Saturday, December 8, 2012

Storytelling Starts with Family

My Uncle Jimmy died on Friday night.  My mom’s older brother was the first “creative” person I ever knew.  He had an amazing ear for music and could pick up just about any instrument and play it.  He was a carpenter, builder, creator who spent most of his career building various structures for others.  But what fascinated me the most about him was his interest and talent in photography.

He was the photographer at my parent’s wedding in 1969.  I only saw a few select shots growing up and I remember my Mom telling me that in many of the pictures she’s telling him to hurry up.  And in the more formal portrait shots with grandparents or parents, either she or my dad had their mouth open.   When my parents celebrated their 30th wedding anniversary I asked my Uncle Jimmy if I could have his negatives and any other prints he had from their wedding.  I wanted to print some shots for a surprise party planned for my parents.  When I started looking through everything he shot, I found that the ones I really loved were the more candid, documentary style shots, not as popular for wedding photography in those days.  They captured the essence, joy and story of the event.  And they gave me insight into the “youthful” versions of my whole family.

A snapshot of one of my favorite Uncle Jimmy photographs
When I was born, my uncle was already a father to three beautiful daughters, giving his 5 siblings 3 nieces, Debi, Sheri, and Tresi, to play with and spoil.  I was his first niece or nephew, and that was unique to him and me.  He had 11 total nieces and nephews on our side of the family.  But I was the first.  One of my favorite family pictures is one he took when my parents first brought me to Dallas to meet the family.  I have it framed and hanging in my stairwell.  He’s not in it, because he took it, but it tells a story.  He caught a moment– not everyone is looking at the camera, or even smiling.  You have a few faces barely visible, but you get a sense of the pride and excitement my aunts, uncles and grandfather had that day.  There I am perched atop my cousin Debi’s head.   I’m so grateful that he took the time to shoot those photos.  He was a true documentarian.

When I was a kid he called me “tortilla head” because of these silly barrettes I used to wear with circles of lace on them.  I hated it at the time, but I know it was a term of endearment.  When I got to Junior High and dumped the barrettes, I got into a special class that allowed me to do a project of my choosing.  I asked Uncle Jimmy if he would help me produce a music video.  He recognized my interest in photography and storytelling and worked hard on that project with me to help nurture it. He was my director of photography and editor.  He did the edit with two VCRs, which was quite difficult and cumbersome.  But we completed the project and he came the day we played it for the class.  I could tell he was so proud of our creation.  I don’t think I ever told him outright how much I appreciated him.  That I regret, because visual storytelling has become my career.

I didn’t really work on video or photography again until I got to college.  But every time he saw me at a family gathering he would talk to me about our project and ask me to help shoot video footage. He was earnestly trying to nurture my interest.  And in a roundabout way he really did.  I am a documentary lover and prefer that storytelling style over all others.  I appreciate other photographers that get it and see the story through their lens.  The mechanical workings of the camera, which he also loved, don’t interest me, but what that human operating the camera captures certainly does.

I wish I could have told him all of this in person.  He was sick earlier this year and seemed to be on the mend.  I hoped to see him over the holidays.  He died suddenly, which makes the feelings of regret stronger.  If any of my nieces, nephews or children expresses an interest in storytelling, I will nurture that interest, without pressure, just like you Uncle Jimmy.  Thank you.