It took me longer than it should have to realize a photographer is no different than any other kind of artist; they just wield a different tool.
Some of my best friends are photographers. I know how that sounds, but it’s true. In fact, if I grouped my friends by profession, I have more photographers as friends than anyone else — except for writers, of course, but I’ve stopped counting them (They’re everywhere!). I’ll even name my photographer friends here, and not just so next time you see one you can ask him whether he’s my friend or not, but because there is little I like more than dropping names of famous people I know: Bill Bamberger, Roger Haile, Alex Harris, Tama Hochbaum, Frank Hunter, Elizabeth Matheson, Tom Rankin, and John Rosenthal. You’ve probably seen their work, whether you know it or not. And you love it.
It’s a mystery to me why I know so many photographers, as opposed to archaeologists, say, or philatelists. But that’s not the real mysterious part. The real mysterious part is how they all use the same basic instrument — a camera — and capture North Carolina and the rest of the world in a way that is unmistakably their own. Even blindfolded I think I could tell them apart. Even if they took a picture of the exact same thing — a boy, a house, an expanse of snow — I would know who did it, and so would you. What makes them great is that they take pictures, not through the lens of a camera, but through the lens of who they are, through their personalities. Each brings a different point of view to this beautiful and rich and sometimes ravaged state we call home.
It took me longer than it should have to realize a photographer is no different than any other kind of artist; they just wield a different tool. It’s easy to forget this when we see postcard pictures of Hanging Rock, Atlantic Beach at sunset, or the Blue Ridge Parkway because they’re usually not heavy on the personality. They do what they do the way they’re supposed to do it, but anybody could be behind the lens. It’s a photo, but what I want is a picture, a picture of something that shows me something I can’t see.
I was in a picture like this once; my father was in it with me. Now, as a preface to this photo, you should know that my father was a successful man. He made a lot of money; he had businesses around the world. For a while, during his salad days, he had his own jet plane. People from England to Japan respected and revered him. But the night we took this picture, we were at a party at my sister’s house in Hillsborough. He came down to visit because three of his children — two of his daughters and me — lived here then, and the party was probably for that fact alone because we didn’t get to see him that much. In the picture, I have a nutty expression on my face, and he …
Well, my father the international businessman has a party hat on, and he’s sticking his tongue out and looks, for the most part, like a total goober. We laughed that night like we never laughed before and as if we might never laugh again. And the truth is, I don’t know if he and I ever did laugh that much again.
Many years later, after he died, someone from The New York Times wrote an article about me. After my book Big Fish came out, people took interest in what my relationship with my actual father was like, and I told them it was a mixed bag, the way it is with most of us, I think. The newspaper wanted a picture of him, so I chose my favorite.
I got a few letters about that picture, from people interested in my father’s legacy. They couldn’t believe I did it. This isn’t your father! they said. Your father was a powerful and respected man, not some weirdo with his tongue sticking out of his mouth. When something like this is published in The New York Times, it becomes the article of record. For generations hence, this is how your father will be remembered. Happy? they asked me.
And I said, Very.
Daniel Wallace is a novelist and a professor of English at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Follow him on Twitter, @DHWallace, or visit danielwallace.org.