Thursday, December 24, 2009

Far from home, finding my way

I crouched behind the blind and waited.

It wasn’t really a blind, but the nearest urban equivalent: a few pieces of molded ash, a padded cushion of muted colors, four tapered legs. From my vantage I could peer across the living room into a narrow opening that branched off into the kitchen and family room. Soft light filtering through the gauzy drapery spilled onto the hardwood floor, casting a golden sheen that seemed to hold an echo of footsteps that never completely faded away. A faint murmur of voices drifted in from another room, a comforting undertone that nevertheless emphasized the solitary nature of my lonely vigil. Rising above the muffled conversation was the methodical plodding of my heartbeat and a creak of old bones as I shifted to one knee. The camera was heavy in my hands, and prefocused to a spot ten feet away.

I waited and listened, and knew it would not be long.

I used to think I was a pretty good photographer. I owned a pretty good camera, with which I could rack the ISO to astronomical levels to eliminate the need for a flash or track motion with a 3-D sensor, a technological whiz-bang that was far more efficient than the fumble-fingered idiot pressing the shutter. My preferred lens, a pro version with an f2.8 aperture, was fast and sharp as a tack, and cost almost as much as the camera itself. It was a good rig, a professional rig, and possibly inadequate to the task at hand. I felt completely outgunned.

Something stirred beyond the opening, the pad of a foot, the rustle of clothing.

I tensed and raised the camera. My finger brushed the shutter, taking up the slack. The custom dial was set to continuous high-speed shooting, the photographic counterpart to full auto on a machine gun.

A shape lunged through the opening with a high-pitched, delirious giggle. I had just enough time to squeeze off a few shots before it was upon me. The restricted perspective through the viewfinder allowed only for fleeting impressions: pale blue eyes, golden mane, teeth.

The creature ricocheted off me and streaked past. As it darted for the safety of the couch, it cackled in triumph, a wild cry reminiscent of a rooster crowing, hard r’s in succession interspersed with a staccato granpa granpa granpa!

Not long ago I was asked to photograph a volleyball game. The action was at times fierce, the lighting suspect and often crappy, and when I got home I threw out four hundred shots right off the bat. And that was before I started weeding through the good ones.

Shooting a two-year-old might be even more difficult.

I’ve always felt we should take every new experience and learn from it. Take its lessons to heart. Here, then, is mine: After 30 minutes with our granddaughter Hailey, I realize my career path as a photographer will never, must never, involve child portraiture.

It takes a special person with special skills. I’ll stick to dead flowers and shuttered prairie towns.


“What is in the way is the way.”

I came across this quote by Lao Tzu in David duChimen’s e-book, The Inspired Eye. As so often happens with quotes, witticisms or pithy sayings, it arrived on the shores of my consciousness at the exact time I most needed it. I’d been struggling to find creativity and vision in an urban setting, feeling like a duck out of water on these strange shores, and questioning the merits of taking time off to visit the grandkids as my winter solstice project neared its conclusion. Lao Tzu’s wisdom dropped like a boulder into the stagnant pond of my thinking.

In the day following this discovery, I photographed one of my favorite compositions so far: a child’s ball beside an oak heater vent.

There were others that haunted me, including one of a frosted sugar cookie (held by Sage, our oldest granddaughter at nine years old), another of a cookie sheet with two half-formed (or deformed, as was the case) cookies and Hailey’s finger—a finger which just poked a hole in the nearest gingerbread man—and one with Lilah’s hand wrapped around Lori’s index finger. Lilah, at five months, is the latest edition.

I also liked an image of a shopping cart against a wall with painted-over graffiti, taken at the old Sea Galley Restaurant where we used to eat crab legs and prime rib, now an empty building in a bad neighborhood. If, as I said at the beginning, my Winter Solstice Project would stand as a visual diary, then its imagery would be a remembrance of where we’ve been, what we’ve seen and what we’ve done. Incorporating the metropolitan area and our granddaughters wasn’t merely a challenge, it was an integral part. It was the journey.

It wasn’t until I’d posted the images that I realized I’d included the hands of all three granddaughters and my wife. If that wasn’t a subconscious inclusion, I don’t what is.


I was more in my element on the drive home, looking for images for my project in the abandoned prairie towns of eastern Colorado. A row of mailboxes, the front door of a mechanics shop and a weathered picnic table in Last Chance, an ancient green pump house east of Idalia, a rusty metal arrow affixed to a fence post on the edge of Cope, all fit my purview of a rural world in flux. As I was in flux, my art and my way of seeing, my impression of myself as grandfather, and the autumnal sun, too, its peregrinations leading it ever southward.

As we crossed into Kansas I glanced to the south and noted how low the sun rode in the afternoon sky. The solstice was two days away.

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