Sunday, September 21, 2008

Lessons From my First Fan

""I am in love with Montana. Montana seems to me to be what a small boy would think Texas is like from hearing Texans." (John Steinbeck) [ Editor's note: John A. grew up in Texas. He hopes to spend his remaining days in Montana, and he thinks this is one of the funniest quotes he's ever heard. ]

I wasn’t much for photography last week. Instead, I was just a proud son. Ma and Pa Ashley made the long, long, long drive up from central Texas to northwestern Montana. They’ve only been up once before, about 10 years ago, so it was quite an honor to have them visit.

Aside from a few travelling clothes, the only thing mom brought along was an old, dusty, framed photograph. A photograph that used to be – to me, at least – of dubious merit. It captures a cloudy sunset over a group of sailboats docked at a marina, in colors that used to be rich reds and oranges but have since faded to dull browns and yellows.

Anyone could have taken that photograph, but I’m the one who did. I was a skinny high school kid, learning how to use the school’s yearbook staff camera. I think it was a Canon, and I know for sure it was a 50mm because that’s the only lens we had. Cameras these days are sleek and commonplace. But back in those days of prehistory, 35mm’s were big, clunky dinosaurs that were not user friendly at all. I was just starting to learn how to handle a dinosaur.

Mom really liked the sunset photo, and so we got it enlarged and ready to frame. Then the strangest thing happened -- she asked me to sign the print. I felt dumbfounded! It’s an okay photo, I conceded, but it’s not like I’m an artist or something. An artist creates something from within, but I was just a beginning photographer, capturing something from without. I declined to sign the photo (and it’s not easy in the south to refuse one’s mother). She framed the unsigned image anyway. It hung in her office until she retired, and then it moved into the house, where it still hangs today.

Mom's old photo (c) 2009 John AshleyExcept for last week, when she lifted the frame off the wall and hauled this old photograph all the way up to Montana. You already know why. Once more, 30 years later, my dear mother asked again if I would sign her photograph. I did. I carefully pried apart the fragile frame, and nervously scribbled my name. And now her prized possession is on its way back to that dark rectangle on the wall, where it has hung for so long that the rest of the wall has faded around it.

These days, I’m somewhere in the neighborhood of what my mother’s age was back then. And she taught me a thing or two in the years between. Art, I eventually learned, is all about the emotion that you feel when you “take in” or view a photograph. Or a painting, or a song – or even a homemade meal. We are all artists, each of us, and some of us also happen to be photographers. That old photo doesn’t remind my mother of sailboats. Instead, it reminds her of the pleasure she felt watching one of her boys growing up and exploring the natural world around him.

And now here’s her boy, 30 years older if not actually grown up. Trying to make photographs that will create in other people that feeling of wonder, inspiration and appreciation for the natural world. A good feeling. This past week, my first fan reminded me firsthand what my work is really all about.

"...Art is the message, not the medium." (Ken Rockwell)

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