Martha’s Vineyard was more than just a muse for Peter Simon, though it was that, too. With his ever-present camera, he could turn a stunning island sunset into an Impressionist painting.
“I have traveled to exotic places, and have lived various different lifestyles in the past, but have never felt so at peace as I do as a Vineyarder,” he wrote in the introduction to one of his many photography books. “I feel as though I have escaped the craziness of the ‘real world’ and am living out some sort of dreamy fantasy, where the elements I value most are all anchored firmly on this sea and soil.”
Mr. Simon, who had been treated for cancer, was 71 when he died of cardiac arrest Sunday in Martha’s Vineyard Hospital.
The island was his home spiritually and creatively, but he ranged widely geographically and culturally to seek subjects for his well-respected photos.
He captured the sweeping magnitude of the 1969 Moratorium March in Washington, D.C., the gritty aftermath of a Boston protest that same year, and the intimacy of Occupy Wall Street’s 2011 encampments. He caught the Beatles’ sweaty splendor at Shea Stadium in 1965, Robert Plant grinning out at Los Angeles from a hotel balcony in 1975, the Grateful Dead sharing a joint in 1977, Lady Gaga lying on a Boston stage in 2012, and his beloved reggae musicians throughout his career.
Photos of his sister Carly Simon’s singing career, meanwhile, had a perceptive clarity that reflected family ties. After all, she and his other two sisters were his first regular subjects when he was a boy and their father placed a camera in his hands.
“My father, before he died, said, ‘Son, save every negative you’ve ever taken,’ ” Mr. Simon once told the Vineyard Gazette. “So I did. I never throw anything out because I listened to him.”
For nearly a decade, Mr. Simon and his wife, Ronni, have run the Simon Gallery on the Vineyard. And his father’s admonition to save everything ensured a vast archive was available when Mr. Simon put together “Through the Lens,” a 2014 DVD retrospective of his life work. With italicized emphasis, he called it “Personalized Photojournalism.”
Two years ago, he published more than 700 photos in “Martha’s Vineyard: To Everything There Is a Season,” a collection that is a history of the island he first visited as a child and a love letter to the place he called home. “Once I moved here, I suddenly felt, ‘I’m where I’m supposed to be,’ ” he told the Globe in 1996.
Some of his photos are visual conversations with his surroundings. In “Jungleland,” he peers through an otherworldly tangle of branches and brilliant leaves on the Vineyard’s Cedar Tree Neck.
While still in high school, he had an eye for a telling moment, photographing a youthful-looking Bobby Kennedy campaigning for the US Senate in the Bronx in 1964. On a crowded street, an elderly woman bows her head, as if in reverence, while shaking the slender politician’s hand.
“He had this amazing touch with people — with portraits, with faces especially,” said Stephen Davis, a writer who had been Mr. Simon’s Boston University roommate, and with whom he later collaborated on books.
“He had this kind of non-ingratiating but sort of loving attitude, and major eye contact with the people he was photographing,” Davis said. “As soon as he got that eye contact, the Nikon came up and clicked.”
For 31 years, Mr. Simon produced an annual Vineyard Calendar of his photographs, and to the island he gave back more than just pristine images of its best self: 20 percent of the revenue from “To Everything There Is a Season” goes to the nonprofit Martha’s Vineyard Community Services, which supports assistance programs.
“He’s much loved here,” Ronni said Monday, speaking from their gallery, which she had closed for the day, though his many friends and admirers still stopped by. “People are leaving flowers and candles outside the door.”
Even miles away, the grief was palpable for those who knew him best, including Alex H. MacDonald of Cambridge, a trial lawyer whose friendship with Mr. Simon dates to their years at BU.
“His passing leaves a giant hole in my heart,” MacDonald said.
Born in 1947, Peter Simon was the youngest child and only son of Richard L. Simon, cofounder of the Simon & Schuster publishing house, and Andrea Heinemann Simon, who was active in community affairs.
Mr. Simon was surrounded by the famous before he was old enough to understand fame. Brooklyn Dodgers star Jackie Robinson would visit. Other houseguests included well-known musicians, photographers, writers, and actors.
All of Mr. Simon’s sisters became musicians — Joanna is an opera singer, Lucy a composer. As a boy, Peter chronicled life at home, creating a newspaper he distributed to his sisters and parents, and aiming his lens early and often.
“Peter just took to his camera, and he had willing subjects in his sisters,” Lucy said, laughing at the memory. “We all learned to be in front of a camera at an early age.”
His talent made him a popular news photographer at BU. He photographed demonstrations and concerts — images that became part of a 2010 presentation, when BU held a ceremony for the class of 1970, whose commencement was cancelled after the killings at Kent State University.
After college, Mr. Simon lived for a time on hippie communes in Vermont. He helped finance Total Loss Farm and bought the property for Tree Frog Farm. “I was a privileged kid,” he wrote in a reminiscence the Globe published in July about the communes, which sometimes featured nude gardening. Eventually he left. “I didn’t want to know everyone’s inner secrets after a while,” he told the Globe in 2000.
In 1975, Mr. Simon — a staunch New York Mets fan — was watching the Red Sox in the World Series at a friend’s house when he met Ronni Goldman, who handcrafts jewelry for their gallery and other stores. “It was love at first sight,” Mr. Simon would later recall.
By the time they married in 1977, Mr. Simon already considered the Vineyard his permanent home, though assignments sometimes took him far away.
“The thing about Peter was his uniqueness and his sense of fun and his generosity,” his sister Lucy said. “He was always there for me and my family. We just loved him so much. I miss him terribly.
For a time, he hosted shows on radio stations, and had been a deejay at clubs. “I’d say I love music as much as I love photography,” he once told the Martha’s Vineyard Times. “Growing up, I always thought I’d be a deejay on the radio.”
Ronni said Mr. Simon also was devoted to his son Willie, who lives in Boston with his wife, Toni-Anne. “He was the best father in the world,” Ronni said, “and he was a wonderful husband, and tickled me to sleep every night.”
A service is being planned for Mr. Simon, whose immediate survivors are his wife, son, and three sisters.
Five years ago, when the Vineyard Gazette wrote about “Through the Lens,” Mr. Simon added an online comment to address his illness, which he approached with optimism. And with generosity in mind, he also trained his photographer’s eye on the future.
“Once I DO leave this earthly plane, I want to keep my body of work alive and well, and pass on my knowledge and experiences . . . to others to utilize and enjoy,” he wrote.
“To keep it all to myself,” he added, “would be selfish.”Bryan Marquard can be reached at email@example.com.