A short while ago I attended a presentation by Bill Epperidge at the Fairfield Museum in Fairfield, CT. Mr. Epperidge is a world-renowned photojournalist who worked for both National Geographic and Life Magazine and was a contributing photographer for Sports Illustrated. He’s been photographing for more than 50 years and has documented several iconic images of American history such as Woodstock, Robert Kennedy, the drug culture, and civil rights personalities. He also had a showing of his more memorable prints called Images 2011. Mr. Epperidge as well as Stephen Wilkes, Thomas Mezzanotte and Adrienne Aurichio juried an annual exhibition at the Fairfield Museum and History Center to which I was one of those selected. At the reception for the opening of the exhibition Bill Epperidge was the keynote speaker.
His photos were magnificent and presentation moving. It’s worth checking in on his gallery. Especially emotional was his soft-spoken narrative of the events that led up to RFK’s death with all of the details that none have heard or read and only a few like him witnessed. His affection for the man was obvious.
After the show Mr. Epperidge opened it to the audience for questions. One was to what did he attribute his genius in capturing just the right moment. His answer was simple. A singular concentration on doing what was needed to be done and not to become distracted. He is fond of saying, “a good photographer has the attention span of 1/125th of a second,” that is, never pauses to contemplate the shot he/she just took and always continues onto the next shot. He never felt he had time to admire what he had done because the next best shot might be just a nanosecond after the “great one” he thought had taken. With a coy smile he said that he was so filled with purpose that in order to avoid any regrets, as he changed film he would turn his back to his subjects so he wouldn’t see what it was he might have missed.
A corollary question then followed which was in all of his years had he regretted missing a shot. His answer was once, only once. How many of us can say the same? For those who might be curious he described a verbal altercation between two heroin addicts, a husband and wife, which he thought might erupt into physical violence. It did, with the man taking a swipe at his wife, but he had been distracted and missed the shot even though he felt it was coming. Incidentally, the husband missed his mark because of his wife’s nimble dodge. There was no further violence.
Having been to workshops, events, meet-ups, or even shooting alongside strangers I’ve witnessed the same mistake photographers make when they fail to keep concentration. Once at the Ox Bow of the Snake River in Wyoming there was a line of a dozen photographers or more. We had had a wet snow that night so the valley was still socked in with clouds. Because of fog shrouded mountains it seemed we would never catch a glimpse of the Mt. Moran so several photographers abandoned the site. Despite the impatience of my fishing buddy waiting in the car, I hung in, pacing behind my tripod in hopes something would break before my friend got so angry it would make our long journey back to Denver torture. There were only two other photographers left beside me. I’d think, “Is that a glimmer of light coming through,” and take the shot? “There’s a faint line of magentas or am I imagining it,” I’d take the shot? And so it went for 30 minutes wondering when my friend would leap from the car demanding we proceed on our journey.
Then it suddenly happened. The clouds and fog in the valley evaporated and the scene opened up. I clicked away with abandoned, shooting from every perspective I could think of, and when I was done and lifted my head from the camera, I was amazed that the other two had completely missed the moment as they chatted over their thermos of coffee.
Afterwards the cloudbank clinging to Mt. Moran burned off leaving just the usual cliché photo we’ve all seen of a sun soaked Tetons.
Last summer I was at a friend’s wedding. Given it was a social event I chose not to bring a camera so I wouldn’t be accused of being unsociable. There were two wedding photographers and as they went about their business of setting up shots of the wedded couple and family on the sprawling lawn of the reception hall, one of the very young flower girls became distracted by a butterfly. The butterfly alighted onto a flower, she leaned over trying to capture it with a pinching finger and thumb steadying it with her other hand. Her dress spread forward into a fan, and her blond French curl was backlit from the setting sun. One of the photographers walked right by staring down as he chimped the back of his camera. Even had I tried to alert him, the moment was gone as soon as the butterfly took off to avoid capture. That moment is stored in my own organic hard-drive, but the priceless moment is forever lost to photography. I’m rethinking my concern about lugging a camera to social events from now on 🙂
July of 2010 I went on a Bryan Peterson workshop in Glacier National Park. One day we took a side trip to Swan River National Wildlife Refuge. We were returning home late with our group in three vans when Bryan’s, the van I was in, decided to stop for a fast food dinner waiting for the Golden Hour. The other cars were anxious to put their two-hour trip behind them and get back to the hotel and a genuine sit-down restaurant-meal. They left. As we munched on our sandwiches the sunset sky across the road lit up. Down went our dinners; out came the cameras as we shot into near darkness getting an added bonus-lesson from Bryan. Had we given up and gone back to the motel with the rest we would have lost the moment.
How many give up when all they see is a haze filled sky or a setting sun obscured by thick clouds? Innumerate times I’ve shot and waited and then shot and waited again for that fleeting moment. All too often, when it seems hopeless and that the clouds will never reveal the contrast you seek, within a fraction of a second everything changes.
Mr. Epperidge describes himself as a photographic storyteller. He does himself a disservice because his words are as compelling. As great as his photography is, he is equally a great teacher reinforcing a principle of photography so many have taught before. Have the attention span of 1/125 of a second and stay focused on the very NEXT shot. Don’t give up and keep shooting and just maybe you will capture that killer photo.