A few weeks ago, while sitting with a friend at North Italia restaurant, I watched as a young man headed in our direction, with a careful balance of cockiness and uncertainty disguised as swagger.
Rangefinders, which predate the SLR (single lens reflex) on an iPhone camera, allow the photographer to look directly through the lens at the subject via a series of prisms.
As an amateur photographer, I was intrigued and impulsively hooked my hand into the camera strap, gently pulling him our way as he walked by. Even as he was sizing me up, I asked myself, "Is this just more late-to-the-party hipster, generational posturing?'
I began grilling him about what he actually knew about Rangefinders. But soon found out that Allen Henson had served not one, but two tours of duty in Iraq, the last in 2010. And, like another famous photographer, Slim Aarons, Henson turned to fashion photography post war service.
He was a bit infamous, too. Henson was sued by the owners of the Empire State Building for blithely photographing a topless model at the top of the building, thereby “defaming a national and international icon.” He countersued; the owners backed off and the case was thrown out.
Henson was in Houston with his gorgeous New York model wife, Anna Lisa, to discuss an assignment for a Houston publication and to secure a distribution outlet for his books, Editorial on the Rocks and Editorial on the Run.
Over the next week, we met up a few times. Henson and his wife came to my house for an extended breakfast. I had them over for dinner, and these two exciting young people in their 30s regaled us and our guests late into the night with their stories, their clarity of vision and ambition, their observations of this country from their own perspectives and travels, their personal bravery, and their hopefulness about the future.
Moreover, I arranged an introduction to another photographer icon, Bruce Weber, we spent time looking at proofs for his new book, and Henson generously gave me one of his old SLRs.
We also talked about if, when, and where he and Anna Lisa should put down roots. While an ex-Ford Agency model, she hails from Scottsdale.
Then Hurricane Harvey hit.
Soon, Henson was neck-deep in water taking pictures, but seeing all the devastation began eating at him. He’s served our nation twice in the military; thus, with so many in need, he felt like he couldn’t stand down and only shoot photographs.
“As a photographer, of course, I see images everywhere. I can’t help but arrange and crop shots even on my morning drive. I’ve seen the misery and I was seeing it again. I just couldn’t keep clicking when the situation called for action. The kind of action that I know my friends in the service are capable of," he explained.
Henson was welcomed by a group loosely organized by members of the 11Bravo army infantry group with Marine recon soldiers, military medics, helicopter pilots, police officers from all over, and almost the entire spectrum of military operational specialties from every branch of the service. Henson said the group’s leader estimated they helped rescue 300 Houstonians over the course of a few days.
“I wasn’t leading the charge, I’m no hero. I was working side by side with both new friends and old ones, who recognized me from my Iraq service and training. Say what you will about the U.S. military, but once you go through training, each of us knows what the other can do. When we’re together in a situation like this we can leverage each other 10 times," he said.
And he was impressed by what he saw.
“The efforts of all of these Houstonians helping themselves was amazing. It was like a performer being pushed to new heights by an audience that knows the words to every song," he said. "It was so rewarding to be helping people helping themselves.
“We all need an assist sometimes. A reminder of the morning after."
Houston developer Mark A. Anawaty is a native of the Texas Gulf Coast and was first flooded during Hurricane Carla.