The Journey

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A man explores the mineral-deposited land at a hot springs in Tecopa, Calif. The small town, although without a stoplight or cell service, is home to many hot springs and draws throngs of tourists each year.

It started with a toothache.

I woke up and went to the dentist to discover that I needed a load of work done. I was in a lot of pain and swapped a 30-minute appointment for two hours in the chair–with a $2,000 price tag.

I was anxious to leave. I had a two-hour drive for an assignment in a tiny desert town that did not have cell phone service.

With no time to lose, I left with a partially numb mouth and loads of worry. I have a dozen outstanding invoices due to me, some of which are late; and one of my biggest clients laid me off without notice, because of budget constraints, the week of Thanksgiving. However, the worry was dissipating and soon replaced with excitement the farther I drove away from Las Vegas.

I enjoy any assignment that takes me to a new place, and photographing a widow of a cannabis legend in the town of Tecopa, Calif. population: 150 is no exception.

Also, the long drive allowed me to stop and explore. As a photojournalist, every drive I do seems to take longer because of this.

I met my source in Tecopa without a minute to spare. Although the shoot, at times, was very challenging, she was extremely pleasant and cooperative, dubbing herself “an old hippie and a stoner.” All in all, I made some beautiful frames that I will have to share in a future post since they are embargoed until then.

On the way out of town, I noticed to my right a photo coming into frame while driving. The scene before me looked like it could have been on another continent. The land was dramatic; the sun was beginning to set; the clouds were particularly amazing; and there was a nice wind playing with a man’s bright red robe. Excitedly, I pulled the car over for about the 10th time that day, jumped out while the car was idling in park, and grabbed my gear.

After shooting for a while, I decided to take the long route home that would have me exiting through another desert town called Pahrump, where I happened upon a wonderful scene. The sky had only become richer since I had left Tecopa 30 minutes from my previous stop-the-car-and-get-out-and-shoot adventure.

I pulled over abruptly dodging dicey construction traffic and captured what looked like God himself lighting a sign just for me. I am not religious, but I know a good photo when I see one. I know an even better photo when I see the juxtaposition of a divine message with a racy town in the background.

Perhaps my story has taken a bit of a detour.

By the time I made it home, I had 632 frames between two camera bodies and one giant toothache.

The next day started with more dental woes, and I found myself sitting in the exact same chair I had been in 24 hours earlier. I was probed and prodded again. Once we were through, the doctor reminded me that he wanted to show me his photo studio. Thankfully, we hadn’t had time the previous day.

“Come here, I want to show you something,” he said with excitement.

See, I met Dr. W in a professional setting years before meeting him as a patient. He was very interested in my photo equipment then and wanted to tell me all about his as well. I recall that I wanted to do my job as opposed to doing what I like to call “talking shop.”

I got out of the big patient chair and followed him into a back room, which he had completely converted into a fully-functioning photo studio equipped with an entire B&H catalog’s worth of equipment and the latest, greatest, Apple products. He proceeded to excitedly show me x, y and z and followed the whole thing up with a quick little photo slideshow on a TV screen larger than the one I have in my living room. The slideshow featured patients and staff he had photographed, concentrating on the dental work he had done, close-ups of teeth and such. There were even frames with subjects wearing flowers and holding food.

While earlier I had tried to be polite and engage in tech-talk, I finally offered a suggestion of using a hair light on one of the subjects. He quickly dismissed me; I could tell he was not really listening. This little show-and-tell was clearly more about him and less about my input and our conversation. I would bargain a guess that it even had a little to do with me being a young, female patient.

Dr. W is a really skilled dentist. My husband and I would not be going to him if he weren’t. Heck, he was the only one to finally give me a proper diagnosis after years of walking through other dentists’ doors. I am very thankful for that.

However, Dr. W is not a photographer. It is clear that he has had no formal training. His portraits that he displays proudly in his office lack any emotion. The horizon line is constantly tilted, and the lighting is wrong. Also, I noticed that every woman he showed in his 5-minute slideshow presentation had bare shoulders and arms, as opposed to the shots of men wearing collared shirts. Did he read somewhere in a handbook that putting a woman in a tube top (hopefully there was a tube top) creating the illusion that she was topless or bare was good? Or professional? These are patients and staff.

I left his office for a second day in a row feeling sore and a bit depressed. The entire time I was checking out Doc’s Photo Studio, I had wished that I had half of his studio set-up in my own office. I remembered those outstanding invoices and the other half of the $2,000 I still owed him for my dental work. Life is so ironic like that, isn’t it?

But then something happened. My editor from my Tecopa assignment returned my call while I was making the 10-minute drive home. After discussing some specifics about photo distribution, I filled her in on my pervious day and experience with the widow. I told her about the funny hiccups we had–quite frankly things I would expect to encounter with a woman who had been smoking marijuana nonstop all her life, and my editor and I laughed. “It looks like you really tapped into your reporting skills,” she said.

That stuck.

I may not have all the studio equipment that I desire or the newest MacBook Pro, but my older, updated one is doing just fine for now as I type this blog post. Yeah, I would love to order some new gear, but I know how to light a great photo with any camera and how to listen–to really listen–to someone tell me their story. Also, my very first camera, my father’s hand-me-down Minolta, worked just fine for me back then as well. I even won a few awards with frames that I shot on that old beast.

In the end, I would not trade any of my photo experience for any amount of gear or money; I am already a very wealthy person. What started with a toothache, ended with something much better than a medical fix. (Although I sure will take that pain free mouth sooner rather than later).

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A family walks along the path to a hot springs easily accessible by the main road.

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Pahrump advertises: Jesus (foreground) and Alien Fireworks (background)

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Tecopa, California.

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A man practices tai chi on the top of a high dune covered in minerals in Tecopa.

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A rusted water container is marked “FIRE WATER” at Charleston View on the boarder of California and Nevada.

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A man dressed in an orange wrap explores near a hot springs in Tecopa. He was one of several in a similarly-dressed party. I attempted to converse with them to see if they were Buddha or Hare Krishna, but there was a language barrier. A member in his party was from Thailand.

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