Sam Holden

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Dec. 23, 2014

Somewhere hidden in the nooks and crannies of Baltimore’s Metro Gallery, probably somewhere around the stage and assuming every single speck of them hasn’t been cleaned up, are a few tiny, carbonized pieces of a very large man: Sam Holden, a Baltimore-based photographer and drummer who had a helluva lot of fun with a whole lot of people until, at 44 years old, he dropped dead one day in April while clearing brush at his father Todd Holden’s Bel Air farm, Rustica. The pieces that may remain at Metro are there courtesy of his father, who spoke at Holdenfest, a celebration of his son held there in November.

“I’d like to try not to cry,” Todd Holden said before a video camera, while up on Metro’s stage. “There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t wake up and I think of Sam,” he continued, then reluctantly partook of what he called a “sacrament”—a pull from a bottle of Maker’s Mark—and declared, “I can’t stand this stuff, but when I drank it with Sam, it tasted like . . . ambrosia.” He started to step away from the mic, but then came back: “One last thing,” he said, producing a clear plastic sandwich bag that at first appeared to contain weed, but the confusion was quickly erased when he explained, “these are some of Sammy’s ashes.” He held the bag upside down and shook it, emptying its crumbly gray contents onto the stage.

It was a proper tribute to a rock ‘n’ roller like Sam Holden that bandmembers’ feet shuffled through his ashes as they played hard and loud through the rest of that night. That it was made possible thanks to his dad, a man whom he called “certainly the single most influential person in my life” because without “the years spent by his side in the darkroom as a child, I doubt very seriously that my life with camera in hand would be the same,” calls to mind what is perhaps, other than his photographs, his greatest legacy: showing how what’s often a problem-riddled connection, the father-son relationship, can be a great and beautiful thing.

Though City Paper published a trove of Sam Holden’s photographs over the course of two decades, some of them wildly super-saturated color specimens and others subtly toned black-and-whites, usually taken on a cumbersome, antique Hasselblad, his work was published widely in both Baltimore and national publications, and he was proud, too, of his commercial output. As a lifetime body of work, what he produced stands as a direct affront to what British art critic Jonathan Jones wrote in The Guardian this month: “Photography is not an art. It is a technology.”

In Sam Holden’s hands, it most definitely and enthusiastically was both. One of his last Facebook posts demonstrates this. Dated April 2, it’s a snapshot of a bunch of blue- and red-capped jugs in the back of a pick-up truck, with the caption, “Yes that’s a shit load of color chemistry!!!!!! STOKED…………….” One of the comments came from Todd Holden, who wrote, “image storm under way.” So sad that storm is now passed.

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