Peter Simon wore a lot of hats and was many things to many different people. But one thing is for sure: he was one of a kind; both eclectic and unique. Simon gave everything he had to everything he did. He was the perfect combination of perpetual teenager and ancient mariner and lived a casual beatnik life. He documented with his camera some of the biggest names in music from the ’60’s to his death on November 18, 2018 from a heart attack and cancer; as well as the greatest protest movements and major figures of many decades.
Born in 1947, the son of Andrea and Richard Simon, founder of publishing giant Simon and Schuster, and brother of Carly, Lucy and Johanna, Peter attended private schools growing up. His childhood homes in New York City and later Riverdale, New York were always filled with the most famous artists, politicians and athletes from Jackie Robinson to Rodgers and Hammerstein. In fact, baseball was always big in his life; he grew up with Jackie Robinson whom he called ‘Uncle Jackie’ when his parents invited the Robinson’s to live in their Connecticut home when they heard no realtor would show a home to an Afro-American family. He loved the Mets and he met his wife Ronni in a Cambridge apartment while watching the seventh game of the 1975 World Series when the Reds beat the Red Sox. After the game, Simon said ‘I have tickets to Toots and The Maytals anyone want to go?’ The couple went to the show, walked along the Charles River late into the morning and were married two years later. They celebrated their forty-first wedding anniversary this year.
Peter had said that he never felt comfortable as a child, always feeling like an outsider. Then his dad gave him a Polaroid camera when he was eleven and everything changed. He started taking photographs everywhere and he transformed from being an inelegant juvenile to becoming the young man with the camera, the kid who could take great photographs. Looking back, Simon had once listed his photographic influences: Robert Frank, Bruce Davidson and Henri Cartier-Bresson, in particular his book The Decisive Moment. Peter had condensed his style in relation to his influences by saying: ‘to capture the decisive moment you need to get in the right spot and wait until everything comes together. The difference between moving an inch or two to either side will make the shot completely different.’ But his main inspiration was his father, an amateur photographer himself. As a child, he spent tons of time in the darkroom watching his pop develop his pictures. Richard Simon told his son ‘never throw anything out. Save every negative you’ve ever taken.’
He attended Boston University in 1965, and got caught up in the Vietnam War protests and student resistance to government, big business and authority in general. Simon went to work for the Boston University newspaper, which at the time was the largest college publication in the nation and was at the center of all the student movements. He also got involved in the growing local music scene and teamed up with journalist Stephen Davis on some assignments; and then went from a college newspaper to the Boston Globe, Rolling Stone, Life Magazine and the New York Times. He and Davis later collaborated on a book published in 1977 called Reggae Bloodlines and they spent almost fifty years working together on about thirty published books. Peter then went on tour photographing Led Zep, The Grateful Dead and The Rolling Stones.
After college, when his career as a rock and roll photographer was taking off, he abandoned the glamour and turned his focus on the ‘back to the land movement.’ Peter bought a farm in Vermont called ‘Thee Frog Farm’ and turned it into a commune. He chronicled this time in his most personal book Eye and I. When his career was really taking off, he took a detour. Shortly after, becoming a bit disillusioned, Simon wanted a different life; and after selling the farm he bought a shack in Gay Head, on Martha’s Vineyard in 1972, first living there seasonally for many years before staying there full time in 1988. The Island’s rural way of life mixed with city visitors was the perfect combination for him. Over the years, he became the Vineyard’s biggest enthusiast documenting every season for decades. From morning to night, from starry night skies to farms, towns and beaches to all the different people; Peter Simon caught it all with his camera. In 1969, he began shooting for the Vineyard Gazette and in 1988 he created his first Peter Simon calendar and never missed a year since. The 2019 edition just rolled off the presses a few weeks ago.
Simon has contributed photographs for many books about the Vineyard including On The Vineyard I, II, and III and the 2017 coffee table retrospective To Everything There Is A Season. Music was always in his life too. Whether heading off on an assignment for a national magazine, or shooting pictures of the local music scene on the Island at The Hot Tin Roof, a club his sister Carly created. He also produced three island sound compilations of music with local talent and national artists who visited Martha’s Vineyard, from Johnny Hoy and The Bluefish and Maynard Silva to Tom Rush, Susan Tedeschi, his sister Carly, her former husband James Taylor and members of his family and their own very talented children Sally and Ben. Sister Kate Taylor says: ‘I’m not sure when I met Peter Simon because it feels as if he has always been in my life. Peter was always there and was everywhere. He had an uncanny sense of the importance of events and the beauty of each day. He chronicled the story of our time through his portraits of our musicians, poets, artists and our landscapes. He saw the glory of the natural world and he brought it to all of us through his photographs. When we look at the body of his work we see ourselves in our best light. His work was extraordinary and will be appreciated long after our days. He is missed.’
Peter also disc jockeyed his own show, Private Collections, on WMVY where he played music from his own vast collection, a lot of reggae, and told stories from his time on the road photographing bands. With his wife Ronni Simon, he opened The Simon Gallery on Main Street in Vineyard Haven, in 1988. Today their son Willie lives in Boston with his wife Toni-Anne. UMASS/Amherst was thrilled that he listened to his father’s advice on saving every negative when the school bought his huge archival collection (available here).
The Vineyard Gazette once printed: ‘with Peter Simon it was always hug first and talk later.’ Peter was never defined by his wealthy upbringing: he created a societal niche for himself throughout his lifetime; and made a career of photographing the famous and the ordinary with the same zeal and fervor. Peter Simon was very special. He was one of a kind.
(by A.J. Wachtel)