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On the Death of a Photographer

Some of you have may have seen my “In the Land of My Father” post from a weeks ago where I wrote about my trip to New Mexico with my father. As we passed through the little mountain town of Capitan, we stopped in to see a friend of my dad’s who was sick.

 Actually, he wasn’t merely sick. He was dying. He’d been sent home from the hospital since there was nothing more to be done. He’d been through rounds of chemotherapy so that, when we saw him, he had no strength and couldn’t speak. The sight of him lying on his makeshift bed - he was too weak to go upstairs to his bedroom - and the awkwardness of not being able to understand his feeble words was too much.

I stepped out and wandered through his front room which was filled with memorabilia, antiques and art. His sociable wife, who seemed to be filled with all the energy that he lacked, led me to a stack of fiber-based, black and white prints shot by the dying man. Knowing that I was a photographer, she proudly talked about his work as she asked questions about mine. 

As I politely flipped through the matted prints, I was filled with an emotional weight that comes from realizing that this is the sum of one man’s photographic life. This is it. No more is to come I thought as I viewed the entire stack of 40 or so prints. There was one in particular that I enjoyed, perhaps because it was not unlike some of my own work. I think it was one his favorites too since there was more than one print from that image.Though the man who had created this work was silenced, his work spoke to me for him. In connecting with that image, it allowed me to connect to the man lying in the next room.

Before we said our awkward goodbyes, my dad suggested that I take a photo of him. I was surprised to hear him murmur an okay. Most folks want to look their best for a photo, but I suppose the photographer in him understood the importance of documenting the moment, vanity be damned.

Later, I reflected upon the thought of what it means to be a photographer and the idea of the legacy that I’ll leave behind. As an artist, my work also has the ability to speak for me when I am gone. Faced with the reality of mortality, I wondered what my work will say and whether anyone will listen. With awareness comes a sense of urgency too. The time to create is now!

Today, my dad called to tell me that Lonnie Lipman died. My guess is that this is the last photo taken of him. As one photographer passes on, his likeness joins the body of work of another. With any luck, some of his spirit too.


5 Responses to “On the Death of a Photographer”

  1. Eddie Bojorquez (Studio 512) Says:

    John, I love your well-spoken and heart-felt post. You speak so much truth about the power of the images we capture. My prayer is that my legacy as a person AND as a photographer impact many lives positively well after I’m gone. Faced with our mortality is a rare but important endeavor, I think. Thank God there’s more to life than this life.

  2. Jenn in AZ Says:

    Wonderful post and amazing photo. Your words are so true and strike to the heart–photos, portraits, are forever and capture that specific moment in time for all time. I spoke with a friend who has an extremely photo-shy teenage daughter. She wanted a photo of her to give to her grandparents and asked if I could “sneak” one. I just spoke to the girl and told her that I wanted to take her picture and give it to her, because in a few years she will look back at this photo and remember her life at 14. She agreed and was very pleasant and a joy to photograph! What a wonderful opportunity we have to capture history for people–be it pleasant or not.

    Thanks for this post. Very thought provoking and perfect.


  3. Christa Says:

    Such a wonderful and emotional post… the image is striking and your thoughts make it even more impactful. What a blessed moment shared between you and this beautiful man. It reminds me of one of my favorite photos I took years ago when my father was dying - my older brother at our father’s bedside, filled with unspoken emotion - luckily, the camera caught that which could not be expressed verbally. Thanks so much John, for a bit of depth and beauty on an otherwise mundane day :)

  4. MattDJ Says:

    John, I always love coming to your blog because I NEVER know what to expect, nor do I ever feel that I am quite ready for what effect your post will have on me. This is one of those times. I admire the raw sincerity of your writing and the raw emotion of your imagery. It’s a gift my friend and you are blessed. Looking forward to sitting under your teaching next month.

  5. Jennifer Says:

    wow, powerful. speechless.

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