When we were camped last summer for two nights at Clear Lake, CA, we met an older couple who was camped next to us. I can still picture them perfectly. Edgar was probably in his mid to late 70s, slimmish, with swoopy white hair and a tan craggy face. He had a little red scooter he would ride down the hill to the edge of the lake with his fishing pole a few times each day. He’d crawl out onto the rocks and occasionally come back with a small catfish or something. He could walk fine, he told us, but that hill was pretty steep and the scooter made it easier for him to go further. One day he had taken apart the scooter and had parts spread out all over the top of their picnic table. He said that there was some broken something-or-other, but we suspected he just wanted to take the thing apart and tinker with it. Having a problem to solve made him feel useful and relevant. He wasn’t just a guy riding a scooter down the hill to fish, he was a technician again – debugging a loose connection or a faulty switch.
This guy had been a mechanic all his life and after he retired he got deep into ham radio stuff. He told us about several generations of enormous ham radio antennae that he put up in his yard at home (just to repeatedly have to take down when his neighbor complained…but we assumed that was the whole point). He wasn’t much for letting you get any words in yourself, but he was a pretty good story teller.
I wanted to photograph him so badly.
His wife (his second wife…the first one broke his heart, he said) was soft and a little pudgy in that warm, baking cookies kind of way. She was quiet and spent a lot of time inside reading. Her name was Mary and she was probably a little younger than Edgar. I imagined photographing them together: him sitting on his red scooter (if it didn’t make him feel too old or handicapped in any way…it was such a great addition to my mental photo), and her standing next to him with her arms around his shoulders. Beautiful.
She was a nurse and I think semi-retired and worked part time at an assisted living facility. She liked to read, and liked to photograph people. She asked what we did for work and I told her we had a publishing company, and also that I was a photographer. She asked me all sorts of questions and if I had any photos I could show her. I did. I had my iPad with several portfolios and projects on it, and she went through them all. She said she loved photographing people more than anything. She said she noticed all kinds of amazing details while people-watching, but that she was always too shy about asking permission to take someone’s photo (she felt like she needed to be a “pro” in order to go there), and asked me if I had any advice for her. I told her that she had a very nice manner and she should just approach people she was drawn to and tell them she was “a student of portraiture and would very much like to make a portrait of them. Some people will say no thank you, and some people will say yes please. Making them comfortable is (to me) step one.” It was like a lightbulb went off for her…she just needed the right sentence in her head like a cheatsheet when she was feeling nervous…that she could be a student of portraiture hadn’t occurred to her. She was so thankful and so excited.
As we pulled out of the campground (after walking down to the river’s edge and saying goodbye to Edgar and his catfish), I knew I’d completely failed. Here I was giving such great advice, and I was not taking any of it for myself. For two days I’d been imagining the portrait I’d make of this couple, and I never even got close. I can’t tell you how many times this has happened. Oh…they’re right in the middle of something. Oh…they probably will say no. Oh…I don’t want to interrupt their whatever it is (or isn’t). It’s ridiculous.
I’m a good portrait photographer when people come to me, in my studio. Really good. I make people feel comfortable and they have fun (even if they normally hate having their photograph taken). When they are having fun, their personality comes out and that’s what makes a special image. This is a strength of mine and I know it. But outside of the studio where people come to me, I really could use some cojones, or something. Seriously, already.