Images Captured, Sans Camera
BY wife Laura and I drove along the Rocky Mountains south to pick up Amanda, our youngest daughter, after her two weeks at camp. We had unfolded the map on the kitchen table and picked a way that stayed high in the mountains. We were sure it took longer than driving down to Denver and then back up into the Rockies, but we wanted no part of the freeway traffic, so the extra time didn't matter.
As we drove a dirt road along the edge of a steep canyon, a hawk flew up out of the canyon, flew alongside us a few feet from the car, crossed just in front of us, landed on a fence post above the road, and gave a shrill cry. Along that stretch of dirt road, a pronghorn stood close to the road and waited for us to pass. We drove through many miles of lush grasslands, stopped some places, and looked out over huge expanses of high mountain-aspen groves, pine forests, sagebrush, and green meadows.
Juniper, our oldest daughter, was also there at camp, as a counselor-in-training for the entire summer. The pay was not high, but it was one of those jobs a few of us are fortunate enough to have once or twice in our lifetimes where we sometimes stop and ask, "You mean, I get to do all this, and they pay me for it?"
We arrived in the afternoon, looked the camp over, ate dinner with staff and campers, attended a talent show, and danced two dances. We stopped after two dances, not because the music was too fast, but because the beat had no variation. I found that I could only stomp, stomp, stomp over and over again. There was no opportunity for stomp, stomp, weave, sway, and wiggle. They just don't make rock-and-roll music like they used to.
It was fun, nonetheless, and the younger people seemed to find everything they needed in that music of their choice.
Laura and I walked over the rough gravel road, under a million stars, bright, cold, and beckoning above the high mountain night filled with smells of evergreen trees, aspen groves, horses, hay, wildflowers, and grasses. After the reception for parents of campers, we went on to what seemed a brief night's sleep and then an early breakfast with campers and staff.
Morning mist and clouds lay on the mountain. Sunlight burned through. It was worth seeking out that first sunlight on a cool high mountain summer morning. Goodbyes were in progress. "Are you coming back next year?" "Yes. I'll be here." "No, probably not." "I don't know yet. I hope so."
Hugs everywhere. And pictures. Flashes went off. People grouped together for pictures: of all who were in a cabin together, of all who went down the river together in one raft, of many combinations of campers and staff. There will be hundreds of photographs of this camp.
All this led me to a moment of critical introspection, for I had no camera with me and have not had for many years.
Through my high school years, I was a professional photographer. I took portraits, photographed weddings, and took pictures of people working in mills and factories. I went back at shift changes and sold the pictures. It was a good source of income.
Then it got to where I rarely took the camera out of its carrying case. More and more, I didn't take the carrying case with me. I had found myself, too often, attempting to get a picture of an experience and, by that involvement with machines and mechanical processes, missing out on a large part of the experience. The camera between my eye and the image I sought to capture interfered with my direct experience of that image. I no longer cared to look at a two-dimensional representation afterward. I wanted
to see the three-dimensional scene itself, as it happened.
When I camped on Coalpit Mountain one summer, I had the camera with me but never used it. One evening, I sat leaning against a granite boulder, watching dusk move down onto the earth. An owl glided silently down the mountain, circled my camp, and landed in a juniper tree. Across the valley below us, the full moon rose above rough stone mountains and silhouetted the juniper tree and the owl. Eventually, the owl flew down the mountain, hunting silently.
Long after it was gone, it occurred to me that I could have photographed it and had an unusual and powerful image on paper. It was an idle thought. If I had tried to photograph the owl, I would have been getting the camera and setting it up rather than sitting quietly, experiencing the owl, the juniper tree, the moon, and the mountain at dusk.
It is not as if a powerful image disappears or assumes a state of having never existed if it is not captured on film. The summer I saw the owl was a time full of powerful images as well as a time of profound change for me.
I turned from a belief only in the physical toward a foundation in the metaphysical, toward that which cannot be encompassed in merely material terms. That I rarely thought of the camera and nearly always left it in its case seemed to mesh with the changes in my thoughts and ways of living.
Now, more than 20 years later, my memories of the images that were so powerful and important to me then are as vivid as at the moment of viewing, and laden with meaning that would be hard for a photo to convey.
There is nothing difficult about being an anomaly in this contemporary culture. I watch no television and no movies, listen to no radio, and little recorded music. This existence can become difficult if I am surrounded by manifestations of the culture, such as cameras flashing, as the young people at camp work at filling their albums of experience. Because of my daughters, I experience some self-consciousness as I attempt to examine the validity of what I have become.
I think my daughters are all right. They will want some photographs, and they are making arrangements for people to send pictures to them.
Friends who come to visit take pictures and send copies, so we do have family photos. I still have a very good though old-fashioned camera, and I have sometimes taken family photos on special occasions or set someone else up with the camera.
We took the same route home, pleased that Amanda could see the beautiful high country we came through the day before.
Above the canyon of the Poudre River, I rounded a turn and startled a moose calf, who turned and bounded back into the willow bush. I turned the car around, hoping Amanda and Laura might see the moose. It obliged us by crossing the highway in good view.
I turned around again, to resume our homeward direction. Down the highway several miles, two pickups and a car had pulled onto the shoulder of the road and a multitude of cameras were in action, so I knew something momentous was near.
We saw a bull moose grazing in a pond about 100 yards from the road. Moose were reintroduced into Colorado several years ago and are doing well here. The bull was unconcerned by the people watching him and went right on dunking his head underwater to graze the plant growth from the bottom of the pond. He surfaced to chew and swallow and look around.
We watched for a while, then continued on our journey. Down the road away, it occurred to me that the bull moose grazing in the pond is another photo I don't have. I have no regrets. What I chose a long time ago, the experience and the memories of the experience works well for me. I still don't want to tinker with a camera during the experience of the moose, of the owl against the moon, of life itself.