Have you seen the new picture in Lewis Cobbs’ room? It’s a large black and white photograph of four aged arms holding each other tenderly. Up close, one sees the variations in the skin, differentiated by freckles, hairs or age spots, but united by numbers tattooed in the center of each forearm.
The photograph faces the door, behind the large oak table where Mr. Cobbs leads conversations that engage the intellect of his students, so that even after their last high school grades have been recorded they return to his room to learn about linguistics, to soak up the last hours of their time with him.
The photograph, joining other pieces given to Mr. Cobbs and displayed in his classroom, is on indefinite loan from a former student, Taylor Hill ’01.
Taylor, a contributing photographer for Getty Images, Rolling Stone, US Weekly, The Wrap, and other publications, presented Mr. Cobbs with this print of one of his favorite photographs, “Greek Survivors, 1995" by Mark Seliger. The image is on the cover of Seliger’s book of photographs and essays, When They Came to Take My Father: Voices of the Holocaust.
Taylor said he wanted Randolph students—“people who were going to be in charge of things one day—to see the image and to think about it. When I saw the picture, I knew Mr. Cobbs, who taught an elective on literature of the Holocaust, would know what to do with it. Looking at the picture, there's love, endurance, triumph, sacrifice, scarring, struggle, age, and so much more. It's the tragedy of the human condition, but also the Faulknerian belief that man will not only endure, but will prevail.”
Mr. Cobbs will incorporate the photograph into class discussions with his Senior Capstone and English classes this year. Students from other classes have come to view it as well: 9th graders, who have been reading Elie Wiesel’s Night, and history students.
“You can’t look at that picture and not think about life and how we make the journey together. I wanted it to be in the place that formed me, and I wanted others to think about it as they formed themselves. Looking at it helps cease worries about the trivial,” said Taylor.
“Speaking for Randolph," said Mr. Cobbs, "I am deeply grateful to Taylor for remembering the School in this manner. The picture has already moved, provoked, and inspired students and teachers alike. Taylor’s gesture is a powerful testimonial, an act of faith on behalf of intellectual engagement and human understanding.”
Taylor came to Randolph in the 1st grade. His father was a small businessman who had dropped out of high school because he was bored and who wanted better for his children. They had heard about Randolph from the parents of Crystal West Knickelbein ’01, a classmate in Taylor’s kindergarten, whose family has strong ties to the School.
For a few years, Taylor was the only student from his zip code who attended Randolph. “That meant something to me later on when I saw my friends from my neighborhood experience struggles and boredom and problems I didn’t have because I had Randolph. I saw my opportunities accelerate. I had teachers who made time for me even though I was often a difficult student to teach. My teachers put up with me, with grace in their hearts, as I fumbled my way through adolescence.”
At Randolph, Taylor enjoyed a four-student AP Spanish class with Peggy Bilbro and learning in a technology-rich environment. “We were designing websites with Jeff Ritter in the 7th grade, in the mid-’90s. There is a sacredness to that that defies articulation. Every student had gifts, and we were encouraged to pursue them and find a way through life with courage and excellence and a belief in the limitlessness of our possibility.”
At the end of 10th grade, Taylor (with borderline grades) asked Mr. Cobbs if he would consider taking him in AP English for the following year. He had arguments prepared for why this should be, but Mr. Cobbs said, “I want you in my class.”
Reflecting on what his experience might have been in public school, Taylor said, “It is unimaginable to think of how hard it would have been to be lectured to in a class of 35, without the Socratic method, not to have sat at the round table. Mr. Cobbs was our Virgil through English and world literature, and he brought out the best in us. I was handed more than one F for responses I'd written to chapters I hadn't actually read.”
“I played five sports at Randolph, not including bowling. In 1998, four of us founded a bowling team; I was really happy to see that bowling is back at Randolph. Without question, I was the worst athlete on each of those five teams, but at Randolph it was okay to be bad at something. At a monolith like [one of the local public high schools], students were only able to do the things at which they were actually good."
“The first photos I ever took were published in the yearbook my sophomore year. I got an A- in that class and it was the grade of which I was the proudest at Randolph, because I was bad at deadlines, and therefore took the class to force myself to confront that. I thought Yearbook was harder than AP Calculus.”
Taylor went on to Auburn, where he majored in English. He didn’t do photography again until 2005, when he realized that it would grant him free entry to concerts. It was at the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival that he met its pop-up newspaper editor, Dean Budnick, and music photographer Jeff Kravitz. Taylor started doing music photography, too.
“I ended up a photographer by accident. When people ask me how it happened, I tell them that I have no idea. I fell down a rabbit hole and moved to New York. I think the saddest and most common mistake people make is that they don't learn to embrace the accidents in their lives – John Lennon said that 'Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans' – and thank God. There's nothing that I would rather do."
“I was a policy analyst for the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs (ADECA), and in 2008 I took some time off to work on a congressional campaign. When I returned there was a hiring freeze, so I lost my job in the Great Recession. I filed for unemployment and used the breathing room to listen to what life was telling me. And I might not have realized it at the time, but that was all Randolph – Randolph taught me to seek and embrace opportunities, and that it was okay to be bad at something until one was good at something. There, I had taken classes I was unprepared for. I had played sports I was bad at. I never worried about embarrassing myself because I was surrounded by a small group of people who had known me since I was six years old. There was nothing about me they didn't already know—and when that fear is gone, all that is left is to grasp at the brass ring. I'd drive hours to shoot bands for three songs in Nashville, Atlanta, or Birmingham, and I'd sleep in my car with my gear hidden under a jacket because I didn't have hotel money."
“Randolph didn’t teach me how to push a button to take a photograph, but it taught me to be unafraid of trivial things, to hold my work to the highest of standards, to know that the person I'm always competing against is my best self, to discuss things with cogency and logic, to go to the library and do research, to wear a collared shirt (okay, sometimes a T-shirt and light jacket), and say 'please' and 'thank you.' Classes with Mrs. Sharma, Mr. Estes, and Mr. Cobbs taught me that life isn’t worth living if you’re not constantly learning. When you're knowledgeable and caring about your subjects, publicists will give you better access because they're happy someone cares."
“I remember the date when everything changed: November 18, 2009. Getty asked me to go to Nashville to shoot Steven Van Zandt at SiriusXM, and he and the E Street Band were playing downstairs. I had $148 in my bank account. After I'd left, Bruce Springsteen tickets, good ones, had just been released for $98.50.”
Taylor bought the ticket. It was Clarence Clemons' last show in the Southeast. Taylor had a revelation while watching Springsteen crowdsurf.
“After seeing Springsteen, I knew then that I could be doing what I wanted at age 60 as he was or living on the cold comfort of my excuses. The terror of my potential failure became less to me than the terror of failing my potential. Six months later I was in New York City, just across the Hudson, renting from a colleague's father in the last townhome before the Lincoln Tunnel in Weehawken, New Jersey.”
Which, he said, is not such a big deal geographically. “Eventually, all of your friends will move and you will see them. I just ran into Molly Beucher ’04 at the American Music Awards. Randolph is everywhere. If you made a thumbtack map of alumni over the last 20 years and where they were living, you'd get a sense of the amazing Randolph diaspora. For Randolph alumni, the years have largely unfolded very graciously, and that's not a coincidence. My best friend of 20+ years, Ryan Confer '01, lives two miles away – I'm on East 30th Street and he's on West 23rd.”
If you search for Taylor’s work online, you will find a lot of red carpet shots, as well as pictures of musicians, actors and authors. “Red carpet events are absurd,” he said, but, they are also challenging because you have so little time to get the shot. Mostly, I love what I do. And if a band or author I photograph looks cool and that makes someone go listen to the music or read their books, and the music or the literature changes the way they think, then I have used my powers for good.” And, he added, his education has served him well because he knows the context around events or he learns about it.
“If you can talk to people and form relationships, that gives you access. I shot Kings of Leon at Good Morning, America from the stage because they trusted me. I had a minute with Philip Roth at the PEN Literary Gala, and again with Robert Caro, Lyndon Johnson's epic biographer, because I was able to explain to the gatekeeper why it was so important. There were so many things I wanted to say to them, but in the end all I said was, ‘Can you look over here, please?’"