Iconic City Paper Photographer Sam Holden Dies At 44
By By Van Smith
Apr 28, 2014 | 12:00 AM
Artist statements tend to be didactic, stilted affairs, less reflective of the artists' work than of the pressure they surely feel when trying to distill what they do into a sentence or two. But Baltimore photographer Sam Holden's statement, posted on his website (samholdenphotography.com), is an easy, honest breeze, a model of spare enthusiasm: "I am extremely lucky to do what I do! I meet amazing people, and bear witness to things I never imagined I'd see in this life. Hopefully I am creating something in the process that will outlive us all."
Now that Holden is dead at 44, having collapsed on April 26 while working at Rustica, his father's 23-acre Bel Air farm, his unpretentious hope that his creations will outlive him has come true too soon. "My goddamn boy," says Holden's father, Stockton "Todd" Holden, "he's hard to beat. And now he's gone." Asked about plans for a memorial service, Todd Holden says there will be a private gathering at Rustica in the next few weeks. "That's how we got to do, there'd be too many people otherwise," he adds—as good an indication as any as to how far and wide Sam Holden's shadow has cast.
Holden's professional clients—City Paper was one of many, including not only other newspapers and magazines, but record labels (Dischord, Sub Pop) and bands (Linkin Park, The Ramones), television and film companies (A&E Network, Paramount Pictures), banks and other companies (M&T Bank, Audi, PRS Guitars)—were part of many overlapping circles in his life. As the son of Todd Holden—a photographer, journalist, and nature-lover who the Harford County Council dubbed a "living treasure" in 2012—he got honorary acceptance wherever his dad went. As a rock drummer, he had bandmates and fans from his current acts (Pearly Goats, Imperial Tramp) and those of his past, like Spot and Chaser. As an avid motorcyclist, he knew many who shared the thrill of riding fast on two wheels. As an artistic nude photographer, he dealt discreetly with many models of diverse backgrounds and limited inhibitions. As an instructor of photography at Towson University and Notre Dame of Maryland University, he likely inspired students with his mastery of photographic gadgetry—and the importance of analog in the digital age.
Earlier this year, Holden said this picture of his dad as Santa, which he shot for City Paper's 2001 Holiday Guide, was among this favorites: "In my nearly 20 years of contributing images to City Paper, I have had the opportunity to use some family, and friends as muses for different covers over the years. I am proud of all of them, they all mean something to me... but this one... this one always makes me laugh. My father is certainly the single most influential person in my life. If not for the years spent by his side in the darkroom as a child, I doubt very seriously that my life with camera in hand would be the same. With tongue firmly in cheek, dad, Joe, and I just about pissed ourselves the day we shot this image at my studio in 2001."
All who knew Holden, it is safe to say, respected and admired what he produced in his Little Italy studio, and his local and national renown assures that, while his work is prematurely outliving him, it will likely outlive many others who remain here to enjoy it. His impossibly colorful prints, rendered in an unmistakable signature style borne of his die-hard dedication to remaining in a vestigial darkroom, hang in favorite Baltimore haunts, like Peter's Inn in Fells Point, where he worked as a bartender. They're sure to hang for many moons to come. With his passing, perhaps Baltimore can look forward to more being put on permanent display.
Already, in the days since news of his death reverberated, the online world has bloomed, spring-like, with Holden imagery. The Facebook page of his girlfriend for 15 years, Donna Sherman, lit up with sympathies after a friend posted a photograph of Holden, bellied up and laughing at the bar at Nacho Mama's in Canton. Among those Todd Holden has heard from already is Mark Lanegan, the lead singer of the old Seattle band Screaming Trees, who Sam Holden shot. "Lanegan said he's never seen a father-son dynamic like he and me," Todd Holden says, "and that's a complement you just can't buy."
Todd Holden says the autopsy results have not yet come back, but he tells the story of his son's passing like this: "He had the chain saw and weed cutters out, cutting brush, and it was about 11 in the morning, and I had to go to the post office and do some things, and he asked me to bring some lunch back. He was happy, laughing, joking—typical Sam. Then I get a phone call from my nephew, and I thought, 'Oh dear god, he's cut himself with that chainsaw.' I got to the emergency room before he did, and the doctor said he'd had a full cardiac-arrest heart attack and probably never knew what hit him. They had him breathing, and I was holding his hand, but he was brain dead and was not responsive, and then at 12:20 they pronounced him dead."
Within an hour, not yet knowing Holden was dead, I happened to be telling a long story about him. I recently met an active-duty member of the Coast Guard stationed in Baltimore, and, as we sat in a park in Fells Point in the early afternoon of April 26, we started talking about schooners and tall ships. This brought me to tell the one about how Holden, with his crazed technological dedication to mastering all the tools of his trade, no matter how archaic, and his photographer's knack for capturing beauty and meaning out of the merest of instants, once knew instinctually when not to shoot. It happened in 1997, I told my Coastie friend, when Holden and I covered the Great Chesapeake Bay Schooner Race for City Paper from aboard the 125-foot Liberty Clipper, a Boston-based schooner then owned by Greg "The Commodore" Muzzy.
As the vessel was running swiftly before the north wind, its massive sails set wing-and-wing during the 145-mile race to Norfolk, the Lady Maryland started to catch up with her. Quiet intensity overtook the crew, and the competitive silence was broken only when someone from the Lady Maryland called out, in a British accent, "Pardon me, do you have any Grey Poupon?" There was barely time to laugh, though, as the wind shifted slightly, prompting the Liberty Clipper's crew to prepare to shift tack. Holden clicked away as a heavy block-and-tackle rig, called a preventer, which keeps the boom from sweeping dangerously across the deck, was unhooked—and suddenly broke free, clocking Muzzy hard on the back of the head and knocking him out cold in a growing pool of blood on the deck.
Holden captured no images of a downed Muzzy. He'd immediately put away his camera, ready to help in the medical emergency—though none was needed, since Muzzy's wife was a nurse and the crew helped put him in her capable care, below deck. Once safely docked in Norfolk, though, with Muzzy topsides, stitched and gauzed and propped up with a cocktail in his hand and stogie between his teeth, Holden got the winning shot: a portrait of Muzzy, the very picture of stoic survival.
I hadn't told that story for a long time, certainly not in the full-treatment way I did to the Coastie, and I find it uncanny that I happened to be telling it just as Holden died. I first learned of his passing about two hours later, when I walked into the Wharf Rat to fill up a growler, and Ashley the bartender immediately told me. Hours after that, while at 1919 with two friends, we watched as the bartender there erupted in a cry of shock, followed by tears, as social media alerted her as to what had happened. By midnight, I'd had too much to drink, and was bragging at Peter's Inn that I'd introduced Holden to brown liquor while in Norfolk after the schooner race, when he took gorgeous still-lifes of full shot glasses at a bar there and I cajoled him to actually drink the stuff, which he soon came to like.