The Reverend Dennis Kesler Jr. lowered the congregation, one by one, backwards into the Hudson River. They held their breath and clenched their noses with their fingers, then Kesler raised them from the water, baptized.
I was waist deep with hundreds of dollars in my hand, no not actual money, but the company Nikon camera that would be ruined if my footing wasn’t sure. I knew I was gambling with my paycheck, or probably two or three paychecks, but I was young and more daring, and the moment had drawn me in. I wanted a special photo. That meant taking my shoes off and getting in the water. Photos from the river bank weren’t going to hold the same power. I needed to be in the moment, too.
Of course, I wouldn’t know what I had until the film had been delivered to Mr. King, the man from Ghana who ran a photo shop across the road from the MainStreet Newspapers office in Jefferson. Mr. King worked two jobs. And sometimes he was there to develop our film. Sometimes he wasn’t. Newspaper production often hinged on when Mr. King got off his other job at a chicken plant. We didn’t get prints, just negatives. We would hold a looking glass down to the light table and study the image, then use a negative scanner to call up the ones with potential onto the computer screen.
I remember the moment in September 1998 when the photo of Rev. Kesler and Rick Dudley popped up on the computer monitor.
I caught something, sort of like a great, beautiful fish that lived out in the water, some life that could only be caught by putting in the work. I was hooked.
No, I haven’t become a “professional” photographer in the 22 years since that photo. There is something stubbornly amateurish in my efforts, even now, many thousands of pictures later. I’ll get to why in a minute.
But landing a compelling photo is a true source of joy for me. And part of the power of photography is not in the picture taking. It’s in the observing. It’s another way of looking at the world. I imagine a frame and how to fill it. I look for the oddity, the thing that stands out as different in a landscape or room. I look at faces and expressions and think of capturing an emotion. I think of issues and how to narrate them visually. For instance, how can you show COVID-19 in a picture? It’s a question with numerous answers. And it’s fun to contemplate possibilities with a variety of subjects.
Nevertheless, I don’t think I’ll ever feel like a professional, even though photography is part of my livelihood, because I don’t have sufficient mastery of lighting. Even now, after all these years, I can still be flummoxed by the combinations of shutter speed (how fast the camera eye blinks), aperture (the variable space through which light passes) and ISO (the setting for the camera’s sensitivity to light), which stands for “International Organization for Standardization.” In the pre-digital days, ISO was the film speed — 100 speed for the brightest settings, 3200 for darkest. It’s still measured that way on the camera.
I think of a camera as a light-alteration vessel or an eye that can be manipulated. A true photographer has two key things: an ability to capture images that have life to them, and the understanding of how to make images technically special with the right combination of three key lighting elements. It’s the second part that still gives me trouble. For instance, a pro photographer knows how to use the lighting tools to accentuate something in the foreground and blur the background, or how to use motion blur for artistic effect. I know the basic principles of what’s happening with shutter speed and aperture on such things. But I’ve never been able to make them work in a satisfying way. And when I show up to any event, I’m always adjusting these lighting elements, trying to get a good fit. It’s rare that I’m totally pleased with what I’ve done. Even my prized shot of that baptism is probably overexposed. It’s not technically perfect. But what fun it was! It felt like scoring a touchdown.
I want my children to develop a love for photography. I want them to feel the joy of moments like that river baptism. I want them to develop that habit of looking for what’s compelling visually. I think this mindset is true for writers, too. A writer must think like a camera eye, zooming in and out, changing perspectives from near and far, recording the imagery and narrative that hold life. Anyone can do it. We just have to take the lens cap off and look. I think a lot of people don’t realize they have the cap on.
And yeah, I got too carried away with that daredevil river photography. The next year I tried to get an up-close photo of kids under the waterfall at Watson Mill. I needed a front-page photo, and I knew the waterfall could give me one. So I walked carefully across the dry rocks to get to them, but I needed to take a few steps over wet rocks, too. Bad idea. Really, really bad idea. The camera and I took a swim. Somehow the camera survived. I could keep my paycheck! But I knew I’d never gamble in the water with my work camera again. I batted .500 in that regard.
But at least I reeled in a keeper — and fell in love with that sort of fishing.
Zach Mitcham is editor of The Madison County Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.