She seemed harmless enough. Quite pleasant really. Bright eyes, inviting smile, and she was saying nice things about my work. I was already on a roll. Maybe four glasses of wine, but a heady mix of ego and praise was floating my head well above the four glass mark.
It was the opening of a show of my photography in one of the better galleries in the Yukon. A one man show, juried, and I could not get enough of myself.
She was in her mid sixties, perhaps seventy. Well dressed in an expensive but not ostentatious way. Quality cloth, well cut, in subdued colours. She was, I thought, making some very astute observations about my photographs. Something about “the craft required to capture the truly abstract in nature”. It was music to my ears and I immediately ruined any chance I had to get wise before it was too late. I offered her another glass of wine, and of course, took another for myself.
She was it seemed quite interested in photography. A total amateur by her account, but a member of the Whitehorse photography club, she said. When she wasn’t passing pleasant remarks about my work, I dimly came to understand by dint of her frequent repetition and my mindless head nodding, that the club had quite the history. It had been active for nearly 40 years. It was well connected with a network of clubs across Canada. And I came, too dimly it seems, to understand that the club was always looking for someone with something to teach. Someone to attend a monthly meeting, “just to liven things up”, she would have me understand.
Under normal circumstances I would have refused. Politely enough of course but brooking no misunderstanding. But again she seemed harmless enough, she was saying delightful things about my work, and she brought refills for our wine.
Months later the call I had been dreading, came. That call had been gnawing at the periphery of my being. It was the middle of the day, and it could have been anybody, but I knew. And it was. It was she. And she wanted me. Wanted me to fulfill my drunken conceited bargain to speak to the club. To speak about my art. And I could not say no.
I was told it would be casual. There would be projection equipment for my images. I would be given an hour, more if I felt the need. There would be plenty of rookies, amateurs of the rankest sort, lapping up my every hint or nudge in the right direction. There would of course be more experienced members who would appreciate my nuanced eye.
Bullets were sweated, midnight oil was burnt. Thousands of images were reviewed for a lecture that would be smart, fun, tightly focussed and have something for everybody was prepared, written and re-written.
I should have requested a copy of the agenda. Not just because I delight in seeing my name in print. No, had I seen the agenda, there might have still been the slightest chance to avert disaster.
But no. On the appointed evening, at the appointed hour, I was secretly thrilled and pragmatically dismayed to see dozens of eager faces arranged around tables forced together into a huge rectangle in the Public Library’s largest meeting room.
The agenda was called. Long and labourious. Tedious organizational details. Minutia of upcoming contests, competitions, and submission details. Urgent pleadings for stalwart members to step forward and take leadership roles alongside an overworked and under appreciated executive. And then? Oh it should have been, but it was not, not me. No.
The lights were dimmed and we were to be treated to a production from a national association of photography clubs. The winning and honorable mention images from one of the most prestigious and critically judged photography contests in Canada. Only select photography clubs had been invited to submit, each individual photograph had to have been judged acceptable before the venerable judges would even glance at them in their studied considerations.
Soon, too soon, smooth soft music filled the room and dreamy almost impossible images filled the screen. The lighting perfect, the images crossing the spectrum from the cutest of bear cubs to the dramatic capture of a writhing salmon by a pouncing eagle. There were mountain vistas impossibly lit with millions of stars and the Northern lights. There were precious baby otters and tiny chicks in nests high above the forest with their beaks wide open to be fed.
It soon became clear, that every member of the club, everyone at this table, except me, had at least one image in this cornucopia of photographic perfection. The birds, soared, the otters swam, bees buzzed impossibly bright blossoms, and the members remarked, “Ralph, I’ve always like that image”, “Katie, I know that should have done better”, “Ahh Ingrid, that’s your’s, I’ve always loved that picture.” until it seemed there was praise for all, for everyone at that table but me.
With every Image I sank a little lower into the darkness beside the screen at the front of the room. There was no doubt in my mind, when the lights came back up the eyes in this room would turn to me. They wouldn’t do it intentionally. No one would even think about saying it, but it would be there, “top that” would be loudly unsaid.
And I could not. I had brought images. I had a collection boldly titled “Light”. I intended to talk to them about the importance of light, how photography started there and how all of my frustrations, the shots I wanted and could not get were products of not having the right light. I had brought far too many examples of light that was not right.
I had intended to talk about angle, but I had just spent nearly an hour looking at giraffe toes from the perspective of a giraffe’s nose. I had a look down a whales gullet and had seen a doomed salmon’s last look at an eagle. That angle too, appeared closed to me.
Contrast? I had a whole folder. But it too would only contrast the pale imperfection of my images against the highly produced hand picked, best of the best, we had just seen.
The lights did go up, my images did replace theirs on the screen. With nothing else prepared, I soldiered on. I spoke about Light, contrast and angle. And in the end I believe I did have something to offer. It hurt. But it was the only honest thing left for me to do. I opened the floor for questions. And then I answered, as best I could, how a schmuck like me actually got a show of my own, in a gallery. And yes, how I did actually sell some of those works. And how many. And feeling beholden to my audience I even suffered the raised eyebrows when I told them, honestly, about the prices I’d had the audacity to charge. And then there was even some polite applause and a couple of sympathetic pats on the arm as I helped put the library tables back where they belonged.