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“Make sure you put in that he always picked up the check, writer Stephen Davis (CAS’70) says of photographer Peter Simon (COM’70), who died of cardiac arrest in November 2018. “He was just a great spirit.”
They were friends and frequent collaborators beginning in September 1966, when they met as sophomores living in Myles Standish Hall and worked as student journalists on the weekly BU News. Simon was the son of Richard L. Simon, cofounder of the Simon & Schuster publishing house, and he had a car, rare among undergrads then. “You’d want to do a story with Pete because you didn’t have to take the T,” Davis says, chuckling. “And then he’d take you out to lunch and pick up the check.”
Simon was already a talented photographer when he arrived on Comm Ave for the first time. “He went to Riverdale, a private school in the Bronx, and he wanted to come to BU, but he had terrible grades,” Davis says. “But he came up to Boston and showed someone his portfolio, which was brilliant, and he got in. He very much appreciated Boston University taking him in.”
The convulsive social change of the late 1960s offered fertile ground for the young journalists on and off campus and shaped their worldview for life. Simon photographed 1960s antiwar demonstrations—and the 2011 Occupy Wall Street encampments. In 2018, in the Boston Globe, he published a funny and moving remembrance (with photos, of course) of his postcollege involvement in two Vermont communes, Total Loss Farm and Tree Frog Farm. It wasn’t long before the “hard realities” of rural living and group politics pushed him out of the north woods and back toward photojournalism.
He and Davis worked together for the fledgling Cambridge Phoenix, and soon they were on assignment for Rolling Stone and other magazines. They counted among the country’s premier music journalists, and each contributed to the other’s books. Simon’s best-known photos from the period include one (above) of Led Zeppelin lead singer Robert Plant savoring the view from a hotel balcony above Sunset Boulevard and shots of the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir harmonizing backstage.
“And we hung out with Bob Marley for three months,” notes Davis, who wrote a biography of the singer. Simon quickly grew to love reggae music and photographed all of its top stars, often at home in Jamaica.
But Simon’s spiritual home and increasingly his main subject was Martha’s Vineyard, which he first visited as a child and where he moved in the 1980s. One of Simon’s three sisters is the singer-songwriter Carly Simon, who also made the Vineyard her home, and he often photographed her there. For the last decade or so, he and his wife, Ronni, ran a gallery in Vineyard Haven for his photos and her handcrafted jewelry. (The gallery closed on New Year’s Eve 2018.)
Simon produced a calendar of Vineyard scenes annually for more than 30 years. His 2016 book, Martha’s Vineyard: To Everything There Is a Season (Simon Press), collected more than 700 of his photos, with words by Davis and Geraldine Brooks. Davis says that recently he’d been after his old friend to do a book of his portraits.
“He was incredible with them because he was so good with people,” Davis says. “He’d be sitting there with his camera, and he’d make eye contact and chat you up a little bit and find out about you, and the next time there was eye contact, this big old Nikon would come up and—click!