One of the joys of being a professional photographer—a term that still gives me the hives whenever anyone says it—is the constant learning required to master the craft. This is remarkable considering that school was 12 years of unremitting torture, other than for 6th grade when I sat next to a pretty blonde named Amy. Amy, like most pretty girls in 6th grade (and 7th, 8th, and so on) was utterly clueless about my presence except for two miraculous times when I became a trend-setter. The first was when I started packing heat, a perfect replica of the Man From U.N.C.L.E’s Walther, the second when I came to class wearing Beatle Boots. My newborn fame lasted all of one day, which was an education in itself.
This week I learned that if I attempt to use my 24-inch Lastolite softbox with its cheap plastic speedlight bracket in a reasonably stiff Kansas wind, things can and most probably will escalate. Believe me, I learned a lot chasing the softbox across a pasture land-mined with fresh cow pies, mostly involving the matching of photographic equipment to the state’s mercurial atmospherics as well as on-the-fly foot placement during high-speed pursuit across prime Simmental rangeland. (When my wife asked if I was responsible for the mud on the carpet, all I could say is, “not really.”)
I also learned upon arriving home that if one person has had a problem with a particular piece of equipment or gear, someone else has already solved it. Such was the case with the bracket. Within an hour of research a new industrial-strength metal bracket was on the way for the bargain price of $150. I figure it’s worth every penny if I never again have to scrape fresh cow flop from my softbox.
I also learned a new trick for photographing people who hate to have their picture taken. For example, before getting serious with the overwrought subject, I tell them I need to make a few test shots to test my exposure. They immediately relax, and I immediately take a very good portrait. That I did this on a dear friend was probably dastardly not so much for the splendid image but for the fact that I wasted no time in posting it to Facebook. Friends in Clay County have advised me to steer clear of the area for a few weeks or months until the subject in question calms down.
During my two-and-a-half month bout with shingles I learned a lot. I learned about pain management and how to overcome limited mobility, I learned about studio and on-location lighting, I learned new Photoshop tricks and techniques, and I learned that no matter how bad things are, you have to remain optimistic. That, too, is remarkable in that I’ve always been an avowed pessimist. Though I always loved Winnie the Pooh’s innocence and occasional brilliance, I found myself drawn to the sad, lonely, morose Eeyore. Eeyore’s gloomy outlook was the perfect antithesis to Tigger’s bouncy ebullience, and much more aligned with my own personality.
Yet for all of his forlorn bleakness, Eeyore occasional showed glimpses of what passed for optimism. During a particularly nasty winter storm, Eeyore was overheard to say, “It’s snowing still. And freezing. However, we haven’t had an earthquake lately.” On another occasion Owl flew by, and though Owl didn’t say anything to Eeyore, he at least noticed him, and that, Eeyore said, was very friendly and encouraging.
Friends, to Eeyore, were few and far between, but he appreciated the ones he had. When Pooh rescued his missing tail, he said, “Pooh is a real friend. Not like Some.”
Friends, to me, were also rare during my much of my life. But on the drive home from my wild portrait shoot in Clay County I reflected on friends I’ve met since relocating to Kansas, and I realized that my fortune in finding this place was as unimaginable as it was late in my years. (I could hear Eeyore mumbling, “Better late than never, for Some.”) That it happened at all was due to a good woman who had a dream she was willing to share, and for that I am forever grateful. In fact, it comes to me that marrying her was not just another form of education, as any married man will attest, but the exact moment when my personality shifted polarities from negative to positive.
The road was wet and the clouds low, and the few houses I passed were strung with Christmas lights. Topping a high ridge overlooking Randolph and the Flint Hills rolling away to the misty horizon, I was reminded of Dorothy’s “there’s no place like home,” an overworked phrase that nevertheless rang true. For Dorothy, these vast and stark prairies were in many ways like Eeyore’s antithetical opposition to Tigger. Her Kansas was hardscrabble, dusty and poor, while Oz was lush and green, a place where dreams could come true. It was a magical place where one could find their own strengths and resolutions, their own true nature. It’s no wonder that Kansas has attached itself to the Oz motif, and no wonder Kansans half-mockingly call this place Oz. It’s magical, and it’s home, and home is filled with friends and family. There really is no place like it, and no people like its people.