Last Friday was good day. Sometimes it seems that everything just comes together so perfectly that all I can do is accept with gratitude that life is gift. It had a been a longish week, but at 3 o’clock in the afternoon I was not tired, I was joyful. This was the Friday before my three-day weekend. I left the office, hopped up into my jeep and let out a shriek of delight. The jeep, which I dearly love by the way, is not a well insulated vehicle. One of my co-workers happened to be passing by and overheard me. Oops. But really, did I care? Not one jot. If you can’t celebrate a three-day weekend, what can you be happy about ever? As I pulled out of the parking lot I began to look around. It was a lovely day. The sun was shining. There were a few clouds in the sky, enough to add depth, but not too many that would block the light. It’s the exact sky that I love to see and photograph. And it was early in the day still. So why go home? Why not go exploring? Be a photographer! Be alive! So, that’s what I did.
I had no clear objective in mind beyond heading toward the mountains. The mountains to the north and east of Kalispell were snow capped and the lowest clouds were dancing across the highest peaks. That’s what I wanted to capture. I headed up toward Columbia Falls and then east toward Glacier National Park. I stopped a few different places along the way, snagging different angles of the peaks. As I continued along, just before entering the town called Hungry Horse I crossed a bridge over the South Fork of the Flathead River. I have never been able to cross a bridge without looking over the rails to see the scene. I know I can’t stop. I know that most bridges (this one included) are not built for people to walk on and take pictures from. This particular bridge is narrow to begin with, and on a busy highway, ergo, walking out on this thing would be suicide. But I looked over none the less, just to see what I could see. I was not disappointed.
In an instant Glacier was forgotten. Down below that bridge was a snow covered road that ran parallel to the river. And down on the banks, a lone figure, a fly fisherman out in the soft light of dusk. I crossed the bridge and found myself in Hungry Horse without my map. Normally, I carry a map of Flathead County. I do this because google maps (which I have lived by for the past three years in DC) don’t work in Montana. That’s overstating. They work, they just aren’t real accurate. It’s better to carry the Flathead map, you will have a considerably greater likelihood of finding what you are looking for if you do. My map was on the corner of my desk back in Kalispell. Oops again. So, with no idea how to get there, I took off down a side street and with a little luck, I found the road I had seen from above. I don’t worry about a snow covered road. The jeep, thank you God, has 4 wheel drive. I didn’t need it, but it tends to give me more confidence. I headed up the little road and soon came to a parked truck and the sound of a black labrador barking happily. As I got out to find the fisherman I had seen I quickly realized that he had made his way down a steep snow covered bank to get to his fishing spot.
For those of you who don’t know me personally I need to take a moment to explain that I am klutz. When I don’t have my camera gear with me my gravity issues don’t bother me much. I just look silly when I fall, but nothing bad happens. When I am carrying thousands of dollars of expensive and highly breakable glass, my lack of sure-footedness becomes a significant obstacle. I had seen the shot. I knew exactly what I wanted and why. But there was this snow covered bank between me and my happiness. Arg. Now what? Down the bank I go…Yes, I lived. And, more importantly, the camera lived.
This was my first shot. It is the most like what I saw from the bridge above. This is what photographers refer to as a “safety shot.” It’s the picture you take just so that in case the scene in front of you suddenly dissolves, at least you know you’ve got something. Think it doesn’t happen? The reason photographers are all paranoid about this is that sooner or later (and it’s usually sooner) you will arrive with your gear, see and incredible scene, and as soon as you are ready to start making your pictures, it stops. The event ends, the crowd disappears, the light changes or is altogether gone. A million things can go wrong with no warning. So, you take a safety shot.
Once I had this picture I made my way through the ice and rocks toward the fisherman. This became harder once the black lab puppy spotted me and decided I was in need of a new friend. I love dogs, but not when I am surrounded by snow and ice and rocks and running water and camera gear, because, oh yeah, a klutz am I. I didn’t fall, but truly that is a miracle. The fisherman is Gary Frey of Whitefish. He was out trying to catch some rainbow trout. And fortunately he had no problem letting me take his picture. I made several frames of this guy. Different angles, different lenses, different exposures. When I’m in a situation with beautiful light, a willing subject, and strong visual interest the words of my teacher come back to me: “Shoot it up.”
This was my favorite of the batch. I loved his position between the mountains, I loved the sky and I loved the arc of the fishing pole. To me that pole just says fly fishing. If there had been no other opinions this is the photo that would have run. But my editor Scott and my fellow photographer Nate both liked and commented on the beauty and drama of the rocks in the top photo. It’s ultimately my choice, but I went with their opinion on this one. I’m glad I did. I’ve had a lot of positive feedback on the photo. The other night I went to the girls basketball game in Columbia Falls. As I walked into the gym (wearing my press pass of course) this woman tapped my arm and asked if I was the one who had shot the photo of the fisherman. She stopped me just to tell me how much she liked the image. It made my night when she did that.
I’m glad the paper ran it, I’m glad that people liked it, but even if this photo had never seen the light of day or the eyes of any other person it still would have been significant to me. I am most alive when I am being a photographer. I hear people all the time talking about being in the moment. The only times I really experience that are when I am photographing something that captivates me. Furthermore, I have been looking for a fly fisherman since I got to Montana. This has to do with a story I love. Years ago I saw the movie A River Runs Through It. My favorite part is the end where the old man stands alone fishing and you hear his voice wrapping up the meaning of his life and the story he has told. I always thought that this was beautifully written and so I decided the book might be worth reading. It is. The book is better. That’s usually true and this book is no exception. The movie ending is faithful to the book. The words are elegant and powerful. As I watched the fisherman out there on the water I was reminded of the words of Norman Maclean. “Like many fly fishermen in western Montana where the summer days are almost arctic in length I often do not start fishing until the cool of the evening. Then, in the arctic half light of the canyon, all existence fades to a being with my soul and memories; the sounds of the Big Blackfoot River, a four-count rhythm, and the hope that a fish will rise. Eventually all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood. It runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words. And some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters.”
I am haunted by moments. Ones that I have captured and ones that slipped away. I have much to be thankful for in my life, but I am always thankful for the twists and turns that led me to the life of a photographer. I get to look closer. I get to pay attention to the beauty I see and I have away of inviting it in, and making it my own. So yes, Friday, was absolutely a good day.