The Smile

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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

Portrait of Louise

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The Saskatchewan soil was wet with rainwater from the night before, and with her fragile hip and legs I was concerned if we should even attempt a picture so early in the morning, perhaps waiting until the sun dried the soil a little and trying later in the day or the next. When I brought up my concerns to her she said, “don’t be silly.”

We arrived at the location around 6:30am. It wasn’t the exact parcel of land that she used to farm, but it was very close to it. Slowly we made our way to the spot I had marked while scouting. The ground being soft and slippery, I ran back to the vehicle and grabbed a shovel to give her something for extra support and balance. I handed it to her and walked back to the camera, and when I turned around I found her shoveling the dirt near her feet. I asked, “what are you doing?” She replied, “shovelling.” I said “I know, but why?” She quipped back, “what else do you do with a shovel.”

When the tossing of dirt ceased, I started taking pictures. During this time we conversed about the beautiful sky, the vastness of the prairies, why anybody would ever live by an ocean, if I wanted a tour of the town (for the 430th time), her father and her grandfather who both loved photography, whether I would be better off living and working in Saskatchewan, the expensive sandwiches at the new restaurant (Subway) in the town 20 miles to the south, why had I grown up to be a pest, who would ever want to see a picture of her, and that it was now getting to be time for breakfast.

About a month later I went back to visit my Grandmother and I brought a few enlargements with me. She was a woman never easily impressed and she always shied away from any spotlight that may have been directed her way. I was so nervous and curious to witness her reaction to the photograph that I could barely sleep the few nights before.

Before presenting the picture to her, she asked if I was happy with the results. I told her that it was one of my favourite images that I’d ever made, that a few photo colleagues loved it and wanted to hang in their homes but that the true test was what she thought of it.

I handed it to her, the 11×14 inch print looked like a mural in her tiny hands. She smirked, studied it carefully, ran her fingers gingerly over the pearl surface, 15 to 20 seconds of silence went by, and finally, still looking at the picture, gently said, “oh that ugly old shovel.”

The Portrait of Uncle Maurice

Photographing family has always been of utmost importance to me. These photographs are some of my most treasured possessions – photographic artifacts that I treasure dearly, and yet it has never been easy to take them.

I like to think that I live in the moment and when I’m with someone I try to be with them 100%, especially if I haven’t seen them in some time. Over the years I’ve become a little better disciplined at it than when younger, yet as someone who loves to document for historical and legacy purposes, meeting family often becomes a bit of an inner battle.

My wife and I recently traveled to the prairies for our annual pilgrimage to visit the clan. I instinctively loaded a few seamless backgrounds, light stands, clamps, and a couple sandbags into an already crammed vehicle and we hit the road for Alberta in anticipation of spending time with older relatives; especially hoping to visit with and then capture an image of my elusive Uncle Maurice.

My dear uncle has always been evasive around my camera. He’s an introvert and very private; I respect that and don’t push the camera on him – much. I have one picture of him with his late wife Shirley from about 2003 that I just adore; a lighthearted and spunky moment between the two, but not a picture since then. Shirley passed away about 5 years ago; married and inseparable from her for nearly 50 years, he’s never really been his playful self since.

We spent 4 engaging hours with him that Sunday, laughing and reminiscing about days gone by, eating Nanaimo bars and pretzels and consuming a little wine before heading to a restaurant for dinner. After the meal he asked if he could take us on a little tour to show us where his daughter’s new home was being constructed.  The day’s light was quickly setting and I was a little concerned that my plan to photograph him, which needed to be within the next 15 minutes, was going by the wayside.  We agreed to the tour – it was important to him.

At the subdivision he was telling me about the slope, the siding, and how construction was behind schedule. The sun was setting, and I found it harder to stay in the present. Luckily after a few more minutes he said something about it getting late and started heading back to the vehicle. Before opening the door I asked him if I could take a quick portrait of him.  He said ‘sure’.

Scrambling to set up my makeshift studio in front of a half finished garage, he chuckled and couldn’t believe I was ‘making this fuss’ for him. I started to photograph. Four frames into it he told me that I should have enough by now. I took about 50 more.

The photos above are the results. Asking him about the abundance of single and available ladies in his senior’s complex precipitated the great Uncle Maurice laugh; the same one I recalled as a kid. They won’t win first place in the annual PDN awards, (refusing to enter those contests affirms that – a post maybe for another time) but they are documents that I will cherish.

It would have been easy to convince myself that it just wasn’t meant to be on that particular day; I would get him next time, or even next year.  I’ve procrastinatively justified those scenarios in the past, and now no longer do. We all learn in life that ‘next time’ is never guaranteed.

* After sending this photo to my uncle, I asked him for a quote; something that I could use for a caption or headline for a blog post.  He replied, “Tell them ‘he’s my uncle and he’s available’.”