My Uncle's Drive-by Shootings

Today I replaced the batteries in my digital cameras and removed the battery from my good old 35 mm Minolta. I’m not sure when I’ll use it again, and I don’t want the battery to corrode and eat up this old memory maker.

I’ve had this wonderful, heavy thing since I was 18. I learned to use it with my Uncle Bud, who died at 95 last year. He was great for drive-by shooting from his Buick.

On weekends, we’d meet at his house in Danbury and drive up to Kent to see what was new in the galleries. It was our way of keeping up with New York. Along the way, if Uncle Bud saw something interesting, he’d stop and photograph it. He’d been visiting the galleries over so many years, that the vivacious young docents were only too happy to bend the rules and allow him to photograph the artwork. He brought his camera into those galleries like a schoolboy proud he had earned some rare privilege. He made their day.

My uncle shot the good, the interesting, and the ugly. He didn’t have to like it—that seemed to be almost a frivolous consideration. He had only to find it interesting. Then, out came the light meter and the arranging of the body into a tripod and click—an image that would become a photo in an album that would be something to talk about over his martini and my cola after the next time we went out in the Buick.

He was great for doing delightfully unsafe, very Buick-ownerlike things—stopping exactly where he had to in order to get the shot he wanted. That might be in the middle of the road. So be it. I don’t think the risk occurred to him. Nor do I think he saw his behavior as inconvenient to others. Simply, the very interesting nature of whatever captured his vision was all there was in the world at that moment.

That’s what cameras do. Their viewfinders frame the world into little works of art. Photographers see the world as art, as a series of beautiful moments. My uncle had this heart all his life. As an adolescent helping the crews bringing electricity to rural Vermont, he documented the beauty he saw even in high-tension wires. Somewhere there is an album of photos documenting this. In many of those photos is a young girl named Mary, his summer sweetheart. Later, she became a schoolteacher. I know this because he had made a note of it in this album.

My uncle saw the art in life. His photos—in numbered albums that filled cabinets--were only a part of that. His living was his art.

(Here is a photo of a church in Kent that I took with him one September afternoon many years ago.)