I am sitting in 38F. A window seat in the last aisle of a pressurized metal tube hurtling itself eastward across the country. On the ground, country roads divide the fields into squares and rectangles. The definition of a country mile viewed from above. Clumps of cotton ball white clouds extend to the horizon where they eventually merge into a fuzzy gray line. The sky, pale blue where it meets the fuzzy gray, transitions to a deep cobalt as I look up. Somewhere beyond it will go black and the view will change to something that a very select few will ever see.
The book Photographs Not Taken lays in my lap. A small book of essays written by many of my inspirations and others whom I had not heard of before. Quick snippets of images they missed with the shutter but not with their eyes.
Farmland has given way to the density of the Chicago lake front. Like an inland sea, Lake Michigan expands below. The telltale white V of a boat’s wake glitters in the afternoon sun.
The essays in the book simmer somewhere below my conscious thought. Writing. Thinking. Wondering. Haunted. Haunted by what? Their stories or my own?
Many of the essays were relatable to my own experiences as a photographer over the past 15 years. Many were not. There was validation in the moments I let go as well as the moments where I pushed the shutter.
Standing in knee deep water, camera in hand. Staring at 18’ walls of water exploding on the reef at Pipeline. Feet frozen in place. Partially in awe of the unrelenting power. Partially in fear. The gorgeous late afternoon Hawaiian light backlighting turquoise monsters silhouetting tiny people with arms outstretched in thanks.
A scream for help. Abandoning a family portrait on the beach to rescue a distressed SCUBA diver.
The birth of all three of my daughters. Balancing the needs of the photographer within with the needs of fatherhood.
A funeral. A casket sized entirely too small. On the fringe, capturing what I can until it is all too much. Collapsing in the grass, crying, watching. The camera too heavy to lift.
A Samoan village. Beautiful people. Beautiful beach. Unbelievable surf. No electricity. Children everywhere begging for a photo to see themselves on the back of the camera. Laughing. Teasing. Handmade prints mailed back to them.
An overdosed street kid lying across a path in Denver. His friend, pacing in the shadows, moaning “Oh fuck” over and over. Blue lips. A 911 dispatcher. Medics on the run.
There is beauty passing by my window seat at 400 miles per hour. The light is harsh and wonderful. 35,000 feet below me it would be even better. I do not have a camera this trip. As I left this morning, my fingers lingered on the Leica as I grabbed my keys. There was a moment of hesitation then I was out the door.
Now I sit, writing and reflecting on stories by those I admire from afar. Tim Hetherington. Ed Kashi. Mary Ellen Mark. Alex and Rebecca Webb. Others. There’s no shame in the missed moments. They are who I am. They define me and my photography. They make the moments I do capture that much better. However, one quote sticks with me from the book. It will become part of the little voice that pushes me.
Diane Arbus would have done it.