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Every now and then I get this urge – no, not just an urge, almost a command, to write a story – a post, if you will, about something specific… What’s strange sometimes is that this one you’re reading now kind of popped up last night – and while I’m not sure why it’s important to post it now – it feels like I should. So come with me as I take another trip into my time machine – the one that looks like an old yellow Kodak photo paper box, and learn a lesson or two in a photo I took once, a long time ago.
First the photo:
I was in college, and was trying to photograph one of the parts of the Homecoming celebration for Seattle Pacific University, which included the men’s heavyweight eight man alumni crew racing each other down the Lake Washington Ship Canal right near the campus. I’d developed a friendship with the coach for the crew team, and because of that, I was the only photographer allowed to get on the boat he was coaching from. This gave me the chance to get into a position to get a much better shot than any other photographer out there as they were finishing the race. We talked (well, shouted to each other over the motor on the coach’s boat), and I was able to get him to position his boat to show how close the race was by crossing the finish line at the same time the lead boat was crossing it, the goal being to show the difference between first place, the winner, and second, the, well, the loser. However, it wasn’t the closest race in the world – the other boat is cropped just out of the frame at the bottom right, but something magical happened as I was setting up for that shot, something I wasn’t expecting at all.
As I was looking right to gauge where the second place boat was to try to figure out what to do next, I saw this duck, barreling down the canal as fast as it could. I checked the settings on the the camera – (a Nikon FM2 with a 100 mm Nikkor lens on it that I’d borrowed from a friend) I saw I was on frame 36 (yes, film, and yes, the last frame) that I was shooting at f/8 and 1/250th of a second – the film was Tri-X black and white film, pushed two stops to be shot at ASA 1600 because everything I was shooting that day was going to be either moving fast or in low light, or both. I realized I had precisely one chance to make this right, and focused on the far boat, wanting to get the expressions of the guys in the crew shell in focus more than the duck, I’d just let the depth of field cover that. As I was looking, I realized that with as much planning as had gone into getting the shot I wanted (the two boats finishing the race) – that wasn’t the shot I needed. In fact, the shot I needed was far better than the one I wanted, and I had to make a decision, instantly: Either take the shot of the boats and tell the story of the race, or take the shot of the duck, and tell the story of another race, that no one had planned for, that had been a surprise, a chance that would be there and gone in the blink of an eye. I chose the duck, and decided that as soon as I saw it appear in the right side of the viewfinder, I’d push the button, with the knowledge from experience that it would take about 1/10th of a second for all the mechanical things in the camera to actually do their thing to expose the film. In the meantime, the duck would be moving across the frame at about 30 mph. If I waited until the duck was where I wanted it to be before I took the picture, it would be gone by the time the camera had actually exposed the film, so I had to think on my feet, on a moving boat, and make decisions fast.
All the other sports I’d shot, there would often be a second chance, another basket, another goal, another… whatever.
This time, I had one duck, one boat, one shot.
I’d brought the camera to my eye, focused on the sharp point of the boat, and as I saw the duck enter the frame from the right, hit the shutter release, felt and heard the camera take the shot, then heard the motor drive whine and jam, telling me it was at the end of the roll. I wasn’t sure if I’d gotten the shot or not, but I’d done everything I could to get it. I automatically rewound the film, popping it out and putting it in a separate pocket from all the other exposed film, and loaded another roll, but the duck was gone.
I could hardly wait to get back to the darkroom to see what had happened and sure enough, when I got the film developed, I found the image, and it was indeed, the 36th and last shot of the roll.
And so what’s the big deal about the image?
Well – it’s a duck.
And a boat.
And the guys?
They look like they’re racing the duck which makes it fun, but they’re really looking for the finish line, which painted on both sides of the canal, is just out of the frame on the left on their side, and just to my left behind me.
But I only had the one chance, and I’m glad I took it.
And it got me thinking, this photo, and I learned that as much as we want to believe in second chances, there are times in life where you get one chance to do something, and that’s it. Life will go on, but it will be different, and you will never know “what if” something else had happened.
Think about it: Often, life is a lot like the GPS system you might have in your car or your phone, where if you make a wrong turn, you get this message that says ‘recalculating’ as it tries to get you to go back on course, and because it’s doing that, you’re being given a second chance to do something that somehow you muffed up. The muff up could have been simple human error, it could have been not being prepared for what you were facing, it could have been something completely out of your control, but the fact is, what you planned to happen, didn’t, and now you have to sit there while something literally tries to get you back on the track you’re supposed to be on.
Then there are the other times. Some of you know I spent a number of years as a photojournalist, and saw many, many things through my viewfinder as I was shooting. The thing about shooting with an SLR is that you never actually see the picture you take. You can see what happens immediately before the image, and what happened after, but it’s only your training, your eye, or your instinct that tell you when to take the shot. You have to trust that everything worked in that blink of an eye when everything, the event in front of your camera, the experience behind it, came together.
I kept thinking, and like many of you, found myself wondering what it all means. And I guess it’s this:
There will be times in your life when you have one chance, and one chance only, to make a difference in some way. It may be a life changing experience for you, or for someone else. It may be something that comes completely out of the blue, and goes against everything you ever planned for that moment, but (and I’m speaking to myself just as much as I’m speaking to you) I encourage you to take the chance. It’s possible, just slightly, that something magical will happen. It might be in your job, it might be in your family, it might be taking a chance on repairing a strained relationship, or giving someone a second (or third) chance because you know what it’s like to not have that option. It might be simply holding someone you know at the funeral of someone you barely know. It might be taking a chance at applying for a job you don’t think you’re completely qualified for, but that will fit you like a glove, or that you can grow into. It may be finishing that last, painful cancer treatment that takes so much courage to go to when you know what it will take out of you.
I don’t know. All of the things mentioned above have happened to friends of mine or me in the last few weeks.
Take the chance.
You might make a difference in someone’s life.
And it might be your own.
Or – you might get a cool picture of a duck that reminds you of every one of these things many years later.
So take care out there, folks.
Love each other while you can.
Be prepared for what you can be prepared for – and at the same time, be ready for when plans change, because they can, and will, with barely a moment’s notice.
Oh. One last thing. Here’s the photo I’ve been talking about.
Hey all – I’m back. I’ve been off, away from my writing – and away from a lot of other stuff – for a bit – learning some pretty important lessons about dodging bullets (or maybe, as my son says, angry meteors) – and have been learning about family, how important it is, and how important it is to take care of each other.
I’ve been on the receiving end of a lot of that recently – and got to thinking about how much I’m looking forward to “graduating” from needing that. I’ll write more about some of those lessons – but it’ll take some time for them to simmer a bit, or bake a bit, or do whatever lessons do when they start roaming around in my noggin.
But back to that graduation thing…
Several friends, or children of friends, have just recently graduated from various parts of their lives – some from high school, some from college, a couple from Boy Scouts (they made Eagle) – and it got me thinking about when I graduated from college…
<play along with me here – fade to black – and then come back to a much younger and thinner me…>
When I went to college, I found, to my surprise, the little bit of photography I’d been dabbling in was something other people thought I was good at.
Also to my surprise, I did not know at the time that you could schedule classes in college to NOT start at the hour when God Himself hadn’t yet thought of making coffee, but sure enough, my very first class started at 7:30 in the morning. It was called “Media Production” – where we were to learn about making slide presentations…
(using real film – none of this fancy digital crap you have now– that we had to expose, and to develop the film, by hand, we had to walk two miles, uphill, in snow 10 feet deep, and – no, wait… wrong story… sorry – my “old codger” dial was set a little too high there… that’s been fixed, and we now return you to the regularly scheduled story, already in progress…)
…and the final project would be a presentation of both slides (images) and music that we’d made on our own. About half way through the course, the instructor interrupted our work on our presentations with a message from the editor of the yearbook. I was standing up front between two young ladies who also didn’t get that memo that you didn’t have to take classes before God finished grinding His coffee beans.
The message from the editor of the yearbook was simple: They were backed up with assignments, and desperately needed help in photography, and our instructor wanted to know if any of us wanted to volunteer to help them out.
At that moment, I felt one firm hand on each shoulder push me a step forward.
The two young ladies, bless their fuzzy little hearts, had “volunteered” me.
I asked about the requirements.
“You need to have a camera.”
“I don’t have one.”
I didn’t. I was borrowing the school’s old Nikon FE for this class.
“You need to have darkroom experience.”
“What’s a darkroom?”
My experience in dark rooms was limited to turning the lights off.
And thus started my ‘career’ in photography.
I spent an astonishing amount of time in the darkroom the first few weeks, learning how to mix chemicals, how to develop film properly (in large part because I developed it improperly first), how to print pictures well, (in large part because I printed some absolutely awful images). Lordy… talk about making mistakes – but I was learning, and learning things like to how to tell when the water was exactly 68 degrees (which is the temperature most developer had to be for film to be developed) – all the stuff you don’t even see anymore because it’s all digital, but it was magic, and I loved it.
So much of the learning how to do it right was learned by screwing it up first, and doing it wrong, first, and eventually developing (pardon the pun) the experience to build on over time so I wouldn’t make those mistakes again…
I shot for, and later became the photo editor for the yearbook “Cascade”, and did the same for the student newspaper, “The Falcon.”
By the time I graduated, I’d been shooting at SPU for two years, to the point where I’d gotten to know everyone from the president of the school to the head custodian. I learned what time the light was good on which buildings – and which season was best to shoot them in. I’d shot from the roofs of building you weren’t supposed to be able to get to (Knowing the president of the school does not get you onto roofs of buildings… Knowing the head custodian does – funny how that works) – and I went everywhere – and I mean *everywhere* with my camera bag and my two Nikons and assorted lenses.
I took my camera bag with me everywhere, except for one night, when I went up from the darkroom (in one building) to get something I’d forgotten in my dorm room (most of the way across campus and up a steep hill). I just left the bag in the darkroom, behind two locked doors, and walked up to the dorm quickly – but feeling very strange and off balance since my camera and bag had become such a part of me. In fact, it became clear to me that I wasn’t the only one used to seeing me with it. One person I passed that evening seemed totally startled by the fact that I was there and blurted out, “Tom? – is it really you? I didn’t recognize you without your camera bag!”
And that little comment followed me all the way to the day I graduated from Seattle Pacific University.
In fact, one day, while on the roof of one of the dorms, taking pictures from an angle no one else had thought to take pictures from, I saw a friend walk by below who’d complained about me being “everywhere” – popping out from behind bushes and the like, and the situation was just too ripe… I mean, if there was ever an example of low hanging fruit – this was fruit just ripe for the picking – even if I was doing it from the top of Marston Hall at SPU. I leaned over the edge, focused on him, took the picture, and then ducked back onto the roof, “leaving” the camera hanging over the edge just long enough for him to look up on hearing the sound of my motor drive and to see it being pulled back. I waited about 10 seconds, then peeked over the edge and waved. He was standing there, mouth open, staring at me, his suspicions confirmed, that I was indeed, “everywhere.”
The funny thing about that was that, like I said, everyone was used to seeing me with my camera bag, and conversely, people quite literally didn’t recognize me without it. But this meant that I became, for lack of a better way to say it, a fixture, with my cameras, all over the place. Most, if not all of the faculty had gotten to know me in one form or another, and so when it was clear that my time at SPU was coming to a close (in large part because I was graduating) a thought, nay, an idea started germinating in the dark, developer soaked recesses of my mind.
See, if everyone knew me with the camera bag, and I walked across the stage to get my diploma with it, there’d be a couple of laughs, or worse, no one would notice at all, it was just “oh, that’s Tom, with the camera bag” – and I’d be done.
If I just walked across the stage with nothing, that would have the same effect…
I’d just be an anonymous graduate who had 4 people in the audience cheering him on, and that would be that.
After all I’d done, after all the pictures I’d taken, the memories I’d captured, the treasures I’d seen and shared through my cameras, I wanted something *just* a touch bigger.
So I started thinking, and that idea started festering into thoughts like:
“What would the faculty *not* expect?”
“What would the students *not* expect?”
“What would the audience *not* expect?”
…and what could I do that would make them remember that it was me who walked across the stage, and not some other student?
And then, as if by magic, the day before graduation, I got a surprisingly big paycheck, and I bought a motor drive for my Nikon F-3, the best camera out there at the time. This motor drive would let me burn through a roll of film (36 frames) in about 8 seconds But I also bought myself what was then known as an SB-16 – or a “Speedlight” – think of it as a flash for the camera, on Tour de France levels of steroids. It would keep up with the motor drive for about 6 frames if you set it right, and I found myself pondering what I could do with that combination.
I didn’t have to ponder long.
If carrying the camera bag across the stage was out…
And carrying nothing across the stage was out…
…and so, I managed to conceal, under my gown, my Nikon F3, the MD-4 Motor Drive, and the SB-16 Speedlight. I put a set of fresh batteries in both the flash and the motor drive, threw my standard 50 mm lens on the camera, slung it over my shoulder, put the gown on over it, and set the whole thing “just so” so that it would hang without putting too many bulges in the wrong places.
One of the things I’d learned over the years was to hang the camera over my right shoulder, and hang it there with the lens facing my body. That way, the lens was protected, and if there was a shot I needed to take quickly, I could reach down with my right hand, grab the side of the camera that held the shutter release, whip it up, and have my left hand ready to hold the lens while the right held the camera body.
Having the SB-16 on there kind of nixed that idea, since the flash would have been rather uncomfortably in my armpit, even with the long camera strap I had. So I had to hang it with the lens facing out, then when I was ready to go, twist it around so I had my right hand on the camera where it needed to be. Given what I was doing, this had an unintended effect, namely that all the little blinky lights on the back of this new strobe were now facing outward.
None of the students could see this, but as I was standing there on stage, waiting to cross the stage, having handed the little card with my name on it to the Vice President of Academic Affairs (the guy who read my name for everyone to hear), the camera, the motor drive, and the strobe unit together made for a large, blackish object just under a foot and a half tall, bulging at my shoulder, with little blinking lights.
And several of the faculty, sitting on the stage, saw me reach for it and turn it around.
I saw their movement, and looked right to see tittering wave of comments and concern rippling as more and more of the faculty’s eyes focused on the blinky lights and the bulge under this one student’s gown.
Before I could react, and before anyone else could say anything, I heard my name called, and things simultaneously went into slow motion, tunnel vision, and I felt like I was hearing everything underwater.
When I looked back, I saw the school president, Dr. Dave LeShana smiling, saw the look of expectation in his eyes, the diploma in his hand. I saw the orchestra, and my friends in it, playing quietly, or watching, as their parts dictated. Past them a bit, I saw the photographer, waiting to take a picture as I shook the president’s hand, and I did what I’d just rehearsed in my mind a few seconds before: six steps out, pivot on the right foot, the seventh step, face the audience, bring the camera and flash out, (it did have film in it, for later) flip the top of the flash down (it was aimed straight up) – and then I fired the camera out at the audience until the flash stopped flashing.
A pin, dropped on a carpeted floor would have echoed in there.
I waved at the crowd, then looked over at president LeShana, who started laughing, and I shook his hand. I held on for a bit, waiting to see the flash of the photographer who was supposed to be shooting *my* picture, and saw nothing. I let go of the handshake, and looked down at the photographer, who was just staring, rather dumbfounded. I realized that I had significantly more – um – firepower – photographically speaking, than he did, and he was just shocked into silence and inaction.
Not wanting to hold up the ceremony any longer, I walked past him, got to the stairs that got me off the stage, and as I took my first step down, my ears seemed to start working again and I heard the crowd, the students, on their feet, cheering and screaming.
I high-fived a bunch of them as I walked past.
Yeah, that was better than just taking the camera bag across the stage.
Years later I heard from my sister, who’d been there. She’d talked to the fellow who was the student body president, who’d been sitting in the 4th balcony.
“Was that your brother who shot graduation?”
“He didn’t shoot it, he graduated.”
“No, I mean, he graduated – but he took pictures, from the stage, didn’t he?”
(Given that everyone else was taking pictures aiming toward the stage, this was notably different)
“Oh, yeah, that was him, why, did you see him?”
“Oh I saw him alright… I was watching him. Through binoculars. And every time that flash went off was like being hit in the eyes with a sledgehammer.”
Heh… yeah… it was different than the standard, run-of-the-mill trip across the stage.
…though I sure would have liked it had the photographer gotten a shot of Dr. LeShana and me.
So… gosh, do I have a message for those of you out there graduating?
I hadn’t planned on one – but hey, since we’re here, there’s actually quite a few of them…
You won’t have all the answers when you graduate.
You’ve barely learned to ask the questions.
I learned a lot more after that day, but the thing that had me thinking was this:
I took risks.
I made the best decisions I could make while working with incomplete information, and as much as you tend to look back and think thoughts like “if only I’d…” – those thoughts are useless without a time machine to go back and prove that your “if only…” would have been the right decision.
I climbed tall buildings (not in a single bound, mind you, and always with permission – though there’s a certain church roof I’ll never climb up again with or without permission, that was just scary high, and steep) –
I did things “just because” – and I had a blast doing it.
On the other hand, I was so poor afterwards as I was starting out that there were a lot of things I didn’t do. I learned to make a big can of oatmeal (that cost me $2.86) last a month. I remember inviting friends over for lunch – and it was boxed Mac and cheese that I’d gotten for a quarter.
And it was fun.
Would I put all that hard work into it again?
In a heartbeat.
Looking back on it all now…
Did life go the way I’d planned?
Nope. Not even close.
Would I change anything, looking back on it now?
That would involve that time machine again, proving that whatever decisions got me to this point were the absolute right or wrong ones to be made – and remember the bit about making the best decisions you can with the info you’ve got at the time?
Some parts that have happened were better than I could have possibly imagined in my wildest dreams.
Some parts that have happened were worse than I could have possibly imagined in my worst nightmares.
That’s called life…
Remember the good.
Learn from the bad.
Do the best you can, with what you’ve got, at that time, and you build on that.
When you look back, you’ll see you made mistakes.
Some of those mistakes will have been small, but as you look back, you’ll see you made some huge ones.
But look harder, and you’ll realize you’ve learned a lot of lessons from those mistakes…
And after you learned those lessons, I’ll bet you didn’t make those mistakes again – or as much (because you now had *new* and *exciting* and *bigger* mistakes to learn from!)
And sometimes, even when you think you finally have it all together, and you’ll have some sort of picture, symbolizing all the lessons you learned, something will invariably go wrong (like, say, photographers at graduation not taking pictures of the graduating students…) and the only thing you’ll have are the memories.
So… learn what you can.
Learn from those mistakes.
Forgive yourself for making them.
And move on, teaching those who come behind you as you can.
Take care folks…