Robert James Campbell: A story that almost went untold

With the release of Chris Bohjalian's latest novel "The Double Bind" last week, the story of Campbell's life is, perhaps, as publicized as it will become right now. However, Jessica Ferber, a UVM graduate who has dedicated the past four years to curating and preserving his work, believes there's much more to come. As a result of this tremendous labor of love, she hopes to continue her efforts to memorialize his photography, and ultimately present it to the public as a published photographic retrospective. After graduating from the University of Vermont in 2002 with a minor in photography, Ferber was asked by Professor Daniel Higgins if she would be interested in a restorative project regarding an archive of photographs left behind by a homeless man at the Committee on Temporary Shelter (COTS). The man was Robert James Campbell. Though his vast collection of thousands of negatives came to her in dismal shape, she immediately realized they may be more brilliant than anyone would have imagined. Thus she began her restorative work. Over the years, it was clear that the negatives had suffered great damage due to dust, mold, and water. "Though they were horribly damaged, many of them were able to be salvaged by a process of cleaning each strip individually with negative solution, and starting from scratch in an archival process," said Ferber. In the first year of the project, Ferber worked nights at The Red Square in order to keep her days free for the UVM darkroom, where she was able to make contact prints. In conjunction with printing, she spent time in the Bailey Howe library researching the jazz legends that surfaced in the images. She was also able to make contact with old friends of Campbells via addresses from letters left behind in his belongings. In July of 2003, a small exhibit of photographs was presented at Halvorson's Upstreet Cafe. Before his death, Campbell had wanted to have a show of some of his photography, but was never able to get it organized. "It's clear that he always had the motivation, talent, and smarts, but there were mental constraints that limited him, and left him unable to maximize his career," said Ferber. Ferber's work revealed imagery that was "exquisitely beautiful." That work included images of jazz legends such as Bud Powell, Philly Joe Jones, and the Modern Jazz Quartet, to name a few. The collection also contains photographs of icons such as Chuck Berry, Flip Wilson, and Eartha Kitt. Ferber has called the images "spectacular in both artistic composition and historical merit." Twelve original images printed by Ferber are featured in the text of "The Double Bind." Aside from the images shown at Halvorsons and published in The Double Bind, Ferber said that the rest of Campbells photography has never been seen by the public. But with the success of the Halvorson's show, it is evident that there is great potential in the future of his photography. On behalf of COTS, Jessica returned to New York in an effort to approach publishers with the collection. There was still much work to be done. Ferber continued researching, curating and printing for the next two years. Campbell, known to most throughout his life as Bob Campbell grew up for most of his childhood in Bristol, Vt. and was raised by his aunt and uncle. After graduating from high school, he joined the military and spent time in Europe, then travelled to California and settled in New York where he spent much of the 50's and 60's. Campbell began working as a freelance photographer and soon became a regular in the popular jazz scene of the time. He later returned to Vermont and sold the house in Bristol in which he grew up. He took odd jobs, even worked in stage building and furniture design as time passed. He ultimately arrived at COTS in the mid-90's with nothing. His collection of negatives was amongst the few belongings he held onto throughout his life. Although it is not fully known exactly what caused his dramatic decline, Ferber said it was clear he did not take care of himself, and was affected bysubstance abuse problems and some degree of mental illness. At the time of his death in January, 2001, Campbell was living at St. John's Hall, a COTS facility, where he died alone in a stairwell of a stroke. At that time, Jessica said no one really knew the full extent of his past or photography career until his room was cleaned out. Chris Bohjalian's novel "The Double Bind" was released last week and is now available at all major book stores. The fictional story about a homeless photographer, is loosely based on Campbell's life. Ferber said that, Campbell and his photography served as an inspiration to Bohjalian, however the storyline of the novel is a significant departure from his true life story. A celebration of Campbell's life and work, and the release of the "The Double Bind" will be held on Thursday, Feb. 22 at 6 p.m. at the Firehouse Gallery on Church Street, Burlington.

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