(Published on The Huffington Post June 8, 2015)
We all remember school picture day and how our mothers cajoled us into wearing that hideous dress just for Grandma, or restrained our bangs that we had purposely left to dance upon our eyelashes. Then, we repeated the motherly routine with our own children, fussing over their collars, bribing them to wear the cute headband and admonishing them to smile — or else! Did we ever consider the person behind the camera?
My uncle was a community photographer for almost 40 years. He opened a small shop in the hamlet of Jerome, Idaho, and his work took him to schools around the valley. He photographed weddings, reunions, anniversary parties and civic events. A self-taught businessman, he learned how to set up lights and props while he experimented with different ways to use a camera. He developed the film in his darkroom and carefully categorized the thousands of smiling faces. His work preserved memories for three generations.
He died recently at age 93, and a grateful crowd came to the memorial service to offer their respects. The most common comment was, “He was such a good, humble man.”
The world of photography has changed dramatically over the years. My uncle used to take his film and process the negatives as his clients waited weeks for the results. Now, any pre-teen or bored celebrity with a cell phone can take a “selfie” and instantly post an obnoxious, duck-lipped pose on social media. Too many are tempted to post potentially embarrassing photos that remain forever on the Internet. The act requires no skill and definitely no humility.
My uncle was appalled at how the art of photography had become a vanity tool for those who screamed, “Look at me!” His professional pride came from his talent to cajole a cranky baby to giggle, his ability to evoke a smile from a petulant schoolboy and his desire to create the perfect pose for a nervous bride. Behind the camera, he directed beautiful, true images of life. Not one of his photos included a purposely pouty pose.
The next time you take your children or grandchildren to a photography boutique in a retail store or prepare them for school photography day, consider the person behind the camera. The photographer doesn’t know your child, but will attempt to elicit a portrait that captures personality as well as image. These artists remain obscure, hidden behind their lenses, and that’s their choice. Behind the scenes, they use their talent to create instant masterpieces of other people.
My uncle didn’t want or need attention or fame. But he lives on through framed portraits that hang on thousands of walls and in photographs that fill countless albums. Over the decades, life through his eyes reflected a changing reality from poise to pomposity. He closed his business when the authentic images were not retrievable.
He was such a good, humble man.