Years later, the name the of building- still Franklin High to me- changed about twice. I couldn’t tell you what those names were. And maybe, at the time, it didn’t matter what our names were, myself and the young man, who had walked one night from a city-bus corner, down Kilmar Street and toward my direction.
I could tell you the grin I couldn’t fold away, an involuntary smile I still occasionally experience. It’s as recognizable and comfortable as a favorite shirt. There are smiles you give back to others, but this kind is given to me without my asking. I’d like to think it occurs when something mysterious in me is proven wrong and the smile hints at the peacefulness that offers. It happened on the sidewalk of Kilmar, every time I clicked the shutter button of my camera.
I’d gone away from film capture completely and I was using my new Digital SLR. How exciting was it to explore, fail, learn and craft an image, each appearing on the camera’s rear display, as instant as a blink, proofs of a combination of choices, made without harm, without consequence? I could press the shutter faster than having any doubt not to. As long as the camera battery lasted, I could seize moments in fractions of time, like paper-thin butterflies in the net of my eye, let them go or steal as many as I wished. Progress in the work could be felt immediately, but in life, you learn slower, hurt longer; your suspicion of yourself, like a weight on your hand too heavy to lift only to discover there was no weight pressing down on it; just yourself.
So I clicked and grinned despite my trying to hold my elation back, not that anyone would notice, I thought.
The street lamps had already grabbed the concrete in its orange glare and the runaway sun, nowhere within eyesight, buckled the sky toward a feinting navy. The young man passed me and the camera, which stood on a tripod. We nodded.
I’m just testing the light, I said. Practice. He glanced at the direction the lens was looking at, a blackened concrete patch where the lamps didn’t appear to reach.
When a car rolls by, I said.
Photos of the cars, he asked.
No, I said. To catch the light the cars leave behind.
I press the play button on the back of my camera and brighten the screen. Too far to see, he leans forward without taking a step, his hands holding the straps of his sport bag. I explained that if you can set the camera to take a picture slower than the cars can move, the effect is…
Those car beams, he said. Light beams? I’ve seen something like that before. You know how to do it?
Without moving in to shake hands, we mentioned each other’s names. He had come from an after school practice of his own. Franklin High? I pointed to the school next to us. My brother played basketball from Franklin, I said.
Nah, he said.
I showed him a bad result of an attempt at photographing myself, but was out of focus; the image a bit too dark. Cool, he said. I offered to try an image of him with the car lights blazing passed him (a young man moving in his own pace?) In exchange I could send the image to him to print as he liked. Perhaps by email? Sure, he said.
He stood in front of my lens a couple of frames, which spent a few minutes. A good exposure required holding still for about 28 seconds, but it also took our waiting for a car or two to come round the corner. After achieving a good capture, I felt that grin. Look, I said. He came around the camera and peeked. Nice, he said.
We had exchanged emails, his written on notebook paper; mine on a card. I told him it would take a day or two to edit the image. I edited the photograph and emailed it to the address that night. I insisted that he follow up to let me know that he had received it. No reply would come.
Days later, I would recall parts of the night I didn’t think about before: his erasing part of his email address and re-writing it: perhaps he corrected a misspelling or couldn’t remember his email. Then I’d wonder: perhaps he thought better than to give out an address of any kind to a total stranger, playing in the dark. How would he explain that to his parents, who were probably wondering what kept him from coming home sooner?
Or maybe he did receive the photograph…
Months went by, then years and eventually I had misplaced the piece of notebook paper he gave me. I would continue to practice capturing light in an image, photograph many people in various places that, like Kilmar Street, the names of buildings would be renamed; names I never cared to remember. I wish I could tell you his name, the student I had never met until that night, who generously gifted me his time to seize a part of it forever.
Alright, he had said. And was on his way after that. I thanked him for his time. We shook hands then. He smiled.
Take care, he said, and left.