Posted on | January 1, 2011 | 3 Comments
Some people are ringing in the new year in their party clothes and hats. I’m ringing in mine in my pajamas, wondering how to memorialize a man whom I haven’t seen in two years and whose death I learned of just a few hours ago. He actually died last week. But I can’t let this year draw to a close without acknowledging that the world is a little duller without him and his ability for capturing beauty in the tiniest of details — although this is the same world that often denied him its biggest comforts.
I met Cliff Carle when I joined Washington’s newspaper for the homeless, Street Sense, as its editor in 2007. Cliff was scrawny, with a straggly salt-and-pepper beard and a wicked sense of humor. His voice was raspy and instantly recognizable. He often wore a hat or rakish bandanna on his head. But what you noticed most about him was the camera equipment he carried around like an extension of his person. I rarely saw Cliff without at least one camera around his neck. A homeless guy with an expensive camera, you ask — how is that possible?
Cliff was the talent behind “Cliff’s Pics,” a photography centerfold Street Sense would publish nearly every month. He had an amazing eye for composing a picture, whether by finding an unusual angle, highlighting natural patterns, or getting really, really close. He loved big subjects, like D.C.’s architecture, and tiny subjects — things people would ordinarily pass on by — that he would infuse with importance through extreme close-ups. “Things like flowers, bugs, drops of water,” Cliff once said in a 2007 interview with volunteer editor David Hammond, published in Street Sense’s fourth anniversary issue. “It’s a whole other world down there by our feet!”
He’d sit with one of our interns or volunteers to pick out his best shots from the hundreds he’d taken in the last couple of weeks, and suggest captions for them. Trying to get him to submit his stuff by deadline could be a real struggle — but oh, his stuff was worth it.
“I can do wild things with a camera like Evel Knievel could do wild things with a motorcycle,” Cliff told David Hammond in that interview three years ago. I remember laying out the page and choosing to focus on Cliff’s upturned eyes for the accompanying portrait. To me, it captured the dreamer in him. The world Cliff lived in could be an ugly one, but he chose to turn his camera lens upon its flashes of beauty.