All but one of the 120 portraits in Richard Avedon’s big photographic project, “In the American West,” record what he calls “found moments.” The exception, a “work of imagination,” is a portrait of beekeeper Ronald Fischer. He posed, rather beatifically, with bees crawling over his bald head and nude torso.
One of several subjects who appeared at last weekend’s opening and symposium at the Amon Carter Museum, Fischer was the object of double takes as people recognized him.
He indulged intrepid questioners by telling the unlikely tale of his photograph. It starts like this: An accountant who lives in Oak Park, Ill., and keeps bees as a hobby, answers an ad in a trade magazine asking beekeepers who wouldn’t mind posing with bees on their bodies to send snapshots of themselves to Avedon. The photographer deems Fischer the most interesting applicant and contacts him. They then seek the help of Norman Gary, an eminent entomologist at UC Davis.
Why? Well, beekeepers are generally covered when they do their work and they have no more desire to get stung than any other human being. And besides, bees don’t just automatically collect on people, much less form photogenic patterns.
Gary would bring the scent of a female bee, daub it on Fischer’s body and use a brush to control the horde. It sounded simple enough to Fischer, who traveled to Davis for the session in 1981.
“When I arrived at the site and saw 130,000 adult bees with stingers, I wondered what I was getting into,” Fischer said. “When people make bee beards and that sort of thing, they use young bees that have no stingers.”
Fischer’s first doubts were nothing to the dread he felt when Gary painted the scent on him and he saw “a black cloud” gather over his head. But his ordeal passed quite peacefully with only four stings. Apparently, male bees aren’t inclined to mistreat anything carrying the irresistible odor.
The best part of the story, according to Avedon, came when Fischer tried to take a bus into San Francisco. “The bees liked Ronald and he arrived at the Trailways station with a cloud of them,” he recounted. The other passengers were nervous and even the bee buff wasn’t eager to take his admirers into the city. “The only thing to do was to outrun them,” Avedon concluded, “so he ran around the terminal, jumped on the bus and the door closed behind him.”