Marathon man

Bill Brett at a book signing at Fenway Park.
Photo by Michael Manning.

Few people know Boston and Bostonians as well as Bill Brett. He’s been taking photos for The Boston Globe since January 1965, and since his semiretirement from the paper in 2001, he’s published two photo books.

The first, Boston: All One Family, which features three Boston mayors on the cover, appeared in 2005. Boston: An Extended Family, which featured six governors on the cover, was published two years later. Brett is now wrapping up work on his latest book, which attempts to show the everyday faces of Boston one day at a time for a year. The working title is Boston: A Day in the Life. I spoke to Brett, 62, at CommonWealth‘s offices on the 306th day of his yearlong effort.

—BRUCE MOHL

COMMONWEALTH: Where did your latest book idea come from?

BRETT: After the first two books, I didn’t think I could do another on the same topic because I’ve already captured all the movers and shakers and the people who were interesting in Boston. But I had momentum, I had my health, and I wanted to do another project. One day I got up and I said to my wife, “How about one year, a picture a day in Boston? I’ll try to show Boston as a premier city, a place where a lot of interesting things happen.” Once I started it I knew this was what I really wanted to do.

CW: When did you start?

BRETT: I started on April 16, 2007, which was Marathon Day, because this was going to be a photographer’s marathon. I started on Marathon Day and I’ll end on Marathon Day.

CW: Have you missed any days?

BRETT: No, but I’ve been very, very lucky. I pulled a muscle in my arm. I also bruised my heel. That slowed me down, but it didn’t stop me. A year is a lot of time, every day, no vacation. You hope you don’t get sick.

CW: How do you decide where to shoot?

BRETT: Some days I have a plan and other days I don’t. I follow the papers, follow the news, and talk to a lot of people. A lot of people know what I’m doing, so I get a lot of phone calls. I get a lot of tips. Many times I go to an event and the event is nothing. Coming and going is often my picture.

CW: Are you strict about one photo per day? What if you shoot two great pictures in one day?

BRETT: The only day I had a problem with that was when the Head of the Charles Regatta was on the same Sunday that the Red Sox were in the seventh game of the playoffs with the Cleveland Indians. I wanted to show both events, because they were both historical. I shot the Head of the Charles at about 3 o’clock in the afternoon. At the Red Sox game, I was sitting with [Boston Mayor Tom] Menino. We were in the Reebok box and Menino said to me — I’ll never forget it — “It’s a quarter to 12, Bill.”

They won the game at 12:09 a.m., and Menino gave me a high five. I was able to make a great picture of Jonathan Papelbon, which will be my cover picture.

CW: Today I saw you at a press conference at the Omni Parker House where Menino, several other mayors, and union groups voiced their support for casino gambling in Massachusetts. How did that work out photographically?

BRETT: On the way there I saw a man on the corner of Tremont and School streets working on the street lights, sitting in the street with a lot of wires around him. I liked that picture, so I felt good I had something in my camera. I went into the Menino event and spent 45 minutes looking it over, listening to everything. It was OK, but I left early to see a parade in front of the State House for the 63d anniversary of the Battle of Iwo Jima. Then I went down to the Frog Pond to see a performance of High School Musical. I went back to the parade and saw an 82-year-old man watching the parade who saluted. I took the picture with my long lens from across the street. He never knew I took the picture. I asked him how old he was, and the guy said, “How old do you think I am?” I said, “about 70,” and he said, “I love you.”

CW: What did you do yesterday?

BRETT: I was walking around Park Square before taking pictures for the Globe at a taping of Rustic Kitchen, the pilot for a TV show on cooking. It was a holiday [Presidents’ Day], nobody around. I went in, made my picture. I walked back to my car and saw a woman walking toward me. She was cleaning up the sidewalks. She had a leather hat on, a ten-gallon hat, a long coat, and [she was carrying] shovels. She was trying to clear out the sewer so the water would go down. I couldn’t see her face, but I could see her big hat. She had a beautiful coat on and beautiful shoes and beautiful red stockings. It was just bold face. So after I took the picture I walked over and introduced myself. I said, “Do you do this often?” She said, “Oh, I’ve done this for years. I do it every day. I’m out at 5:30 in the morning. I’ve lived here in Bay Village for 50 years. Right over there. I’m 86 years old.” That was my picture of the day.

CW: How do you find parking?

BRETT: I carry a lot of quarters. I know a lot of doormen. I jump out of the car in front of a hotel and say, “I’ll be back in a half hour.” I know a lot of secret places to park, but I’m losing a lot of those to development.

CW: Are you avoiding the movers and shakers that dominated your first two books?

BRETT: I have some movers and shakers. Deval Patrick and Bob Kraft were honored last June at UMass–Boston. It was a great picture. They were all laughing. And I got Bill Russell speaking at the Suffolk University commencement. I did about 10 movie stars in Boston doing films, people like Jennifer Garner, Morgan Freeman, Bill Cosby, and Meg Ryan. I got Tom Brady and Giselle Bundchen coming out of a restaurant on Newbury Street.

CW: How did you get Tom and Giselle?

BRETT: A cop working a detail called and told me they were there.

CW: Are you trying to show how Boston is visually changing?

BRETT: I’m not showing bridges or highways or buildings. My intent was to show the character of the city. I have a lot of people from different neighborhoods. I have people of all different nationalities, different colors.

Saturday I was at Faneuil Hall. I made several pictures, but I still wasn’t really that happy, so I was driving around the North End and saw that Hanover Street was packed with cars. It looked like a summer night, there was so many cars. There’s a sign for the Union Oyster House that you can see now from Hanover Street that I never really noticed before because it was blocked by the Central Artery. It lets you recognize where the picture is taken. I made that picture at 10 o’clock at night. That was my picture for the day.

CW: Have you discovered anything new shooting these photos?

BRETT: I went into this church [on Tremont Street]. What is it? King’s Chapel. Never been in there in my life. I’m walking around and a woman comes up to me and says, “Would you like to come in for a concert?” I walked in and looked around and said to myself, “This place is unbelievable.” And I went back outside and watched the people come in. It was probably 50 people. The concert performers were up in the choir loft. I made the picture through the window, with [the churchgoers] all looking up like this. [He assumes a pious religious pose.] It was just different. It brought me into that church.

CW: Is the city changing?

BRETT: The city has changed for the better. It’s a beautiful city architecturally. The skyline has just grown tremendously. I like to say it’s a first-class city now. It used to be like a town, a bunch of neighborhoods. Now it’s a city — but a manageable city. It’s a walking city.

CW: What kind of people do you see?

BRETT: It’s a great place for young people. There’s a lot of young people in the city, and they’re not from here. A lot of them are coming from the South Shore. It used to be the South Shore was Dorchester with trees. But now it’s reversed. All my kids want to live in the city.

CW: What else strikes you?

BRETT: For a small city, it has a lot of money.

CW: How’s the middle class doing?

BRETT: I see the middle class in trouble. Taxes are high. Rents are high. Auto insurance is high. Private schools are expensive. For police and firemen, you know, city workers, it can get expensive. I don’t know where the middle class is going to be in 10 years the way it’s going in the major cities. Who’s helping them?

CW: How are Bostonians getting along with each other?

BRETT: You’ve got a lot of condominiums. The only problem with condominiums is that people don’t know each other. When you used to say you were from South Boston or Dorchester or Roslindale or Roxbury or the North End, everyone would say, “Do you know this family? Do you know that family?” I don’t hear that today. When I photograph people, I ask the same question all the time. “Do you know any of your neighbors?” The answer’s usually, “No, not really.” That’s how the neighborhoods, in my opinion, have changed. I’m not saying that’s good or bad, but I don’t think you have that closeness anymore.

CW: How can a guy from Hingham become Mr. Boston?

Meet the Author

Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

BRETT: My wife says I have two addresses. I know a lot about both towns, but I know more about Boston than I do Hingham. I just love Boston.