Last month, Nick and I were at my niece Kathleen's wedding in Greensboro. I hadn't been particularly focused on taking pictures during the reception, other than getting a few snapshots of my sisters and me clowning around. Frankly, I was more interested in raiding the risotto bar than attempting photography.
I was standing across the room from the dance floor when the bride and groom had their first dance. I peered over a few shoulders and caught a glimpse, smiled, and went back to the conversation I was in. A few minutes later, Kathleen was dancing with her father, John. Suddenly, I felt an urgency. I had to get a picture of them. I was behind several people, trying to find a good angle; Nick pointed out an opening and I jumped in. I quickly dug into my pocket, pulled out my phone (which has a decent camera), and snapped only one photo. Here it is:
I posted it on Facebook. It was one of my most 'liked' posts ever. John is currently using a cropped version as his Facebook profile photo. He told me he loved the 'thumbs up' Kathleen gave him in this touching moment. And I somehow managed to capture it.
I suspect my late father played a role.
C.W. Martin was a professional photographer for decades, starting out as a newspaper photojournalist and then launching Martin's Studio in Greensboro with his business partner. He was beloved in the community, his photos won awards; the Greensboro Historical Museum put together an exhibit on Martin's Studio that ran for years.
When I was younger, my father tried to interest me in photography. He failed. The reasons why are complex, and I'm still identifying them all nearly 20 years after his death.
On multiple occasions, as a kid I'd asked my father if we could move away from Greensboro. Partially this was because I was getting picked on a lot as a gay boy in the South in the 1960s. I'd also been watching a lot of TV and was longing to see the world beyond: New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Europe.
My father's answer was practical but not wanted I wanted to hear. He'd explain that he had spent years building up his photography studio in Greensboro. It wasn't a business that could be easily relocated to another city. We'd have to go without so many things because he'd have to start all over in a new place, he said.
So I got it into my head, which seems preposterous to me now, that photography was an anchor, or at least, it was my anchor. It kept my father tied to Greensboro, and so it kept me stuck in place, too. I realize now I resented the entire concept of photography for doing this injustice to me. And while I could appreciate an artful photo, the science behind capturing it bored me. Aperture and f-stop were as interesting to me as an isosceles triangle. I'd rather draw cartoons (and did).
There's more to this story, however.
I know now that, as much as I loved my father, I rebelled against everything he tried to teach me. Save your money for a rainy day, he'd say. I'd spend it instead on a designer rain coat. Wear a navy blue suit on job interviews, he'd advise me. Navy blue, in my mind, was the color of Southern male conformity. Instead, after college, I wore an off-white suit on all my job interviews, much to my father's disbelief. (Needless to say, it took me a year to get my first job, and only after I ditched the Tom Wolfe look).
Every Saturday night, my father cooked steaks on the grill for the family, except me. I would insist instead on chicken pot pie; anything but steak. I didn't even eat steaks until I was in my early 20s and had left home.
I'm not particularly proud of this. I regret that I wasn't closer to my father, because he was a terrific man, someone everyone respected. But I rebelled against him because I instinctively knew that if I didn't push him away, he might get a better look at who and what I was: his gay son. I couldn't risk disappointing him or, worse, losing his love. And so, I suspect I disappointed him in a different, though seemingly safer, way. Over the years, I've been letting go of this long-ago father-son drama piece by piece. I'm not finished yet; maybe I never will be.
But then, at the wedding, when my niece danced with her father, I felt as if my father and I had joined forces, too. With his spirit and my camera, we captured something beautiful. The partnership only lasted for a few seconds, but it is a start.