The Smile


I noticed a lady wearing this wonderful orange printed shirt gazing right at me. Instantly the hundred or so other people in my line of sight no longer existed. I approached, and quickly realized that it wasn’t me she was looking at, but rather she was looking past me seeing whom she might recognize from the large gatherings. Awkwardly I introduced myself anyway and asked if I could take her picture. Without hesitation she agreed and I began.

I was astounded at how serene and unruffled she was when I was photographing her. She just looked at me impassively, almost awaiting direction. And I was about to give none. Everything felt in slow motion. It was that amazing and vulnerable space where thirty seconds feels like three years. And just when I thought I had consumed enough of her time, a man appeared, her husband, and he too wanted to be in the picture.

This was August of ‘99. I was working at the studio when I noticed a massive cloud of smoke on the east side of town. I finished up the shoot I was working on and headed in the direction of the mishap. An oil recycling tank had exploded (tragically, I found out later that two young employees of the oil company had perished) and people in nearby communities were told to evacuate their homes and to head for safer ground. In many cases, safer ground meant not too distant schoolyards and mall parking lots.

The couple I was photographing had heard a loud boom and were told to leave their home quickly. They didn’t bother to take anything but themselves and their two small dogs. The fallout from the explosion was contaminating the land and no one was sure what the wind would do. Not knowing how dangerous the situation really was, the health risks, the financial costs, how long they’d be away, or if they’d ever see their home again, uncertainty was their new companion.

I found it fascinating that despite all that was happening to their world that day, they were so open to letting me photograph them. As I recall now, they didn’t even ask why I wanted to take their picture, or what it would be used for. They seemed implausibly accepting, almost meditative.

I remember thinking that I was not necessarily there to document the event. The newspaper photojournalists were swarming and recording for their publications and I was merely concerned about making a contemplative portrait. A photograph that would say something about the subjects, the situation, and yet leave a little mystery to be unraveled.

I deliberately cropped out the homes in this frame to encourage that mystery. The husband gave his a wife a big hearty affectionate clutch. A gust of wind picked up at that very moment, swirling a lock of the woman’s hair back and forth. And just when I thought I had the photograph, whether it was a habit of patterned programming, or nervous energy, or the feeling of being blessed for being safe and sound physically, they added to that mystery with a smile.

I mindlessly misplaced their number that night, and have never been in touch with these two since. I would love to have coffee with them.    DL


**I stumbled across these writings a few days ago. I wrote this for a friend’s photo blog ten years ago but that blog is no longer online so I thought I’d repost it again here.  I may write it a little differently today but it vividly brought me right back to that very moment, still. Hope you enjoy.  DL

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