Exhilaration feeds the passion of our photography; all else are mere steps in between. Some say they do it to create art, others to capture an expressive moment, and many others to earn an income, but I maintain those are all mere passages.
Many years ago, too many to mention, my mother bought me a fly rod to take on a summer trip to the Adirondacks. I tried, really tried to catch fish with it, but quickly turned back to my spinning rod whenever frustration set in. As time went on I increased the number of times I’d use it, but never with any success. Being the persistent person I am, I’d beg, borrow, and steal advice from experienced fly fisherman, not very easy in those days since the esoteric art was a carefully guarded secret. Then one day, wading thigh deep in the Beaverkill a hatch of aquatic flies appeared on the water, a phenomenon I’d read so much about but never witnessed. Being inexperienced I had no idea what species of Mayfly was emerging, but according to all of the books it was my challenge to match the insect to an artificial fly as closely as I could. Thinking back to that time of year it must have been the Ephemerella subvaria, commonly known as the Hendrickson. I had no notion of the insect’s taxonomy then so matched it with the closest fraud I had in my vest, the classical Catskill style Quill Gordon.
Trout were rising everywhere sipping the insects off of the water as the Hendricksons were forced to wait for their wings to dry before taking off into the air. I cast erratically hoping to place the imitation anywhere near a rising fish. My excitement was ruining my casting stroke and my placement was nowhere near my quarry. Then by luck, pure luck, the fly landed in the right place, a brown trout rose to it, and the fish was on. I could barely contain my excitement reeling as fast as the fish’s weight would allow. Bringing the trout alongside, I reached down, slipped the hook from the edge of its mouth and set it free. At that moment nothing else seemed as satisfying and I paused to savor a long awaited thrill.
Before my knees gave out I was an avid skier. There’d hardly be a weekend I’d miss in Vermont running down the slopes of Mt. Snow. A small group of us decided one year to take a weeklong trip to Switzerland skiing the mountains of St. Moritz. What a glorious vacation it was. But there was one memorable day. One of my friends convinced me to take a side trip off of the designated trail to a precipitous drop that was frequented by only the most experienced skiers. When we got to the ledge where the slope dropped nearly vertical and as I looked down I wondered if this was the last day of my life. I could hear the pulse of my heart pounding in my temples, a sickening feeling rise into my chest, so I froze. My friend went first executing perfect turns controlling the speed of his decent. He waited for me below. I had no options. Back tracking to the trail wasn’t possible given the ice and short jumps it took to get to this spot, so I mustered my courage, pointed my skies down, and let gravity do the rest.
“Keep your skis parallel. Stay on the downhill ski. Ski on the inside edge. Carve your turns, and dig the turn in order to transfer weight to the new downhill ski.” I was inside myself; nothing but the slope’s terrain and the execution of form mattered. All else was washed clean. I was staring down a dark tunnel that allowed no margin for error. A mistake would slam me into its wall, throwing me into a free-fall down a deadly pitch.
Halfway through I felt the “groove.” Everything, absolutely everything was right, and about the time I left the shadow cast by the nearby mountain rushing out into the sunlight, I transcended skiing into euphoria of an adrenalin-induced trance. I let out a yell, not one of tension but exhilaration that welled up from the diaphragm that could be heard in the village below. Now I know how the Swiss invented yodeling.
So where is photography in all of this? We take thousands and thousands of shots hardly feeling anything as described. But ah, there’s that one, that one shot we see and take, the one we saw even before we drew the camera to our eye, the one that’s unparalleled to any we’ve taken before. We are giddy with anticipation getting it back to our computer or darkroom, and when it appears before us, the way we envisioned it, the thrill is no less than the fisherman’s trout on a fly or skiers perfect turns. That’s the reason we photograph and all else is a mere means to that end. Why else would we squander thousands of dollars on equipment and trips, or hours and days in search of that one perfect picture? Once we’ve had its pleasure we’re “hooked,” addicted to doing it for its own sake. We search for the photographic metaphor of the tougher fish or steeper slopes so that once again we can feel that nirvana-like exhilaration. That’s our passion and that’s what keeps us searching for the thrill of the next great photo.