…..an early Christmas present from long ago and far away

carl and tina 1979    A friend of mine, Marty, who hails from Washington County as best I recall, recently sent me this photo from 1979. The tag in the corner said “October 1979.” Even if no date were on it, judging from the vests, my beard and the hair, that would’ve been my guess anyway. Marty hasn’t lived in Kentucky for decades. He lives outside of New York City with the love of his life. We haven’t laid eyes on each other for years, though we stood side by side in the UK Chorale for about 3 quickly lived years way back when. He pursued a career in music, I took a different direction at a fork in the road. Seems we each chose wisely. I think I remember reading that he recently retired after quite a long run with the Metropolitan Opera up there. The pictures he shares from time to time on facebook make me think that he, too, is enjoying a happy and rich life. I am glad for him, and now it appears, I am in his debt. I’ve not been one to do much photo-documenting of my life, but I’m sure glad he snapped this photo some 34 years ago, developed it, kept it, guarded it as treasure, scanned it, and sent it to me. That’s a lot of trouble for someone to go to, seems to me, especially for someone you’ve had nearly no contact with for 30 some years. In this act of kindness alone there is a lesson to be learned. I’ll leave you, gentle reader, to surmise your own lessons, but it makes me want to “pay forward” a little “random kindness” of my own. I better act soon, though, I know how I am. Thanks Marty

Anyway…..Years ago, probably just a bit after this pic was snapped, I took an elective course toward my degree at the University of Kentucky. The course was required. Well at least it filled the broader requirement of being an “Art Studio” course which was necessary for my degree. While I was still in High School, my Aunt Marilyn, had taken it upon herself to teach me my way around a dark room. Because of that I had developed an interest in Photography. Beginning Photography was an option to fulfill my degree requirement; And so, thinking I’d already have a leg up, and having access to my own private darkroom, well guess what class I took.

Happily, I was right, it was pretty easy for me, and I enjoyed it. I don’t really remember learning all that much. My darkroom skills were already adequate for the task – how to develop film, process prints, use the enlarger, crop, all that technical stuff. About all I really remember was the day they brought in the naked (or as we say it in the south, nekkid) models for the section on “Photographing the Nude.” Waking up that day, it felt like Christmas morning. I’s gettin’ to take pictures of nekkid women. Every 20 year-old’s dream. I won’t go into how disappointed I was when “Bob” came in and disrobed. Other than that though, there are two things I remember learning. The instructor – who called himself “Bones” – told us one day of his philosophic approach to photography. There are two things I remember him talking about. On how to take good pictures he said, “There are two ways to do it. One is, you control every variable. Setting, poses, lighting, and in the dark room, control the temperature. Control every little thing you can.” “Or,” he said, “you can do what I do and just take tons of pictures. Controlling everything’s too damn hard and I’ve never been able to control enough to get it right the first time.” (In retrospect I’m not sure if he was trying to teach about more than just photography or if he was speaking of a larger lesson that I still have difficulty learning.) And true enough, either of those methods will work. I take good pictures to this day, but I have to take lots of them. There is something else he said which I understood more immediately. I can hardly look at a photo today, any photo, like the one above, without hearing him say, “Taking a picture is a unique art. It’s sort of opposite of music.” I was interested. “What I mean is this. Think about how music exists – in time I mean. It’s never really there. I mean, we hear a passage build to something and it does, and we’re right there with the music. If it’s a song we know, we anticipate what’s coming and then in an instant the climax has faded and we are left only to remember  (and I’ll never ever forget this part) what never really was. We can’t ever hold on to it. We hear something coming and before we can have it, it’s gone. Music in a sense, never exists.” I know this is a little Zen for some, but I have thought of that often. He went on. “Photography, a picture, any picture, every picture, every picture ever taken, even bad photos, accomplish what music cannot. It freezes an instant, an eye-twinkling instant, forever in time. Hearts beating, lungs expanding and contracting, blood coursing through veins, the unknown thoughts of the subjects, all frozen in time.” He is correct on both counts, I think.

I suppose that’s why this picture, this unexpected gift, this act of random kindness, is all the more dear to me. It binds those principles Bones was speaking of even tighter. That boy there with the youthful beard. That girl there, that wispy flower. Well those two young people, like a song, they had disappeared from me. In a sense they’re still gone. They moved on the second the camera turned away. They moved on together though. They couldn’t freeze that moment, so they had to sing instead. The tune they spun along the way, and the melody we continue to live out, still push on to whatever wonderful coda God has planned. The song hasn’t always been wonderful. At times it has been unexpectedly glorious. For better or worse those two keep singing. At least the boy wishes sometimes he had the ability to do some editing to the composition, but we all know life is more like Jazz than it is like Bach. It’s a performer’s art, and so you live with what you play. When the chord changes aren’t the best, handle them nicely, deftly, with style and flash or don’t handle them all that well…whatever….but in Jazz there’ll be another run through the chorus. You’ll get another crack at it. There’s almost always (except the last time) another shot at the changes. The boy and girl there have gotten better, and all in all, they were given a pretty good chart to start with.

It wasn’t long before Marty froze that “twinkling of an eye” that the song had begun. Wow. They look so happy. The boy there, had no idea how wonderful it was going to be. I’m sure that thought wasn’t even present in that hairy head. Thanks again, Marty, for keeping that moment for me and the girl. I am so grateful you treated it like treasure, and so blessed that you would these, my sweet children back here from New York. It’s a more precious gift than you might have imagined.