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The Power Of A Photograph
The young daydream of exotic careers. Something far from the ordinary. A calling that perchance will elevate them above the masses. For me that career would have been that of a photographer. I can’t say what started this desire to capture images but I can tell you it never materialized. My good fortune, however, was that life kept throwing me around people who are photographers, and I would learn to appreciate a photo’s ability to tell a story.
In high school I took no photographs for the annual. In college it was my good luck to room for several years with Garnett Wallace at the University of Georgia. Unbeknownst to him I envied his camera and collection of lenses and accessories. Garnett is the first great photographer in my hall of fame. When I think of all the photographers I’ve worked with I think of him first and yet we, both with journalism degrees, never collaborated on a thing.
When I returned to Georgia to earn a Masters in Media my desire to join the Wallaces of the world got the best of me. Work on my Masters taught me how to load spools of 35-millimeter film and to process others’ photographs in a darkroom. I wanted to see my own photographic phantoms materialize in a pan of Dektol. Somehow I got my hands on a cheap 35-millimeter single lens reflex camera. I believe it was a Ricoh. Oh the photos I took! Great dreams I had with that cheap camera. I would travel, document the world, and win awards. I snapped away. Priceless isn’t the word that describes my images. Oh no, the word is worthless. The problem I had was twofold: my eyesight wasn’t sharp and worse my sense of composition was nonexistent.
Sitting in a drafty mobile home one afternoon at 216 North Avenue in Athens, I searched my soul. Photography, I realized, was not the path for me. First of all I was no good. Second, nothing about photography back then was cheap. Cameras, lenses, and accessories were costly and so was film and processing. I was a 23-year-old graduate student. Money was nonexistent. And then the idea that maybe writing was my career took hold. All I needed was a yellow legal pad and a pencil. For say a dollar fifty I was in business.
And so writing was the vehicle that in time reintroduced me to the world of photography. I had dabbled in photography at Georgia and had even taught it at a girls’ school in Columbia but a real photographer I was not.
When I left my full-time collegiate teaching position I got a job working in film. I became a scriptwriter/cinematographer. I learned to shoot footage on a workhorse of the 16 mm movie and TV industry, the “Arri” as the Arriflex BL was affectionately known. This camera proved ideal for shooting documentaries. We used it to film wildlife. A lot of time was spent alone in blinds, well before daylight.
These were the days of road trips to remote locations, days upon secluded, protected barrier islands, and cold dawns. Though I was a capturer of moving images I remained in love with still photography, which eluded me. I was getting closer though. When I became the managing editor of an outdoor magazine I met Robert Clark. (Want to treat yourself? Get a cup of coffee, sit down, and visit http://www.robertclarkphotography.com/)
Robert and I would become collaborators and fast friends and as of now we have co-authored six books and scores of magazine features. Studying Robert’s images and writing about them opened up a new world to me: the power of a photograph to communicate. When you sit down to describe a photograph that will go in a book that will sell for 20 years, you don’t approach the task of cutlines lightly. You get into and behind the photo. You look intently at every aspect.
Most outsiders don’t know how to look at a photograph. They see snapshots. They notice the subject matter of course. They, perhaps, appreciate the dawn sunlight that gives the image rich saturated colors. But do they really look? Do they tap into the context, the true power of the image itself? Once in a blue moon maybe. They are always in a hurry and take so much for granted.
Here then is how to appreciate the power of a photograph. First realize that photographs tell stories. That curling, cracked Polaroid of your deceased uncle and aunt holds secrets as surely as famous images in history books do. A world entire lives inside the four walls of a photograph. Don’t just look, analyze. And do something else. Deconstruct the image. Tear it apart then put it back together.
One Christmas my sister, Deb, gave me a black-and-white photograph of three Lincoln County lads from yesteryear. The men revel in their youth. They look assured, cocky even. Dad stands between Leslie Holloway, left, and Billy McWhorter. Dad’s arm is casually draped around Leslie’s neck as if to say, “C’mon, let’s go shoot some pool.” Winter light floods the scene. Leslie wears plaid trousers, judging from the texture, wool no doubt. Dad wears a bomber jacket. Billy’s collar flies above his jacket like a white dove. The men wear leather gloves—pleather would not come until 1963.
The men stand in front of a large building. Just to the left of Leslie Holloway sits a crude homemade bench. Behind the men is a tall fashionable set of double doors, so most likely it is not Price’s Store. Wherever it is it’s most likely in Double Branches.
The moment is not forgotten. No. It lives on. A photograph is a kind of time machine. Eternity freeze-framed. As one writer put it the clock holds its breath. Two of the three men have passed away and yet they live right before my eyes in an image where I am a time traveler literally going back to my future. There stands the man who will father me.
My guess is that this photo was taken after my father returned from Hiroshima. That would be around 1946 or 1947. He seems serious. Understandable. If he’s single marriage is just around the corner, April 11, 1947. Most startling is the full head of hair. All my life I knew Dad as a bald man. In later years he wore a toupee … something I was never comfortable with but if it made him happy, fine.
What of this photo frozen in time. Who took it? (We’ll never know.) And what kind of camera? Perhaps it was a Kodak Retina II or more likely a camera with a viewfinder on top because the photographer has cut the men’s feet off. That could be an Ensign Ful Vue camera. But wait the focus is off. Perhaps it was a clunky Kodak Rangefinder. And what time of day?
Look at the photograph again. It appears to be a very cold day. It’s not much past noon, say 1:00 p.m. and yet the men wear gloves. We know this because the shadow from my father’s gloved right hand drops an image of itself onto Leslie’s sweater. The shadowy fingers hardly slant nor do they extend themselves.
So is it February? Probably. And I’d hazard a guess that it’s a Saturday. The men appear dressed for some causal affair, not work. A bit of sleuthing turns up a date: Saturday, February 15, 1947. It’s the day after Valentine’s Day and possibly these gentlemen are taking their ladies out later. Might my Dad propose to my Mom this very evening? Of course we have no idea if all this is true but it makes sense and could easily be the truth.
One final detail. Note the board angled out just so to the left above Billy’s head. The light slants in just so creating a pocket of shadow above the three amigos. The men face north and something more: the rest of their lives.
Today I spend far more time writing about photos than taking them. I appreciate good photography more than ever. I never made it as a photographer though now and then some journal uses one of my photographs. When it does I feel a secret thrill. Recently a designer chose one of my photos to go into a history book, a tribute more to the efficacy of my digital camera more so than my abilities. I am no Garnett Wallace or Robert Clark.
Of course everyone thinks they are a photographer today. You can’t escape people and their cell phones and digital cameras. Spend a minute on Facebook and you’ll see all manner of snapshots. People so easily take photos now it fools them into thinking they’re better than they are. Focusing? Not necessary anymore. Bracketing for optimum exposure, what’s that? Sending film off to be processed to see how things turned out. What? You’ve got to be kidding. I can see my photo right now! How easy today’s wannabe photographers have it.
Appreciating a revealing photo however is more difficult. Every picture tells a story … if we are willing and able to get inside the image and listen to its narrative.