Feeling through glass.
During our backpacking trip in the Olympics, I kept two double-bagged disposable cameras stuffed into the pocket of my North Face shorts, making it look as though I had a large growth protruding from one hip. After we returned from the trails, unpacked the backpacks and settled into the life we’d prepared for years to live, I took the bulky Ziplocs to the drugstore to get the photos processed. Two days later I received a couple hundred photographs in return. I returned to these snapshots over and over again in an effort to remind myself of the time I spent with a pack on my back. I wondered at how these images simultaneously captured where I was, yet reflected little of how I felt about being there.
One night when we were hanging out at a bookstore, I wandered into the photography section and found Charles Campbell’s The Backpacker’s Photography Handbook. Campbell’s photos didn’t just convey feeling, they seemed constructed of it. They somehow were how I felt about wilderness, about the outdoors, about nature.
I’d long suspected that feelings could be accessed from imagery. At seventeen, I spent all summer trying to execute close-up flower photographs with a point-and-shoot camera and was unable to figure out why I failed every time. That same summer, my uncle visited with his wife, my aunt. We drove around the back roads of Indiana looking for things to photograph – covered bridges, old churches, graveyards. His camera was a dizzying amalgamation of buttons, switches, and settings that I could never hope to master. It might as well as have been the flight instruments on a 747. But still, I followed him around as he captured imagery. One afternoon, he set the camera up on the tripod in front of a covered bridge, fiddled with some switches, and handed me the shutter-release cable. “Trip it,” he said. “This’ll be your photograph.” No wonder my point-and-shoot hadn’t rendered the flowers the way I wanted them. My camera was lacking the profusion of buttons and switches I would never be able to understand. I opened the shutter on his camera.
I’m not good at this stuff, I thought. I could never figure that out. My education to that point had consisted of people telling me I was very good with words, but should probably forego any further attempts in the mathematic or mechanical realms. With respect to math, this was sometimes made both explicit and public. One day my high school algebra teacher decided that the best way to teach us math was to have us solve problems at the chalkboard in a kind of timed competition. “You can be on David and Brian’s team, Jennifer,” she said, referring to two of my friends, and also the two best students in the class. “They need a handicap,” she observed out loud, in front of the entire class, either not caring or not knowing that she had just imposed a judgment on me that would take me years to overcome. And of course, feeling humiliated, I dutifully fulfilled her prophecy in front of the class that day. The certainty of my incompetence in any technical area followed me to college, and well beyond.
I wasn’t one of those law students who had always been an excellent student, and therefore a demanding graduate program was merely a seamless transition from Phi Beta Kappa college performance. I was an uneven, often depressed college student, so I followed my facility with words, my family history, and most importantly, my test scores, to law school. I was unaware that legal thinking is, at the core, a kind of mathematical analysis, or at least a geometric proof: if this, then that; but if that, then this. Legal analysis is a kind of graceful winnowing of facts against established rules, and it has steps, and connections, and elegance. In law school, the dreaded numbers were gone, replaced by mental processes clothed in the words that had always been my greatest strength. Law school tricked me, in a way, because it swept all of my intellectual insecurities off the field. I was wildly successful at it, landing in the top five percent of the class after the first semester.
The lesson I took from my legal education was a new kind of confidence, a sense that I could master anything if I focused diligently, step by step, at my own speed, without pressures or fear. So perhaps I could master the principles of photography.
That’s what I did during that long, dull winter that was so far from the warm mountains of the summer before – I studied, slowly, a step at a time, the relationship between the aperture of a lens, the sensitivity of film, and the amount of time that film was exposed to light. I bought Campbell’s book and spent the winter with it, teaching myself the fundamentals of exposure and composition, learning the language of f-stops and depth of field and hyperfocal distance. One February afternoon, after months of study and deliberation, I bought my first “real” camera, a Nikon N90S, along with a few rolls of Fujichrome Velvia slide film, and a tripod. Instead of recoiling in self-doubt at the buttons, switches and knobs on a single-lens reflex camera, I patiently broke the understanding of them into pieces.
I read somewhere once that dentists make the best photographers. The rationale was that dentists are comfortable with complex equipment and have the most technical aptitude. Lawyers, the article said, generally make the worst photographers, because we are both arrogant and ignorant of technology. But maybe being clueless about technology isn’t the worst thing, as long as it makes you stop, listen, and consider.
After I finally got my long-waited camera, we went hiking every weekend, and I began photographing the landscape. I shot the usual waterfalls, creeks, ducks, sunsets, the moon and the bushes in my yard. At 5:30 a.m. on Thanksgiving Day, we caught a plane to Denver, grabbed some pumpkin pie at an open restaurant, and spent the day watching and photographing elk in Rocky Mountain National Park. Because almost everyone else was enjoying the holiday indoors, we had the place mostly to ourselves. The next day we parked our rental car on the west side of the park near a herd of cow elk. E.J. grabbed my tripod and I grabbed my photo pack, and we pushed through thigh-deep drifts, chasing after the elk as stealthily as we could, so as not to frighten them. We found two tall pines and crouched behind them, grinning to one another as a cow wandered in range of my longest lens. I fired off a few frames and lowered my camera for a moment.
What was I doing here in the mountains, following elk in the graying light of a winter afternoon? After a life spent never considering what I might love before considering whether anyone else would approve of it, following elk through two feet of snow seemed like an unlikely compulsion. But here, I had none of the feeling that I had slipped on an ill-fitting second skin; just the one I was born in. Just the one that was mine.