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James Thorpe


by mtdaveo



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James Thorpe

Not all shoots are created equal.

“My husband is in Stage 4 cancer.  My children are going to be in town this summer, and…we’d like to get a family photo together…before…”

Her voice trailed off…into a place…where she didn’t want to go…where she didn’t want him to go…to the place where he was going.  If it is a “place” at all.  And if indeed it is a place, not just “a” place – but “the” place.  Perhaps the place of all places of all of the faces of those no longer here.  And the rhyming rings on as we sing songs of the dead.  (Then again, perhaps such poetry is merely wishful thinking.  Perhaps it is faith.  Whatever it is, it is enough.)

Then again, perhaps it is not a place at all.  Perhaps it is…a thing.  Perhaps it is all things.  Perhaps it is the air that breathes and the wind that whips and the ocean that waves and the darkness that haunts and the stars that shimmer and the sunlight that shines. 

Isn’t it funny and fitting…that the greatest of all unknowns must be discussed in the most general of categories?  Person, place, thing.  I am in 8th Grade again and Mrs. Will is demanding more specificity than "THINGS"!

No one knows what is really going on here, especially the before and after part – and heavy at that on the latter.  No inarguable proof has been given regarding something, nothing, or the degrees between the two.  It’s all about faith.  Or no faith.  And that seems largely to depend on where, when, and to whom you were born.

I want to do something here.  I want to leave a mark on the universe, leave something here in some form that says, “I was here.”  Like my name on the walls of the cabin of the summer camp that saved me in some small way.  My handprint somewhere in the celestial cement.  My initials in a tree.  Some…carving.  Etching.  Something.  Proof.

She had my attention.  The room grew silent around her voice.  I heard every word he said.  This would be an important gig.  A print to go in a photo album, in a frame, on the wall.  Soon departing would be a husband, a father, a grandfather, a great grandfather.  More than likely the last full formal family photo.  Perhaps the last photo of him…ever?

These are the greatest moments of this job – the ones where I am capturing something great and meaningful, something usually simple, unplanned, unadorned.  I love old photographs, where it seems as if the people pictured didn’t really understand what was happening when whoever it was pointed whatever it was and pressed a button or some such thing.  Thankfully, they underestimated what it meant, how long it would last - all who would look upon and hold and pass along - that singular moment in time.

On July 5, 2008, ten members of the Thorpe family came into the studio.  I am not good at large groups in the studio.  I am a con artist.  I have never had an ounce of formal training with a camera.  Everything I do, I have taught myself to do.  Okay, there were some lighting setups I looked at online.  Maybe a few things on YouTube.  But I am going to screw this up.  Seriously. 

The photos of the whole family are as pedestrian as can be.  Casual enough not to be painful, but certainly nothing to write home about.  I hate shooting larger groups in the studio.  I have nine feet of backdrop to play with.  This slim width goes fast with nine people.  Vertically.  We must work vertically.  Evenly lighting people is hard.  What these people need is a real photographer.  I am sweating.  So hot…

This is an important shoot.  Small talk.  Fourth of July.  This is an important shoot.  Yeah, let’s have everybody barefoot.  Ha ha ha.  Hee hee hee.  Ho ho – these pictures are lame.  The lighting…  I suck. 

Yes.  Smaller groups.  I don’t charge by the setup or the clothing change.  Grandma and Grandpa.  Grandma, Grandpa and Mom and Son-in-law.  Now Mom and Dad.  No, I’m not going to pose you.  Just going to make the light fit the way you want to be.  Now the grandkids.  Yeah, wrestle.  I don’t care, really.  Be yourselves.

I am told that our window of energy is closing.  It certainly is.  Okay, well…what about that great grandchild?  Bring great grandfather up here…and bring in…brand new baby…no…yeah…okay…good.  Yeah, let me – excuse me – let me get that light, drop it down – right – there – yeah…

The perfect lighting was actively eluding me in this, the moment of truth.  Yes, we had captured the patriarch with his larger family, but this would be nice, too.  These extremes of the family.  The coming and the going.  The breath in and the breath out.  I am sweating…failing…it is all…slipping away…

Suddenly the sun and the clouds and the cosmos took matters into their own vast hands, reaching through the skylight.  I turned off the studio light, and stopped sweating.  There was a gasp or two.  Just on the edge of darkness, suspiciously posed perfectly amidst shadow and highlight, I captured a man cradling, holding the tiny hand of the child of his child’s child.  Throughout it all, the baby remained asleep, sheltered in his great grandfather’s embrace.  There was no need to wake him up.  He would have this picture one day, so that he might never forget what he could not possibly remember.

“Jim (James) Thorpe, age 68, passed away at home on Oct. 16, 2008, surrounded by his loving family. Jim was born in Boardman, OR, on Oct. 5, 1940. He was an engineer for IBM for 30 years and retired in 1996. His passion for life included camping, fishing, rock hunting, woodcarving and lapidary, and spending time with his family.”

Lapidary: the art of cutting, polishing, and engraving precious stones.














James Thorpe



















James Thorpe

Billings | Montana | United States