Thursday, January 29, 2009

Finding the Beginning

You never know when something or someone is going to show up and change your life forever. Obviously there are the big dramatic things ~ like getting married or having a child. But I'm talking more about the small, quiet stuff that steps in with a whisper and suddenly leads you in a new direction. Those moments are truly unpredictable and usually appear in the most unexpected ways.

Last night Nathaniel and I were driving home from Trader Joe's, happily munching on dried mango, as is the tradition for us, and we started talking about the moments in our childhood that shaped us ~ specifically tangible memories that changed our paths.

One of the first tangible things I remember is a photograph from a magazine. I had likely seen hundreds or maybe thousands of pictures up until that time, whether I was aware of them or not. There were always newspapers, magazines and books in my parents' home, and I have always been an avid reader. I had even owned a camera since age 7 and was already an active child photographer, going through more film than I care to recall. One of my favorite activities was dressing up my dolls for "photo shoots" in the yard or at the local park. (Foreshadowing, anyone?)

But this picture was special because in the moment that I looked at it, I was changed from the person I was just minutes before. What appears to me as a very simple image now had so much impact on me in that moment, that my path changed. Gone were my varied & wishy-washy little girl aspirations of being a ballerina or a jockey or a chef. My entire life's dream was suddenly laid out before me: I wanted to be a professional photographer when I grew up.

A Google search does not reveal any information about the shop the ad was originally for or the photographer who created it. It was published in Details magazine, before it was relaunched in 2000 as a men's mag. I knew Details as a funky offbeat magazine about NYC club life. Oddly, I was about 12 when I began subscribing and found this picture. I couldn't tell you how on Earth I ended up subscribing to a monthly magazine about clubbing in the late 1980s, but I had it. Especially strange since I lived in a small town in south central Pennsylvania and had never set foot in a club.

For more than 20 years I have held onto this picture. It has been thumb-tacked to walls, taped to repair tears and is yellowed and tattered with age. It has been a treasure for most of my life and each time I look at it, I am reminded of the very moment that I knew I wanted to be a photographer. It's pretty amazing really when I look back over my life and see how this one image in a magazine took me so far so fast. There were doubts along the way, moments when I tried other things. But even when I was pursuing different majors in college, my 35mm was never far. I was always taking pictures. Having a camera strap on my shoulder feels so natural to me, I occasionally look for it when it's not there.

Because hindsight is truly 20/20, you often can't know what is happening when you live it. You may be able to sense that something is different in your world though you're not sure what has changed. I can recall telling people around me I wanted to be a photographer and no one really thinking much of it initially. After all, I had also wanted to be 50 billion other things before that. It stuck though, this photography thing. I read literally every book in the school library on the subject. Started asking my parents to get me lessons. And at age 13, my parents bought me my first SLR. It was a second-hand, totally manual Pentax and I loved it. It taught me a lot until I upgraded to my new Olympus, also totally manual. That one took me through high school as well as night classes at the local college in my senior year. Before college, my grandmother got me my first Nikon. It had auto focus and a fancy Nikon camera strap and I was elated with it. My first professional camera ~ also a Nikon film camera, came 3 years later. Got that one myself. Since then... I don't even know how many cameras I have owned. A lot.

Through it all, this black and white picture from Details remains. Today I cannot explain what moved me about this image. But I still love it. It is part of me, part of my history. And is why I do the job I love today. Simply, a girl in an old-fashioned pose, a big straw hat, white sunglasses held with indifference, and one long strand of pearls.

~ Rissa

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