Today, November 11, is the birth date of Kurt Vonnegut. Born in 1922, he died in 2007.
Like Vonnegut, I attended Cornell University and was a member of the Cornell Daily Sun newspaper staff. I have fond memories of photographing for the Sun. One day per week I would be on assignment – shooting during the day, developing film and making prints in the darkroom at night, usually until midnight. The next morning I would wake up and see my photographs in the newspaper that was delivered to my doorstep.
Vonnegut attended Cornell in the 1940s, and he served as managing editor of the newspaper. The year I graduated from Cornell, Vonnegut spoke to the newspaper staff at our annual end-of-year banquet. I had the opportunity to photograph him during the banquet and I took this candid black-and-white close-up of him.
I have always liked Vonnegut ‘s fiction. He’s a great storyteller and his books make me laugh out loud and cry at the failings of his all too human characters. Many of his stories, though simple on the surface, actually deal with life’s biggest questions. That wisdom was on display the night I photographed him at the banquet, May 3, 1980. His speech that night ended with the following words, a reflection of his time at the Sun:
I was happiest when I was all alone — and it was very late at night, and I was walking up the hill after having helped to put The Sun to bed.
All the other university people, teachers and students alike, were asleep. They had been playing games all day long with what was known about real life. They had been repeating famous arguments and experiments, and asking one another the sorts of hard questions real life would be asking by and by.
We on The Sun were already in the midst of real life. By God, if we weren’t! We had just designed and written and caused to be manufactured yet another morning newspaper for a highly intelligent American community of respectable size — yes, and not during the Harding administration, either, but during 1940, ’41 and ’42, with the Great Depression ending, and with World War Two well begun.
I am an atheist, as some of you have gleaned from my writings. But I have to tell you that, as I trudged up the hill so late at night and all alone, I knew that God Almighty approved of me.
— Kurt Vonnegut ’44