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The trash truck was coming.
I heard it grinding down MacArthur Boulevard NW toward the dumpster in which I stood up to my thighs in photo albums on a gloomy day in November 2009. No more than a few minutes remained to save some fragments of an unheralded national treasure, a photographic archive of mid-century America that documented cultural, civic and personal life in the nation’s capital from the 1950s through the 1980s.
The small blue albums contained 70 or so snapshots apiece, the life’s work of an unknown amateur photographer. There were as many as 500 albums. Doing some quick math, that’s roughly 35,000 photos. And right now, my goal was to rescue as many as possible. How to choose the ones to save? I seized volumes left and right, studying the neatly typed labels stuck to their spines. At random, I saw SPORTS: Field Hockey, Crew, Polo … Including Vice-President Nixon. Richard Nixon playing polo? A keeper!
Then I saw ENTERTAINMENT: JAZZ: Basie, Miles Davis. A tingle creeping up my spine, I opened it and there, chin thrust out in mid-argument, was the great trumpeter Miles, the King of Cool himself, standing across from an affable, portly man in an impeccable suit who had to be the famed pianist and bandleader Count Basie. This shot was snapped backstage at the D.C. Armory show of Oct. 18, 1959, I later learned—the date, location, and subject matter were meticulously penciled on the back. Two jazz masters, giants of American music, caught in one small black-and-white photograph.
I began scooping up armfuls of the albums and tossing them into the trunk of my car, vaulting in and out of the dumpster with an athletic ability I didn’t know I possessed. At last, the trash truck rumbled into the condominium parking lot where the photos had ended their years-long journey. I waved at the driver as I jumped out of the dumpster for the last time. He peered at me through the windshield, shaking his head. As I stood aside and watched, a lump building in my throat, all the photo albums I couldn’t rescue disappeared into the maw of history, in this case the lift-back of a scraped and battered Tenleytown Trash truck.
Out of the thousands of photographs tossed in the garbage—an archive on the order of Chicago street photographer Vivian Maier’s trove discovered stuffed in suitcases after her death in 2009 —I managed to rescue about 2,200, which is to say 32 albums’ worth, a few of which are presented to the public for the first time in this story.
Taken together, they compose a photographic record of America at the dawn of the civil rights era, images snapped by a man named Ray Honda, who had seemingly unlimited access to the great and the humble of the day. 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 had been an usher at Our Lady of Victory, a Catholic parish on Whitehaven Parkway NW, for several decades.
“I remember him always with a camera around his neck,” says Fr. David Wering, a former OLV pastor. “He was always meticulously dressed, punctilious, and known for his firm handling of late-comers.”
Honda haunted church functions as unofficial parish photographer, lurking in the background with a camera around his neck. Our Lady of Victory had become his family; the Archdiocese of Washington awarded him a medal for meritorious service in 2005. He left all his possessions to the parish in his will. This included his condominium on MacArthur Boulevard NW and its contents.
Those contents included hundreds of jazz albums and a state of the art hi-fi system, but the real treasure resided in a small side room. Here, floor-to-ceiling conservation cabinets contained thousands of photographic prints and negatives, the fruits of the vocation Honda had pursued with avidity since the early 1950s.
The church eventually put Honda’s condo up for sale and had to clean it out. The Ray Honda estate sale, advertised in the Our Lady of Victory parish bulletin, lasted the length of a weekend, about a year after his death. As parish sexton, I helped organize the event, held at the parish school. We spread an array of the deceased’s possessions across long folding tables in the gymnasium for the perusal of the acquisitive and the curious. The 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 handsome gold watch engraved with his initials and the year 1955; a box of top-quality calligraphic brushes; numerous high-end 35mm film cameras; his late wife’s mink coat; and many books, including a few rare architectural tomes on the designs 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 relations, a few distant nieces and nephews who evidently lacked the space or the interest to accommodate their late uncle’s photographic output. Father Dave, whom Honda designated as executor in his will, struggled to find a home for this trove. Cramped quarters at the rectory and school unfortunately didn’t allow him to keep the archive, but he recognized its value and asked for my help in finding it a permanent home. The late Nicholas Scheetz, then curator of special collections at Georgetown University’s Lauinger Library, readily agreed to take custody on behalf of the university. Alas, illness prevented him from acting in a timely manner. Before the archive could be collected, the condo sold; the new owners demanded that everything not disposed of during the estate sale be cleared away immediately.
On the last day, at the last possible moment, I ran down the street, determined to save what I could. In the end I scavenged only the 32 albums, which I kept in shrink-wrapped milk crates in the bottom of my closet for years, intending to go through them carefully some day. The pandemic, at last, afforded me that chance. All through a dreary lockdown Sunday in 2020 I sat on the floor surrounded by Honda’s albums, increasingly astonished by what I saw and increasingly distraught by the magnitude of what had been lost to a landfill.
But it is best not to dwell on the losses; better to celebrate what has been preserved.
Nixon, then vice president, not playing polo, but cavorting with a girls high school field hockey team and signing autographs. Jazz legends captured in unguarded moments: Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Erroll Garner, Ella Fitzgerald, Annie Ross, Sonny Stitt, Les Paul, and Mary Ford. The Washington Auto Show of 1960 and its enormous finned cars, fashion models in poofy dresses behind the wheel. Japanese American family members at a tea ceremony wearing kimono. A quizzical 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 archive and shown a sampling of images. “Several of our signature collections at the DC History Center, like the John Wymer or Emil Press photographs, are likewise the results of years-long passion projects by local amateur photographers. And even more than the up-close 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, regular folks and D.C. scenes that Honda might have captured.”
One imagines Ray Honda, a small, unassuming man with a camera, fading into the wallpaper, backstage at the D.C. Armory show and elsewhere. Unobserved, almost invisible, carefully aiming his Leica; then the nearly soundless click of the shutter recording an era in American life when more and more rights began to accrue to more and more people. A hopeful moment preserved in what remains of Ray Honda’s lost photographic archive in beautiful black and white, in nuances of light and shadow.
Robert Girardi is a novelist, screenwriter, and historian who lives in Washington. His most recent novel, Gorgeous East, now considered a cult classic, was issued by St. Martin’s Press in 2009. His most recent history, The War of Jenkins’ Ear, published under the pen name of Robert Gaudi, appeared in November 2021.