Tuesday, June 4, 2013

The Cusp of Spring

Tracy & Her Dad  2008

In February I officiated the funeral service for Richard Wortman, a husband, a father, and a true cowboy from the Lloyd area.  A hard 45 miles south of Chinook, Montana, the Wortman ranch sits alone in the foothills of the Bear Paw Mountains.  Dick leaves his wife Lela, and four daughters, Christine, Glenna, Gayla, and Tracy.  A few years ago I photographed Tracy and her Dad for a magazine story, and his daughters asked me to take a few photos of the burial.  So I share some of those images here, with an astute account written by Tracy of her life with her father.  

The Cusp of Spring 
                                                               -- by Tracy Wortman

The year I turned five, Dad and I set the parameters of our relationship. I was born in March of 1961, the same year as the space race. Huge piles of snow figure prominently in the pictures of the winter of 1966. I have seen a picture of me, unrecognizable bundle on the back of Dad’s best mare, next to him on his favorite gelding, snow piled all around, with a caption reading “pretty cold for a four year old”.  My earliest memories do not include any of my three older sisters, or my Mother. My earliest memories do not include anyone else at all. It was just the two of us. I have no memory of my oldest sister, Christine, graduating from high school that May. I remember being aware that fall when she went to some mysterious place called “college”, which no one ever explained to me, and I thought I would never see her again. I know now that Mom and my sisters were gone during the week and came home on the weekends, roads permitting. But at the time, Dad filled up my world, my consciousness, my existence with his reality.  So, my earliest memories are just me and Dad, a barn, and horses.

Dad had no choice other than taking me with him wherever he went. I don’t remember learning to ride, but then I don’t remember learning to walk either. I rode his buckskin mare named for the forties song “Mairzy Doats . . . .” I didn’t know the words then: “mares eat oats, and does eat oats, and little lambs eat ivy. A kid’ll eat ivy too, wouldn’t you?” I just heard her name as the words all mashed together into Mairzydoats. She was already old and experienced by the time I came along and she taught me more about myself and riding than any horse or human ever did. Anyway, I rode her that year, my feet in thick socks stuffed into cheap kids boots.  I’ve dressed a few stubborn four year olds in winter wear before, so I imagine the conversation every morning that winter could not have been particularly … easy for either of us. I cannot now say how Dad acted towards me on those mornings, getting me dressed, fed (I don’t and didn’t like oatmeal), ready for a big girl day – but I know he expected a lot from me and perhaps from that I developed my determination. I recall the usual argument about wearing my cowboy boots of course, but it was too cold. I recall bulky outerwear, a scratchy knitted hat with a hood over it, and itchy tights under whatever snow pants I wore. I hate tights to this day. It seemed like I was always cold.  Either I was born tough or thought it was important to be tough (there is a damned thin line between tough and stupid) or maybe I was just proud and willful and stubborn.  Snot and tears were frozen on my face, but I wouldn’t admit being cold when Dad asked. I never admitted needing to pee either. If you are cold and miserable and a couple miles from home horseback, wetting your pants does not improve your situation. I did that once. I don’t remember doing it a second time. We’d get back to the barn and Dad would lift me off. I’d be so cold and stiff that my toes and fingers and cheeks were all numb, but I’d hang out with Dad just the same while he unsaddled the horses and took care of the tack. We rarely got back in time to enjoy the late afternoon sun slanting into the barn’s south door, cheering and warming the interior, but I was always glad to be in it.

Our barn was purchased and moved from a place up in the Bear Paws Mountains – hills really. The wonders of the barn, a simple structure of substance, included a hay loft, a bronc stall, cow stanchions added by Dad, and numerous carved brands from long gone cowboys. It was situated away from the prevailing winds so the large heavy wooden sliding doors were north and south on either end with stalls along the east side. It had wide boards as saddle racks nailed high enough to the heavy studs of the walls so that horses could walk along without knocking the saddles down. Milk cow calves would sometimes suck on the saddle strings or latigo ends. By the time I was six, I was tending to my own horse. I’d prop my saddle on its horn, wrestle it onto my head, stand, and from there lift with both arms and jump to reach those racks. But that winter, he’d tell me to go on into the house to get warm. I’d stay with him though. Of course, his chores weren’t done yet because we needed supper and then he’d do the dishes. There were probably cows to milk too. There may have been warm baths, but I don’t recall that. I must have been whimpering or crying loud enough in my own bed for him to hear me. He came and brought me to bed in his room. I remember wanting very much to snuggle next to him, but I felt afraid to touch him. He was never demonstrative, and so like still water that reflects the sun and the stars and the moon, I have never been either. I’d lie next to him as close as possible, and very still so as not to disturb him. His broad back radiated warmth, and, like the barn, loomed strong and secure next to me in the dark. It was like falling asleep next to a stove.

March may be the cusp of spring, but it doesn’t always materialize as one might like. I’m not a big fan of winter weather. If I were snow skiing, or ice skating, or snowmobiling, it might be different. But following bovine around all winter with the added effort of staying warm and making equipment run is exhausting. I remind myself that Dad did it without equipment or electricity. Dad had a team and wagon and forked the hay on and off. Sometimes he had to sling bags of pellets over his saddle horn and together with the axe ride out to the cows. Dad did it because he loved the life style. But that was before my time. Sometimes, I think it has all been before, or outside of, or beyond my time. By the end of January, I am tired of winter. This year, winter was mild but particularly awful as Dad was unable to leave the house easily. So, going about the chores took on a lonelier cast with no good natured banter between us. Without the support and companionship of my sisters, it could not have been born. Every year, Dad expected a February thaw and promised it to himself as much as to me. Perhaps not coincidentally, he died smack in the middle of February on a day that reached fifty degrees. It had been warm for days before. The snow in the mountains released a glut of water and the creek rose and eliminated that ice chopping for the cows.

Dad had chosen his own burial site on Grandpa’s homestead. Mom and Dad had moved there, just a couple of miles away from my childhood home, after Dad’s parents died. They had moved the barn as well. The day we buried him was bright and clear and cold, and there had been a nasty little snow storm just a couple of days before. While everyone was there, his wife and daughters and grandchildren and some neighbors, I felt strangely disaffected. But I found it remarkably suitable to follow on horseback behind Dad’s casket on a wagon pulled by a team to that site. It felt appropriate too to lead his last best mare alongside, listening when she jogged to the chink of his spurs buckled through a cinch ring, just as if he were there. It was eminently fitting as well, I suppose, that I was cold and stiff and shivering, with tears and snot on my face and my feet stuffed stupidly into my cowboy boots. Just a few hundred yards northwest of the buildings, the site allows full view of either road coming into the creek and close access to first calf heifers grazing amiably by or rushing to the nearby feed bunks.  A hard, bitter wind beat at us the day we scraped an old wagon and some other deteriorated horse drawn equipment out of the frozen ground in our best attempt at preparation. Dad would be pleased we got rid of the junk. 

The Last Best Mare

That day, after the burial, the task completed, Dad would have told me to go to the house and get warm but he would not have been the least bit surprised if I had stood stubbornly there while his grandchildren covered the casket. But this time, with that watery half-light of a winter’s late afternoon slouched around the south facing door, I went back to the barn without him, my feet like blocks, his coat sloppy around my shoulders, to tend to the horses and remove the tack and spend a minute with his gear, comforted by horse smells and sounds, in the first best place I knew him. A place, no doubt, I will visit more often than the grave site to discover what I will do now in my own time, and who I will be, without him.



  Follow Tracy's blog at:       ranchdivachronicles

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Wedding Bell Blues

Spring is here again, and as the grass turns green, photographer's thoughts turn to weddings.  On this spring day, however, I formally announce my retirement from the wedding game.  I enjoyed it so much that I photographed my own wedding, twice.  The first, shown above, and my real wedding below, which I photographed with a 4x5 view camera.  I don't really want to give it up, thus the title "Wedding Bell Blues", which for you youngsters out there, was a song popularized by the music group "The 5th  Dimension" in 1969. The song was written by the late great Laura Nyro, who is one of my all time favorite singer/songwriters.  Laura also wrote songs recorded by Blood, Sweat & Tears, 3 Dog Night, and many others.  I first heard her on a bootleg compilation album called "Heavy Sounds 1971". Included on that record were "Sweet Blindness" and "Time & Love", both Laura Nyro classics.

Her best work was characterized by more than a hint of elemental foreboding, so the use of her song title for my blog is appropriate, given the circumstances of my retirement.  Since my exit is not my preference, some explanation is due.  Years ago, when I was a teenager, I would regularly visit a photographer in Havre, MT by the name of Mr. Miller.  He had a first name, I'm sure, but I always called him Mr. Miller, and have since forgotten his first name.  Anyway, I was in his studio one day, and he announced to me that he was giving up weddings.  His reasoning was vague, but he pointed to a tall, thin man in a photograph.  He told me the man was sending him a clear message.  

Me Working

So his pointing out some guy in a photograph meant nothing to me, other than solidifying my suspicions about Mr. Miller.  But a year ago I began noticing a tall thin man in some of my wedding photographs.  Not the same wedding, mind you, but the same man in different weddings that I had photographed.  Never in the same type of clothing, he often blended into the crowd or background.  When I inquired who he was, no one knew him.  No one recognized him.  Furthermore, his facial features were unnaturally blurred, as if he wasn't entirely real.


And then, late last fall, I photographed Dillon, now a senior at Glacier High in Kalispell.  He introduced me to the concept of "Slender Man".  Research revealed that although the "Slenderman" name is a fairly recent internet phenomenon, the mythology of such a being goes back as far as the Babylonians and flourished in most cultures since that early time.

A Slender Man

I am not generally a superstitious man.  I am a God fearing, Christian man who does not submit to foolishness such as "Slenderman" and the like.  Still, I'm not stoopid.  When the signs are there, I heed.  The image above is from a wedding last fall.  The last wedding I photographed--the last I will ever photograph, unless the money is really really good.

So that's it for me.  I had a great time while it lasted, which was quite a while.  I don't know why I was targeted by "Slenderman."  My instincts tell me not to question.  My gut says, "keep moving, nothing to see here."  So I move on without weddings.  Below are some of my favorites:

Seattle, WA

Big Sandy, MT

Seattle, WA

Billings, MT

Big Sandy, MT

Pullman, WA

Virgelle, MT

Seattle, WA

Big Sky, MT

French Polynesia 

The brochure was better

Saturday, February 2, 2013

The Inadvertent Accordion


Many years ago, when I was a mere fledgling photographer, still in school and a sponge of knowledge, I traveled to Billings, MT to participate in a wedding.  It was there I first met him.  A young wedding photographer named Tony Smith.  I clearly recall how the young women in the wedding party talked about him, as if he were Adonis.  The guys thought he was goofy, and a knucklehead, but I saw him for what he really was.   Later, he would become an accomplished and decorated professional.  But back then, all those years ago, he was fresh, cocky, and everything I thought a wedding photographer should be.  I hung on his every word, seeking to absorb any knowledge he might pass on, even inadvertently.

The Myers Brothers

I had set up a small studio space in my home, and was gaining experience with studio portraiture, but I struggled to put my subjects at ease.  So as I loitered at the wedding reception, I made my way through the crowd until I was standing next to this young professional, hoping to ask his advice as to how to relax my subjects.  Even though he was only a few years older than me, I took the reverential approach.

The Springers

   "Mr. Smith, " I timidly asked, "I am an aspiring photographer.  Could you give me some advice on how to put my studio subjects at ease?"  "You need a prop," he said.  "Something fun and unusual that people will have fun with.  They will relax, and then you take their picture."  "Like what kind of prop?" I asked.  "I dunno" he said.  "Maybe a chainsaw."   Yes, I was fresh off the farm.   The chainsaw worked great for exactly one client before it went horribly wrong.

Will Sibra

Years later, when a woman with a Russian accent showed up at my door with a baby in her arms and a dna test proving I was the father, I immediately though of "Mr." Smith and his advice to me.  And I was thankful for what he taught me--to be cynical, untrusting, and demanding of confirmation by no less than a notary public.  Thanks, Tony.  

After briefly experimenting with log chains, I settled on the accordion.   Ambrose Bierce said "The accordion is an instrument in harmony with the sentiments of an assassin."  Mr. Bierce wrote the short story "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" which I feel is one of the best shorts ever written.  Had they lived at the same time, he and Myron Floren would have been great friends.  Perhaps even collaborators.  

Jon Tester & Shon

The accordion has been very very good to me.  I have no idea how many people I've photographed with it.   A thousand?  I don't know.  Like I said, I have no idea.  Most of the shots were never printed.  Many were likely discarded with the rejects.  Every now and then one surfaces, like these shown here.  

Rebeka Benzing

Without meaning to, my accordions taught me about people:  how they laugh, how they anguish.  How they love, and yes, how they lie.

It's the inadvertent education that is the most useful, isn't it?  

Jeff LaVoi

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