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The best photo I never took

Here, in the mind’s hopeful eye, lives the best photograph. There is no evidence or five-by-seven inch proof of its existence. 

In the house where I grew up, a camera was an everyday tool. My father used it as a writer might a diary: a black and white journal punctuated with moody grey overtones. My teenage sister tall, edgy and elegant, my hair blonde and baby cheeks full, my mother a motionless stone.

I held my Brownie, elbows braced against my sides, and learned to center my subjects: my father kneeling on the marina holding a kite by the tail, cigarette dangling; a great horned buck restrained behind a chain-link fence at the zoo; a blurred horizon punctured by a steel tower.

In high school, I discovered the darkroom with its red-backlit, salty-sour tang. Groping, I unrolled film and rewound spools, counted seconds, scribbled notes. White paper slipped into pools, and once submerged and prodded with tongs, revealed either magic or disappointment. In photography, there is no editor but the self; images either capture thought or fail. Traveling back to the moment is not an option; deleting and rewrites impossible.

However, the digital world has now overshadowed film. Most of us use a variety of new optics: some embedded in mobile devices, some tiny and light, and even heavy single lens reflex cameras which mimic classic film-driven Canons and Leicas. We have embraced photo manipulation: PhotoShop and I-photo—anything software that transforms faded overexposures to brilliant technicolor or period sepia.

As a photographer, you’re lucky if one in a hundred shots will embody the magic you chase. But none of them will prove to be the “best” unless serendipitously—the subject, the vision, and the camera synthesize into one brilliant and fortunate nano-second of genius and practice.

I have no best photograph to reveal; no treasured masterpiece. For my best photo is the fish that “got away,” the grandaddy trout whose legendary sightings flash silverish streaks into my basest desire to possess it.

It is there when my camera is tucked in its drawer at home and I’m on my way to work in the morning. It is there when I round a curve—and geese storm the sky, honking and shrieking their unified familial call, “Home, let’s go home!” 

It is there when red trees hiss with chilly broom. It is there, locked away, when the river heaves and sweeps the geese and red leaves downstream. I mutter—driving on—framing every wing and crimson blade.

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Post script

The photo accompanying this blog is one I took this summer. Used an old Kodak digital set on manual. A humming bird took a break from feeding on my honeysuckle vine and warmed himself on the power line. If you look closely at the enlargement, I swear there is an electro-magnetic field surrounding him and the wire. Yeah, yeah... wacko woman alone in the garden!