Martha’s Vineyard mourns death of Peter Simon

Chronicled Island life through his camera lens.

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Updated 1:30 pm

The Times is mourning the loss of one of its own — freelance photographer Peter Simon.

Simon, 71, who spent a lifetime photographing rock stars, activists, and everyday people, died Sunday of cardiac arrest at Martha’s Vineyard Hospital, according to Mirabai Bush, a family friend and co-author of a book with Ram Dass, “Walking Each Other Home: Conversations on Loving and Dying.” In September, Simon hosted a book signing at his Vineyard Haven gallery.

Simon’s death was picked up by the Associated Press, made Boston television news, and created an outpouring on social media.

Simon returned to The Times last spring, relaunching his popular Vineyard Scenes feature, chronicling local events and fundraisers. He had also worked at the Vineyard Gazette.

Simon and his wife, Ronni, owned Simon Gallery in Vineyard Haven, and each year he would put a collection of his stunning Vineyard scenics into a must-have calendar. He recently published a collection of his photographs, “Martha’s Vineyard: To Everything There Is a Season.”

In 2013, he released a DVD called “Through the Lens,” which then-Times reporter Tony Omer described as “being invited over to Mr. Simon’s for a personally narrated slideshow of his work and his life.” The DVD was like opening the pages of Simon’s diary. “In this DVD, celebrating his 50 years as a photographer, the 66-year-old adds an intriguing vocal commentary that charts his journey from his upper-middle-class childhood through his college years, the anti-Vietnam War movement, the counterculture, rock and roll, his work as an urban news photographer, a frank discussion of his own addiction, the Vineyard, and his camera view of the country he loves, the U.S.,” Omer wrote.

On Monday, Omer said, “Peter Simon was a friend of 35 years who was always upbeat, liberal with heartfelt hugs, always encouraging and willing to offer advice. I think he believed in the ability of music and self-reflection to bring us all together. Pro-Island to a fault. For me he will forever be a symbol of the hopes and dreams of those of us of the ’60s generation who continue to focus on an inner peace while working for a better world.”

Doug Cabral, the former editor of The Times, hired Simon both here and at the Gazette. “This is sad news. Peter was an early and continuing contributor of news and feature photography to The MV Times in the mid-1980s when I began there, as he had been when I was at the Vineyard Gazette in the ’70s,” Cabral wrote. “He had a distinctive point of view, a relentless way of capturing the moment, and his images were always high-quality and very often remarkable. Most important, he was a good friend.”

In July, Simon wrote about the 50th reunion of a Vermont commune he helped to bankroll, for the Boston Globe. “Understandably, some of the locals, mostly cattle farmers, were wary of this band of long-haired, dope-smoking weirdos and concerned that their property values would plummet,” he wrote. “One dark night, some people in a pickup truck drove down the farm’s driveway and fired guns to scare us. But Ray and his group were open-minded and diplomatic toward the neighbors, and in time the tensions eased.”

Simon also made national news in August while shooting his Vineyard Scenes feature at Lola’s in Oak Bluffs. Actor Bill Murray allegedly poured water on Simon, thinking he had been getting paparazzi-type photos of him at the bar. Simon had been invited by the band to shoot photos of them performing.

The incident was trending on Twitter soon after — the off-Island media fixated on the spat between celebrities that included the phrase “Do you know who I am?” in the police report.

But Simon never meant it that way. He was just pointing out his role as a Vineyard photographer. There was no putting on airs about Simon. He walked around wearing a knit beanie, his hair flowing out, blue jeans, and barefoot on many occasions.

Simon was the brother of famed singer Carly Simon, and the son of Simon & Schuster co-founder Richard L. Simon. But his sensibilities were rooted in liberal causes. He ended his emails with his signature “One love!”

“No one loved their work more than Peter!” Mirabai said. “All of our lives are made richer by his documentation, from civil right actions to great moments in rock and roll to the spiritual awakening of the ’70s to the Women’s March of 2016. His Vineyard Calendar, hanging in kitchens around the world, kept our favorite Vineyard places alive all winter until we could finally return. And he was a faithful and loving friend. He will live in all our hearts now.”

Simon loved music as much as he loved photography. In an interview a year ago with The Times, he talked about DJing at the Ritz in Oak Bluffs, telling Connie Berry that after a bout with lung cancer, which he described as “looming out there somewhere,” it was time to do the things he loved.

“I’d say I love music as much as I love photography,” he said. “Growing up, I always thought I’d be a DJ on the radio. I was in college, for the college radio station, and I always loved making dance tapes for friends. We’d have parties in my hippie commune in Vermont … dance bashes, and I’d always program the music. So I thought, Do the thing you love to do.”

Simon was the DJ at the Hot Tin Roof in the late ’70s and early ’80s, where his sister Carly was part-owner. “There were a lot of celebrities, but people really from all walks of life,” Simon said recalling those days. “We were the boomer generation, coming into our middle ages. We were out to party. There was a lot of cocaine on the periphery, but I stayed away from that. I certainly smoked a lot of weed. There were bands on the weekends, and a DJ two or three nights a week.”

George Brush, who worked with Simon at the Hot Tin Roof, said he played a combination of reggae and disco — a recipe that worked for the venue.

“Peter used to spend a lot of time in Jamaica taking pictures and collecting music, and he was instrumental in getting Peter Tosh up here; he was one of our first acts,” Brush wrote. “Peter also tried to get the Grateful Dead to play at the Roof. He knew their manager, Rock Scully, and set us up. We could have done it, but the tickets would have had to be about $100 … In hindsight I kind of wish I had.”

Simon also had a popular radio show at one time on WMVY.

“I met Peter over 30 years ago and got to know him through our mutual love of music and radio,” Barbara Dacey, the station’s former program manager, recalled. “He did radio shows in the early days of WMVY, and in the late ’90s and early 2000s, he hosted a show called ‘Private Collection,’ where he played tunes from his vast collection of music. Over the years, Peter came on the air with me on many occasions, talking about his books, CDs, and times spent with musicians including Bob Marley and Jerry Garcia. We had some wonderful conversations, and I was always intrigued by his take on music and what he had accomplished in his career. He would often come in with rare interview and musical segments from his archives, and he was very engaging as he told the stories of his many musical experiences.”

Jack Shea, another Times freelancer who was friendly with Simon, called him a “devoted child of the ’60s.”

“Artists typically are self-absorbed to one degree or another, but Simon would repeatedly and voluntarily reach out to help and advise people in and out of his close circle of family and friends,” Shea wrote. “He spent quite a bit of personal time exploring his relationship with his father, who died when Peter was 12, and he shared with me a manuscript of a memoir he was writing that explored that relationship in a way that honestly measured the benefits and dangers of being raised in a family of rich and famous people. In all, Peter was a madcap artist kind of guy with a zesty spirit and a talent for true friendship.”


Updated with more tributes. –Ed.

6 COMMENTS

  1. This is shocking. I just saw him last night at Mikado and said hi to him. So sad this happened, he was so young. The family must be devastated. Life is fragile.

  2. Shock of shocks. How can this be. The Vineyard can never be the same without my friend Peter. We go back such a long time. Like so many folks we enjoy the family photos taken by Peter. Somehow I never could think of Peter’s mortality. He was such a sweet and good man. He will be missed by so many.

  3. a really great guy— who else could stand with dignity when some drunk celebrity threw a glass of water on him ? he has always had my full respect—You don’t get what he had without a great family .

  4. Much love and sympathy to the Simon Family and those closest to Peter. Go With God now, Peter and surely BRING YOUR CAMERA! Those photos might be the only important and loving ones that are not already in your collection. I’ll be sure to stop in THAT gallery when my number comes up, for sure. You will be missed by many, Peter, but, you know as well as I, when you live on and love The Vineyard, you never really leave at all. A big part of you remains forever.

  5. So sad to hear of Peter’s passing..what a nice person..he never outgrew that special ’70’s Vineyard faze..when smart and kind hippies ruled..fun days. Peter had a smile that disarmed me..a good guy that will be missed..

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