The Rules of Photography

When I was about six or seven I lived in Price, Utah. My cousins lived in Spring Glen, on the edge of Helper, Utah. The three towns lie within a few miles of each other.

On weekends, my family would pile into a '78 Chevy Caprice and drive seven miles to my cousins'. Our parents would chit chat in the living room, while we kids would run around the park across the street, in the dark, yelling names and numbers, grabbing each other, sprinting through nearby fields.

Night games.

Sometimes, on a morning following a sleep over, we'd "walk into town", as we called it, toward Helper. We'd buy a bag of Coffee Nips from the small convenience store. Then we'd suck those coffee candies as we walked home, kicking along the gravel, each of us smiling with one cheek plumper than the other. But better than those candies was the knowledge that even if we weren't old enough to drink coffee, we could savor it, against our parents' wishes.

A few months ago I visited Helper, Utah. I walked and bicycled around, talked with people, made photos. I saw some old film photographs on display in a Main Street window. Attached was a name and number, so I called it. Later that day I met Jason Huntzinger. He works at the Western Mining and Railroad Museum. He also teaches photography at USU Eastern.

Jason and I later connected on Facebook. A few weeks ago he invited me to come speak to his class about my street portraits. I drive down tonight, weather permitting.

So here I am, 3 a.m., poring over old photos, trying to figure what I might tell another person about photography that's meaningful.

It began, for me, in the 8th grade with a pinhole camera made from an old Quaker Oatmeal can. My friend Woody took photography with me. I made a photo of him, and I still have it. He died about five years ago, from an accidental drug overdose. I still think of him when certain songs come on the radio, the ones we used to dance like idiots to.

So the first thing I'm gonna tell those students, I guess, is: your photos will outlive you.

Can you live with that?

Tonight, I look at an image recorded on a piece of film less than 1.5"x.75" in size, floored that it's here 27 years later, though my friend is not.

I have a photo of my grandmother, too. And for the first time in my life I see my father in her face. It must've been necessary for him to reach the age of 70 for the resemblance to come clear. She was in her 80s when I snapped her sitting quietly in our front room, in the afternoon sunlight.

Then I stopped.

I didn't make any photographs for four years. I spent my time raising hell and using drugs. But when I returned to high school at 17, and to photography, I had perspective. I wanted to say something with photos. I remember, around that same time, driving in the car with my mom, telling her how I'd found this appreciation for jazz, which she didn't understand, and I'd said the music showed the "beauty of sadness." I remember using those words, thinking that. It was the first time I recall appreciating this paradox—that there's something exquisite about ache channeled creatively.

I came across this image, shot that year, of an abandoned house that used to sit at the mouth of Provo Canyon. My friends and I used to sneak into it and, well...

The city tore it down eventually, but not before I photographed it.

One of my friends who often accompanied me to this abandoned home shot himself a few years ago. I wish I knew why. I think of him when I hear certain songs, travel down roads we used to walk together.

Then I stopped.

After high school, I didn't make another creative photograph for 18 years. I got busy raising hell, or growing up, or something like that. To this day, my formal training consists of those 8th grade and junior year photo classes. But I know my photos will outlive me, not in their significance necessarily, but materially. These flimsy strips of tape, these records of light, will persist. And one day, maybe, they will remind my kith and kin that I do not.

So I guess there are two things I plan to tell those photography students: Your photos will outlive you.

And never stop.