Sunday, January 24, 2010

Pass It On

"The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The second best time is right now." (Chinese proverb)

A single personal tragedy has had a huge influence on how my life has unfolded. But what's less obvious is how the little things have influenced me and those I've crossed paths with. And sometimes, it's the little things we do that make a difference in the end.

In the beginning, I learned the mechanics of photography from books, classes, and lots of trial and error -- mostly error. But I learned the art of photography from just one man, and his name was Bill.

Uncle John, 1978 (c) Bill CavanaughBill was my mentor, but I'm not sure if he ever knew it. In his mid 20's, he didn't seem to be aware that he was already one of the best photojournalists alive. The New York Times Corp. owned the daily newspaper where Bill worked, and they wanted to move him up to one of their larger papers. But Bill preferred our small-town paper. His aversion to a "career ladder" was one of the things we had in common.

Somehow, a remnant cigarrette always stuck to the right corner of Bill's mouth, wiggling up and down when he talked, which wasn't often. Ashes dusted the paper's clausterphobic, one-man darkroom. In the darkroom, Bill always wore an untucked, faded and worn, brown-plaid shirt. His brown hair was short and often uncombed, and his left cheek bore faint scars from some difficult event in his past.

I was in high school when Bill hired me to photograph Friday night football games, and then expanded to cover other sports and feature assignments. Later he hired me as the newspaper's lab tech, running the darkroom and processing all of the advertising and editorial film -- everything except for what Bill shot. All the while, I was silently studying Bill's images.

After many months of working every day, and most nights, my own photographs were starting to faintly resemble Bill's style. I was learning to "see" in a different way, and the editor started telling others that I had "an eye." Bill was trusting me with more and more assignments, and I was soaking up his influence and borrowing his equipment. It was the most creative period of my life.

One Forth of July weekend, Bill handed me all of the local assignments. I covered a car show in one town, a parade in another, and fireworks in a third. This freed him up for a fun assignment, riding along with the Sports Editor, three hours down I-75 to Tampa to photograph a professional soccer game on Saturday night. It would be his last assignment.

I knew that my boss liked to sleep in, so I waited until mid-morning on Sunday before calling his apartment. I wanted to borrow his 300mm lens. His girlfriend answered the phone, listening silently to my familiar voice. She hesitated before speaking.

"John," she said in a soft, falling voice, "Bill's dead."


Twilight falls softly across this small, western Montana lake. Tired and muddy, but content, I'm sitting on broken rocks at the water's edge. Two Loons are watching me across 40 feet of calm, twilight-blue water, their backs spotted black-and-white like my own salt-and-pepper beard. And like me, they're quietly curious. They slowly swim over to get a better look at the middle-aged man with his old telephoto lens. One Loon slowly circles the other, and the stationary one rests its chin on its back and sleeps.

I take two or three exposures of the Loons in the soft light. But mostly I just watch, lost in thoughts that slowly circle around my old mentor. Bill was a natural light photographer, almost never using the strobe that lived in his camera bag. He was at his creative best when photographing in difficult conditions, just the opposite of most of us. After a difficult spin around the fields of biology, my own work had circled back to photography. I wondered if Bill might grudgingly approve of my new images that were mostly shot in the dark. Twenty-eight years after his death, my vision still turns blurry with the memories.

Time to move along.


For reasons I would never understand, one Saturday night long ago, a stranger decided to get drunk and drive on the wrong side of Interstate 75, head-on into another car. The drunk was uninjured and, after a couple years in prison, he returned to the streets. The two men in the other car didn't fare as well. Our Sports Editor eventually left the hospital after several months and several surgeries, but he never really recovered. Our Chief Photographer was killed instantly.

Newspaper tribute to Bill, 1981Bill was 27. I had just turned 19. Bill's exhausted, ruddy-faced parents presented his broken camera to me, an old Nikon F2 that was dented and worn long before the accident.

I still have that camera.

Tributes were written, even one in the competing newspaper. I put together an 8-page, ad-free special section that our paper published, featuring only Bill's images. After seeing the photos, the New York Times' publisher sent me a handwritten note of thanks. Everyone, it seemed, was trying to find some way to cope.

I spent months struggling through the mollassas of shock and grief. As my head slowly cleared, only one thing in my world seemed to make any sense. I needed to pass on some of what I had learned from Bill. It was something that I needed to do as a way to work through this tragedy so I could move on.

The paper interviewed other photographers for Bill's job and, in spite of my youth, they hired me. I was reluctant to turn any duties over to anyone else, so I worked non-stop. The editor eventually forced me to hire a lab tech, and I finally hired a couple of talented freelance photographers to help cover the workload. I enjoyed the comraderie with the young photographers, but I never felt like I was helping them as much as they were helping me.


Boy with cat, 1979 (c) Bill CavanaughEventually, politics pushed me in a different direction. When James Watt was hired to sell off our public lands, I decided that our dwindling wildlife needed me more than the comfortable readers did. Leaving Bill's legacy behind me -- or so I chided myself -- I moved to Montana and shot for the local newspaper while finishing up a biology degree in Missoula. One benefit of the job was working with photo interns from the university. Even so, I had given up on the idea that I could do much to influence or help them. So after finishing my degree I went to work as a biologist.

Unfortunately, my Park Service bosses were more interested in protecting their retirements than they were in protecting wildlife. These bureaucrats kept telling me, "You gotta' stop working so hard," and even tried to prevent me from doing volunteer work on my days off. After eight years of struggle against the "good ol' boys," I finally left for a new place where I could be productive. I wished the bureaucrats well, and they in turn threatened me not to publish my research. Exploiting a loophole, they bypassed highly educated and experienced applicants to replace me with the town drunk, giddy in the knowledge that he would be one of "the boys" and never accomplish anything. It was a deliberate, in-your-face move.

They didn't even know my history with drunks.

Circling around once again, I eventually landed on this small Montana lake with my collection of aging camera gear. I had decided to combine biology with photography, try to influence how people see and feel about wild places and wild animals. Eeking out a living as a self-employed artist was not for the faint of heart, even in good times. Why am I doing this, I kept asking. Why am I still trying to influence anyone with my photographs? I could earn a decent living in a dozen other ways. Why fight the good fight, why struggle?


The email subject line said, cryptically, "From the 'credit where credit's due' department."

It was from David, one of the young photographers I'd worked with after Bill's death. I was surprised that he managed to find me, hunkered down here at the end of the road. While every step in David's path had carried him higher up the career ladder, my every step was hiking the opposite direction. We lost touch 20-something years earlier, and I had no idea where his camera had taken him.

As it turns out, David had flown well past me as a photojournalist. Shooting for the Baltimore Sun, he had worked his way through assignments from the White House to the homeless, and most layers in between. His surprise email explained how he had recently jumped off the career ladder to venture out on his own, starting a "little" self-employed photography venture called Strobist ( He now specialized in off-camera lighting and taught photographers at workshops across the globe. His Strobist blog attracts more than 300,000 regular readers, and his written series of free lessons have been translated into four different languages.

I was surprised that he even remembered me, since we only worked together for a short while. And I was dumbfounded at the reason for his email. He was writing to let me know that, in a recent magazine interview, he had named me as an early influence in his photography. He was writing to thank me for helping young photographers like him learn the art.

I read and re-read the article. What did I do that ever helped David? Nothing came to mind. It struck me, did Bill have any idea how much he taught me? I don't know.

Would Bill approve of my wildlife and landscape photographs?  Probably not. He was strictly a people photographer. Would he approve of David's use of strobes?  Most definately not. Bill always prefered natural light. Would Bill approve of David's ethics of helping the next line of photographers?


David picked up the torch that I dropped, and now he's using his wry sense of humor to gently remind his readers to "pass it on," to have a positive influence on someone, somewhere during their careers.

Bill didn't get to see my career unfold. But now I get to watch David use his talents to make a difference. Having this privilege is just one of those little things in life that's unexplainable -- and beyond measure.


  1. Eloquent, alluring, heartwarming. Thank you.

  2. I found this post from a link on David's blog. It is moving and extremely well written. I found the section about the loons almost poetic.

  3. Very well written, I'm left with wet eyes. What a nice story.

    I got here thru Davids Twitter.

  4. Besides being an inspiring photographer, you are also a very inspiring writer. Thank you so much!

  5. Wow, I have tears in my eyes. Thank you for sharing this. Very moving and inspirational.

  6. I was blurry eyed for most of this post. The images are beautiful and your memories so vivid.

    Thank you so much for taking the time to share your thoughts and to do so as eloquently as you did.

    As humans we have the ability to pass our thoughts and ideals to others and in that some of us may live forever. Not that this is much consolation, but many of those we remember most dearly fought the good fight from the mud.

  7. very nice story!

    from Divid's twitter too.

  8. Like others, I found your post through David and have teary eyes too. Life does seems to be a circle around and I am so grateful my circle has expanded to include David, Strobist and now your wonderful story and beautiful imagery. Thank you for sharing both. I will pass them along...

  9. Just...wonderful...something to aspire to, both in your writing and in 'passing it on.'

  10. very touching story, John.

    And to paraphrase a friend, You've probably never heard of photographer David Hobby. If not for him, I wouldn't be one.

  11. Well done. One of the nicest stories I've read in a very long time. Thanks.

  12. Riveting! Thanks for sharing your story. I hope I can leave the kind of legacy you've left.