LP was an up-and-coming young news photographer for the Dallas Morning News. We had become friends in college where we ran with the same bohemian crowd of artists and musicians and cultural rebels. LP had the quiet and unassuming personality of the reporter, perfect to slip around in a crowd unnoticed as he snapped pictures. We sometimes sipped brandy late at night in the Stoneleigh P and one of his favorite toasts was, “It’s Lonely in the Middle.”
Larry Provart was a craftsmanlike photographer who had spent years learning cameras and lenses and darkrooms and the other photo-arcana of f-stops and filters and exposure times. I always admired him because he had a real job within the realm of his art but he knew it was just a job and went about it in a workmanlike way. One night I received a breathless phone call from one of our common girl-friends. “LP’s dead. He’s been shot! It was tonight in the parking lot at the Anatole Hotel.” The late gathering at the Stoneleigh was subdued that night. There was a buzz about the shooting. Who did it? What was he doing there? How did it happen? Did they catch the guy? There was speculation about dope deals and blackmail and jealous lovers.
A few weeks before he was shot, LP was feeling whipped by his job one evening and spurred by a couple of snifters of Grand Marnier, he began to expatiate to me his informed pessimism concerning the future of photography as he knew it. This was in 1979 and the digital camera had only recently appeared on the scene. “What do you do when your whole profession, everything you’ve learned, goes right out the window?” He could see that there was a revolution coming and that his skills and equipment and knowledge were about to become quaint and irrelevant and useless. He was singing the blues in the same key as others whose livelihoods have been absorbed by technology and progress, the cowboy, the railroad man, the steel or textile worker. LP was 29 and thought he was too old to begin a new career. I thought he was too young to die.
Our entire Middle Class has been feeling like it’s lonely in the middle for a couple of generations now. Globalization and technology and commerce have changed the landscape so drastically that our old ideas of work and jobs and careers simply don’t apply in many contexts. Some professions are changing so rapidly that a new skill-set is required every couple of years. Job titles appear and disappear in the same season. Two years ago who knew what an App Developer was? and now it’s a booming professional niche, people are making millions. Do you know anybody who grew up wanting to be a Social Media Specialist? The most useful job skill a person can have is quickly becoming the ability to learn on the job or to invent your own job.
The only way we could solve our unemployment crisis without redefining it would be to handle things the way the Indians did. When someone’s job disappears, when their purpose within the tribe vanishes, they stoically walk into the desert and die. The jobs aren’t coming back, people, face it. Let the dead join the dead. But we’re too humane for such drastic pragmatism so we have food stamps instead. But until we completely rethink what work and jobs mean and how we spread the money around, we will be left with an ‘unemployment’ problem which could as easily be defined as an education deficit or an ingenuity crisis because there are four million jobs out there unfilled. Even with 10% of us looking for work, nobody has the skills for those jobs which didn’t even exist when the bulk of our unemployed workforce was getting their education. It’s a sad picture; makes me want to wander into the desert and die. Or get shot on the job like LP did.
That’s what happened. There was no jealous husband or clandestine dope exchange or blackmail scheme involved. LP was at the Anatole shooting an assignment for the Morning News, some big-wheel speaking at a dinner in one of the ballrooms there. He was returning to his car to leave when he apparently stumbled upon someone attempting to break into his car or one near it. It was a random accident, wrong place at the wrong time. When they found LP, he had two cameras around his neck and one .22 bullet in his heart. They said it was instant. I was glad for that but I knew that he always carried three cameras when he worked. His favorite was a Leica with a top viewer so that you could shoot from the hip without raising the camera. This is the one that was missing. He must have gotten a photo of his murderer.
If LP had not been shot on the job I don’t think he would have wandered into the desert out of professional despair. He would have gotten himself a digital camera and learned Photoshop. He would have forgotten what he knew, no matter how dearly he loved it, and learned what he needed to know. I like to think that’s what would have happened. What we will have to do as a nation if we are to prosper and maintain anything resembling a Middle Class is quit crying in our Grand Marnier about the obsolescence of our jobs and forget what we know and learn what we need to know. This is not as easy as it sounds. For Americans, it will mean surrendering some of our mad attachment to the romance of the rugged individual and learning to work together. American jobs are being murdered every day. If we could snap a picture of our murderer like LP did, when it developed it would reveal a Chinaman being helped by a gang of traitorous corporate pirates of indeterminate race or nationality. I’m not being a racist here, only a surrealist. Why is China tossing us around like a rag-doll in an economic sense? It’s because China has threaded the needle with regard to the relationship between government and free enterprise. By whatever questionable political means they have achieved a balance between centralized government and market economy that allows them to plan long-term strategies and benefit from efficiencies of common purpose. Plus, they have learned to work well with the emerging international corporate mafias, the privateers who sail the economic high seas and include many of our citizens who can’t decide who they are working for but themselves.
China will happily make windmills and smart-batteries for us while we bicker amongst ourselves about where queers can work and what posture you can assume when you pray. They are thinking 50, 100 years down the road. We can’t plan past the next election. Who do you think will win this game? If we continue to fight each other from the right or the left, we will surely find out how lonely it is in the middle.
“It’s Lonely in the Middle”–Larry Provart, 1950-1979