Photographer Bonnie Lautenberg sees every day as a series of moments—a sincere smile, an unlikely handshake, a breathtaking landscape, a swing of the hips—some, on the surface, grander than others.
In 1993, it was the Israeli-Palestinian Accord in front of the White House. About a decade later, it was the interior of every U.S. senator’s office, where, on a dare from her late husband, Senator Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, she shot their portraits.
And, another 10 years after that, it would be Miley Cyrus, gyrating and groping herself to the beat of her screaming fans while on tour.
The grandmother of three has welcomed every second. Photography is the art of capturing history, she explained as she toured her Water Mill estate with a slight limp, recovering from a foot injury.
“This,” she said, gesturing to a nearly life-sized photograph of Ms. Cyrus in concert, a stream of water spouting from her mouth like a fountain. “When I got her spitting like this, I loved it. I knew I had captured it, and I absolutely loved it.”
She shuffled over to the couch in her light-filled sunroom overlooking the pool, her favorite space in her second home. Here, the art and photography is sparse, as compared to the rest of the house, which serves as a gallery of Ms. Lautenberg’s adventures over the last two decades—a selection will be on view starting Saturday at Nicole Ripka Gallery in Water Mill—as well as her sense of self-discovery following her husband’s death two years ago.
“I always say to people, ‘Being with Frank for 25 years made me into the woman I am today,’” Ms. Lautenberg said. “Somebody said to me, ‘I knew you before you knew Frank, and you were no wilting flower then.’”
Born Bonnie Englebardt in Brooklyn and raised in Nassau County, she grew up with stars in her eyes and an appreciation for the arts. She tried her hand at acting before earning a broadcast journalism degree from New York University, which led to a short-lived career on air.
By this time, she was widowed with two young children and needed to make ends meet, she said, so she went to work for her family’s real estate business while pursuing her own interests, including photography and participation in United Jewish Appeal, which Mr. Lautenberg had chaired.
“He was my senator,” explained Ms. Lautenberg, who lived in New Jersey for about 15 years. “He was so friendly to me when I finally met him, and I thought, ‘He’s much older than me—he’s my father’s age—so he must know a million men.’ So at the end of the day, I said, ‘Senator, if you know any single men, I’d love for you to fix me up.’ I think he knew he was getting separated and kept my number.”
Five months later, he called her, and a long-distance courtship began—Ms. Lautenberg in Manhattan, where she still resides, and the senator in Washington, D.C. “It was an amazing time together. He was an extraordinary man. He taught me so much,” she said. “It was like getting a Ph.D. with him, just learning all the time. And he was proud of my work.”
She carried a camera with her wherever they went, as long as she was permitted. She snapped photos of Chuck Schumer dancing with Ted Kennedy at a senate retreat. She photographed all 100 senators in four months for her project “How They Changed Our Lives,” which explains each lawmaker’s legacy alongside his or her portrait.
“Frank said, ‘You’ll never do it.’ It was a dare,” Ms. Lautenberg smirked. “I got them all—the most right-wing Republicans, everybody. He was shocked.”
On September 13, 1993, Ms. Lautenberg also had her camera in tow. And as per usual, the couple was running late, this time for an appearance at the White House. It was a big day for President Bill Clinton, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who gathered for a signing ceremony for the Oslo Accords.
“The big photograph of that day was this handshake between Arafat and Rabin. And I wasn’t in the front row, because we were late,” she recalled. “I knew once we took our seats, you couldn’t move, so I got out of our row and I sat on the grass next to Charles Krauthammer in his wheelchair.
“I used my telephoto, and I took all these pictures and I was, like, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe what’s in this lens.’ Just—history,” she said. “Of course, nothing happened—they still don’t have peace—but it was a moment in history. And that’s what photography is, it’s a moment. Even this picture …”
She pushed herself off the couch and took off toward a photo of Lady Gaga in concert, hanging in her hallway. “This is a moment in her life,” she said. “In her career. This was taken at Radio City Music Hall. Frank was next to me.”
The concert was part birthday present for him, part anniversary gift for them, she said, explaining they had married in secret on January 25, 2004, at her apartment in Manhattan. He had just turned 80 two days prior—“He had a great head that thought young,” she said—and his bride was in her 50s.
“Five or six years ago, she was on the front cover of the Wednesday section of The New York Times, and Frank said, ‘I want to go see Lady Gaga,’” Ms. Lautenberg recalled. “I didn’t even know who Lady Gaga was, he didn’t know who Lady Gaga was, but he read about her and he loved music. So I called a friend and we ended up in the front row.
“I put my camera together, and I’m sitting there taking pictures, pictures, pictures,” she continued. “It was just the most exciting thing I’d done.”
From there, she dove headfirst into pop music, photographing the likes of Justin Bieber and Ms. Cyrus in concert, pressed up against stage runways. “Now I understand how my parents felt about Elvis Presley and the Beatles. They just didn’t get it and I don’t get this,” she laughed. “But you know what? Justin’s talented. If I were 18, maybe I’d think he was cool. Frank Sinatra was cool, too, and women loved him—a skinny kid with a good voice.”
In 2010, Mr. Lautenberg’s health began to decline. He announced he was battling stomach cancer and decided not to seek reelection the next year. He was the Senate’s oldest member and last surviving veteran of World War II. Three years later, he died of complications of viral pneumonia.
“It was hard. When he died, he was so sick, so it was a blessing for him,” Ms. Lautenberg said. “You always miss the best parts of your life. You do. I’ve had two great husbands. And I miss the best of both of them. It’s just life, and you have to be grateful for what you had. If you don’t have that attitude, you could just wallow in your sorrow. I think you have to go forward.”
Ms. Lautenberg is carrying on her husband’s legacy, first and foremost by working on his bill to amend the Toxic Substances Control Act, she said, as well as overseeing his induction into the New Jersey Hall of Fame.
“I have to say, life is good, but I miss Frank,” she said. “I want to know what he’d think about this Iran treaty. I wish he was here so we could talk about it. But he’s not.”
But Ms. Lautenberg is keeping busy. Life is simpler outside of Washington, she said, allowing her to focus more on photography. Next up are Britney Spears and Ariana Grande, she said.
Once her foot heals.
A selection of photography by Bonnie Lautenberg will open with a reception on Saturday, August 22, from 5 to 8 p.m. at Nicole Ripka Gallery in Water Mill. The show, which also features sculpture by Carole A. Feuerman, will remain on view through September 20. For more information, visit nicoleripka.com.
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