[Ed. This is the second installment of a series on active retirement living in northwest Phoenix. See the first one here.]
It’s been said before (but in case you’ve never heard it I’ll say it again) being a portrait photographer is like having a passport into the lives of people you would likely never have the opportunity to meet otherwise. It’s such a great privilege that a little mechanical contraption and a genuine curiosity of people compels strangers to not only let you into their lives, but to photograph it, too, that every once in awhile I just have to say thanks. I mean, there’s a certain responsibility that comes with it, but it’s the kind I thrive on- to share someone’s story through images in an honest, thoughtful, and intentional way.
It’s also challenging. When it comes to finding subjects for this series, I’m noticing older folks tend to be a little suspicious of my intentions to photograph them. I completely understand it, but it highlights the need for me to carefully consider my approach when I do see someone interesting that I would like to photograph. Because the gut reaction is ‘this guy wants to sell me something’, when in fact, that’s the furthest thing from my mind.
There’s a place in town I go at least once a week to get out and take in a view. It’s an old abandoned theater called the Sundome. Apparently, it’s had its share of well-known performers, from Bob Hope to Bob Dylan, but has since closed down and become the property of Arizona State University who realizes the land is a whole lot more valuable than the building sitting on it. I believe they purchased it from Maricopa County for the hefty sum of $1.00. So yeah, the County obviously didn’t have any sentimental attachment to it. In any case, it sits on an exposed hill that overlooks a golf course on one side and commercial development on the other and has a huge parking lot that, in at least one way, reflects the demographic it once served.
Unbeknownst to me, it’s also a good place to fly a radio-controlled helicopter. I was up there recently and I saw a gentlemen across the parking lot pull up in his car and proceed to start flying his chopper around. I thought he’d be a perfect fit for this series, and probably one of the more interesting hobbies I’m going to see around here. I didn’t want to approach him while he was flying- it looked like he was pretty focused- so I waited until he had landed and jumped in my car and drove over to him. He had already picked up the heli and started walking to his car so I just pulled up and asked if it was a new toy and we chatted very briefly before I got up the nerve to ask him if he’d be interested in letting me take a few photos of him flying, explaining my intention to highlight active living in the area with my photography. In typical fashion, he kinda aw-shucked it off. He said if he had more battery life we could do it then, but I didn’t have my gear with me. So I gave him my card and told him I’d love if he contacted me the next time he came out. I didn’t hear from him. Consequently, I’ve gotten into the habit of bringing my gear with me whenever I go out around town just in case this kind of situation presents itself again. They say luck is when opportunity and preparation meet, right? Well, I’m prepared now.
I went up to the spot a few times over the next week and swore I saw his car drive through the parking lot on at least two occasions, like he was scoping out the scene to see if the pesky photographer was there, which I was, and then drove off and away. I thought it’d be a shame if he really was going to avoid me, and I don’t know if it really was him I saw those couple times, but a couple days ago he finally showed up again. And this time, being as prepared as I was, I drove right over to him before he started flying. “You caught me!” were his first words as I got out of my car. I laughed, joked about him avoiding me, and we started chatting.
Here’s a quick summary: His name is Chet; he moved here permanently 6 months ago; he’s from Chicago via Tennessee; he’s been flying radio-controlled airplanes all his life but got the heli right around the time he moved out here. Before too long I told him I had my gear and asked if he’d be interested in that portrait. “Well, I’m not gonna buy anything, and I don’t know what the policies are with doing that here, and the police have come by but they’ve been fine with me up here, and….” Yeah, pretty typical camera shyness. Finally, he said he didn’t mind if I took some shots while he was flying. So I did.
I think he was still suspicious and at one point told me not to make any sudden movement behind him. I assured him I wouldn’t, even though I thought it was an oddly comical request. Nevertheless, I didn’t want this guy to go all ninja on me so I made sure to comply. He was concerned with safety, too, and didn’t want me getting too close (and this is also why I only shot from one angle). And while I was happy to get a few shots of him flying, I really wanted that portrait.
At one point something happened while he was flying that I think really turned things in my favor- a dogfight…with a hawk! It happened really fast and I only got the two following frames.
Alright, it wasn’t so much of a dogfight as a fly-by but still, it was awesome! The hawk was definitely curious and got within a few feet of the heli. Right after if happened Chet said “You missed it, huh?” I knew he was going to be pleasantly surprised because I did, in fact, get it. He finally landed and I showed him the photo on the back of camera. I could tell he was pretty excited about it and he promptly asked me if I’d email it to him. Ha-HA! Now I had some leverage!
So as he started packing up his gear I started unloading mine. I wanted that portrait. As I pulled out my octa, strobe, and stand he asked “What the hell are you doing?” in that ‘just what are you up to’ kinda way, to which I replied I was going to take a “good” photo of him. Luckily, he knew a little about photography as well so we started chatting about that, too. I tried to explain to him the difference between a GWAC (Guy With A Camera) and a professional to help him understand exactly what the hell I was doing with all my equipment, which wasn’t that much really. (For the technical junkies, I was using the sun as the key which was coming from behind camera left and the octa as a fill from camera right.)
Needless to say, I’m very happy to have gotten the image that starts off this post. It’s just one more example of the power of photography allowing me the privilege of seeing into someone else’s world, even if it’s something as seemingly simple as flying a radio-controlled helicopter around. If you happen to read this Chet, I want to thank you again. I left with a big smile on my face that day and I hope you enjoy the images. And hopefully, you won’t be avoiding me anymore! 🙂