“Note here is where I hit him on the head with the book,” photographer and Columbia professor Thomas Roma said jokingly about his son, Giancarlo Roma, CC ’13, as the two discussed their new book, “The Waters of Our Time.”
The Romas both said the book, released on April 22, is difficult to both describe and experience.
“The Waters of Our Time,” the elder Roma’s thirteenth monograph, features 142 photographs that he took, accompanied by a narrative written by his son, which is coupled with the lyrics to Jerry Merrick’s “Follow.” The narrative is a reflection by an an elderly woman who, after spending the majority of her life in Brooklyn, looks back on her time spent there. For the second collaboration between father and son, Thomas Roma asked Giancarlo to write something to fit with the photos from the point of view of a woman.
“Our book … is essentially about the feeling of going along with the waters of our time,” Thomas Roma said. “There are things that you can plan and things that you could hope for and predict.”
Thomas Roma selected the photos in the book from the some 38,000 photos he’s taken since he began his career as a photographer in the 1970s after leaving a job on Wall Street. As a result, it is a documentation of what Thomas describes as the most frightening and charged part of his life: his decision to leave Wall Street and have a family.
“The Waters of Our Time” features photos of Thomas Roma’s native Brooklyn, his wife, and his son, from when Roma’s wife was pregnant to Giancarlo’s teenage years. Within the context of the book, though, these photos depict characters with no relevant ties to the real-life people contained in the photographs.
The photographs are all in black and white, and Thomas admits that this choice gives his photographs a seemingly vintage look. However, he chose to avoid color photographs for a different reason.
“I believe literature is in black and white. I don’t know a single writer who … resorted to red ink. The word red is enough,” Roma said. “As a photographer, you need me to be a translator of all the visuals. And I start my translation by getting rid of all the colors.”
The premise of “Waters” is to offer a response to “The Sweet Flypaper of Life,” written by Langston Hughes with photos from Roy DeCarava, a personal friend of Thomas Roma. According to Giancarlo, while “Flypaper” is about how an elderly woman has too many family obligations to pass away, “The Waters of Our Time” has an inverse theme—a woman looking for something to hold onto.
More than the thematic inversion, the Romas’ book is exactly the same physical size as “The Sweet Flypaper,” and has the same number of photographs, pages, words in the title, and font as Hughes and DeCarava’s book. It also drew inspiration from “The Sweet Flypaper of Life” by having the story begin on the cover of the book, joined by one of the first photos Thomas ever took.
To force readers to engage fully with all elements of the book—from the inspiration in “Flypaper” to the song lyrics interspersed within Giancarlo’s story—the Romas said they reduced the amount of content per spread so that the readers could spend more time processing the content in front of them. Giancarlo notes that the inclusion of photographs and written word make the text more accessible, too.
“So as far as I’m concerned, this is a collaboration between Langston Hughes, Roy DeCarava, Jerry Merrick, Richie Havens, and Giancarlo,” Thomas Roma said.
Although he acknowledged that he was demanding of his son, Thomas Roma appreciated the opportunity to work with someone who’s been so intertwined in his life for so many years.
“How many times in anyone’s life do they have the opportunity to work with someone who’s been observing their life not dispassionately?” he asked. “After all these years teaching, over 40 years, I finally had my own child as a student in this school that I love the most. So, this was too perfect to pass up.”