Purpose, Honor and History

When I was 19, working closely under the wing of an AMAZING portrait artist named Lois M. VerBaere, I was taught the real value of my then-future profession. Lou had moved to Pendleton OR from Chicago IL, where he operated a portrait studio while teaching photography at a local college.

I went to him to critique my scenic work, lacking any desire to ever photograph people. Despite his differing opinion, I returned after work each day to learn a little (okay, a LOT) more that I could've ever anticipated.

Among those lessons, was to value the past even more than my clients. In so many words, he conveyed to me that his job was what I now call "Visual Historian"

"These people think they're just coming in for an annual check-up of sorts, but your job is to treat the experience like a piece of priceless history."

Remember, I'm 19, so my thought-bubble would've read something along the lines of, "Okay?.. whatever!" His era was over, he was old, what does he know. You know, the stuff a teen would never admit to thinking - all to later experience a profound epiphany. (a.k.a. Realization that he was wise and right!)

In the 80's, he sent me to his storage in the basement beneath his downtown Pendleton studio. "Go pull last year's negatives and bring them up for me". This was the first time I'd been in a basement this old. Besides the awe I felt, discovering a hole in the brick wall that would later become the "Pendleton Underground Tours", I also found his photo archives that were older than me.

After he ribbed me for taking so long, I asked "Why in the hell would you keep negatives of customers that are likely gone?" My bold assertion was mild compared to his heated response. "Your not in this for yourself. You probably won't even live long enough to discover the true value of your responsibility, so get over it. You just need to take care of that stuff that one day will mean something more."

The Prints Charming Archives (1994 - NOW)

The Prints Charming Archives (1994 - NOW)

Not only did I learn to never bang that hornets nest again, but I was also there a few days later for his vindication. A mom called to say that her son had passed away, and they wanted to reorder some photos from 15 years prior to display at the memorial. With my tail between my legs, I retrieved the 1969 box with an apologetic "I get it." as I put it on his production table.

As if he's here in my studio with me, I carry that torch for my amazing mentor.  Knowing that what I create for my clients each day will outlast Facebook. That these people might one day put their lives at risk to rescue their family albums from fire or flood. That one day, they might call me to say... "Is there any chance you still have..." To know that my negatives date back to 1982, and Prints Charming negatives dating prior to actually opening in 1996, I feel honored to serve and preserve.

Hearing from my clients at the Lake Oswego Fire Department, that they hadn't done this in 30 years, I felt an instant value in my assignment. I also felt like HUGE Spiritual forces were at work on that June 1, 2015 after a notable storm overnight.

As if my mentor story wasn't enough - I received this message (God as my witness) the day I moved my archives to the new studio, half wondering if I should stop storing after a decade. My answer - NO!..

As if my mentor story wasn't enough - I received this message (God as my witness) the day I moved my archives to the new studio, half wondering if I should stop storing after a decade. My answer - NO!..

Four of their stations had to be covered by a neighboring Tualatin Valley Fire Department, to assure that public safety was not at risk for a photo. Worry of rain was high to the unfaithful, and my assurance that "For 18 years, if you schedule me to shoot outside, it won't rain". I have over 50 witnesses, that the rain ceased just in time for the photo. (dark wet spots digitally removed from photo)

For the four firefighters that had to miss the initial photo, we rescheduled them to pose for the gaps we left. On THAT day, equal Forces were at work. Instead, it was sunny and bright which would foil my plan to match the lighting for an authentic digital installation.

As soon as I climbed up on the ladder truck (HOW COOL?..) did the sun get blocked by a timely cloud to allow me matching contrast. 

In the process, I learned that two of these fire-fighters were in their last group photo in the 70's. Shortly after I created this image, two or three retirements were announced. (none from the stress I caused by orchestrating this I hope).

In honor of my late, amazing mentor Lou, I stopped by to see the image at the station. To re-mind myself of the value of my work. While I'd prefer that it's appreciated during my life, it still gives me a little pang of joy to know that my creative work will outlive me. (and THANK YOU GOD for having my back on the weather!)

Brian Geraths2 Comments