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‘From my archive to yours’: Meet Bob Cumins, photographer and Zelig of Jewish politics

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Back in September, my son handed me the envelope as soon as he walked in from school one Tuesday. Sorting the mail is one of his jobs, and I was at my new desk on our enclosed porch, after Hurricane Ida flooded me out of my basement workspace. Inside was a pristine copy of the front section of the Dec. 13, 1998 edition of The New York Times.

“From my archive to yours,” read the handwritten note, signed “Bob Cumins.”

It was one of the most thoughtful gestures I’d ever received, from a guy I’d never even met.

Robert A. Cumins had popped into my inbox out of the blue a few months before. He was a documentary photographer and had found in his personal archive some never-developed negatives of Isaac Bashevis Singer visiting Ellis Island in 1979.

He wondered if the Forward, where Singer had been a staff writer, might like to publish them for the Nobel Prize-winning author’s 30th yahrzeit the following week. Umm, yes please. (You can see those photos here.)

I next heard from Cumins on Sept. 12, 2021. The most famous photograph in his long career is of the second plane hitting the south tower of the World Trade Center, which landed on the cover of People magazine.

For the 20th anniversary, he shared the backstory — how he turned his car around upon hearing a radio report of a fire at the Twin Towers and returned to his New Jersey apartment building, how he rushed to the ninth-floor balcony with its view of Manhattan, how he didn’t even know what he had until he developed the film.

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“I photographed that morning in complete silence,” Cumins wrote, “perhaps serving as the eyes for the rest of the world to witness that day from distant locations.” Perhaps, he added, “in that instant what we really see is the final moment that forever shattered America’s sense of security.”

Turns out Cumins was not just an accomplished photographer but also a careful reader of this column, where 10 days earlier I had written about our flooded basement and mentioned that one of the things that got soaked was my first front-page byline at The Times, about voter views of the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

Cumins is an amateur archivist, whose storage unit houses not only every photo he’s ever shot but also memorable front pages of major newspapers, like the one with a banner headline of a key vote to impeach President Bill Clinton on Dec. 13, 1998.

Senator Robert F. Kennedy in Norman, Oklahoma. April 1967.

Senator Robert F. Kennedy in Norman, Oklahoma. April 1967. By Robert A. Cumins

Cumins is 73 now, not officially retired but not shooting so much either. He lives in the town next to mine, so I invited him and his partner, Rita, for dinner in our sukkah — he arrived with another thoughtful gift, a signed print of the Israel Museum’s famous “Ahavah” sculpture at sunset that he made circa 1980.

We later met for breakfast with his friend Harvey Araton, a longtime New York Times sportswriter I know a little and admire a lot, and earlier this month I went to visit Cumins’ famous archive.

It’s about 500 square feet behind locked chain-link, filled floor to ceiling with Samuel Adams and Rolling Rock boxes, metal file cabinets and mini-cardboard dressers, suitcases and plastic crates and envelopes. “Soft cover TIME 80 days that changed the world,” one box is labeled. “CJF project with Dayan 1979.” “HRC outtakes 2000.” “Begin in Washington 1978.” “Receipts 2003+.”

A half-century of a photographer’s life, a picture-window into Israeli politics and American Jewry.

I asked Cumins how he got started in this racket. He whipped out his phone to show a picture of him in the White House office of Pierre Salinger, press secretary to President John F. Kennedy. It was February 1963; he was 14 years old.

“I had always been a Kennedy fan,” he said. “I think it came out of losing my father very young. Kennedy was a father figure to many people, and I was one of them.” Young Bob was a student at Fairlawn High School in New Jersey, working on the student paper, and a man his mother was dating suggested he do something about his JFK obsession, so he sent Salinger a telegram — “knowing me,” Cumins laughed about the telegram, “I probably still have a copy of it.”

Joe Namath in the locker room following Super Bowl III, 1969.

Joe Namath in the locker room following Super Bowl III, 1969. By Robert A. Cumins

Salinger wrote back. “He said, ‘I’d be delighted to see you. Next time you’re in Washington, set up an appointment with my secretary,” Cumins recalled.

Bob, being 14, had no particular plans to be in Washington, but he and his mother soon took the train down, hung out with the White House press corps — the correspondents flirted with mom — and sat in on a Kennedy news conference with the president of Venezuela.

Salinger got the president to sign Bob’s copy of “Public Papers of the President,” a Government Press Office book (“which I still have, of course”). He was hooked.

Cumins studied broadcast journalism at the University of Oklahoma and then the University of Miami. He was an intern at the Associated Press, driving his 1968 Firebird convertible to join the bigwigs covering President Nixon’s frequent visits to Key Biscayne (“Dan Rather loved that car”).

A colleague who also worked as a commercial photographer asked Cumins to fill in shooting a breakfast of the women’s division of the local Jewish Federation. There he met a man named Elton Kerness — like the best journalists, Cumins remembers everybody’s name and pauses to spell them out — who became a real mentor. They both moved to New Jersey, and Cumins soon shot the first of countless Jewish communal events, “a parlor meeting in Elizabeth in January, 1971.”

Hillary Clinton and Shimon Peres in Israel, 2002.

Hillary Clinton and Shimon Peres in Israel, 2002. By Robert A. Cumins

He would eventually cover some 30 General Assemblies of the Jewish Federations of North America and make about 300 trips to Israel with politicians, business moguls and philanthropists. He’s witnessed every peace-treaty handshake — Camp David in 1978 and 1979; the Oslo Accords in 1993 and Jordan the next year; Wye River in 1998.

He spent 18 months working for Hillary Clinton during her first Senate campaign. He caught Joe Namath in the locker room after Super Bowl III. He made a stunning collection he calls “Snows of Jerusalem” during a 1980 storm.

“I have this president, that president, this prime minister, Gary Hart — I put him on the cover of People, one of the most interesting people of 1986,” Cumins told me. “Ivan Boesky, I had him on the cover of TIME, it shows Ivan working — the Smithsonian Institution has that in its archive.”

He’s like the Zelig of Jewish news — since we met, he regularly emails with unique images of whoever is in the headlines (or has just died): Bob Dole with Natan Sharansky at a Soviet Jewry rally, the French intellectual Bernard-Henri Lévy at a private luncheon, Archbishop Desmond Tutu with Harry Belafonte, Sheldon Silver kissing Hillary Clinton.

“Rabbi at the Wall” from Cumins’ “Snows of Jerusalem” series, 1980. By Robert A. Cumins

Cumins spent 10 days in 1988 with Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir “when his PR was terrible — I wanted to show him as a real guy, a grandfather, a father.” He made a series of four shots in the Oval Office of then-President Jimmy Carter giving Prime Minister Menachem Begin a book — Begin signed all but the third image, which he didn’t like because it showed his bald spot.

A Cumins photo of a 1981 reunion of Holocaust survivors in Jerusalem hangs in the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Manhattan, and one of a rally for Soviet Jews is displayed in Philadelphia’s Jewish history museum. 

It’s all there, along with a scrapbook of that 1963 trip to Washington, pictures of 14-year-old Bob and Pierre Salinger held in by those little black corners.

The question is what to do with it all now. Cumins estimates he has spent “hundreds of thousands of dollars” in storage fees over the years. He wants to make sure the work outlasts him, and would be game to sell it, but needs time — and, probably, help — to organize it so someone else would be able to unearth its treasures.

“I’m not greedy, I was never a great business person,” he said, though he does own the rights (“I’m a real copyright freak”) to every image. “It’s overwhelming, the more I look at it and the more I try to climb over this stuff.”

Rabin, Arafat, and Clinton at the Oslo Accords, 1993.

Rabin, Arafat, and Clinton at the Oslo Accords, 1993. By Robert A. Cumins

He’s more historian than hoarder. He also has a collection of antiquities from those many trips to Jerusalem. And he has all those banner-headline front pages, like the one he sent me.

“I save history — if I see things and I think, ‘Geez, this would be great for my nephew or niece,’” he explained. “My mother was that way, too. She was a news junkie.”

His mother, who took him on that first trip to the White House all those years ago, died a month before 9/11. Cumins has always thought she somehow compelled him to turn around that day when he heard the news report on the radio, that she’s the reason he was able to catch that moment, to make that famous photo.

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