I've shot a lot of portraits of people over the years. Some were famous; some not so much, and a lot were in between. I don’t see these images as photographs as much as I see them as relationships and synergies that for the slightest moment fit perfectly into a context, a place and a time. Most of my best portraits are total surprises to me as they happen, and when everything fits, the energy of the scene has form and substance to it. These folks and I had a thing going on for somewhere around 1/60th of a second, and the child of that relationship is the portrait. As most children do, they stick pretty close to home, at least for a while. I’ll never forget them. Each and every image has a story and is a story. That's the nature of a portrait.
I met Galen Mercer on an assignment for a magazine called Fish & Fly. The assignment was to go to the Catskills area of New York State and photograph famous fly fishermen. The Catskills is the birthplace of fly fising in America and the home of legendary fly fishermen. Galen Mercer is a tremendously talented painter (http://www.gmercerstudio.com/) and one of the world’s great fly fishermen. His discipline for both paint and trout border on mystical.
We met the night before the shoot, drank whiskey and talked well into the evening and then some. It’s odd how quickly connections can forge when all the elements necessary for life line up over a glass of scotch and good conversation.
The next day we shot a number of images, but nothing seemed to fit. We tried this and then we tried that. The energy was there, but the right photo was illusive. I felt that it was there in front of us all the time, but I just couldn’t see it clearly. In my world the images already exist. Even if I have to create the photo it’s as though the image already lives in some parallel universe that I only get quick glimpses of from time to time. It’s just a matter of seeing clearly at the correct moment. Galen remained upbeat and enthusiastic about the process. He sensed it as well. I think he knew it was there, and as a painter he understood the necessity of letting the image appear on its own. For me, that’s the key to the creative process. As shooters, we must get out of our own way. We need to let our ego’s take a break and quit forcing the issues. The truth will fall in our laps simply as a function of what the truth is not. You have to trust yourself and you gotta let it happen. Don’t and it won’t.
I went to bed that night and could not sleep with bits and pieces of the portrait flashing past random thoughts in the night. Somewhere about 2:00 in the morning in the middle of a totally different thought, the structure of the basic image came to me. It was hazy, but it was there. There was no way to sleep. The image was getting closer. I sat near the phone till early morning.
Immediately that morning I called Galen. I was worried he wouldn’t be able to make time for me. That, and there was a good chance after all the work the day before, he would simply lose interest in the whole deal. That, and he had to drive almost three hours to get to where I was located near the Beaverkill River in the Catskills. He did not hesitate and said he’d be there first thing the next morning. An amazing imposition on his time, but there was a connection, and I think he knew I was beginning to see clearly.
When we met I didn’t even have a location to do the shoot. I knew sort of an area that might work. Galen suggested the upper end of Cairnes Pool on the Beaverkill. Historic Catskill trout water and a location for a number of his landscape paintings.
When we got to the location, it was as though time stopped. There are images I’ve done where I worked on them for days and then hours of shooting. Sometimes to no avail. A moment like this with Galen is the drug of choice for me. It’s as though I’m not really taking part in the whole thing as much as I am watching it fall together totally independent of me. These synergistic moments are what I live for, when all the years of work come together and all the homework pays off in less than a second. When I took this image, I could feel all the separate parts of it come together in one moment of clarity. Honestly, I could hold it in my hand. It was palpable. All the years, all the homework, all the brooding, all the mistakes and all the success. Once in a while it just fits and the force of it literally takes the wind out of me, and then it allows me to breath.
Another person could argue that this image of Galen isn’t edgy enough or isn’t realistic enough, or it’s too posed, or it’s not real or it’s too stylized or it’s too old fashioned, and it doesn’t fit in our commodity driven social media reality. All that may be true, but none of that matters to me at all. I simply don’t care about those opinions. What can’t be argued is simple enough. This is Galen Mercer at the top of his game, and in this scene he and his painting of the Beaverkill become one in the same, and at the end of my life it may be the best portrait I’ll ever take. We’ll see.
** After doing this portrait, Galen and I became fast friends and teamed up on a couple stories which he wrote and I photographed. Specifically Stalkling Dream In Hibernia, and A Castskill Revival. Both cllassic Mercer storeies. You can view them in total with Galen's words and my photos on this web site at the Ten & Two PDFS section. You can actually download the story as well.