Tuesday, October 19, 2010

My Friend Roy

I have this friend. I met him the first year I lived in Alaska. I was in a mall, selling cheap color nature photographs at an art fair and noticed a flash going off in a shop behind my booth. During a break I wandered in and introduced myself. Turns out he had just opened his own photography business, "Visual Sensitivity Unlimited." We were the same age and he was, to be honest, a little wilder and crazier than I was - but not by much! We hit it off, and back then I had no idea what a huge, positive influence he was to have upon my life.

As I think back, our friendship grew as he took me under his wing and taught me more and more about the craft I would come to love and spend my life doing. I knew a little about photography in those days, and next to nothing about the studio or darkroom. Like me, Roy was self-taught but was learning fast. I had a small darkroom available to me in the school where I was teaching, but the more I tried, the more I struggled with it. I mentioned my frustration to him and he quickly offered to teach me. "Tell you what," he said as he passed me a joint one night, also one of our favorite pastimes, "if you're willing to do my black-and-white work, I'll teach you, and you can use the darkroom any time you want." I jumped at the offer.

He taught me how to mix chemicals, how to use his Beseler 4x5 enlarger, how to develop film consistently, how to use contrast filters when printing. But mostly he taught me how to see the tiny little spots of white that pieces of dust on the negative leave on the print! There were many nights I went in and printed his work, only to have him reprint it the next day, before the client would show up. I would check in to see how he liked the work, and he would have saved the spotty prints for me, showing me each and every piece of evidence that I had not yet figured this out. Though he never said it, I knew I was driving him crazy, and began learning to pay attention to the small details. I just kept trying harder each time. Eventually I got it, but I'm sure it cost him a small fortune in paper, and many mornings of frustration.

Years later, in the middle of the winter of 1979, he asked, "Want to go to a photo workshop in Yosemite, California this coming June?" He had heard about the Ansel Adams Workshops and how they were becoming world-famous for their quality of instruction in fine-art photography. It seemed like a far-off dream to actually consider going off and studying under a master. But once he said it, it somehow became a real possibility. "Sure!" I said, and we wrote away for applications from the school. I eagerly filled mine out, but Roy, busy as always, let it slip and never sent his in. I was accepted, and early June found me actually standing next to Ansel himself and learning what photography could be. That workshop, and Roy's fateful question about going, changed the arc of my life forever. I came away from that workshop changed, convinced that I would indeed, somehow, be a photographer. A year later I landed a job the next year teaching photography at the high school - and I have taught photography from then until now, 30 years later.

Over the years - my 23 years in Alaska anyway - Roy and I took many photo trips together. We'd load up the car with junk food and head out to the mountains or seashore - where didn't seem to matter as much as who was in the car - always looking for shots, but mostly enjoying each other's company; laughing, talking about art, talking about life, telling stories and making our own new ones. Once we did a workshop together in California, and though we barely survived because of our antics, had a blast. In all, Roy was one of my best friends for the many years we lived in Alaska.

Once we moved to Olympia, though, things changed. With all the distance between us, we didn't see each other anywhere near enough. I called him when I needed photo advice ("Roy, how do I set up lights to do portraits in a tiny room?" "Shoot through the back instead of bouncing off the front of the umbrella."); he came down and stayed with us for four days so I could tutor him in Photoshop as he moved his studio into the digital world; he even arranged for me to interview his dad when I returned to Alaska one summer to collect video footage of old-timers for my Masters degree, a session that was a highlight of the experience. Even so, many months passed without contact other than through email. And that, I believe, became the problem.

To understand this next bit, you need to realize who I am politically. I would classify myself as a liberal environmentalist, and even that might not be strong enough. I care deeply about the policies of this country. During the years I was in Alaska I was in a tiny, tiny minority among some of the most blatant right-wing folks I have ever met. If that seems an exaggeration, remember, it was Alaskan voters who elected Sarah Palin! So when I landed in Olympia, Washington, a veritable hotbed of left-wing liberalism, and as I lived through the George W. Bush years, I became, like many of the people of this country today, even more uncompromising in my beliefs. It was a few short years into this transition, after arguing with an equally rabid right-wing colleague, that I recall asking myself, "When did tolerance (of other points of view) become a bad thing?" Somewhere along the line, things had changed.

They had changed me too, apparently. Roy, on the other hand, and my relationship with him, had always been amazingly apolitical. What he did always have, however, was a sense of humor. So when I received jokes from him that he had forwarded from his sister who was decidedly on the other end of the political spectrum from me, I reacted. Insulted by the political humor that made fun of my beliefs, I asked that I not be included on the mailing list for such jokes. But when another arrived that I found particularly offensive, I went off the deep end. I don't recall the exact joke, nor do I recall what my specific response was, other than the emotion of the moment. I "Replied to All," and basically 'went off' on the humor and what I believed was the mindset that inspired it. I wasn't particularly nice or kind, or thoughtful. I was offended and angry, and I lashed out...not only at Roy, but at his sister, too. I didn't care. I was mad. I basically said, "If you can't stop sending these, don't send anything!"

The forwarded emails between us stopped abruptly. In fact, all emails stopped. All contact stopped. Completely. Thousands of miles away, I told myself that it was probably no big deal - that he had just gotten the message. What I didn't realize was that I had been as offensive in my own way as I was by those I was offended by. And what I REALLY failed to do was to treat my lifelong friend with the respect or love he deserved and that I truly feel for him regardless of politics.

Years went by. I made a few attempts at reconnecting, but each time I was met with little response and no interest. Calls and conversation were short and abrupt, and emails weren't replied to. I'm slow, but on some level I got the message. A few years ago I went to Alaska but didn't call or even let him know I was there. I didn't like how it felt, but I didn't know how to fix it. But this last August I went back again for a visit, and thought I'd give it one more try. To my surprise he agreed to meet me for lunch.

I have to admit I was anxious about meeting. Turns out he was too. We spent time catching up during lunch, then went back to his house & studio. He showed me the changes he had made, and his new work. We continued to visit and at one point I mentioned that he was welcome to visit anytime he was in the area, and his face got serious. He took a deep breath and said, "There's no way to do this easily, so I'll just say it. Remember that email you sent years ago?" And he reminded me of them and how they had caught him completely off-guard - and how surprised and hurt he was at the vehemence of my response. And that I had also sent my reply to his sister. We talked about it for a long time. He said he doesn't send political emails out any more at all. In turn, I apologized for my rabid response. We both agreed that the price wasn't worth it - that our friendship was far more important than any political misunderstanding or disagreement. Over the past couple of months our emails have been full of testimonies to the joy we feel now that we are friends again.

I believe two things got in our way:

1. Politics and how divisive it can be, and is these days.

2. "Communication" in the techno-era, whether it's via Facebook, texting or email, isn't as effective, intimate or valuable as face-to-face contact. The hug we ended our visit with felt better to me than all the emails I have ever received combined.

Luckily for me, and from all I can tell, for Roy, I have my friend back. I don't intend on letting politics or anything else get in the way of that again. He means too much to me.


Kevin Porter said...

Trying to write means looking for examples to look up to. This is that for me. Thank you for this post.

vagabondindigo said...

Mr Dixon

First off, I have to say, I am 35 years old on Tuesday and I don't know if I will ever be comfortable calling any of my teachers I still know, even distantly, by a first name. Sigh, damn my own formal nature.

Secondly, this post felt so personal and real. I have had a couple of similar experiences, one of which had a similar conclusion (at least so far) or renewed contact and working it out. I wonder if it is not politics and tech communication so much as where you meantioned "uncompromising" and where you also mention how time changes us. Rarely do we change together, especially when your chosen local culture is different. When you, and he, chose to communicate and in a way comprimise, that is when you renewed your relationship.

As you have since the day I met you, you inspire me. Thanks for being you, and sharing.

-erin kennedy