and so in the finished picture the three of us are smiling larger than life, and we look combed and pressed and extremely happy.

And we were, the whole half-hour that my brother spent fussing over our hair and our posture. Even with his eye on the lights and the angles and the exposures and the dish of candy for Gwendolyn when her attention began to fade, Joe never stopped making Annika and me laugh, and it shows in that photo.

About two months later, we stopped in at Joe's studio again for the finished product: walnut frame, cream-colored matting, all wrapped up precisely in brown butcher's paper -- top-shelf presentation. Then we all went out to breakfast at a place called the Iron Kettle, where they serve Italian greens and everyone knew Joe and stopped to harass him as they passed the table. When we left the restaurant it was raining, and so we said goodbye quickly, and Joe jogged over to his van, quickly, so his hair wouldn't get wet. The guy was meticulous about his hair.

And that was the last time I saw my brother alive. He died this past June, at age forty-two, of a heart-attack, for no real reason in the world that anyone could think of. This is our first holiday season without him, and his absence is the strangest feeling I can ever remember.

But we do have this gorgeous portrait Joe took for us last Christmas, and of course we're not the only ones with his pictures. There are literally hundreds of couples in upstate New York who keep the wedding albums he created with their most prized possessions, with their jewelry and the deeds to their homes. After their children, these people would save those albums first in case of fire. And so would their parents and siblings and cousins, all of whom got prints. Joe made sure of that. They will all guard those albums fiercely.

And that's the mark, not simply of a photographer, but of a rare artist: that people would attach such intense emotion and value to these pieces of paper he marked with lights and shadows. Joseph Baruth, Jr. was an artist, his chosen medium was human joy, and his work was deeply appreciated in his own lifetime. It isn't everyone who can say the same.

So in the same spirit in which my brother made us this family portrait last year, I offer you the story of his making it this Christmas. Merry Christmas everyone.

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