Sitting here in the Mexican sun with a lot of extra quarantine time, and at this age, keenly aware there's not a second to spare. Sitting here in the Mexican sun watching hummingbirds disagree over territorial rights and pondering the nature of a few lessons from the past. Sitting here in the Mexican sun remembering that some lessons come easy, some are learned "The Hard Way", some are learned in school, and some are learned never at all. A precious few also grace our lives and suddenly appear as gentle reminders for us of old lessons we need to keep close, and those most often appear when we least expect them. This short story is about a lesson hidden in a letter written and then misplaced years ago. It’s a reminder that what we say to other people often has consequences we never see. I was chatting with a buddy about the unknown effect our words can have on people, and the conversation reminded me of a story from my past. Let me tell you about a fan letter I wrote to a hero of mine. But first, a little context:
I was a commercial photographer for, hell I don't know, just short of 50 years, I guess. Everyone shoots photos these days and there are a bunch of definitions of what it means or what it meant to be a day to day working stiff "commercial photographer.” Those various definitions don’t matter for this note. For part of this life as a shooter, I created stock photographs, which were market researched images I paid for and produced with a crew of great people helping. I put those photographs into a photo agency library of images and for years the photos sold to many clients all over the world. For good or bad this was simply a commercial gig during a particular time of my life, and it now seems like I hardly remember the guy who did those images. The business of creating photos for commercial sale is the background context here, not the story.
I started shooting these “stock” images around 89. For me, those were images related to business and industry. Not exactly your most romanticized photo subjects, but the commercial marketplace needed them, so they sold. On a gut level, I was influenced by a number of great photographers and I still am, but on the commercial side in the early '90s, I really identified with a Los Angeles shooter named Bruce Ayers. He wasn't well known in the outside world, almost never got a credit line, and he never cared, but to those of us in this vertical niche of "the business" model, he was famous. He sure as hell wasn’t creating art, he wasn't making images to hang in galleries, or elegant landscapes, and he wasn't providing a window to our world through photojournalism. Bruce focused on the world marketplace for commercial images, and he had the process down cold. He was clearly educated and aware of what was going on, and he knew what the world (at that time) wanted - he was prolific. I didn’t have the budgets Bruce had, but I used his approach as a production model for how to manage the complexities of my own photoshoots. His attention to detail, his process, the quality of his “light,” the spontaneity he got from his models, and the way he maximized each situation to get multiple great and useful images from one setup seemed flawless to me. This all happened when programs like Photoshop were just starting to pick up steam, and serious retouching was still to come. In those years everything still had to happen in the camera at the instant of the exposure. All older shooters who are still around experienced this history, and how the ice-cold simplicity of it forged professionals out of pretenders. In the world of stock shooting, he (and a couple of other guys like Tom Grill) were in a singular class.
I was about three years into shooting stock images, and I decided it was time to write Bruce a fan letter because he was affecting everything I was doing. I'm not sure how I got his address, but I sat down and wrote him a letter. I told him how much I appreciated what he was doing and how he was doing it. I told him he was a role model for me in just about everything he did. If you’ve had role models in your own life, you sort of know what I said. I told him when I looked in detail at his images, I did not believe he could put that much thought into one instant of time. I was overcome with a desire to go out and shoot my own. I told him his images were the voices in the back of my head, the voices that would press on me as I pushed further into what I could produce.
So, I wrote the letter. I got no response. Zero. And a few years went by. One of the photo agencies held a large get-together in LA for all the agency shooters around the world, and Ayres (now pretty much a God in this particular business) was there. I walked up to his table full of people and nervously introduced myself. We chatted briefly, but he was aloof and distant. I walked away in order to carry on. It would not be the last time I'd meet someone I considered to be a hero, only to discover they were arrogant and pretty much a jerk, at least at that moment. It certainly doesn’t mean that’s how they lived the rest of their lives. Context is everything. Being a hero or worshipping a hero is a tough duty for everyone involved, and the whole subject of idols is either thin ice or quicksand, even on the coldest or warmest of days.
More years went by, and more years - almost 25 some odd years went by. I forgot about the whole thing. Maybe five years ago I was in the Tacoma, WA city library doing some research, sitting at a table reading something. It was a bad day. A lot of things were going wrong, and I could not find my way out. Everything I touched in order to make things better, made things worse. I’m guessing you’ve been there. You understand the idea of a doom loop you just can’t seem to stop. It's an almost comically horrifying ellipse of self-destructive behavior, and none of the horizon line signs looking good - not what you'd describe as suitable for framing. Suddenly my cell phone vibrated. I walked over to an empty corner of the library and quietly answered. An older woman's voice said, "Is this Walter Hodges?.” I acknowledged her, and then I heard the following story. She said she was Bruce Ayre's wife. Astonished, I said “You’re who?” Apparently, three years prior to this, Bruce had died after a long battle with cancer. She had closed the door to his home office and hadn’t opened it in three years. About a week prior to this call she walked in and started going through his stuff. Under his desk, she found a cardboard box with miscellaneous papers, letters, portfolio samples of his work for clients, personal letters between him and his best friends, a lot of awards, and mementos from his long career - the physical material he apparently wanted to keep and remember as he grew to be an old man. She said the box was maybe 2.5 feet square and so heavy she could barely move it from the weight from all the papers stuffed inside.
On top of all that material he had kept for decades was my letter sent to him in 1991, protected in a plastic sandwich bag so it was clearly separated from the other papers. It was obvious he had read it to himself multiple times, almost as though it was of some comfort to read the words. She said he must have read it fairly recently, and that was probably why it was on top. He never told her about it. He kept it to himself. She said she read the letter, and then she decided to call me. She said, “I thought you’d like to know how much the letter meant to him over the years. He may not have spoken to you about it directly (he wasn't a big talker), but it clearly made a difference in his life.”
She couldn’t see me, but at this point, I was sitting in the small deserted empty corner of the busy city library, with tears in my eyes. I had slid down into the lowest corner of that corner during her story, and I didn’t quite have the strength to stand straight up. We chatted a little more, and I thanked her profusely for telling me the story. I said I was having the kind of day where that kind of story could change everything. We said goodbye. I continued to sit in the corner on the floor for a while. Slouched in the corner is a better way to say it. After another while, I finally took a breath, stood up, and walked outside. When I had walked into the library, some three hours before, it had been the darkest of Northwestern dark, raining like crazy, with thunder that cracked open and lightning all around. It was now the same day of my same life, and none of the challenges I went into the library with had gone away, but all of a sudden, it was now a sunny day. And.........I had a fricking parking ticket on my window as a solid reminder that it was not exactly what you'd want to call the right time to get real cocky about a lot of stuff, but,,,,,, it was now sunny outside and nothing was quite the same.
You know, I swear it felt as though I wrote the letter and put it into a bottle with a cork and threw it into the ocean, only to find the bottle years later, unopened, but with a reply somehow attached, when it washed up at my feet on a shipwrecked beach of my own creation. A reminder it was. It was a reminder of a lesson my parents taught me. We need to be good to ourselves, but but right now we need to be really good to one another. We leave a wake behind us on this ocean we can’t even see, and we can never tell what will happen when our words get tossed by the waves and then float in on the tide.
*PS. A photo/business note and a personal opinion. I shared a couple of Bruce's old images at the start of this story. Maybe shot in the ’90s? As I said before, this is not art. It's not meant to be. Younger commercial shooters these days might not like these images because they are "perfect,” and real-life doesn't work that way. The gestures from the models are perfect, the clothes are perfect, the color pallet inside the frame is perfect, the props are perfect, and the light is perfect. I look at images like this and I've always chuckled at how hard it was to be this perfect over and over again. A normal human can't do this. In the context of today's marketplace, to be sure, these younger shooters have a point - the images are perfect and as such, not real. My old friend Sarah Casillas from the creative department at Adobe stock gives us a reference on this issue when she says “Back in those days, and for many decades, the commercial world was essentially "aspirational," in the sense that clients and the public often reacted positively to imagery that was very idealistic. For instance, "I want those clothes, I want that car, I want to travel there and see that exact sunset. I want to work with those people." Commercial shooters pointed toward those idealized notions. Today, commercial images are much more "experiential," in the sense that clients and the public often react positively to images that relate to their actual world-experience with all its flaws and wrinkles and flat light in the middle of the day, which goes right along with that real experience. For instance, "Those are my clothes, I drive that kind of car, I have stood in that same place and it looked exactly like that. I work with those people." It's not a good world or a bad world. It's now a different world, and that's ok. I think the differences in these two approaches are part of the key to successful commercial shooting. In his time, Bruce understood his exact audience and the needs of his customers. He produced what they wanted. That right there would be the gospel.