Travel Diary Excerpts for Amazon.com
Grueling ride up from RI and we're a day behind schedule. The power went out, roads were blocked, there was flooding. Matt and Lizz graciously offered the living room floor and I slept wonderfully with their enormous cat, Arthur, curled up beside my head. Leaving early we crawled through traffic, eight or twelve miles an hour.
“You’re welcome to stay at my place when you’re going through New England,” Bennett had offered. He also posited that he had a pair of flintlock pistols that had belonged to his grandfather but nothing nice to say about gun ownership. I told him I didn’t care what he had to say about gun ownership, if he had guns and would sign a model release, that’s all I was interested in.
Finally the GPS announces “Destination, on the left.” Bennett’s waiting outside of his house at the end of an extraordinary driveway in the northwestern tip of Massachusetts. He’s got a dachshund on a leash that’s tail Is wagging so rapidly that in a headwind it could probably take off. He greets us affably, helps us bring things in and makes snacks while we unpack our gear and settle into the amazing guest bedrooms.
We’ve slept on a lot of sofas and a lot of living room floors, but here the sheets are folded back with creases you could shave with. Phil crashes after the long drive. I’ve still got some life left in me so I call John, the son of a local doctor who’s got a collection of guns. John says he’ll swing by and pick me up, we ride out to visit his father, whom I find to be completely charming and filled with interesting stories.
“I have about 100 guns,” he says, “fifteen or so long arms. The rest are pistols and revolvers. One night,” he goes on, “I was cleaning my .45 and I shot a hole in the door -- it blew the whole back of the door off -- so I spent the whole night gluing it back together and my wife, who was about three feet away from me in bed -- she never heard a thing.”
HW gets around with a walker these days, so I pose him in a chair in his room with one of his guns on his lap. He talks the whole time. The portrait takes about 45 minutes before I’m happy. John loads his father and I up into the car -- they’re headed out to dinner, HW is still telling stories without interruption. I'm not so much the photographer as a member of the audience. “When my father died, I was afraid that it was from a heredity brain defect. So I asked the coroner performing the autopsy if I could have my father’s brain. He agreed, and put it in a sealed container, that I put in a box and then onto the front seat of my car. I drove it to a hospital where a friend of mine worked who was a pathologist. I asked him if he could examine the brain for this hereditary defect. He did and reassured me that there were no signs if it.”
“That is ...” utters John, a little taken aback, “completely bizarre. I don’t even know how to react to a story like that. I have no idea how I’m going to handle your death, what I’m going to do.”
“Well,” says HW, “If you want, you’re welcome to take my brain. I know that it made me sleep a lot easier at night.”
They drop me off at Bennett's where Phil is awake and making coffee. Bennett’s reading the newspaper. I set up lights in the living room where Bennett has made a lamp out of to of his grandfathers flintlock pistols. It’s actually a pretty awesome lamp. Bennett settles in a chair and I shoot it from two different setups, one with the lamp huge in the foreground and Bennett blurry behind it -- on some of these Opus helps out by jumping up on the sofa and shoving his nose in my camera. I have high hopes for these -- but it turns out that he was under-lit. The second setup is a little more pedestrian, with Bennett, the lamp, and Opus all pretty much equidistant and in-focus.
Phil kept Opus entertained, I took sixty or seventy photos -- Bennett’s smiling so it’s all going to boil down to which won the dog looks best in.
We packed the light kits up and Phil an I headed out to photograph a competition target shooter about an hour or so away. He had a big dog and some of the most expensive guns we've photographed.
Went to dinner with twenty people from Kyle and Michelle’s disaster-preparedness group. I was dead tired, living off of four hours of sleep but Kyle said it would probably be a good place to meet gun owners. My first thoughts were really just about going to sleep but encouraged by (my editor) Paul’s recent words of encouragement (something like “The photo you don’t take today is the photo you don’t take forever”) I sucked it up and went out.
I've never met anybody else named Kyle and neither has Kyle, and the novelty of this does not wear off throughout dinner, where the conversation goes something like this:
“Hey, Kyle, could you pass the salt. Heh heh heh.”
“Sure Kyle, here you go. Heh heh hah.”
“Thanks Kyle, heh heh heh.”
After dinner we met Steven, who owns a bar and a boxing ring, not far away. He had a revolver and a tactical defense, shotgun, a Remington or a Mossberg, I forget, I've seen so many of them and they're kind of blurring in my mind. I poured some ice cubes down the back of my shirt to stay awake and introduced myself. After we got to his apartment I got something of a second wind. The place looked great, neon sign outside the window collection of antique typewriters -- It was Phil’s idea to use a snoot on the flash for very dramatic lighting, very film noir, which, I think, really fit in with his Sam Spade sort of look, he had this pork pie hat on (why on Earth do they call it a “pork pie” hat?”). We did two setups, one with the revolver by the window and another with his shotgun through a doorway. I think they’re both really good. The second one I lit with one flash off to the side, it's pretty dramatic too and light spills through the doorway onto a large cross he has on the wall.
After the portrait Phil and I went downstairs where Kyle and Michelle were hanging out waiting for us -- I had a martini -- probably ill-advised given how tired I was, but by this time I was feeling victorious, proud of both of the photos we’d done, having fun talking to new people, so I was stomping around like a conquering Gaul thinking I was pretty great when Steven came down and asked if we could help him move an industrial freezer out to the trash. Kyle and I went, Phil stayed with the gear - this was a huge, stainless steel freezer, the kind you can fit three people in (had you a need to), but with the motor off, it was surprisingly light but still very unwieldy. When we picked it up, I slit my hand open on a jagged, protruding piece of metal. Instantly, it felt like there as a hot, sticky, water-fountain bubbling into my palm. It didn’t hurt and I didn’t say anything partially because it didn't hurt, but also because I figured we had this thing in the air, we might as well get it to the curb. When we got there and set it down, Steven looked over and saw the trail of my precious bodily fluids, it looked like someone had up-ended a soda bottle filled with blood, and nearly fainted. He gave me a clean t-shirt which disaster-prepared Kyle expertly bandaged my hand with, but the blood quickly soaked through. B the time we got back to the bar it looked like I'd lost my hand in a fan blade.
We headed back to Kyle and Michelle’s, where they took off the old dressing, disinfected it, and applied a real bandage. It had stopped bleeding and closed up nicely. The cut itself looks almost microscopic, you wouldn’t believe you could get so much blood out of a cut that looked so small.
Kyle and Michelle put out a pair of futons for us. Phil fell asleep immediately with a big fluffy black cat at his feet. I stayed up for a while installing GIMP on my laptop but went to sleep pretty soon afterwards. By that time, I was more of a challenge to myself to fight to keep my eyes open a few seconds longer. Near death experience aside, Missouri, I get the feeling, is going to be a wonderful place.
Up early, feeling refreshed and at home. Tea with lots of sugar. Kyle and Michelle have a whole list of people we can try and I have a bunch of numbers from places not so far away so we should be good. I’ve been exploring their house since I got up and I love the kitchen. It’s got black and white checkerboard tiles -- I love that. I don’t know why, maybe it’s the perspective from the ultra-wide angle lens -- maybe it’s another one of those visual vocabulary words -- I think Alice in Wonderland for some reason. I photograph them in the kitchen, it’s got great open areas, a collection of thrift-store crosses on the walls, I think there’s a lot of their personality here. Nothing we can do will encourage the cat to be in the photo.
Afterwards they took us to this place over in St. Louis called the “City Museum” which is basically an enormous Habitrail(tm) for adults. I can't even really describe it – a gigantic, urban jungle gym, multiple stories high, with tubes and ladders, and slides and two airplanes, real airplanes thirty or forty feet up in the air that you can climb up to and inside. We had the most stupendous time. We did two portraits in the afternoon (family w/ a big dog and a police officer) and that night Kyle and Michelle took us to a party where we were treated like celebrities. “Photographers?! Doing a book?! Driving across America?! OMG! Wait, you're Kyle Cassidy!! How amazing!”
Q&A With Amazon.com
How is it that there are so many pets in the photographs?
I’m actually surprised that so many people mention this. It always seemed so obvious to me -- that the pets would be in the photos. After all, if you house catches on fire, what are you going to grab? Not the TV. For me this was never a book about guns, it was a book about people. The idea of photographing a person in their surroundings and not including their pets never crossed my mind. I know that the animals that live with me take up a huge part of my life -- when I went on the road a brought along pictures of them, I missed them, when I got home they ran circles around me and the first thing I did was pick them all up. I imagine it’s the same for everybody.
When you bring a dog or a cat into your house, you’re making a ten or even twenty year commitment to caring for something that depends on you every day. That says something about a person to me.
How did you get the idea?
In late 2004 I was at a dinner party and I found myself seated next to a former presidential campaign staffer. He told me that one of his jobs was to help convince voters that his candidate was the guy to vote for if you were a gun owner. I was really fascinated listening to the “behind the scenes” stories of photo-ops and press releases and really how much thought went into something that I hadn't spent very much time thinking about at all. He mentioned that nearly half of all the households in America had at least one gun in them. And I started thinking “Who are these people? What do they look like? What are their lives like?” and most importantly, “why do they own a gun?” That's really what sparked my interest. I started thinking about it more and more and realized that I'd like to drive across the country, meet gun owners and ask them just one question -- “Why do you own a gun?”
How did you find people?
Photography, I discovered sometime along my career, isn't so much about f-stops and shutter speeds and knowing how to set a white balance, it's about being able to talk to people. Whether it's the subject of your photo, or the person who owns the building that you'd like to photograph from the roof of, it all comes down to being able to engage people in conversation. I realized that this project dealt with a very sensitive issue and because of that I moved very slowly. I started hanging out in gun ranges in early 2005. I'd go a couple times a week, not talk about cameras or photography or books, and I just keep coming back. It was probably six months before I actually mentioned photography to people, I wanted to become familiar first, so I wasn't just some guy coming in off the street. I talked to people at every opportunity, asked them about their guns, about their shooting. I discovered that people in gun ranges are, for the most part really friendly -- they want to tell you about their gun, they want to show it to you, they're eager to have you try it out. So it was a lot of that at first, just being friendly and talking to people. After I had about 12 or 13 portraits in my portfolio it got much easier to find people, because they could see what I was trying to do and that I wasn't coming out of left field trying to make a some political statement, that I really was just interested in people and making a book about people.
Was there anything that surprised you while you were doing this project, or did it pan out mostly as you expected?
I was surprised by how many of the people I photographed didn't fit the stereotype in my head. I realized when I started this that I had only a very abstract idea of who gun owners were. And when you said the words there was a vague, beat-up pickup truck with a guy in a dirty baseball hat, and a Bush/Cheney sticker on the the back image floating around my head and while I definitely met people like that, and they weren't rare, it was anything but homogeneous – the people I met were really very diverse I was surprised at the number of people who owned guns but hadn't fired them for years, and surprised by the number of John Kerry stickers on the cars in the driveways of people I photographed. I thought, going into this, that it was going to be something of a monoculture -- but it really wasn't.