Sam Cherry sits in the living room of his Fairfax District home, staring at a photograph of Charles Bukowski on the toilet. “Wow, look at that!” Cherry laughs at the look on the writer’s face — one that suggests Buk is struggling through a rather troublesome bowel movement. “He’s really pushing!” A longtime friend of Bukowski’s, Cherry took the bathroom shot, which was never published, as well as countless others that were. In fact, if you’ve ever seen a shot of Bukowski and considered it iconic, it was probably Cherry’s. But Cherry didn’t just photograph Buk — legend has it the writer’s tough-guy literary persona was largely bolstered by Cherry’s true-life hard-luck tales.
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“Oh, I have no doubt about that,” Cherry says. “He always used to tell me, ‘Sam, I killed 10 men.’ But he was a sweet guy. I don’t think he ever intentionally hurt a soul in his life.”
Cherry, on the other hand: “I was born tough.”
That would be in Prohibition-era Philadelphia, where Cherry’s father was a bootlegger and his mother the proprietress of the Laundromat that served as a front for the illegal operation. In 1926, when Cherry was 11, his father ran afoul of the law, and the family fled west — to Hollywood. If the thought of moving to the land of sunshine and oranges didn’t seem so bad, Cherry soon found out otherwise.
“It was hell,” he says matter-of-factly. “We lived like pigs.”
Cherry’s father left the family shortly after they got to Hollywood, and Cherry spent his early teenage years selling newspapers for change at the corner of Santa Monica and Western and sleeping in unlocked cars or on the street alongside his brother, the abstract painter Herman Cherry. When he was 16, he took off and spent the next decade, and the majority of the Great Depression years, “on the bum,” riding the rails across the country under the hobo name “On-the-Fly-Sam.”
During that time he managed to wrangle himself a camera and began taking photos of his fellow downtrodden in San Francisco.
“I always had an artistic eye,” Cherry says. “Some kids looked at a building and saw a building. But I looked at it from all angles. I saw something else there.”
After his time bumming, Cherry married and eventually wound up running his own bookstore in San Bernardino. Located on Route 66, Cherry’s Books was a cultural oasis for countless writers and artists passing through on their way across country. Ferlinghetti, Ginsburg and Kerouac were all friends and patrons. But perhaps Cherry’s closest literary friend was a postal worker named Bukowski.
“There was something really unusual about him. He worked at the post office but still managed to be way out there.”
Bukowski wasn’t famous at the time, but something about the writer made Cherry want to photograph him. After hearing Bukowski tell stories about his time as a hobo, Cherry brought him down to the L.A. railyards to take some photos.
“It took me about 10 minutes to figure out he was bullshitting me. He couldn’t even figure out how to get one foot in the car. I had to push him up there by the ass. He was a big guy, too.”
Nonetheless, the photo eventually became the cover of Bukowski’s book The Days Run Away Like Wild Horses.
Now 95 and still living on his own, Cherry has yet to see his work garner the attention and financial windfall it undoubtedly deserves. Pirated versions of Cherry’s Bukowski photos grace countless T-shirts and souvenirs around the world.
“What am I going to do, sue everyone? Too much trouble.”
Cherry can take solace in the fact that his life and work, though not widely known, have helped spawn an entire family line of socially conscious artists and activists. His son is the acclaimed poet and author Neeli Cherkovski, and his daughter, Tanya Tull, moved by her father’s hard-luck stories, founded the L.A.–based homeless advocacy group Beyond Shelter. His grandson, Dani Tull, is also an artist and is currently organizing an exhibition for Cherry at Track 16 gallery in Bergamot Station. Cherry’s unpublished shots of Bukowski, the Great Depression and other travels throughout the country will be shown.
It may have taken nearly 80 years, but if Cherry can’t get paid, at least he’s finally being recognized.
Photo by Kevin Scanlon