Missed opportunity is hard for a photographer to live with. As captors of time, photographers are vigilant about not letting the very fabric of our art run through our fingers. Recently Becky and I took two of the kids and our dog camping in a remote wilderness area of West Virginia. We met up with my friend Vince in town, and before long we all had arrived at the trailhead and were shouldering heavy packs. I had brought my 6x9 medium format camera along, anticipating making images of the kids in a spot I know of where I hoped they would enjoy wading a cool mountain stream and hunting for crawfish. We set off into the moist and muddy rainforest that is West Virginia in Spring, chatty and engaged by the beauty around us.
We had barely broken a sweat when we encountered two local men sauntering towards us along the narrow trail. The taller of the two men carried a tool that looked like a mountaineering ice axe and shouldered a large threadbare sack that sagged over his shoulder with weight. The odor from the sack told us they had been hunting for “ramps”, a strong smelling Appalachian wild onion that is a traditional food staple of mountain people. Both men bore the distinct facial construction of Appalachian men and could have walked right out of a Walker Evans photograph from 1932. Lanky, dirty and smiling, I immediately liked them and knew instantly I had to make their portrait! I could literally see the image in my mind’s eye, the huge 6x9 negative on my light box at home. I knew I had one of those rare chances that we only encounter once in a while – I had it right in front of me and hadn’t had to do a thing to earn it! We had happened into this situation as easy as you like.
But I stopped. Somehow it wasn’t right. After all these men were trying to stay ahead of an impending rain storm, and I could tell they thought we were a bit foolish to be heading in with clouds gathering above the dense forest canopy. I was reading his body language, and though we had a nice conversation about ramps I had the feeling they really wanted to move on. “Just one more minute!” I thought as I sensed the conversation waning. Somehow I knew it wasn’t going to happen. As we talked I imagined asking them if they minded if I made their portrait, imagined the time it would take to unhook my pack, find the light meter, remove my camera from the dry sack… no… too much time. That would be rude. So we all said good bye with smiles and they moved on down the way we had just come. Even as they walked off every instinct I have as a photographer screamed “You’re missing it! Don’t let them go – run after them!”
Soon the duo were out of sight behind a rise in the darkened earth and we were alone again, moving down the trail and trying to keep the kids from falling into ravines and the dog out of the poison ivy. But I was lost in thought, replaying the encounter again and again while somehow trying to change the outcome and pretending I had it on film – that I hadn’t failed, plain and simple. It sat in the pit of my stomach as palpable disappointment for hours.
I discussed it with Becky and Vince at length through the rest of the evening... while filtering water, while pitching the tents, while gathering fire wood...I couldn't let it go. In the end and probably in a bid to shut me up, Vince wrapped his head around it and put it best: I simply didn’t ask them to wait for me to photograph them because I could see they valued their time and had somewhere to be – I guess I just respected that. Maybe I didn’t want them to feel like they were a tourist attraction, I don’t know. In this particular instance I had the choice of being a photographer or being a person, and I chose the latter. I often espouse that the one makes the other better, but somehow they were at odds that day. Sometimes it’s really hard to try and walk both sides of the trail.