South

The air smelled of wood smoke and leaf rot. I ran round the side of the mountain in what every small boy growing up in Appalachia knew was the fastest way to the top. It was futile to struggle straight up the side of those steeply pitched eroded plateaus. That was a sure way to recognize an outsider – as if it weren’t easy enough as it were. Within one sentence, spoken without our distinct accent that has been butchered by so many in Hollywood attempts to reconstruct our way of life for the amusement of the masses, an outsider was recognizable for what they were. Someone not from here. It was rare that the distinction need be determined by a single-minded determination to claw ones’ way straight up the side of a hill.

Going down, well, that was another matter. When we were kids, my brothers and I would dare one another to see how far we could jump down the side of a mountain. The terrain was so steep that you could be aloft for what seemed forever, skimming down, down the pitched earth, dry leaves rustling in your wake, your body only scant inches over the ground. It was exhilarating, maddening, frightening and bound to end up with one of us bruised and banged from landing in rocks. We would fling ourselves anyway, heedless of potential injury, yelling with glee as we defied gravity, sans parachute, with altitude our only hindrance.   

None of that was on my mind at that moment, although I would surely think of it again, after my race against the sun was over. I had just discovered a new cliff face, and like any mountain boy, it had to be climbed, again, and over again, until it was familiar territory, every nook, cranny and face explored and poked and excavated. I also had to see, simply must watch, the sun set off the top of my new fortress of solitude.

I was out of breath when I reached the top. Small wonder. I had just sprinted over a thousand feet up in vertical elevation, the last eighty or so literally straight up a rock chimney. It was a feat that would no doubt leave my adult self exhausted and sore for weeks, provided I had the courage to perform it. I faced out, west, watching the sun fall behind the mountains that marked the divide between counties in my small part of the world, thinking that someday, soon, I would follow that sun, see where it went.

Most of my books, beloved and dog-eared, described great adventures to be had in the direction of the setting sun. West, they would have you believe, is where all red-blooded American boys wanted to go, to the great painted deserts, to the endless prairies and the mighty Mississippi, further, onward, to the great Pacific Ocean, where you could ride giant waves generated by thousands of miles of storm cells building across the fetch of the great water. North was also just as magical, if not more so, with the frozen tundra and great white bears and endless miles of ice and suffering and adventure and kayaks and schooners frozen into glaciers while the men aboard slowly starved and read books and ate raw seal and dreamed of warm feet.

My gaze, inexplicably, did not hold in either of those compass delineations. Instead, inevitably, my wandering eye, even then destined to roam, turned south. To me, in my childhood imagination, south was a land of even greater adventures, where one could simply get lost in the swamps of the Everglades, wander the dunes of the Carolinas, or run the high trails, as my ancestors did, of the mighty spine of the Appalachian Mountains all the way into Georgia, then south and east into the sandy beaches where beautiful women were whispered to be, tanned and golden from the sun, where money was had to be gained and lost.

South was Mexico, a land of spicy foods and fish and beaches and cliffs and pirates. South was the Caribbean, where pirates still plied their desperate trade. This was the direction of derelict wanderers and warriors alike, where schooners were not frozen in ice, their occupants reduced to mad scribblings upon the dried skins of seals, destined to wait, helplessly, for springs thaw. No, South was where a man could drive his own destiny, unencumbered by the desperate plight of winter, nor chained as a slave to the mad longings of some greedy mine owner to the depths of the earth, clawing at the veins of coal, scrabbling for a living, emerging from the darkness as barely lit broken things, steaming of the muck of extinct swamps and long dead creatures.

South was my sirens song, as I clung to the branches from my perch high above all I knew. I dreamt of Miami, of Costa Rica, of surfboards and senoritas, of cenotes and monkeys and perfect, peaking waves. That was where the Incans were, and the Mayans, and the old ones whispered of in the legends past, dim mists of time forgotten. There was no predicting what one would find buried beneath the jungles and beaches and lost, remote, high mountain plains, blown dry and desolate with longing for an age long since passed.

Now, every chance I get, I go south. Nowhere else will do. My eternal compass points in that direction, always. On silent, cold, dreary, mindless short days when sunshine and warmth seem distant and impossible, when not a fire can be lit, I dream of the waves, the sand, the beaches, the food.

This winter was no different. My wife and I, silent partners in our fascination for the warmth of the equatorial sun, set out for the Yucatan, where eons ago a celestial body of colossal dimensions slammed altering the face of our planet forever. We rode jungle trails, celebrated a wedding with a family we adore, basked in the sun, and avoided tourist hordes as if we feared some contagion, brought about by their sunscreen smeared blank stares. We ate, we lived, we saw, and we went home – to restlessly place our port sides to the setting sun, and stare into the Chesapeake, dreaming once again of adventure.

 

Photographers

I am not a photographer. I will never be. I can take A picture, yes. It may not be in focus and it many not be good, but it will generally transmit what I am trying to say. It will not inspire meaning, or document a special moment in time or be considered art. It will not hang in a museum, or decorate a hallway or be a centerpiece over a fireplace. I think I am realizing why.

All you photographers out there, my admiration for you increases daily. I don’t think the general public appreciates the mad dedication for your art and craft that you channel. Just this week I was once again Laura’s assistant – a job for which I am ill-suited but eager to fulfill. We made a mad dash to near Richmond for a family session, in temperatures over 100 degrees, where she photographed a family of twelve with a bunch of small children dashing around. We then stopped for barbecue in Mineral, VA – isn’t it ironic that artists can somehow just stumble on the best of food, in the middle of nowhere? After that it was a hard drive around the beltway of our nation’s capital to a small resort wedding on the eastern shore of Maryland, just in time to meet Laura’s parents for dinner. The following morning found Laura sunning herself after breakfast, in perfect relaxation, on a small beach, looking for all the world as if she were on vacation.

Seven hours later, it was go time. Equipment charged, cameras checked, refractor mirrors (or something like that) cleaned. She dove into her work with the intensity of a fighter pilot. I followed the wedding party with gear and water, feeling more than a bit useless. The heat was stifling, but she ignored it like a Buddhist Monk. I was sweating like a whore in church.

We then moved on, throughout the evening, and I knew I was in trouble when she said, “There is NO time to eat! Grab a plate, if you can, and hide it.” The wedding coordinator shoved some silverware at me and yelled, “Are you guys catching the first dance?” I yelled back, “Yes, we have tripods for that!” Ok…grabbing some chicken, or something, mashed potatoes…I follow Laura with a fork, as discretely as I can, trying to feed her. I stick a water bottle in my pocket and grab the monopod to help light the dance floor. She is giving me instructions through nods.

She then comes running, towards the dock and the darkening sky, bride and groom in tow. We switch lenses, me desperately hoping it’s the right one. It is. She sprints towards the docks, with Jupiter over her shoulder, grabs a flash out of her bag and points towards a narrow stretch of dock extending out of the main area. “Take this and light them from behind.” I hope I don’t fall in.

The next order is to “Point the flash at their butts!” I assure the couple that I can’t see, as my night vision is non-existant so I won’t be examining their asses as Laura takes pictures. They laugh. But it’s true.

Back inside, I’m feeling like I’m in a cage match. The dancing is amazing, but keeping up with Laura is like tracking a Ninja across a dry rock. She vanishes, re-appears, vanishes again, then re-emerges with an extra flash for me. I hand her the water and she smiles…then vanishes again. Inexplicably, my flash stops working. Just as the groom is about to throw the garter. Like anyone is going to try to catch it anyway. It’s like a NASCAR pit stop. I pull the plug on the old flash, she sprints to me with the new one, and we are back on before anyone knows.

I stagger back to our room under a load of gear, collapse into bed, and dream that I am a prisoner of war at a Chinese prison camp. Happy dreams. Laura tells me the next day that I was hiding behind the door looking out the window mubling something about Rambo. Nice.

The next morning, we have a wonderful breakfast of chipped beef and biscuits, then I drive 322 miles in four hours, seventeen minutes. That counts stopping for fuel, bathroom breaks, and water. She decides on a wonderful Greek restaurant, orders a twelve inch sub and devours it like it’s candy. I’m speechless. I can barely eat half of mine. She checks her watch, dives back into the car, deposits me with my truck and leaves for yet another wedding…

I’m starting to see a trend. All of you guys are like that. Intense. I admire all of you that practice your craft at that level. I could never do it. But I can write about it!

A Day in the Life of a Photographer – Baltimore

I have the sense of hurtling through time and space at an extraordinary rate of speed. I realize that I am dozing and awake briefly as the howl of the V-8 engine in Laura’s Cadillac reaches a fever pitch. Any attempts to sit upright are nullified as four hundred horsepower propel us through the early morning hour. The acceleration lane of exit 150 on I-81 becomes a launching pad as left-lane assholes get passed in a furious blast of acceleration and premium fuel, economy be damned. I take over after we hit I-66 west on the way into to D.C, and honestly, I’m a bit more aggressive than Laura behind the wheel. After all, it’s not often I get to drive the Caddy.

This is my introduction to the world of wedding photography. I feel as though I know it, after all the years of helping Laura, but I’ve been largely relegated to being an equipment mule and lighting guy. I’m fine with that. Anything that I can do to help is fine by me. But this weekend is special. Laura has finally decided that I am ready to actually take pictures and help with an entire wedding. I’m nervous and very excited.

We’re headed to Baltimore, Maryland to the Museum of Industry. The lucky bride and groom have reserved the entire space and catered the event with Rogue Catering, so the food is guaranteed to be awesome. We pit stop in Centreville for a bowl of our favorite Vietnamese Pho, and as usual we are the only white people in the restaurant. The entire restaurant is silent except for the sounds of people happily slurping noodles. I’m thinking, this is not so bad.

We arrive in Baltimore ahead of schedule and with a couple of hours to kill, we head out into the Inner Harbor. We are trying to find a place to eat for Sunday morning and we are having zero luck. Tourist trap, tourist trap….somebody slap me. Really?? I’m in freaking Baltimore and we can’t find a place to eat?

It was at that moment of frustration that I see a dude in chef’s whites cruising down the boardwalk in front of me. I run him down and see a bit of panic in his face at first – I can’t help but think that he was afraid the big sweaty dude chasing him was trying to mug him, but the reality is that I am about as threatening as a Labrador Retriever. I ask him, “If you had one, just one morning to eat in Baltimore, where would you go?” He grins at me, and without hesitation, replies, “Miss Shirley’s.” We run back to the hotel to finish charging batteries, (after a quick stop in a haberdashery, where Laura picks out a couple of rather dashing hats) and google Miss Shirley’s. Awesome. It’s been voted the best restaurant in Baltimore!

Honestly, after this weekend, I have nothing but respect for wedding photographers. I had no idea how much work is involved. People constantly ask Laura what she does for arm exercise, and she is always a bit bewildered. I will tell you what she does: Strap an eight pound camera around your neck, a twelve pound camera bag around your shoulder and do the equivalent of three to six THOUSAND modified curl/triceps extension for eight to twelve hours at a time fifty or so days of the year and see what your arms look like!

It was the intensity at which she worked that threw me a bit. After about five hours or so, I began to tire and get a little bored. Not Laura. She was operating at the same level of intensity eight hours in as she was in the beginning. My eyes began to burn from the flashes and a couple of times I lost track of her completely. The remote flashes were as constant as the lights playing across the band as she tracked every moment of the entire event.

By eleven, I was exhausted. The happy bride and groom exited into their waiting car and the entire wedding party was headed to the after-party event. I load Laura’s car and admire the waterfront at night. It really is beautiful.

We faceplant into bed and complete our whirlwind tour of Baltimore with a trip to Miss Shirley’s. It really is as good as the chef said. Laura has a soft-shelled crab Egg Benedict with Hollandaise sauce and I have a fried green tomato sandwich with runny eggs and bacon. It is perfect. We eat way too much, check out of our hotel and throw ourselves back in the car for the trip home. I’m sore, tired and completely checked out when we arrive home. Laura never hesitates, and begins charging her equipment for the next shoot. I wonder if I can even be a photographer.

So, to all you photographers out there, do what you do, and know that there are very few who can do what you do. My hat is off to you. So is Laura’s.

I Do Originals

“It just blew up!” I’m sitting in Kristin Melissa’s immaculately neat home office listening to her describe what happened with her business in 2006. Her beautiful one year old daughter Bellamy is happily making faces at me through the glass table as she crawls around with Ruby the Bassett Hound, Kristin’s constant work companion. Kristin started her company, I Do Originals, in 2006 after what she has quoted as a “Happy Accident.” She is a talented calligrapher and for her own wedding in June of 2006 she personalized table runner for her own big event. She posted pictures of her wedding, which included customized parasols, into a popular wedding forum hosted by the wedding magazine, The Knot. The forums soon exploded with comments on her beautiful work and she received thirty emails the first day after she posted the pictures from brides wanting to know where she purchased her custom parasol.

Kristin is classically trained as a counselor, which is what she was doing, and happily so, when all this took place. A New River Valley transplant from near Philadelphia, PA, she attended Radford University for her B.S. in Psychology, then obtained a M.S. from Virginia Tech. Despite her science/education background, she is very business oriented and quickly recognized the opportunity. Initial market research showed her that this is very much a niche market and that there weren’t many people providing this product. She also realized that she wouldn’t require much overhead if she kept her business limited to the internet instead of trying retail space. She started responding to brides via email to give them what they needed and soon launched a web site. The business is now internet driven and marketing is entirely by word of mouth (or in this case, word of email).

Her business grew at an astonishing rate. She was immediately inundated with orders, beginning with thirty and counting. She would work all day as a counselor and then all night filling orders. Soon people were asking for other custom products such as aisle runners and candles. Kristin found suppliers who could keep her stocked and was soon running at full capacity. She soon realized that she could not keep her clients happy and work full time as a counselor and so left her safety net and threw herself full time into her new business.

Its success is obvious. In preparation for this story I researched her business website and soon found that she is wildly popular. She has been featured in numerous wedding magazines, including Bride, the Knot, Unveiled, Belle, The Kentucky Bride, Brides of North Texas and many others! My wife is a wedding photographer and has seen her parasols and aisle runners at weddings in the New River Valley.

Thanks to the internet, her business is not limited regionally. She ships her products all over the United States. She finds international shipping to be very risky with such a fragile product and so limits international shipping. Despite her hesitations with international shipping, Kristin soon realized just how popular her work is when international brides-to-be in Hong Kong hired a courier service in New York to get what they wanted! She now ships internationally to Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Indonesia and beyond through the courier service. Now that is ingenuity!

Every artist and/or business owner has their favorite story, and Kristin is no exception. When I asked her about her most memorable experience, her face lit up and she immediately started smiling. With no hesitation, she said, “Well, my biggest client contacted me when I was eight and a half months pregnant with Bellamy.” As if on cue, Bellamy gives me a huge smile and points at me through the glass table. Kristin was contacted by an event planner in Australia who needed twenty-one parasols in, drum roll, two weeks. At that moment, Kristin was buried in orders that she was trying to get out on time and trying her best to begin maternity leave. She attempted to hand the order off, but the client responded with, “No, I have done my research and you are the only person that can meet what I have planned.” The planner went on to explain that the groom in the marriage was the famous golfer Greg Norman, aka “The Shark.” It is Kristin’s policy to not cater to one client over another, but in this case she took the order for fewer parasols than twenty-one and got everything done in time!

I enjoyed my visit with Kristin, Bellamy and Ruby very much and felt once again, very humbled by the ingenuity, perseverance, dedication and work ethic of the small business owners here in the NRV. Look Kristin’s business up at www.idooriginals.com and fall in love with her beautiful work. If you want a parasol, aisle runner or candle customized for your wedding plan ahead. Kristin has a three-month backlog!




*Photography courtesy of Laura’s Focus Photography