I didn’t want to go out into the cold and ice and snow and so fretted over it with altogether too much energy. It was the last night of 2012 and I was tired. My wife had been working crazy long hours so we’d barely seen each other for several weeks, and here we were snug and warm while outside winter honed its icy blades, the roads snowpacked and treacherous. I had a good book to read and hot coffee, but also unfinished business. And that business allowed no rest.
“Go,” my wife said.
“I hate bars,” I replied.
“Want to go with me?”
So much for moral support. I reluctantly got dressed, donned my coat and slipped the camera over my shoulder.
“See you next year,” I said, and went into the night.
For the past year I’d photographed the men, women and children of our town performing the diverse tasks that are at their core the building blocks of rural America. The project, called The Way We Worked after the Smithsonian Institution’s traveling exhibit of the same name, was sponsored by a grant from the Kansas Humanities Council. Our historical society was one of 16 partner sites to the traveling exhibit, and the first time the Smithsonian had partnered with small towns. While the other sites focused on their particular histories as related to work or culture (mining, agriculture, black populations, etc.), ours was a photographic record of how we worked in Blue Rapids. We called it a snapshot of a single year and thought of it in terms of the historical record. It was also a lot more time-consuming than I’d envisioned, and much more rewarding.
Along the way I’d spent hundreds of hours with farmers, ranchers, convenience store workers, clerks, grocers, city workers, lifeguards, contractors, shopkeepers, retailers, postal employees, medical professionals, welders, musicians, explosives experts, county fair workers and volunteers, even a cat and a dog. I was there for funerals and the baptism of twins. I was allowed unrestricted access into the working lives of my friends, my neighbors and complete strangers. Everywhere I went my camera went. And all the time I brooded over the final shot, the wrap, when I would lay down my camera and begin working on the exhibit that would follow.
By mid-December I had a few ideas, several of which fell through. That left the nursing home or the bars. The former would be fairly boring barring any disastrous emergency (“hours of mind-numbing boredom punctuated by heart-pounding terror” was how it was explained); the latter filled with drunks, almost-drunks, getting-there-drunks, too-loud music and drunken revelry. But the celebratory aspect appealed to me. While my fellow partiers toasted the conclusion of one year and the birth of another, I’d be toasting the same for my project.
I’m not much of a bar person, though. Throughout the project I liked to quip that I’d spent more time in churches and bars than at any period in my life. Without fail I was asked which I preferred. Bars, I said. Their brand of spirits suited me best.
You never know what you’re going to get: that’s the first rule of photography.
The second is to go with the flow. Be flexible. Be realistic. Be prepared. and above all, be ready.
The counter is crowded, the music blaring. The bartender is working alone, fast and furious. I’m positioned near the end of the counter so I can frame her against the wall of bottles, mirrors, signs and assorted bling plus the digital wall clock hanging above the cash register.
Halfway through my second beer it comes together as if choreographed. The clock shifts to 11:59 p.m., the bartender turns and glances at the clock, I hammer the shutter, eight or nine frames faster than a person can blink. And know, without the slightest doubt, that I nailed the shot.
“Happy New Year,” I toast, draining my beer with the rest of them. What I meant was, “To 2012: one of the best years of my life.”