Photographers. We’re strange, right? We can’t stop. We run when others walk. We work when others relax. We have no sense of weekends, holidays, time off, time on, or time in general, except as it relates to sunrise or set. When there’s a football game on TV, we aren’t looking always at the action on the field. We’re looking at the sidelines to see if any our buds are covering the game and how much of the long glass out there is black or white. We walk around like addled sumbitches, staring at strange stuff, hovering at the edge of human activity, aching to be accepted, dying for a moment, breathless in anticipation for that which mostly never happens. Curious behavior, at best. That’s putting it nicely. Most folks would just chalk it up to damn strange and tell their youngsters to stay away from us.
Maybe the word is hinky. We shake our heads, punch buttons on expensive cameras, eyeball perfect strangers, ask odd questions, and wait for light. What an odd thing to wait for. We also have restive, restless, roaming eyes. Eyes that don’t shut down. Eyes that often feel hemmed in or framed by a 35mm lens border, eyes that correspond to a 24-70, or a 200-400, depending on what they encounter. Eyes that curse the dumb conglomeration of plastic, brass and glass we place in front of them, asking that mix of pixels and wiring to be surrogate vision, supple as the real thing. Hah! We might as well ask a fucking toaster oven.
I walked out of a Starbucks the other day, in not a particularly good mood, but anticipating that the mix of 3 espressos with milk would marginally improve it. There were two men conversing at an outside table. One of them, just sitting there, was majestic, regal, even. His hands cupped a cigarette, joined loosely at his lap. I passed them. It took all of a half second.
But, when I got to the truck, I started feverishly ripping open my camera bags. Like a man in burning building fumbling for an oxygen mask, I tore open zippers, velcro, caps and covers, desperate to find a lens that might give me half a prayer of representing what I just saw. The hands. Those hands did something important. I knew it in a heartbeat. It was a pair of hands that I needed to photograph, and if I shut off the adrenaline pump, got lazy and slid into the comfort of the rental car and closed my eyes and surrendered to the latte, I would curse myself over and over again for being a feckless, useless photographer. (If you had encountered any of my early career wire service editors, you would be inclined to think it redundant to describe a photographer as useless. It was a descriptor often thrown my way, in between exasperated sighs and abundant profanity.)
So I grabbed a camera with a 70-200, and resolutely walked back to the men. They knew before I got within 10 feet of them I was going to ask. There was no tension, no fear, no clammy feeling in the gut that precedes so many photographic encounters. (Will they say no? Will they ridicule me? Beat me up? Demand money, my social security number and a financial statement?)
No. They accepted me before I opened my mouth. Those powerful hands caught footballs for a living. Still fit, the gentleman towered over me when he stood. He had a stint with the Cowboys, hence the pinkie ring. He knew Bob Hayes, the man who changed football forever. I photographed Hayes for Sports Illustrated, when they were doing a wrap up of legendary sprinters. He is the only man in history to win an Olympic gold medal, and a Super Bowl ring.
This remains one of my favorite portraits. Hayes had a tough go after football, and had legal and health problems. He died not too long after I shot this down at his hometown of Jacksonville, Fla. At the Starbucks that day, the gentleman and I chatted about Bullet Bob. We laughed a bit. The connection was immediate, and sincere. We shook hands. My hand literally disappeared into his.
How wonderful is that? What a gift this camera I curse is! A flying carpet into people’s lives. A certitude that this time, I will be richer for putting my camera to my eye. There’s no money on the line here. Just human encounter. Here, now, the camera becomes an instant learning machine.
The camera’s not a camera, really. It’s an open door we need to walk through. It’s up to us to keep moving our feet. More tk…