One thing I love to photograph is our twelve acre batch of bucolic splendor in southeastern Oklahoma. In the spring and summer it is green and full of flowers, in the fall the skies are beautiful, and winter sometimes brings snow and ice that make grand vistas. In all seasons, though, as I walk all around our place, I see images in figures, remnants, discarded items, weathered wood, peeling paint, and on and on. The property has been the home to my wife Abby’s first in-laws, George and Dorothy Milligan, since 1954. George is no longer with us, but Dorothy is still down at the homestead on the other end of the pasture from us. During their lives here, and during our lives here, things like cars and lumber and sheds and railroad ties and so forth have come and gone, have been cleared out and become overgrown, have been painted and then faded and then painted again. This piece of land is, in some ways, a metaphor for life, in that it is a work in progress, and always will be.
About a week ago I was in Dorothy’s back yard, part of a long walk I was taking around the entire property, when I decided to photograph two rusted metal lawn chairs of 1950s vintage. I remember them well, since George’s sister Jenny loved to sit outside, and did so in those chairs in 2005 after her home near New Orleans was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. I thought about Jenny, who has also passed on, as I made my first attempt to photograph the chairs. In the viewfinder and on the monitor it seemed to be exactly what I wanted, but when I got back up to the house and looked at the image in the computer, something was missing. I played around with the color and exposure and cropping, but it just didn’t seem to satisfy.
A couple of days later I was out walking again, and as the light matured toward sunset, I decided to give Jenny’s chairs another shot. This time, thinking I might have figured out what I did wrong with exposure and color balance and composition, I shot it a little differently, but again when I got back up to the house, I faced the same problem, that my images just didn’t satisfy me. There was an itch to express something, and these images weren’t scratching it.
Yet a third try yielded more of the same; pleasant, pretty pictures that didn’t say enough.
Then tonight, as Abby was at the house preparing to go out to dinner with me, I found myself down there again. This time, though, my camera stayed on my shoulder and I just kept looking over the scene. Finally it dawned on me: what was missing was what was missing, Jenny. So tonight after sunset, armed with this new notion, I grabbed a tripod and went down to Dorothy’s, this time making the image that Abby and I both think expresses what I wanted to say from the start: these were Jenny’s chairs…