Words That Last Longer Than A Lifetime

If by Rudyard KiplingI do not remember the first time I came across the poem “If” by Rudyard Kipling. I loved it instantly. There are so many powerful life lessons in the 32 lines.

The poem was published in 1895. Nearly 70 years later my grandmother, Gertrude Ahearn, gave a copy of this poem to my father, Michael Ahearn, the day he shipped off to join the United States Marines. For the rest of his life, this was his favorite poem. But that is not the end of the family connection. Years after his death, these words still remind me of my father. Every time I read this, I remember the kind of man he was and the way he exemplified what a good man’s life should be.

Over the years I have made photo collages with this poem, but I have always tried to incorporate the entire poem into one photo. Without fail, the words tend to overwhelm the image. This is one of my early attempts. I did a series of photos of Calla Lilies and the shape of these reminded me of the word “if.” I like this, but I mostly feel the whole poem is just too much for one image.If by Rudyard KiplingI have been thinking a lot of my parents this week and, of course, this poem came to haunt me again. I wrote it all out in my journal and decided it is well passed time for me to memorize the whole thing — I know it in pieces and parts of it, but if I were asked to recite “If” in order, I would botch the job. As I started thinking of the words I remembered the incredible sunset I photographed about a week ago. The mountains catching the last rays struck me as a worthy backdrop for a poem about personal integrity and strength of character.

To read the entire poem go to: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/175772

The Most Challenging Assignment Ever

Swan Mountain SunsetFor a month or so I have been looking at the mountains to the east and scouting for locations from which to photograph them.

I’ve been in love with these mountains since I moved here and realized exactly how close I was going to be living to them. But this recent push to get the perfect view has less to do with my love of the mountains and more to do with a request from a friend.
Swan Mountain SunsetOne of my friends grew up in Kalispell. He grew up looking out his parents front window at those mountains at sunset. And he would like me to capture a very specific view of the Swan Mountains. Now, there are several parameters for this photo. It has to be shot in the winter. It has to be shot at sunset. It has to show the bright pink Alpenglow that he loves.
Brenda Ahearn PhotographyThe way the eye sees and the way the camera sees are two completely different things. I’ve looked at the peaks from his old road. It’s a terrible view for a photograph. Houses, telephone poles, electric wires, and clutter that the eye can ignore and the camera cannot.

One of the first things you have to learn in photography is to see through the lens. The eyes and the brain can tune into a specific subject, mentally fading out all other distractions. The eye see things emotionally, seeing what it wants to see. The camera, however, is perfectly objective. It will record whatever you put in front of it, all of what you put in front of it. So when you are learning photography you have to learn how to eliminate the distractions. It is up to you to compose the shot and remove lamp posts and cars, and anything that takes away from the subject you are trying to capture.
Swan Mountain SunsetThe great thing about the mountains is, you can see them from all over the Flathead Valley. The bad thing is, everyone wants that view. So, there are houses, and fences, and roads, and cars, and wires, and barns and all matter of whatnot that get in the way of the clean, pure view I am looking for. The hard part about this project isn’t the mountains, it’s finding the perfect location.
Flathead Valley SunsetOn Saturday, I had a spectacular night. The peaks were brightly lit in the last rays of sunset and I just so happened to be in Bigfork. As soon as I saw what was happening, I knew I was going to get some great shots. Maybe even the shot for my friend.
Sunset Peaks of the Swan MountainsThis night was nearly perfect. The sky was filled above the peaks with dramatic clouds, that captured the light without obscuring the mountain tops. We had fresh snow and the peaks were positively vibrant. They glowed. In that light, the peaks were simply gorgeous. As I drove, looking for a place to stop and shoot I started wondering if my friend was seeing the peaks. A minute later I got his text: “The mountains are going to be awesome tonight” with the word tonight highlighted. I had to laugh at his timing.
Alpenglow on the Swan MountainsAs I said, the night was nearly perfect. I have to say nearly, because I don’t think these shots will be the ones he wants. He really wants the mountains alight with Alpenglow. But I am hoping one of these views ends up being the one he wants. At least then I will know exactly where to go when the right night finally comes.

I’ve got several snowy sunsets still to come for this winter, so I’m not worried yet. But I am determined. I have never tried to capture someone else’s vision before. I go. I find. I see. I fall in love with what I am seeing. And I record it. That’s how my scenic photo shoots usually go. Trying to record what someone else wants, a specific commission tied to what one person has seen and loved his entire life, has been one of the most challenging assignments I’ve ever taken on.

The Dream of Becoming a Photographer

The Dream of PhotographyBeing a professional photographer brings me into contact with a lot of people. And one of the conversations I have again and again usually begins with the words “I’ve always wanted to be a photographer.” And I smile every time I hear it. On the one hand it reminds me that my life is a blessing. I get to do this job, a job many would happily claim. How many? 120 people applied for my job, I’m the lucky one who got it. And for those of you who don’t know me, I live in a small town in Northwest Montana. I can only imagine the number of applicants when your talking about a job in the big, bad city.

I get to be a photographer. I get to spend my days driving around looking for what’s cool, what’s interesting, what is beautiful. I get to be a seeker and I get to share what I find. It’s an awesome life. But my smile is also holds a touch of sadness, because I know the high price this job demands. Incredible flexibility. Last minute uncontrollable changes. Terrible conditions. The worst of humanity (and fortunately, also the best). Pain. Suffering. Grief. It is impossible for me to document someone’s pain and not share in it. Have plans for the evening — good luck with that. It’s your kid’s birthday — cute, but the building is on fire so go…NOW! “Who is texting you at at 3:13 in the morning?” — That’ll be dispatch.
Being a photographer is a gift, but you’ll pay a high price to have it.

Still, I would not trade my life for another. There are things about my job that I do not love. Welcome to reality, it’s a real job with real highs and real lows, just like any other. There are assignments I am passionate about, experiences that enrich my life, stories that stir my soul. Conversely, there are plenty of assignments I’d rather skip. That’s life at a newspaper. But being a photographer isn’t about having the title. It’s not even about having the gear, though that helps. Being a photographer is a way of living life. It is a means of exploring and documenting your own experiences. And you don’t have to work for Time magazine to do that.

Time does this great series called LightBox. I found an article today that brought a few things to mind about that dream of being a photographer. When people dream of being a photographer they tend to dream of working for National Geographic or Time or some other big publication. They dream of exotic locales and unparalleled access. The dream of photography seems to also always be a dream of traveling. This article puts a bit of the kibosh on that. With the way technology is changing regional photographers are becoming the standard.

One of my favorite quotes from the piece was by Susan Meiselas, Director of the Magnum Foundation. She said, “I want to know from within [emphasis added] what the world looks like and feels like…There are times when insiders have a privileged view and there are times when outsiders can see what insiders cannot perceive…” I grew up overseas and I know well, there is a unique power and access, that often an outside will never be privy to. The technology that exists today is letting people speak for themselves about what their lives and culture really mean, rather than waiting for a set of Western eyes to see and share and interpret.

With everyone having a personal cell phone these days, and therefore a camera in hand at all times, the glut of images can be overwhelming. And as the technology changes photography is changing. I’ve been doing this 18 years and other than once talking my boss into sending me to New York (from DC) to cover a local kid on Broadway, I have never managed to convince my editors that travel expenses were necessary. (Side note: the only reason I got to go, was I had a friend living in NYC and a free place to stay).

It is however important to note that just because the world of photography is changing does not mean the photography has become any less worthy. But perhaps the dream needs a bit of tweaking. Keep dreaming of being a photographer, but accept the harder challenge: to be a photographer without the National Geographic All-Access Pass. Be a photographer right where you are.

Recently, I was asked to teach a photography class at my church. I am really excited about this, and also really terrified. It will start in March and wrap up 12 weeks later in May. Nothing is set at this point. I have so many ideas bouncing around my brain I barely can contain them. But most of it comes down to an overwhelming sense of joy — I have been a photographer for 18 years. I LOVE being a photographer and for the first time, I am going to try to share what I love with a group of people for an extended time period. I have until March, to organize the classes. You can’t learn all there is in 12 weeks, so I’m focusing on what I think will be most helpful. And at this point, that revolves around learning to see the way the camera sees. (More on that later. Incidentally, I plan on posting the lessons here on my blog, so check back in March if you are interested in that.)

The dream of photography is a lifestyle dream. The love of photography is about where you are right now. It’s about seeing what is right in front of your own eyes. Finding the beauty that is all to easy to overlook, pass by, take for granted. The most ordinary place you can imagine is exotic to someone. The most boring moments of life have something worth sharing, just waiting to be found.

I am so looking forward to teaching this class. I look forward to all I will get to share, but mostly, I look forward to all I will get to remember and relearn.

Year in Review

I always love looking back through the photos of year. What I did, where I went, what I captured: it never fails to leave me feeling proud of what I accomplished and challenged to do even better next time.

I believe that great things are coming for 2014 and am really excited, but before I close 2013 for good I wanted to share these, my top 12.

Best wishes to you all!