The Pull a Camera Out of a Hat Trick

I have a photo of a guy in a hat, sitting on a street corner. The hat is a legend, at least in the guy’s mind. Anytime he was not at work, the hat was planted atop his head. Once the hat disappeared, it was mourned like a little brother who had mysteriously vanished from a school bus stop.

The guy, ready to leap into manhood, sat smiling just for me. Those that drove by must have thought us silly sitting there, one block off Main Street with nothing happening. I had my camera, which was enough of a “happening” for me.

Stroll a decade or so this way and that boy would still get a sideways longing look in his eyes when you say, “green Stussy hat”. Listen and hear him mumble how great that hat was, how he can’t believe they don’t make them anymore. Those were the days when he had long, soft hair with just the slightest bit of wave at the ends. Perfectly tucked behind his ear and under the hat.

Yet, what lingers from this memory that bubbles to surface is this; on a random day in the summer, I had my camera out. It was with me and it was not odd that it was with me. I am sure that the true mission that day was to spend time with the boy, not to capture an amazing photograph of our newly built church. The new church building sat just to the north of the curb where we were perched that late afternoon.

I can recall the basics of his attire from the black Addidas high tops to the green baseball cap on his head. Me? I have no clue what I was wearing, though there may be a photo of us both on that roll, permanently sitting in a frame between the smiling boy and church bell tower.

The camera was a gift from an uncle. A manual Pentax 35 mm. I shot with that camera from 7th grade in 1989 through college. The lens saw more sporting events than I ever did. In my first year of college, there were students that didn’t recognize me without that lens in front of my face. It is amazing what you can and can’t see with a lens in front of your eye. What you choose to see and what only appears on celluloid later.

New college. New professors and one in photojournalism that actually managed to get me to put my camera in a bag, on a shelf,in a closet, and leave it there an entire semester. This wasn’t some new fangled teaching style in which we are asked to become the camera, and live the camera, to see in new ways. Nope. He simply inspired me to hate the way that I took photographs. His distaste for my work translated through the cells, synapses and electric impulses within my skull to be: your head doesn’t match your body, your voice doesn’t sound like you, I know you are speaking English, but I just don’t get it.

My next full semester of college led me to a younger, brighter, more forgiving kind of teacher. Carrying the interpreted opinions of Professor H in the spaces of my camera bag, I set sail with a new camera to travel around the world. With all the nooks and crannies of my creative life stuffed with someone else’s opinions, there wasn’t room for a portfolio or a few examples of my work.

Aboard the ship before classes began, I had space for another 3 hours in my schedule, so I went to the portfolio review sans photographs. I sat in the back. I watched. I listened. Then when everyone else had left the room, I walked to the front and introduced myself to the photography instructor.

Ryann, the instructor, immediately wanted to know where my work was. Admitting I didn’t bring any made him push me to answer why I had come to the meeting. A photographer without photographs is simply a student. He questioned me about other students’ work and my answers meant something. I made the class.

I struggled with the new camera—not even having had loaded a roll of film in it before jumping on a bus in Venezuela for a city tour. A fellow student helped me out. I was grateful but incredibly embarrassed to own this beast that I could not manage…my Mamiya 645.

I have bumped and bumbled my way along this path of life as art. I have intentionally avoided a certain level of proficiency. I might claim to be keeping the mystery, but honestly, KNOWING and knowing that I know how to make this creative beast sit, stay and maybe even roll over, is frightening to me. To tame the mnyama…is unthinkable. For then art would be life and life would be a one piece quilt of peace and comfort. My skin might fit just right under that quilt. I may look like me and talk like me and then I would be on display. All of me vulnerable to a sharp-witted attack that could fell a one piece life with a single sweep of a verbal sword.

For now, this skin that is settling in tight to muscle and joint needs stronger bones. Devo farmi le ossa.


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