“I took one frame,” Carrie Boretz recalls. It was the summer of 1975, and she was a photo intern at The Village Voice, working under the brilliant and fearsome Fred McDarrah. “I wasn’t one of those people who shot tons of film — I never owned a motor drive — and I do remember a lot of what I shot. I was standing at the corner of Houston and LaGuardia, and I remember this bunch of happy kids, with the woman pushing the stroller, the way they were holding hands.” She says she thought it was a nice photograph but nothing extraordinary, and the negative went into a file, where it sat for 36 years.
In 2011, Boretz was going through thousands of those street photographs, made over the full run of her career, as she prepared a forthcoming book. When she looked at this one, she pulled up abruptly — because the boy in the stroller is none other than Etan Patz, the most famous missing child in history. (Amid new evidence, a murder trial is unspooling now.) In the photo, his mother, Julie, is pushing him*. Then, it was a cozy, summery image. Today, your eye traces across the line of kids, taking in the warmth, and then, with the shock of recognition, your stomach drops. It’s haunted.
In the photo, Etan is the one who was most aware of the lens and who engaged most thoroughly with Boretz. That may be because he was already used to having his picture taken. Stan Patz was a skilled photographer, and when his son disappeared in 1979, the high quality of his pictures, on posters and milk cartons, was one reason the story had such reach and resonance. (Nothing moves people like a smiling 6-year-old.) Boretz’s picture is different — more casual, un-posed — and it may be the only photograph you’ll ever see of Etan Patz that was made outside the family.
That one frame is a better-than-average New York street-life shot of the 1970s. Yet it seems fresh, even though you wouldn’t see a Playboy T-shirt on a little boy these days. (It’d be on a tween girl, and the bunny would be bedazzled.) One thing does definitely separate this moment from ours, however: If you tried making this picture today, most parents would try to stop you. “I had a lot of trouble with that, [starting] in the ‘90s,” Boretz agrees. Parents and nannies, relatively unguarded then, are always on alert for stranger danger today, and that switch was flipped on May 25, 1979, when Etan disappeared.
*An earlier version of this post mistakenly identified the girl in the center of the photo as Etan’s sister Shira.