By George Vecsey | March 7, 1981
Every time the gates open at Madison Square Garden, George Kalinsky has the best vantage point in the house. He is the Garden’s photographer, which means he can go where he wants and click away.
When Willis Reed’s knee gave out, Kalinsky captured the captain of the Knicks writhing on the hardwood floor, and when Reed limped back days later, Kalinsky captured the determination on Reed’s face.
I know, I know, it’s only basketball, but Kalinsky captured the same degree of human dignity and human suffering that W. Eugene Smith and Walker Evans have captured in other locales.
Because Madison Square Garden stages more than sports events, Kalinsky has had the opportunity to photograph some of the world’s singular people – clowns and politicians, singers and popes. His first major show, ”Public Masks/Private Faces,” opened the other day at Spectrum Gallery on 57th Street, and Kalinsky was doubly excited because two of his favorite subjects, Earl Monroe and Judith Jamison, were expected to attend.
Several years ago, Kalinsky took Monroe, a basketball player who suspends himself in midair, to observe Miss Jamison, a dancer who floats on astral rays. Now Kalinsky was eager to introduce them. As he waited, other friends fussed over photographs of Frank Sinatra, Walt Frazier and a sad-eyed circus clown, Otto Griebling, who died hours after the picture was taken.
I flashed upon a picture of Pope John Paul II, taken in New York in October 1979. Talk about great athletes who played the Garden. The Pope is talking to a young girl, both of them smiling, his thick hands gripping her knees so she cannot slip off the platform.
As I viewed that photograph, I remembered an episode two days later in Iowa, when the Pope plunged into a hillside of half a million people. As a religion reporter covering the event, I saw the crowd open up, and I spotted the Pope coming at me, 20 yards away, knees churning like those of a middle linebacker: No. 66, Karol Wojtyla, out of Cracow University. I have since regretted not having had a camera to record the Pope’s athletic poise, and I’m glad there are photographers like George Kalinsky who do capture those moments.
Kalinsky did not plan to be a photographer. He studied art 20 years ago at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and intended to become a cartoonist.
On vacation in Miami Beach, carrying his new toy, a little Rollei, Kalinsky spotted Muhammad Ali and Howard Cosell ducking into a gymnasium. He talked his way into the gym by convincing Angelo Dundee – not an easy man to con – that he was the official photographer for the Garden. At the time this was not the truth, but when the Garden’s John Condon saw Kalinsky’s first roll of sports photographs it became the truth.
A few years ago, Ellen Kalinsky took her husband to the Alvin Ailey Dance Company, where he was mesmerized by the other-worldly Judith Jamison. He squeezed off a few shots as unobtrusively as possible, and later became a friend of Alvin Ailey.
Having photographed Miss Jamison from all angles, Kalinsky considers her the dance equivalent of Earl Monroe, except ”you never know when Earl will do something, while with Judith you can anticipate certain moves.”
On Wednesday Earl Monroe and Judith Jamison arrived in separate flurries, and the intimate gallery began to quiver. After the introductions, their elegant long hands gestured and fluttered, a choreography unto themselves, as they discussed the ego of the stage. Miss Jamison is the star of the Broadway revue ”Sophisticated Ladies,” and Monroe, now retired as a player, is trying to produce a basketball play, ”Bones.”
Monroe said: ”In basketball, when things go bad, the coach can say, ‘This stuff has got to stop.’ But actors …” Miss Jamison replied: ”It’s like that with Alvin. If somebody gets into himself too much, in about 15 seconds Alvin will say, ‘Hey …’ ”
In their few moments together, the two stars seemed to find each other as kindred souls, with Miss Jamison, in three-inch heels, nearly eye-to-eye with the 6-foot-3-inch player. Then they went their separate ways in the gallery.
”I remember watching her dance,” Monroe said. ”She had such control, such presence. I could have gone backstage, but I never like to horn in like that. I just wanted to see her dance. I try to learn from great performers, because that’s what I think of myself. I once saw Dionne Warwick quiet down an audience. She knew what she wanted, and that’s how I was on the court. It’s the same thing now. When I go into a business meeting, I want to be in control of myself.”
Monroe related that long before he was known as the Black Pearl in Philadelphia schoolyards, he was a ballet student, from the age of 8 to 12. He gave up dance because ”I had to, you know what I mean. I had to.” He had another calling.
Miss Jamison inspected the gallery, making conversation like a real person, not a celebrity. She smiled at a photograph of Wilt Chamberlain in long-legged repose. She once met Chamberlain in Philadelphia, she said. The only other basketball player she knows is ”that tall young man from New York who changed his name. He plays in California now.” She meant Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, formerly Lew Alcindor.
Miss Jamison said, ”I think I saw Earl play once; I’m not sure.” She must have had terrible seats to not have noticed an athlete who could suspend himself in midair or stop on a dime or move like a blur through a crowd, just as she does on stage. George Kalinsky has the photographs to prove it.