Butch’s whole family was very creative. His mom could convert an empty room into a place of wonder for an event. She decorated cakes, arranged flowers, and pretty much everything else needed to pull off a big bash or a family dinner. His sisters all paint and are generally creative and skilled in all things artistic. In 1974, I took a craft class that lasted 12 weeks. Each week they taught us another craft or artistic medium. No matter what I learned, one or more of them had already been doing it. When he was away in the Army, Butch would include drawings he had done with my letters. They were great. He dabbled at a few guy-type creative hobbies but never really found his niche early on.
When the insurance agency where I worked hired Butch to take pictures of houses and cars, he discovered photography. The talent and creativity in his family genes finally found their expression. He enrolled in a photography class at the local junior college. He learned to develop his own film, eventually creating a small darkroom in a part of the garage. I have great pictures of my sons that he took at their sporting events. He reshot old family photos, cleaned them up and enlarged them for anyone who asked. He figured out how to get a treasured old photo of our boss’ grandmother when he drew him in the office holiday exchange. He enlarged, matted and framed it for a gift that left him speechless and teary eyed when he opened it. Butch found out that his co-worker’s daughter was having her first soccer game and created wonderful matted photos for him.
We drove miles together, as he was sent to photograph homes out in the country or up in the Sierras for our agency. A world that he previously rode by on his bicycle, oblivious to the landscape, was suddenly filled with amazing things that needed to be photographed. He loved to capture city shots of an old building and a new one side beside in contrast, especially at night. He searched and searched for the perfect dilapidated old barn to photograph. He had a great eye for scenes in nature. It was not unusual for an insurance agency photo excursion to include hikes up streams for just the right secluded spot to photograph and climbing to the top of hills or up rocky slopes in search of that barn. His sunsets were phenomenal. Once, we drove far out into the country to find a place that was completely dark. He set up the camera with the lens open and we left for a couple hours to get a pizza while the camera captured the stars moving across the sky. In addiction to the streaks of light arching across the night sky, you could see a dotted line where an airplane had flown over the camera with lights blinking.
The year I bought him his first good camera for Christmas, we drove to San Francisco to find unique scenes where holiday lights were most striking. He decided we needed to be “just a smidge” inside a military facility across from great lights in the city to get the perfect shot. He jumped out of the car and walked down the hill to get the angle he needed. “Don’t worry. You’ll be fine. I’ll be right back.” The MP who pulled up behind me as I sat there and came slowly to the window with his gun drawn was not impressed. When he asked me what I was doing, I told him I was waiting for my idiot husband with the new camera, who was taking pictures of the cool lights, to return to the car, and hoping he did not fall and break his neck in the process. Fortunately, said husband came strolling up onto the road about then with his cool new camera in hand. Turns out that was not a unique idea and trespassers often stopped in that very spot to take photos. In sympathy for the guy with the crabby wife, he merely scolded him and sent us on our way. That was not the only time the obnoxious wife routine worked that well.
He was such a nice guy that when we sent him to photograph homes or their contents the homeowners often held him prisoner, enjoying long talks and his warm personality. Rich guys, in particular, seemed to enjoy talking to someone that was just nice and didn’t want anything from them. He knew a little about everything from driving thousands of miles in the truck at work, listening to books, the news, and talk shows. I would have to call and tell him we had another job for him to do to get him out of there because he didn’t want to offend a customer by leaving in the middle of a conversation.
The thing he taught me about photography was that you never stop learning. Choose the right lens and you completely change the picture you produce. Know how to select your film and you can shoot at night without a flash. Understand the myriad adjustment settings on the camera itself and the sky is the limit. Seek the guidance of experts and you discover tricks and techniques you could not have learned on your own. The more you experiment, whether you succeed or fail, the better you get. It takes education and experimentation to become a competent photographer. In the end, though, what the camera sees is reality. The illusive barn will only show up in the picture if it is actually there. While you may end up with an amazing picture of a meadow, full of lovely growing things, soaring birds, and an idyllic stream flowing by, that perfect barn will not be there unless you falsify the picture.
Becoming us without them means accepting the reality of what lies before us even if it is not what we desperately wish was there. Time is a lens that softens the image and removes some of the harshness. Old and new friendships help us change the film so we can again see beauty, even in the darkness. Relying on the wisdom and experience of our grieving mentors helps us discover what we might not understand on our own. As we slowly learn how to adjust our lives, some things work, some don’t. But we get better, whether we want to or not. Only by taking risks and experimenting with life, will we develop the confidence and experience that allows us to feel competent again.
It is important to remember that if we focus too long on the perfect old barn, we will miss the opportunity to capture life all around us.