On one of his five trips to India, Alex Dreyfoos was in a rowboat floating on the Ganges, observing the scene on the river banks. It was wildly chaotic: pilgrims bathing in the waters of the holy river, women washing their saris and laying them like ribbons on the steps, cows meandering through the crowds, smoke rising from the funereal pyres on the burning ghats.
The place was Varanasi, a northern city sacred to Hindus and visited mostly by intrepid Westerners whose interest in the extremes of the human condition outweighs their distaste for abject poverty and filth. Unfazed by all that, Dreyfoos focused on the throngs and pressed the shutter release. The resulting image captured the kind of beauty that can only be wrought by opposing forces.
“In one picture, that’s life,” he says. “Bodies are cremated, babies are born in the river, people are bathing, animals wander around. It’s so chaotic, yet so peaceful.”
It should come as no surprise that Dreyfoos is attracted to such dichotomies. His own life has been fueled by a thrilling tension between science and the arts. He’d been interested in photography since he was a wee lad (“There are pictures of me with a [Kodak] Brownie Reflex when I was 9 or 10 years old,” he says), a gift he credits to his photographer father, who chronicled the music and theater scene in New York City. But Dreyfoos, now 85 and a resident of West Palm Beach and the Adirondacks, also had a brilliant engineering mind, which led him to Massachusetts Institute of Technology (and later Harvard Business School) and a career as an inventor of electronic equipment for the photographic industry. The company he founded, Photo Electronics Corporation, has been in Palm Beach County since 1969.
To this day, Dreyfoos believes his early pursuit of photography made his inventions more precise—and ultimately game-changing. “I noticed I couldn’t concentrate on an image if it wasn’t a nice image,” he says. “I was very critical of it.”
After MIT, he served in the U.S. Air Force and was stationed in a photo reconnaissance lab in Germany. “I used to fill up the trunk with enough jerricans to go all the way to Rome and back,” he says. Many of the photos he took during those recon missions became critical points of reference when designing his electronic equipment.
Those images, and hundreds of others, appear in A Photographic Odyssey, a photo book spanning seven decades and benefiting the Cultural Council of Palm Beach County, which he founded in 1978. The book is by no means complete—Dreyfoos has amassed 209,000 photos and is actively adding—but it’s a strong representation of his artistic philosophy: to tell a story in a single picture. By doing this, he immortalizes a moment in time before it changes or is altogether effaced.
While many photographers specialize in one style or subject matter, Dreyfoos has not placed limits on his work. He has photographed people, animals, architecture, and landscapes from the air (he’s a pilot with ATP, single-engine jet, and turbine helicopter ratings) and beneath the sea’s surface (he’s a certified diver), as well as on land. In addition to featuring in the book, his photos regale the lucky recipients on his Christmas card list. For this year’s card, he had to make a radical itinerary change and charter a helicopter. It was a hassle and it was expensive, but he got the shot he’d waited years to capture. Where in the world was it? The 600-plus people on the list will find out in December.
Many of Dreyfoos’ journeys have been on his three Silver Cloud yachts, the latest of which is a 134-foot SWATH. Onboard the Silver Cloud, Dreyfoos, with wife Renate by his side, has visited ports both accessible and remote, welcoming and not. The voyages, including a 44,000-nautical-mile, 19-month circumnavigation of the globe, have yielded extraordinary images. His series of bald eagle photos in the Aleutian Islands is one particularly memorable example.
“We were taking the great-circle route from Alaska to Japan and went through Dutch Harbor for a fueling stop,” he says. “The marina attendants threw strips of salmon up on our deck and the eagles, which were still on the endangered species list at the time, came out of nowhere.”
Inasmuch as photography is being at the right place at the right time, Dreyfoos has had a world of opportunity, both on the Silver Cloud and on trips with the Young Presidents’ Organization and World Presidents’ Organization, of which he’s been a member since the 1960s.
“I feel very fortunate to be at these various places and to be able to have a camera in my hand,” he says. “A critic would probably say, ‘The reason your photography is great is because you’ve had the opportunity.’ It’s true; I’ve been to 100 countries over the years.” With characteristic modesty, he adds: “A blind squirrel finds a few acorns.”
In art, of course, the critics’ voice isn’t as loud as the artist’s. “I can’t tell whether people really love my photography or like the other things I’ve done,” he says. “But I love what I do. I fall in love with my pictures. They bring so many memories.”
A Photographic Odyssey: Around the World With Alexander W. Dreyfoos is sold at the gift shops of the Kravis Center and Cultural Council of Palm Beach County, as well as on amazon.com. Proceeds benefit the Cultural Council.