The garbage truck was coming.
I heard him grind MacArthur Boulevard NW to the dumpster in which I stood thigh-deep in photo albums on a dark day in November 2009. There were only a few minutes left to salvage a few fragments of a unsung national treasure, a photographic archive of mid-century America that documented cultural, civic and personal life in the nation’s capital from the 1950s to the 1980s.
The little blue albums each contained about 70 shots, the life’s work of an unknown amateur photographer. There were up to 500 albums. Doing some quick math, that’s about 35,000 photos. And right now, my goal was to save as many as possible. How to choose which ones to save? I gripped the volumes left and right, studying the neatly typed labels stuck to their spines. By chance I saw SPORTS: Field Hockey, Crew, Polo… Including Vice President Nixon. Richard Nixon play polo? A guardian!
Then I saw ENTERTAINMENT: JAZZ: Basie, Miles Davis. A tingle creeping up my spine, I opened it and there, chin lifted in the middle of the discussion, was the tall trumpeter Milesthe king of cool himself, standing opposite an affable, portly man in an impeccable suit who was to be the famous pianist and bandleader Count Basie. This photo was taken backstage at the DC Armory show on October 18, 1959, I later learned – the date, location and subject were meticulously penciled in on the back. Two jazz masters, giants of American music, captured in a small black and white photograph.
I started picking up armfuls of albums and throwing them in the trunk of my car, jumping in and out of the dumpster with an athletic ability I didn’t know I had. Finally, the garbage truck rumbled into the condo parking lot where the photos had completed their years-long journey. I waved at the driver as I jumped out of the dumpster for the last time. He looked at me through the windshield, shaking his head. As I stood aside and watched, a lump formed in my throat, all the photo albums I couldn’t retrieve disappeared into the jaws of history, in this case hindsight of a scraped and battered Tenleytown garbage truck.
Among the thousands of photographs thrown in the trash, an archive commissioned by the Chicago street photographer Viviane Mayer‘ was found stuffed in suitcases after his death in 2009 — I managed to salvage around 2,200 of them, or 32 albums, some of which are on public display for the first time in this story.
Taken together, they make up a photographic record of America at the dawn of the civil rights era, images taken by a man named Ray Honda, which had seemingly unlimited access to the great and the lowly of the time. Who was this lost photographer?
Honda (1929-2008) was a widower whose wife died in the 1980s. He worked for the Defense Mapping Agency as a civilian government employee and served as an usher at Our Lady of Victory, a Catholic parish in Whitehaven Parkway NW, for several decades.
“I always remember him with a camera around his neck,” says Fr. David Wering, a former OLV pastor. “He was always meticulously dressed, picky and known for being tough on latecomers.”
Honda’s Haunted Church acts as an unofficial parish photographer, hidden in the background with a camera around his neck. Our Lady of Victory had become his family; the Archdiocese of Washington awarded him a Meritorious Service Medal in 2005. He bequeathed all of his estate to the parish in his will. This included his condominium on MacArthur Boulevard NW and its contents.
These contents included hundreds of jazz albums and a state-of-the-art hi-fi system, but the real treasure was in a small side room. Here, floor-to-ceiling storage cabinets held thousands of photographic prints and negatives, fruits of the vocation Honda had been avidly pursuing since the early 1950s.
The church eventually put Honda’s condo up for sale and had to clean it up. Ray Honda’s estate sale, announced in the Notre-Dame de la Victoire parish bulletin, lasted for the duration of a weekend, about a year after his death. As parish sexton, I helped organize the event, held at the parish school. We have spread out an array of the deceased’s possessions on long folding tables in the gymnasium for the reading of the acquisitive and the curious. Harsh fluorescent lights revealed the careful selections of a meticulous Japanese-American man with an artistic temperament: a set of hand-painted sake cups; a beautiful gold watch engraved with his initials and the year 1955; a box of premium calligraphic brushes; many high-end 35mm cameras; his late wife’s mink coat; and numerous books, including a few rare architectural tomes on the drawings of Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier.
The photo albums remained at the condo, where no one seemed to want them, including Honda’s surviving relatives, a few distant nieces and nephews who obviously lacked the space or interest to accommodate their late uncle’s photographic output. Father Dave, whom Honda named as executor in his will, struggled to find a home for this treasure. The cramped premises of the presbytery and the school unfortunately did not allow him to keep the archives, but he recognized its value and asked me for help in finding him a permanent home. The end Nicholas Scheetz, then custodian of special collections at Georgetown University’s Lauinger Library, willingly agreed to take custody of it on behalf of the university. Alas, illness prevented him from acting in a timely manner. Before the records could be collected, the condo was sold; the new owners demanded that anything not sold when the estate was sold be immediately cleared.
On the last day, at the last possible moment, I ran down the street, determined to salvage what I could. In the end, I only recovered the 32 albums, which I kept in shrink-wrapped milk crates in the back of my closet for years, with the intention of perusing them one day. The pandemic, finally, gave me this chance. Throughout a dreary Sunday lockdown in 2020, I sat on the floor surrounded by Honda albums, increasingly amazed by what I saw and increasingly overwhelmed by the magnitude of what had got lost in a landfill.
But it is better not to dwell on the losses; better celebrate what has been preserved.
Nixon, then vice president, didn’t play polo, but played with a girls’ high school field hockey team and signed autographs. Jazz legends captured in unguarded moments: Miles Davis, Duke EllingtonCount Basie, Erroll Garner, Ella Fitzgerald, Annie Ross, Sonny Stitt, The Pauland Mary Ford. The 1960 Washington Auto Show and its huge finned cars, models in puffy dresses at the wheel. Japanese American family members at a tea ceremony wearing kimono. A questioning little white dog.
“I’m captivated by the story behind Honda’s collection,” Anne McDonough, deputy director of the DC History Center, said when told about the archives and shown a sample of images. “Many of our signature collections at the DC History Center, such as the John Wymer Where Emile Press photographs, are also the result of years of passionate projects by local amateur photographers. And even more than the close-up images of well-known jazz personalities, I’m intrigued to take a look at the rest of the salvaged albums to see the local legends, everyday people, and DC scenes that Honda might have captured.
One imagines Ray Honda, an unassuming little man with a camera, fading into the wallpaper, backstage at the DC Armory show and elsewhere. Unnoticed, almost invisible, carefully aiming his Leica; then the almost silent click of the shutter recording a time in American life when more and more rights began to accrue to more and more people. A moment of hope preserved in what remains of Ray Honda’s lost photographic archives in beautiful black and white, in shades of shadow and light.
Robert Girardi is a novelist, screenwriter and historian living in Washington. His most recent novel, “Gorgeous East”, now considered a cult classic, was published by St. Martin’s Press in 2009. His most recent story, “The War of Jenkins’ Ear”, published under the pen name Robert Gaudi, was released in November 2021.