Wednesday, October 14, 2009

A Voice From Beyond

I think most photographers, including me, harbor a secret fantasy of taking an iconic image. I'm sure it's part of that immortality drive that I've touched upon in earlier posts. I mean, how cool would it be to be linked to a particular photo like Ansel Adams is to "Clearing Storm" at Yosemite's Inspiration Point?

But the reality is that connection very rarely happens. Even photographers fortunate enough to capture something special tend to fade to anonymity even if the image lives on. How many people, besides serious students of photographic history, remember who shot pictures like the marines raising the flag on Iwo jima, the sailor kissing the nurse on V-J Day or the Afghan girl that was on the cover of National Geographic? (Joe Rosenthal, Alfred Eisenstaedt and Steve McCurry, respectively.)

If we're lucky we are able to capture shots that please a few people in the here and now, which is especially important if one is making their livelihood as a photographer. Even then, it's difficult to really know how much your image touches someone.

But every once in a while....

I shot the above image as an afterthought. I was at the 2002 Edwards AFB Open House watching this glider perform an aerobatic routine for the crowd. I rarely shoot gliders, but the graceful patterns the pilot made with his wingtip smoke intrigued me, so I took a couple of quick snaps.

Later, as I prepared to enter the 2003 Aviation Week photo contest, I asked Tina what my tenth entry should be. She chose this one. I sent the slide in and out of the ten I submitted it was the one picked for an honorable mention that year.

After the photo issue was published, I got congratulatory calls from people at work. One of them said, "was that Dave Lazerson flying that glider?" We quickly deduced that it was indeed Dave as his routine was a fixture at the Edwards show for many years. It turns out Dave was Deputy Director for the Joint Strike Fighter Combined Test Force, which is why so many folks at work knew him.

It was only a few days later that Dave was killed in a mid-air collision over the Tehachapi mountains.

Almost immediately I got the request from his Northrop Grumman friends and co-workers to use my photo as part of a memorial gift for Dave's widow. That was one request I could not refuse. As soon as I could get my slide back from Aviation Week we set out to create a fitting tribute. Our shop was given the job and this is what we designed and made.

I find it so ironic that this spur-of-the-moment shot became one of the most emotional photos I ever took. But I guess that's how it is sometimes. All I know is that it made me appreciate the power of photography. That one simple image, that one simple throw-away image, became a means of comfort and commemoration for a man who was obviously respected and loved by his family, friends and co-workers. It was an honor for me to contribute that photo, and I shall be forever humbled by it.

There is also a surreal element to this incident. A couple of days after we learned Dave was killed, and before the people at Edwards and Palmdale finalized their decision to make the gift using my photo, I got a call from an Aviation Week representative. It seems a reader had seen their photo issue and liked my entry. He wanted my contact information to see if he could get a print of my shot. Aviation Week was calling to give me his name and phone number so I could get in touch with him. The name of the reader was Dave Lazerson.

I like to think that somewhere he's smiling.