There is nothing like the slow light of dawn. Sunsets happen fast. There is this one moment of perfect light and then it’s all rapidly leeching away. Dawn is the reverse. You begin in the deep blue undertones where the difference between detail and absolute black is very slim. Find your way to the location you want. Find your basic composition and begin to set up for your shot. You have to be patient with sunrise. And watchful. Because the light will rise so slowly that it may catch you unaware. You won’t realize you’ve missed the perfect moment until it has passed you by.
In the cold winters of Montana I have developed the bad habit of staying warm and dry and indoors in the early hours. I prefer the warmth of my bedroom to the crunch of snow beneath my boots. But I miss the rising of the sun. It is a time of wonderment and gratitude. And on this day, I felt it particularly important to take in the hope of a new day as I face a cruel anniversary.
Ten years ago today my father died. He was 55 years old. Strong, full of life and joy and stories and songs. He was my hero. And he is to this day, along with my mother, the standard by which I judge my life. If I can be like them… If I can be the kind of person they would be proud to call theirs… Then I will know I have succeeded. I will know I have lived my life well.
A week or so ago I had a vision of a photograph I wanted to create in memoriam for my father, on this day. The idea is loosely based on a song from a movie. In Yentel Barbara Streisand plays a Jewish woman who disguises herself as a boy so that she can study the Torah after the death of her father. On her way to the school she stops for the night and sings Papa Can You Hear Me. “God, our heavenly Father, O God, and my father who’s also in heaven; May the light of this flickering candle illuminate the night the way your spirit illuminates my soul…” I love this song. And I love her voice. And I am never not crying when she reaches the end to sing “Papa how I love you. Papa how I need you. Papa how I miss you kissing me goodnight.”
So the idea for the photo is a candle burning quietly in the low light of morning. I wanted to melt the candle enough that it would be fixed to a rock that I could then place in a stream to have the water and the ripples surrounding the small light. That part didn’t work so well. I learned yesterday evening that the smallest breeze is enough to ruin this shot. You really have to be in a place that is protected and calm. I didn’t begin working on this early enough to find that right location. Plus the water ways here are iced over. Even if you can get to running water, you usually have to risk breaking ice and freezing cold to do it. I am going to come back to this image this summer and try again.
But I still wanted to make a photo today for my father. So this morning I got up early, layered up, and went to Lone Pine State Park. There are several rock outcroppings there and I thought that maybe I could place the candle in the lee of one of these stones, protected from the wind, I just might be able to make the shot work. I am very pleased with the results. Not just the photo itself, but also with the idea of it.
As a photojournalist I do not see myself as a creator. I see myself as a documentarian. My objective is not to envision and create images. My work is to keep my eyes my open to the possibilities that exist all around me, to see them, and show them, faithfully and true. This is the first time I have taken props and gone into a situation looking to tell my own story, rather than to find the story that naturally lives there. I suppose it is because of this that these photos feel different to me than anything else I’ve done.
I will never forget the photo shoot when the harsh difference between art photography and photojournalism became apparent to me. I was visiting a friend and fellow photographer in Oregon in the fall. We had gone to the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area to photograph the waterfalls and the beautiful old masonry that lines the road. I was working with my 35mm Nikon. She was shooting with her Hasselblad and tripod. I watched as she composed a photo of one of the gray stone bridges, covered in thick green moss, against the blue sky. It was lovely. Then, she walked over to one of the trees, picked off two perfect yellow leaves and added them to her composition. And as I watched I was literally shocked and I said – You can’t do that. Because in journalism you can’t. But she is an art photographer. So she looked at me quizzically and simply said – Why not? As it turns out, I didn’t have a why to give her. It is not unethical for an artist to manipulate the scene. She is not bound by the same rules that I am.
I would never attempt to present these images in any sort of journalistic forum. I did not find that candle out there burning. I did not record the sunrise of this day. I went out to make an image that reflects the love and loss I feel when I think that ten years have gone by. I have lived ten years without my father’s voice. I have lived ten years without his guidance and his wisdom. Sometimes I still wonder how this is possible, but if you have ever lost someone you love then you know, the world marches on. And you will be swept along with the progression of days, whether you want to be or not.
There is much sadness in a day like this one. But maybe it’s because I’m older, or because I have more perspective now, that I am also able to feel a profound gratitude today. I hope that too is reflected in these photos. My parents made my photography possible. I will wish every day until the end of my life that they could have lived to see what I did with their gift. I wish I could show them the life I have built and the woman I have become. That I could take all my photos, all my journals, all my adventures, and all my dreams and tie them all up in big red bow and say Here. This is for you. I made this for you. So you will know how thankful I am and that I did not waste the precious gift you gave. Of course, this is the impossible wish. It can never be. But maybe it doesn’t need to be. Maybe it is enough that I know who all the photos, and journals, and art are really for. It’s all for them. Even this blog. I am often curious who reads these things that I write. WordPress keeps track of how many visitors a site gets. I often wonder who it is that stumbles across my random entries. You, whoever you are, reading these words, you must know, I didn’t write this for you. I wrote it for them.
In letters and cards my father often closed with the phrase “Always in my thoughts.” My brother Eric and I have continued this tradition. I recently sent him a letter and on the outside of the envelop I wrote A.I.M.T. because it’s gibberish to anyone else, but I knew Eric would know what it meant. Now his words fill my mind. And I want to give these words back to my parents. Along with my thanks. For my life. For so many blessings. Thank you. You are always in my thoughts.