I’m writing this particular post without much of a compass. I’m pretty sure it’s gonna wander around topic wise, so I ask that you bare with me. More after the jump.
A few weeks ago we were informed that a recent graduate of the school had passed away. Her name was Crystal, and she was only 24 years old.
The tragic news rippled through the school. Having so recently graduated she still had a lot of friends, teachers, and connections here. Some took the news very hard, and just about everyone felt the loss in one way or another.
For my part I didn’t know Crystal very well – in fact, it’s fair to say I didn’t know her at all. She was one of our Costume Design students; and they are far more concerned with sewing machines rather than CPUs. It’s just not a group I tend to interact with very often. But two years ago I was asked to take portraits of all the senior designers for the school’s web site. And that’s when I took this photo
The “assignment” (such as it was) was to take portraits of some thirty students, all against a semi-uniform background. The thinking was that our senior acting students all had New York / LA headshots on our web site, but the designers were largely submitting candid “this is me wearing a silly hat” photos. So there I was, being asked to shoot something “you know… decent. It doesn’t have to be fancy or anything. Just something… nice”
And that’s exactly what I did. If I remember correctly it was something like a Wednesday night. Because of classes and rehearsals we couldn’t even start until 8:30 in the evening. And not everyone could show up at once… there were starts and fits of people coming in all evening long. And I knew – I just knew – that there were going to be some number of stragglers that would miss the shoot, and I’d have to recreate the identical setup and look at some later date.
I only had two speedlights anyway, so simple it was. One on the background with a blue gel (because, really, why not), the other in a softbox off to the side, high up and 45 degrees down. Sit here. Look at me. Click, click, click. Next.
It was Sears fricken photography. I made a joke about how I should have bookshelves or autumn leaves as my background. I had already worked a long day and from the moment it started I couldn’t wait to strike my gear and go.
Cut to a few days ago. The school had graciously decided to have a memorial service in Crystal’s honor (actually, it was called a Celebration of her Life, which all things considered is the better choice). I was asked to take some photos during the event – something I’ll admit I had misgivings about… but ultimately agreed to do. When I entered the venue, right there next to the speaker’s podium, was an oversized print of my picture of Crystal.
I had completely forgotten about that picture. When I had originally heard of the plans for the memorial it never even occurred to me that I had a photo of her. In retrospect I should have remembered, but seeing it there never-the-less gave me a real moment of pause.
For the most part I remember the photos that I take. More accurately; when I look at my photos I can distinctly recall the moment the shutter fell. I’m not talking about f-stops or white-balance settings… I can remember taking the picture. Seeing that print of Crystal instantly brought me back to a long night when I was tired and all I wanted to do was be done with the job and go home.
If your reading this blog chances are good you like to take pictures. Chances are even better that you never think the photo your taking is going to be someone’s obituary photo.
It doesn’t occur to me, either; tho it’s happened before. The one and only photo of mine ever to run in the New York Times was an obit photo of a professor here at the school. I remember taking that photo too, and it was under pretty much the same circumstances. But that’s not the point. Crystal had an endless number of Facebook photos (I know, because I later looked). Of all of them, it was my photo – one I couldn’t have put less thought into – that was chosen to represent her at her own memorial. And to be honest I don’t know how I feel about that.
As I type this there is yet another tempest in a teapot going on in the internets. I’ve read exactly enough of it to understand the points involved but also to know that it really doesn’t matter. I don’t say that to be morbid or nihilistic – I hear (and in most cases agree) with the passion that’s being expressed. But the picture at the top of this post: it’s Crystal’s mother at the memorial (it was one of the most difficult pictures I’ve ever taken – I’m still not sure I should have taken it at all)… but long from now, when some small part of the grief has faded away, that mother will have a photo of her daughter. That’s what matters. Do you think for a second she’ll see it and think “I wonder what seminar that photographer attended? or “I hope he shared my position on technique vs. leveraging a strong marketing base”. What she will have is a photo that (I can only hope and pray) will keep the cherished memories alive and the grief a little farther at bay.
When people say that I’m a photographer I tend to shrug… not because I’m trying to be coy but because I know there are about a hundred million photographers out there that are so much better than I am. And I’ve been so very lucky to meet a few of them, and even luckier that they’ve chosen to share what they know. One of them is even my oldest friend in the world. It’s from them that I’ve gone from precisely nowhere with my photography to wherever it is now. And if I get any better it will in all likelihood be because of them as well.
The bickering, the arguing, the “this” vs. “that” it all comes because we are passionate about the same thing. I get that. I bet you do to. But at the end of the day that picture you take – it might just turn out to be the most valuable photo in the world to someone. Even if you can’t imagine that at the time you take it. Lord knows I’ve been guilty of this before and probably will be again.
McNally calls it The Moment It Clicks. I’m starting to think it’s The Moment It Matters. And when you think about it that way, all those pictures we take, they all have the potential to matter. Sometimes you know this, a lot of times you don’t. I’m not suggestion that every capture is pure gold; but you’ve got to treat them that way. That 125th of a second is never, ever gonna come again. We try and we learn so we’ll be ready when that moment happens. We make mistakes - so many mistakes - but we try and get better. Who helps us, what path we walk to get there – it matters sure… but it all ends in the same place.
I look at that picture of Crystal now I wish to God I had put a little more effort into it. But that moment is gone and so is she. I didn’t know her in any meaningful way; but every time I pick up my camera some small and quite voice is going to remind me to do my absolute very best – and I think it will sound a lot like her.
End of line.