BRATTLEBORO -- When Michael McDermott was called by Newsweek magazine in 1979 to try to get a photo of the reclusive author J.D. Salinger, it was just one more assignment during a very busy time for the then-20-year-old photographer
McDermott, 55, who lived in Brattleboro and freelanced for the Reformer at the time, was promised $250 if he could get a shot of Salinger who picked up his mail every day at the Windsor post office. So on that warm July day, in between taking photos of a homeless man in Brattleboro and covering the governor's visit to southeastern Vermont, McDermott drove his Volkswagen Rabbit up to Windsor to stake out a good place in front of the post office.
On the second day he got the shot of Salinger walking out of the brick building with his mail. The photo would eventually become one of the only shots ever taken of the author of "Catcher in the Rye," and in the days before the Internet and the 24-hour news cycle, it was the first documented proof that Salinger was in fact living his solitary life in the upper Connecticut River Valley.
On Friday, for the first time ever, an original, limited edition photogravure of Salinger will be shown at Vermont Artisan Designs Gallery at 106 Main St. in Brattleboro.
This year a new film, and book, by Shane Salerno was released and McDermott's photo and story figure prominently in the movie. McDermott, who now lives in Oregon, even flew out to Vermont to tell his story in front of the Windsor post office and he is shown in the first few minutes of the film.
Through the years McDermott has remained close to Greg Worden, who owns Vermont Artisan Designs and worked with the young photographer at the Reformer in the 1970s. McDermott said it is fitting that the photogravure is being shown in Vermont, where the shot was taken, and in Brattleboro where McDermott's career first started.
"It seems so appropriate to have it in Vermont," McDermott said. "Greg has known me my whole life and my career started in Brattleboro. This is the iconic photographic image of my life. The photo was taken in Vermont and this is where it should be."
McDermott was born in the small northern Vermont town of Bakersfield. His family moved down to Brattleboro and McDermott had his first photo printed in the Reformer when he was 12. He credits former editor Norm Runnion and the Reformer staff, including Worden, for encouraging his work.
As a teenager McDermott received his pay in film and dark room time. By the age of 15 he was a stringer for United Press International and his photos were appearing in the Boston Globe, The New York Times and Newsweek.
When he got the call to head up to Windsor McDermott was not a big fan of Salinger's work. He had read "Catcher in the Rye" in junior high school, but didn't really get it, he now says.
There were very few photos of Salinger at the time and he headed out on his assignment with a 30-year old photo of the author, who was 60 and supposedly living in Cornish, N.H. at the time
"I got the call from Newsweek that they wanted a photo of this author and I didn't think it was a big deal," McDermott remembered. "I was a photojournalist. You pointed me in a direction of the shot and I went and got it."
He set himself him up with a bottle of Pepsi and a bag of chips and waited. On the first day McDermott captured an image of a man he thought might be Salinger, but it turned out to be someone else.
"I was very busy at that time," he said. "It was like I was collecting leaves on a raging river and this was just one leaf."
The photo appeared in Newsweek on July 30, 1979.
McDermott, who retained the rights to the photo, showed it from time to time through the years, but with the release of this year's documentary he decided to have the photo reproduced using the photogravure process, a permanent, archival method of reproducing photographs. World renown artists Jon Goodman created 100 prints, and two of them are at Vermont Artisan Designs Gallery on Main Street.
McDermott and Worden have stayed in contact through the years, and when McDermott decided to show the photogravure in public for the very first time he called his old friend in Brattleboro.
"Michael was a local kid who really knew that he liked photography," Worden said. "We watched him grow up and it's great to be able to be a part of this history now. He was tenacious, and sometimes that's what you have to be."
McDermott continued taking photos, and he has won many awards through the years.
There still are very few photos of Salinger, and most of the ones from early in his career are posed shots.
McDermott's photo from that July day in Windsor shows a relaxed Salinger, out taking care of his business, and it remains a rare image of a literary legend.
"Photographers organize the chaos of life," he said. "We gather all of the mess of life in a small hole, and isolate it so the viewer can make sense of it all."
For more information on McDermott and the photo go to www.jdsprint.com.
Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at email@example.com; or 802-254-2311, ext. 279. You can follow Howard on Twitter @HowardReformer.