I stood motionless in stagnant summer sweat, one arm supporting part of my weight while holding on to the trunk of a crying Bradford pear tree, my feet aching in dusty boots on the cracked dirt doing the rest of the work to keep me standing. Every 90 seconds I would drag the hundred or so feet of garden hose in small increments, from one withering dusty burlap sack to the next in the attempt to keep cultivated specimens of decorative trees from dispensing their last leaf onto the parched ground, sealing their fate in becoming another addition the mass grave of organic material steaming at the end of the lot. It was the summer of 2000 and earlier that spring I had taken a job at a local greenhouse and nursery.
What began as a cold and saturated initiation of organizing soaking shrubs and potted plants broke early June into a sweltering daily cleansing of all the essential electrolytes inside of my body. For $9 an hour I would dig holes, fill wheel barrels full of soil, mulch, rocks, manure, and whatever other earthly material needed transported. I would spend hours on the back of flat bed trucks moving trees and shrubs by hand to their temporary holding cells, all during one of the hottest summers on record. I didn’t mind the work, in fact I enjoyed it, it filled up the empty days of a summer that saw my then girlfriend (now my wife) away in Europe for two months. It was two months that I would get up go to work, go home listen to the Cure, pout and try not think about guys named Marco or Gunther or Tom or whatever the popular male name was for the current location of my girlfriend.
Summer turned to fall and while most of my friends went back to finish their last year of college I remained at the greenhouse unsure of what I was gonna do with the rest of my life. I was 21, and after a few years of gathering credits at the community college I turned my back on the journalism program of Point Park College after one semester. I was 21 and I had no direction, I just new that I loved being out in the crisp fall air all day long, but fall would eventually turn to winter and the greenhouse would close for the season leaving me with the better part of 2 months without work. I had saved just enough over that summer to pay for an entry level 35mm SLR camera and tuition for a “Black and White I” course at the local film school. I figured if I was doing something, anything, then I at the very least was not simply doing nothing.
I would make weekly trips to the photo store in a local neighborhood, picking up supplies and browsing over some of the more expensive gear. We would study Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank, Diane Arbus, Ansel Adams and on and on. Image after image I would be captivated by how and when and who and would get this overwhelming need and want to create such images, but I could not even come close. I lacked skills and knowledge and the temperament, I lacked, plain and simple.
Spring would arrive and so would my shifts back at the greenhouse but instead of packing only a lunch and rain jacket in my back pack I began to toss in my Pentax K1000 as well. Snapping off frames whenever I thought I saw something worthy, stock piling film for the coming semester. I would take several more classes before the cost of materials would finally sink my pursuit of film photography. In the winter of 2001 we began to use large format cameras, a box of 10 exposures would cost almost $40 and I received $50 a week in unemployment checks. With the cost of materials I was what would be considered broke, and if it wasn’t for the tolerance of my grandmother at the time I would have also had been homeless. With a heavy heart I walked away from my “Black and White III” class and the pursuit of a certificate in fine art photography.
As years rolled by I continued to shoot film for my own enjoyment, rolls would last anywhere from a day to a month but I always kept shooting with my trusty K1000. It wasn’t until my obsession with cycling started that my love for photography began to come back to the forefront of my thoughts. It was a stark image of the infamous ascent in front of the tower on the grounds of the Granouge course, captured by Bill Schieken (you know the guy who runs this site), during a year that was particularly rainy and muddy. The image, black and white, conveyed all the same feelings I got from one of those classic Henri Cartier-Bresson images, this beauty of darkness and unknown and it clicked “that’s it!”
When I was studying photography I had no direction, I lacked a muse but cycling became everything to me and if I’ve learned anything about art or capturing realness there has to be a deep understanding and love of the subject. I began talking to a friend of mine who was doing work for some media outlets in the world of cycling, on top of being a wordsmith he also has a hell of an eye for photography so I would pick his brain. We would talk about shooting, watch documentaries on the history of photography and I would eventually buy his camera off of him so he could upgrade to a more professional model.
In the recent years that have followed I have never put that camera down, at night when I am waiting to fall asleep I imagine making a photo that is good enough for print media, that’s good enough to make people stop and want to buy a camera. I think about my classes at film school and I wonder if I am currently producing anything that would impress my instructor. I often see her out walking and I want to stop and tell her what I have been up to, that I never really quit on photography and that the core of what she taught me stuck, but we just nod at each other and I get the overwhelming sense of her disappointment as she recognizes me as the guy who quit her class.
I often feel like Luke Skywalker promising to return to Dagobah to complete his training, that the tasks that I have begun to take on are above my Jedi skills and only once I have confronted Vader will I have completed my training. Perhaps that is a poor analogy but this past weekend at the Thompson Motor Speedway I arrived to a dark and cold landscape with a photo assignment from a high place. I felt once again like young Skywalker about to enter the cave on Dagobah, taking only my fears and doubts to confront an unknown beast. Skywalker’s downfall was always his doubt in his own abilities, his inability to believe that the impossible was indeed possible, and I often look at a life in photography as an impossibility. That the people that make a real living at it are not mortals but Jedis with cameras in their hands.
There are many days I feel like I am in a cave confronting my Vader, but recently I have begun to see the possibility of the impossible.