Today I was reminded by my photographer friend, Carolynn D’Alessandro, of a video I saw, How Photography Connects Us, when I first made my decision to go professional with my photography. David Griffin’s words resonated with my own motives as a photographer then, and now it moves me to put it into words.
I've always been a connector kind of person, urged by something deep within to promote connection between us, attempting to replace the autonomy that seems to be the human condition. Not that I can succeed at this, but still I’m driven to try.
When I write, it’s so my words might bring us, me and my readers, together at a common level, whether emotional, or a level of understanding. I’ve always photographed for the same reasons. Family shots not only brought us together for that moment in time, but now includes my grandchildren and in-laws and friends. Because of those photographs, they can connect with the entire family from its inception, in a way not possible otherwise.
That naturally blossomed into my professional photography. When I capture a scene that is so striking it strikes awe in me and makes my problems seem trite and my heart more thankful, I want to share that feeling, that insight, that vision, that story, with others. That’s what photography is all about, no matter your photographic genre.
David Griffin’s talk, How Photography Connects Us, focuses on photojournalists’ inimitable images bringing to light some of the most pressing issues of our day. I’m primarily a landscapist, but our motives are all the same. I use Photoshop to manipulate my images until they look similar to how I see thing in real life, which is, as we all know by now, through rose-colored glasses because I live in a fairy tale! For more on that.
Though I’m not a purist (straight photography, no touch-ups), my motives are the same as all photographers when I work in my digital darkroom; to share a moment of great emotion, insight, understanding, bringing the remotest of us viewing it together for an instant in order to understand our connection indefinitely.
I remember the day I shot the above photo, Twixt Twilight. I wandered in and out of the ruins; one of the numerous adobe skeletons sprinkled throughout the vast mountains of northern New Mexico, going mostly unnoticed by locals. Besides the three rooms, there were two adobe outbuildings in this homestead, obviously built by the hands of the loving family who inhabited it. See video of the shoot.
I was drawn most to this room, obviously (to me) the bedroom, where the family enjoyed much needed rest each night, and much more needed dreams; dreams that sustained them through the harsh beauty of the nature surrounding them, which in turn riveted hearts to the One who created it. I’ve found mountain folks to be most devout in their spirituality for these obvious reasons.
If this photo touched you in the way intended, I of course, needn’t say one word of the story behind this shot. Like a good joke, a good photograph doesn’t need to be explained. But, in a nutshell, this is the explanation of why I photograph. And as usual, it’s an image that conveys it.
I was to attend an early September artist’s reception for my friend, Corinna Stoeffl in Abiquiu, NM. I scanned the skies before leaving and was elated to find that monsoon season had once again supplied awesome and outrageous stormy skies filled with icy rains. After one skyward glance I began loading all my photo equipment (to use after the reception) with full intent of the rains drying up for a long-anticipated photo shoot, and headed out to pick up my friend Fatou.
On the way to the reception I pointed out the swirling black clouds and told Fatou that I would stay at the reception for 45 minutes only and needed to leave right at 5:00 to photograph Cerro Pedernal beneath this sky. She laughed because the freezing rain pounded around us with no signs of letting up.
But I was determined, because one hot and lazy day the previous spring I departed my usual errands and treated myself to my favorite adventure; following roads unknown, at least to me. I ended up in the beautiful, sleepy Spanish village of Canones.
The dirt road literally parted for a ridge towering above the camino and providing a broad, open view of the Cerro Pedernal peak, made famous by Georgia O’Keefe. The sun that day was far too bright for a good shoot, but I promised myself to return during monsoon season when the sky creates legends.
But today, Fatuou and I drove past the peak hidden in the downpour, though I stole many glances as I drove. The reception was wonderful, and my friend Corinna’s photos huge and gorgeous. Still, Fatou knew I was serious about my shoot.
At 4:55 she kidded me again about the pouring rain, and I reiterated that it would stop for me to get my photos. I don’t know why I was so determined, especially as we left running through the drenching rains to my truck, then looked at one another in surprise when, as soon as we shut ourselves into the truck, the rain stopped.
We drove to my spot and I was fully prepared to climb that steep ridge with 60 pounds of equipment on my back despite my bum knee. I'd waited for months for conditions to be right and nothing would stop me now.
I circled the ridge and was grateful to find a narrow rutted path barely as wide as my vehicle that took us to the top. Fatou slept while I used all my favorite lenses and snapped Cerro Pedernal from many angles for the next hour and a half in high winds, but not a drop of rain to harm my equipment.
I wasn’t even aware of the passing time. I didn’t stop shooting until the already high winds increased and blew over my tripod, and nearly me. The rains started at that moment sending us home, Fatou well rested and me well satisfied.
"Get your head out of the clouds!"
That's what people have told me all my life. Usually it was somber, critical, unhappy people (or groups of them) who are angry that someone in their presence has the nerve to be joyful. So naturally I did just the opposite.
I now live where I can keep my head in the clouds! One fine and stormy early April day, my friend Sue and I set off to go up mountain for photo ops. In New Mexico everything is photo worthy. Even bad weather is awesome here, so sometimes you'll find me heading out in the worst of it.
I chose Mesa Alta, as I often do when I know the snows have not cleared from the higher roads. Not that Mesa Alta isn’t plenty high. This day we attempted to crest the mountain and loop down the other side into a neighboring village, but were blocked by snow and a fallen tree.
Sue and I were exuberant as we climbed in and out of clouds on our way to the peak. It is exhilarating to be among the clouds, as always, but this day had a special treat for us. Near the crest we drove into another cloud, but this was a first for me for this was a snow cloud.
It was not snowing when we entered it, or when we exited it. I had to just stop in the middle of this snow-engorged cloud and marvel. When I saw the white wisps of the cloud all around us I grabbed my camera (imagine that!).
What you might first think is blurred snowflakes in this picture is in reality wisps of the actual cloud we sat snuggled within. I could barely catch my breath when I realized where we were. There are moments in your life in which you are so engulfed in its surreality, you know you will never forget, nor ever experience the likes again. Those are the moments we live and die for. Why, would we ever want to get our head out of the clouds?
Music Man Willie
Mountain Music Man Willie (pictured), and his wife Elicida threw a birthday party at the church for Elicida's 79th birthday on May 20th, 2007. I felt honored to be included by the family in this celebration, so of course, I brought my camera, assortment of lenses and tripod, batteries, memory chips....I was armed and ready.
We got pictures of opening presents, we lined everyone up outside the church, I even sneaked around catching love birds snuggling. But as always seems to happen, "that" moment sneaks up behind you when you least expect it. It doesn't even usually have the courtesy to give you a warning tap on the shoulder.
After the festivities, Willie and Elicida invited us all over to the house to finish off the massive amounts of leftover food, which we did with relish, not to mention with red and green chili. Elicida re-heated everything and we commenced stuffing ourselves all over again.
I was stuffing yet another tortilla when Willie winked at me almost imperceptibly and slowly walked through the arch into the open bedroom adjoining the kitchen. Naturally I put down my plate, grabbed my camera, and followed. To my delight, he reached under the bed and pulled out an accordion and began playing Spanish music and polkas and mountain music I didn't even recognize.
When he paused and I stopped applauding, with his eyes just a-twinklin', he said, "Do you know how old this accordion is? Why, it's the third one I got in 1947. The first two I sold to get money when dating two other young ladies. When I was about to sell this one for money to date Elicida she wouldn't let me. So I kept it, and I kept her." He went right on playing and I went right on taking pictures.
I made sure I repeatedly read these pages to my children and to every adult I’ve met along my path who I thought would “understand.”
It amazes me that such wisdom was distributed through a children's book written almost 90 years ago, and it’s not even required reading in our schools. But I’ll allow a few pages from the book to elaborate. After reading them I believe you’ll understand.
“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?"
“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”
“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.
“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”
“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”
“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t often happen to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”
This was a day for mourning a loss and celebrating a life; the day no one wants to pass. Dozens of us passed through the semi desert, made more so by the June heat, to the rocky home of Hippie Dan’s lifelong friend, Kevin. We had lost Dan. He was heavy upon our memories and light upon our hearts.
Everyone brought mementos to place around the photo board under the tin-roof shade of Kevin's cabin. I added my photo of Hippie Dan (below) to the dozens of others; some faded and cracked with age. Kevin and I shared tears as he stuck my photo in the very center.
It was on last Thanksgiving Day. Dan had even removed his oxygen for the moment. I worked hard on that photo, having no idea it was his last. But I appreciated the character of this man that went unnoticed by most, and wanted to bring everything I saw in him to the surface.
When I trudged through the December snow to take a copy of the finished portrait to Dan for approval I didn’t tell him of the manipulations in Photoshop and all the time spent on it. His eyes widened as he studied it and finally breathed his verdict, “Damn, I didn’t know I looked so good that day!”
My only words had been, “Dan, you always look that good.”
It was a privilege I hadn’t foreseen; Dan’s last living photo. The memorial service went as most do. Good food, good people remembering good times and making more good memories. Before the sun could set I gathered up my photography equipment (I took group pictures) and headed for a shoot over the Continental Divide.
Starting up the pass toward the Divide, I turned toward an unexpected sight behind me – as unexpected as my photo being Dan’s last. This interval spot served as a channel to the Great Divide country above. This Benevolent Passage portrays not only admission into the ranges apexing our country, but of Dan’s pinnacle passage too.