On Missed Shots

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Reading time: 7 minutes

A friend or a photographer, I don't remember who, once told me, "Don't worry about the shots you miss. Those are the shots that stay with you forever."

This is true.

When I was in high school there was a used tire shop on Lehi's State Street called Victor's. I think it's still there, though now remodeled. Back then it was a dilapidated white shoebox of a building on a gravel lot and teenage hippies and stoners would go there when they needed new rubber on their early-model Subies and Hondas and VW buses.

There was joy in going to Victor's, even though it sucked having to remedy a car that had failed a safety inspection or gone flat in Provo Canyon. Going to Victor's meant you were growing up. You cashed a hundred-dollar check from your after-school job, convinced your friends to throw in another $15 a piece, and then scuttled into the tarnished garage to learn about tire sizes and tread patterns and expected mileage. And there amid stacks of black rubber and hissing compressors and ratcheting wrenches you'd negotiate with the honcho, a gruff and taut man that was at least part Latino, maybe full, and who resembled Randy Macho Man Savage. His hair hung down his back, and he chain-smoked cigarettes, spoke in hoarse staccato. Often he wore tank tops, and he never removed a pair of impenetrable blade sunglasses that adhered to his brow like the visor of motorcycle helmet.

I can't recall the honcho's name now. It might've been Victor, or it might've been Tito. Whatever it was or is, it had a certain gangster ring to my seventeen-year-old Utah County ears. In any case, I remember standing with Victor on the banks of that gravel lot and settling the details of shoeing my car with new gently-used rubber, mano a mano. Victor took each customer as he or she came, which was reassuring, and, for me, evoked a kind of self-confidence I didn't actually possess. The feeling was sublime.

But here's what I remember most about Victor's Tires. One day I'd gone there with a girlfriend to help her get her car sorted. After swapping her tires, Victor beckoned us into his office to settle up. The office was long and rectangular. Shoddy aluminum blinds draped over west-facing windows. At one end of the room was a metal desk, the kind you see in machine shops or schools and government buildings. Corners of papers and manila folders poked out of its drawers, slopped over its edges. My friend and I stood at the other end of the corridor-like office while Victor sat at the desk and filled out a receipt with a Bic pen. It was late in the day and sunlight seeped through the cracks in the blinds. Victor held a lighted cigarette in his teeth while he wrote, his black sunglasses still affixed to his face despite the dimness, and smoke purled lazily in the room, which the sunlight illuminated like milky threads of cosmos.

The scene enveloped me. I saw in my mind a photograph of incomparable mystique, a decisive moment, as Cartier-Bresson calls it, a space in time where man and nature combusted into a picture of inexplicable beauty. And I didn't have my camera. So I stood in awe, whispered to my friend, asked if she saw it too. Then Victor stood and the impression vanished, as though a ghost had left the room.

The shots you miss stay with you forever.

I once took a road trip through Oregon, traveling the Pacific Coast Highway from Port Orford north toward Portland. One afternoon, while driving through those towering pines riven by the 101, I saw a dirt turnoff that ran deep into the woods. Next to that turnoff stood a mailbox. As I approached at 50 miles per hour, I saw a young girl, maybe five or six, bounce on the balls of her bare feet down the dirt road and up to the box. She stood on her toes, opened the door, and peered inside as though she'd just found grandma's jewelry chest. She wore a white sundress, which flitted eastward in a coastal gale. Her untamed hair, too, as bright and iridescent as the flesh of a blood orange, flickered in the wind. There on tiptoes, with one hand on the mailbox door and the other reaching into the abyss, a chasm of sunlight lit her up like a meteor on a movie screen.

My camera was in the backseat and I tried to hit the brakes, but it was too late. I saw in the shadows of that forest all the omnipresence of God concentrated into a single frame, and in a second it flashed. I rolled past the scene, gawking, and the tiny fireball went dancing up the unpaved and shaded driveway, parcel in hand.

The shots you miss stay with you forever.

Sometimes, however, in order not to miss the moment, you must forego the shot. A couple years ago I solicited an old man of his time, for I believed time alone with this man would prove illuminating. He is, after all, a poet of 50 years, an educator, a father and husband, a performer, a gadfly and veritable Socrates, a true and living philosopher. Months passed before he agreed. We'd bump at the coffeehouse and I'd remind him of my interest, which was, roughly, to shadow and profile him. I left out the part about wanting to steal his wisdom and test it in life. He finally ceded not because of pressure, but because he needed photographic services. That was a year ago. We've spent hours together since, and I always approach time with him journalistically.

I recently visited the man at his home and before approaching his door I flung my camera over my shoulder and turned on my audio recorder. Forty-five minutes later I clicked the recorder off, set my camera down. And wouldn't you know that's when the conversation and the light turned interesting? The man and I stood in his garage, afternoon autumn sunshine leaking into the open space, and he stood there reflecting on his art, leaning on the broom he'd just used to sweep up the mess we'd made. (We'd been cutting sheetrock in order to fix a plumbing leak.) I wanted to make a photo, but refrained because lurching for my camera would've derailed the ensuing moment. Instead, I watched, noting the man's long and thick fingernails, the strands of white in his beard, the way his suspenders squeezed the sides of his belly, and the words he spoke. He said to me, when I asked him whether he ever doubts his creative impulses, questions his poiesis, "No. I take it as a given."

As a gift.

The shots you choose not to take stay with you forever, too.

You don't have to do photography to see and remember such images; you don't have to miss or forego a frame for it to stick. The heart alone makes snapshots, does so without warning or intention, and records them indelibly on the soul. Each of us has a few dozen or thousand floating around the psyche, occasionally replaying. A tickle or tremor arises when they do. I'm told that upon dying they play in succession and in full, across closed eyelids, like a film. Perhaps this is why photographs are considered memento mori, reminders that we die. One has to wonder whether images captured in the heart alone will outlive the body, as our feeble prints will do. And if they do, where do they go?

I've often thought about reconstructing those missed shots, about duplicating snapshots made by the heart. I could hire models, scout locations or return to them, same time of year, same time of day. I could use fans and reflectors to mimic weather conditions and lighting. I'd have my camera ready, light meter dialed in, extra rolls of film in my pocket. The image, of course, would be a lie, but only in the sense that a novel is a lie. Every story, after all, tells a truth. And every story, actual or not, is fabricated, posited by the one who tells it. So why not reconstruct these missed shots, tell the story? Alas, I'm made alive not by the photographing but by the seeing. The former serves the latter, not the other way around. I'd rather find in the world existing examples of the story I want to tell and be a witness, rather than fashion the story from scratch. Besides, it's difficult to construct a good lie.

Nearly everybody has a camera these days, and their cameras are more technically capable than those of yesteryear. They're quick, work in the dark, completely automated. One could document his entire life with a cellphone camera if inclined. But in the end, he'd still miss something. Life, after all, is little more than missed shots. A person can take only one path, and in choosing it he negates every other possible path. He must watch the infinitude of potential living go by for the sheer fact he can't be in two places at once, can't go back in time, can't know then what he knows now, can't capture what he might've by missing or foregoing or forgetting to document life, make the shot. For every time you point the lens, you lose what you might've felt or known had you not.