The Accidental Masterpiece
The Accidental Masterpiece
Being amongst so many talented photographers on this trip has prompted me to give some thought to this art form I’ve come to love so much. I’ve met quite a few photographers, and I’ve found that very few of them started out knowing they wanted to be photographers. More often, they stumbled into the field by accident. I know I did. I was fourteen when I began pleading with my parents to buy me a camcorder for Christmas. I’m not sure where the desire for a camcorder came from, or what exactly I planned to do with it. I just knew I wanted one. Christmas morning dawned that year and at the bottom of my pile of presents, I found something unexpected. It was an old Minolta camera, 35 mm with a detachable flash and a cleverly disguised trap door that held something Dad called film.
My father had clearly misunderstood. I didn’t want to take pictures. I wanted to make movies. I was opening this present at the dawn of the digital age, so the film camera already seemed antiquated. But my father informed me that this was actually his camera, a college necessity from his days at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh. It seemed more like a family heirloom than the ticket to my movie-making career, but I did appreciate the thought. Like most of the hobbies that sprung up in my mind overnight, Mom and Dad were treating this one with cautionary encouragement. I had dumped too many hobbies already: models, stamps, coins, baseball cards. Photography was bound to be next.
But oddly enough, the Minolta piqued my curiosity. I found myself intrigued by the possibilities that 24 exposures afforded me. After several rolls of botched negatives, I learned that 24 clicks went fast. Not everything was picture worthy. I only had 24 chances to capture something new, something funny, something beautiful. I can remember going for long walks after dinner the following spring with the Minolta in hand, loaded with a fresh roll of film and lots of ideas. I was soon measuring my shots out carefully. Since my meager finances would only buy me so much film at a time, I had to think about my shots before I took them. Sometimes I walked down to the railroad tracks by Chartiers Creek. I circled the statues around town and experimented with lights and shadows. One time, I stumbled upon a dead squirrel by the side of the road. An idea for an image popped into my head and I quickly ran home, grabbed a piece of paper, and wrote out the following caption: Canonsburg Electricity: Keeping the Chipmunk Population Under Control. I ran back outside and laid the piece of paper next to the dead animal, and memorialized it in film. To most, the photo seemed adolescent. To me, it was art.
The next year, I saved enough of my Christmas tips from my paper route to purchase my first digital camera, a Panasonic DMC-LC33. It was an amazing little piece of technology, that Panasonic. I began to take pictures of everything and anything. The harder I worked at it, the more I saw how luck played into the equation of a great photograph. I found that I could spend an hour setting up a shot, hoping for the perfect light, waiting on the right breeze, and still walk away with nothing. Then there were moments when I would snap a photo haphazardly, on a whim, only to discover later that the image was one worth framing. Perhaps photographer Chuck Close phrased it best. “Photography is the only medium in which there is even the possibility of an accidental masterpiece.”
One day, when I was sixteen, my older sister was driving me home from a school event. It was late afternoon, and by the time we crested the hill coming into our town, there was a beautiful sunset taking shape. I was riding in the front seat, looking through photos I had taken that day. Seeing the view, I switched the camera back on and snapped a quick photo, accidentally clipping the McDonald’s sign in the foreground. The golden arches were framed black, silhouetted against a golden sky. I almost deleted the photo right there, but there was something about the photo that I liked. That year, I entered five of my favorite photos in the Scholastic Art and Writing competition. A few of my well-planned photos received merit awards. The one I took nearly by mistake, Golden Arches, won gold. I had my first accidental masterpiece.
In Nicaragua, it was the photographs that really prompted me to start writing Mail from Managua. At the end of my first day in the country, when I had downloaded my first batch of photos to my laptop, I was disheartened that these images would be practically meaningless unless the stories behind them were written down. When I began to write the stories of my first trip, I made it a rule to select one photograph that best summed up the story. I wanted my family and friends to reach the end of the story, see the photo, and think, Yep, that’s exactly what I pictured it would be. Shooting in a country of a million masterpieces, I quickly found that framing the photo was the easy part. Penning the stories, on the other hand, took some work.
On this trip, I’ve had the privilege of getting to work with an incredibly talented artist. It doesn’t take long being around the guy to see why Duane Reider is arguably the most talented and respected photographer in the city of Pittsburgh. He is flexible and creative. He can handle pressure. And most of all, he’s just fun to be around. Throughout the week, I’ve been watching him in action. On Monday night, while sitting by the brick oven of the local pizza joint, Duane and I talked shop. While he shared stories from his career, I held his iPhone in my hands and flipped through the albums on his website. Duane has rubbed shoulders with nearly every Pittsburgh sports hero of the past three decades. Some of them have even become personal friends. Mario Lemieux and Hines Ward stop by Duane’s place quite often, to talk sports and wine and business ventures.
With his level of expertise and creativity, one would assume that Duane started out an early age and always knew that photography was his calling. But that’s not the case. On the contrary, Duane was already nineteen when he first got a hold of a camera. He was asked by a friend to take a group photo of a softball team. At the time, he was a welder in Los Angeles with no real idea of what he wanted to do with his life. But the camera quickly grabbed his attention. “My friend took me in his darkroom to develop that first roll of film. And when that first image came out of the solution, it was like love at first sight. I knew I had to go buy a camera.” Like me, Duane never planned for photography. It just sort of happened. By accident.
As we sat there waiting for our pizza, my jaw hung open as I surveyed his portfolios. Every few photos, I stopped and gasped, held it up to him and said, “Wait, wait, wait….tell me the story behind this one.” Duane would chuckle, lift his glasses and squint at the photo. “Oh, that’s a great story! Let me tell ya!” Then he’d scoot up in his seat and explain how the photo was created. One photo in particular caught my eye. If you’ve lived in Pittsburgh for more than a year, you’ve probably seen the now infamous photo of the Pittsburgh Steelers kneeling on the floor of their locker room, huddled in prayer before the 2005 AFC championship. It’s one of the most iconic NFL images of the past decade, and the man who pushed the shutter on it was Duane Reider. “So you took this photo?” I asked him in disbelief. “This photo was in every newspaper across the country!”
“Yeah, that was quite a moment actually,” Duane said casually. “Because, believe it or not, I was the first photographer allowed in to the Steelers locker room during the prayer. It had never been allowed before. But Dan Rooner told me to follow Jerome Bettis that whole day. At the time, everyone thought it may very well be the last game of his career. So when it came time for the team prayer, he told me to stay put. And it was so cold that day, I couldn’t feel my hands. I just steadied the camera against my stomach, spread my feet like a tripod, and then said a prayer and took a deep breath. Click. That was it, man. Instant history.”
Duane went on to tell me that it was this historic photo that saved his firehouse from the brink of foreclosure. At the time, he owed taxes on the building that he had no money for and he was going to be forced to give up on his dream of opening the Robert Clemente Museum. But thanks to the mistake of a young reporter named Kelly Fry, Duane’s financial worries vanished overnight. The WTAE reporter tracked him down to do a news story on the Steelers photograph that everyone wanted on their walls. Duane agreed to do the story, but on one condition. “I told Kelly, you can’t put my phone number in the story,” Duane said. “I don’t want to get crushed with phone calls.” But for whatever reason, the reporter neglected the request and when the story aired on the six o’clock news, Duane’s number was plastered across the screen. “Ten seconds later, I kid you not, every single light on our shop’s phone lit up. The phone never stopped ringing,” he said. “For six whole weeks.” When Duane finally replaced his phone number with a new one, the photo had made enough money to pay off all the debt. A copy of the image hangs in his studio, signed by each Steelers in the photo. Duane calls it his photography miracle. His accidental masterpiece.
Watching Duane work in Nicaragua has been an experience in itself. The wheels in his head are always turning. During our days here, he has often snapped a photo, and then waved me over to show me what he did and how he did it. He pins a profound take-home lesson onto the photos for me to use in my own practice. “Mastering photography isn’t about knowing how to use the light,” he told me at one point. “It’s about knowing how to take it away.” At another point he turned and said, “It’s really less about knowing the technicalities of the craft, and more about the relationship between the subject in front of the lens and the artist behind it.” These moments of on-the-job training are pretty special for me, since I’ve never had the opportunity to shadow someone of his experience. I nod my head, jot down notes, and after comparing my images to his, fight the urge to throw my camera down the closest manhole. Practice makes perfect, I keep telling myself. Duane Reider didn’t build his studio in a day.
Duane is right about the importance of relationships, though. In order to get the desired results, there has to be a groundwork laid between the photography and his subjects. For a child, it may involve engaging them in play or making the camera appear to be a toy. For a bride, their mind may need diverted from the stress of the day to the thought of the groom. For Duane and Rob, the barrio presents its own challenges. It’s been difficult to be delicate while shooting here, especially with the language barrier. Unfortunately, there is not really anything they can do to make their long telephoto lenses from being any less conspicuous. It’s hard to make people comfortable with such an invasion. We want the inhabitants of the barrio to act naturally for us, but the groundwork of relationship does not exist yet for these artists.
At one point during our scouting mission, we entered a woman’s small shack to check on a malnourished baby that Dr. Ross had evaluated a few weeks before. The woman had several other small children clamoring around her skirts. We were ushered through the house and into the dirt courtyard in the back. Two of the young girls were sitting in tiny chairs, with plates on their laps, eating rice and beans with their hands. Duane followed us into the yard, and when Dr. Ross began to assess the newborn, he pulled his camera up from its holster to snap some photos. One of the girls in the chairs began to shriek and ran into the safety of her mother’s skirts. I tried to hand her some candy, but the girl just kept wailing as she pointed in Duane’s direction. I looked over at our photographer. He had a puzzled look on his face.
“Why is she crying? Did we give her some candy?” Duane asked.
“Yeah, but I think she’s just scared of you.”
“Awe, we’re not going to hurt her.” Duane smiled and waved at the girl, her dirty face now smeared with the rivulets of big tears. She hid her face again.
“I don’t think it’s you, Duane. I think it’s the camera,” I said.
“Well, to you and me, it’s just a camera. But to her, you’re a stranger in her yard, and when you lift that lens to your face, it looks just like you’re aiming a gun at her.” Duane looked down at the camera lens. It could be mistaken for a weapon. “Pretty scary for a three year old.”
“Oh yeah,” Duane nodded. “I didn’t even think of that. Man, now I feel bad.” Duane tucked the camera around his shoulder and exited the yard. My smaller camera was still looped around my shoulder. I picked up the plate of rice that the girl had abandoned and crouched down next to her.
“How bout some more rice, little lady?” She walked over to me and took the plate from my hands. I slid my camera down my arm and turned it on carefully. While she continued to sniff back tears, her brown eyes locked on Duane and his scary looking camera, I held my camera out in front of me, aimed the lens up toward her face and snapped a photograph.
And it wasn’t until tonight that I loaded the photos from that day to my laptop. That image of the girl in the yard just popped up on the screen and made me smile. It’s happened again. A wonderful stroke of luck. Duane left that yard just a second too soon. The accidental masterpiece was right in front of us all along.