My dad would have turned 90 today. We lost him 16 years ago, but I have no doubt that he would still be going strong if Alzheimer’s hadn’t taken over. I have always been grateful for Dad’s love, gentle discipline, wisdom, advice, and laughs (especially the laughs), but it takes being a parent to fully appreciate our own parents’ love, and their influence on the adults we become.
Dad was a United Methodist minister who literally practiced what he preached. In 1965, when Martin Luther King issued a plea for clergy to join him on his voting rights march to Montgomery, Dad borrowed money and flew across the country to join Dr. King in Selma, Alabama (where he was on national TV getting arrested).
His was an inclusive, Jesus-centric theology that respected all religions and people: I remember him opening his pulpit to the local rabbi one Sunday morning, then reciprocating the following Saturday with a sermon of his own at the synagogue. Dad welcomed everyone into his churches, and became an outspoken advocate for LGBT rights (before the acronym made it into popular culture). He frequently provided odd-jobs around the church to people who were down on their luck, and I lost track of the number of homeless people, including families with young children, we housed while they tried to get back on their feet.
In addition to the values he instilled, so many of the things that define my personality are directly attributable to my dad’s influence. My positive spirit, sense of humor, and love for sports were absolutely modeled by Dad. And when asked how I became a photographer, the instant answer has always been that my dad was a serious amateur photographer whose 80-hour work week offered too little time to pursue his passion, so he made up for lost time on our summer family vacations. So frequent were the photo stops, I grew up believing that a camera was just a standard outdoor accessory.
But I think his influence on my photography goes deeper than that. More than simply modeling camera use, Dad instilled in me his appreciation of nature’s beauty, and his longing for its soothing qualities. I realize now, because I see it in myself, that it’s not simply photography that dad loved, he was motivated by an insatiable desire to record and share the people and places he loved.
On a minister’s budget, our family summer vacations were, without exception, camping trips—always tent-camping, though in the later years we splurged on a used, very basic tent trailer (no kitchen, bathroom, or any of the other luxuries available in today’s tent trailers). These vacations usually took advantage of the mountain scenery within a few hours of our California home (we were just as close to the ocean, but our vacations were always in the mountains), but every few years we (Dad, Mom, my two brothers, and I) hit the road for a longer camping trip. Especially memorable were the full month we camped all the way across the United States and back, and a multi-week camping adventure into and around the Canadian Rockies.
Of our more frequently visited destinations, Yosemite was the clear favorite. Marveling at the Firefall from Camp Curry and Glacier Point, waiting in lawn chairs with hundreds of fellow tourists at the Yosemite garbage dump for the bears to arrive for their evening meal (really), rising in the dark for a fishing expedition to Tuolumne Meadows, family hikes up the Mist Trail to Vernal and Nevada Falls, are just a few of the memories that I realize in hindsight formed the bedrock of my Yosemite connection.
My favorite Dad photography story happened when I was about ten. It involves an electrical storm atop Sentinel Dome, and his desire to photograph a lightning bolt, a desire so great that it trumped common sense. As his ignorant but trusting assistant, to keep his camera dry I stretched high to extend an umbrella above Dad’s head. (In his defense, as Californians, the novelty of lightning obscured a full comprehension of its dangers.) We didn’t get the lightning, and more importantly, it didn’t get us. But that’s not the end of the story.
After risking our lives on Sentinel Dome, the family ended up at Glacier Point, just down the road. Dad had returned to tourist mode as we browsed the shop at Glacier Point Lodge, no doubt seeking souvenirs that would fit our meager budget. But when a vivid rainbow appeared out of nowhere to arc across the face of Half Dome, Dad was ready with his camera still draped around his neck. Watching Dad’s excitement, better than any souvenir, this felt as if God was giving him a much deserved, “I got your back.”
I love you, Dad.
About this image
I’ve written recently about my love of astronomy that dates back to when I was 10 years old. While my memory isn’t complete, I do know that not long after I expressed an interest in something astronomical (which could have been as simple as asking a question at dinner), my dad presented me with a used telescope gifted to him by a Kiwanis friend who was a serious amateur astronomer. I have no knowledge of the specifics, but I know my dad well enough to know that my simple query was enough to prod him to ask his astronomer friend for guidance that might fuel my interest, which no doubt led to the gift of this mothballed telescope that became the catalyst for my relationship with the night sky.
Of course photographing celestial objects requires some cooperation from Mother Nature. But one of the things photographer friends seem to resent me for is my good photography luck: the clouds that part just as the moon rises, the snowstorm that arrives just as a workshop starts (that’s good if you’re a photographer), the rainbow that appears out of nowhere.
My brother Jay and I take many photo trips together, and he seems blessed with similar luck. On our photo trips, sometimes we talk about Dad, and sometimes we don’t, but he’s always with us. Often it feels to Jay and I that Dad is watching over us, pulling whatever strings he can to deliver something special.
In the last ten days, Jay and I have made two trips to Yosemite to photograph Comet NEOWISE. On the first trip we were surprised by how visible NEOWISE was to the naked eye, as if its brightness had been cranked up a couple of magnitudes for our visit to Glacier Point. And Venus’s proximity to Half Dome was another an unexpected gift.
On our trip to Yosemite last Thursday afternoon, I had one eye on the road and another eye on the clouds obscuring the entire Sierra range. Would we be shut out entirely? I needn’t have worried. When we pulled into the trailhead parking area the clouds had started to clear, and by the time we’d finished the one-mile hike out to Taft Point, they had all but vanished.
Like the proverbial elephant that can’t be fully seen up close, El Capitan is so massive that from Yosemite Valley it looks completely different depending on where you view it from. One of the things I like most about Taft Point is its elevated, more distant view that offers a more complete perspective of the world’s largest granite monolith. So as I waited for the darkness to reveal the comet, I took some time to drink in the view and appreciate El Capitan.
About 30 minutes after sunset I started getting serious about locating Comet NEOWISE. I knew this shoot would pose some problems I hadn’t had to deal with for the Glacier Point NEOWISE shoot a week earlier. First, the comet was more faint, but I didn’t know how much: would we still be able to see it without aid, or would it only appear in our images? And second, there would be no moon to illuminate El Capitan and Yosemite Valley.
Again, there was no need to worry because things always seem to work out for me (thanks, Dad). NEOWISE, though noticeably fainter, was still clearly visible. Not only that, it had developed a magnificent ion tail (the faint spike above the fanned out primary tail). And the extra darkness? The several stops of exposure it forced me to add, while introducing a fair amount of noise, only made the comet stand out more against the dark sky.
As with the Glacier Point shoot, I worked two bodies. I quickly found that a vertical composition with my new Sony 20mm f/1.8 G lens was wide enough to include all of El Capitan, Comet NEOWISE, and the Big Dipper. Pretty cool. By the time the night was over, I’d used every one of the five lenses I packed.
Jay and I stayed until about 11 p.m., then made the walk back in the moonless darkness, most grateful for bright flashlights and perfectly spaced reflectors mounted on trees lining the trail. After a four hour drive, I finally made it to bed at about 4:30 a.m. and managed to sleep for five hours, visions of comets dancing in my head.
Such a spectacular night. Thanks, Dad.
Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.
Very nicely stated Gary. Thanks for sharing. The love you shared with your Dad is inspiring.
Less important but also very nice is your photo of neowise. It too is inspiring.
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Thanks, Gary, for the heartwarming stories of your dad. I needed the soul smiles I felt while reading. Love your post too about photographing the comet. We’ve been awed by it Zoroaster here in Flagstaff AZ.
Oops. Not sure where “Zoroaster” came from 😉
That rainbow 🌈 stouter was powerful and could feel the god moment and laughing to imagine the umbrella and lightening capturing
Nice memory post to honor your dad 😉
The Lord provided you with a spectactular view and you totally captured it! AWESOME!
Wonderful story, Gary. I wish I had known him. But I see now that I do get a little bit of him in you. Wonderful photograph. I think, possibly, all the better for the noise. Great walloping ion tail. I have yet to get it. My blog post today was taken looking across San Pablo bay with high wispy clouds, which really messed things up. Still hoping for a good shot from Marin county but the weather is not cooperating. Do you want to come and part the clouds?
Thanks so much, Mike. Yeah, given my single-image style, noise is just something I’ve learned to live with. I think people make too big a deal about it unless it’s obvious in standard viewing conditions.
Believe me, if I felt like I could part the clouds at will, I’d be there for you. 😁
I’m thinking that the clouds won’t get as far as Briones park. Noise can actually be used to great artistic effect in some cases.
Gary—I’m not sure if i enjoy your photography or writings more. Very touching story on your dad ; i lost my father at age 16, so you were lucky to have many good years of fond memories. Best regards Stay safe Charlie Berger
Thanks for your kind words, Charlie. I’m sorry you lost your dad at such a young age—that must have been devastating. Despite losing my dad a little earlier than expected, I realize how fortunate I am. My mom is still going strong, and I actually had the incredible fortune to have all four of my grandparents alive and healthy until I was 25—such a blessing.
Thanks for sharing a blog full of family memories and love. It’s refreshing to hear a story with such wonderful family sentiment. Yesterday, was also my mother’s birthday, and my day was also filled with a plethora of pleasant memories of my mom. She passed away 14 years ago and there isn’t a day that goes by that I am not reminded of the joy she gave to my life. Aren’t we lucky to have been loved by such wonderful parents! Your father would have been so proud of your fabulous photography and all you’ve accomplished with your gifted writing. You give much to the world with words and photos!
Thanks, Arlene. Yeah, I know my dad would have been very proud to see what I’ve done with my photography—I wish he could have lived to see it happen.
What a moving tribute to your dad – he sounds like an incredible man. Thanks for sharing with us – and what a gorgeous capture of Neowise! I didn’t get many good pictures on Saturday night, but I’m going to try again on Tuesday.
Thanks so much, MB. Good luck with the comet tomorrow night!
Gary – Sometimes we don’t tell others well how much we enjoy them. I was so touched by your story of your dad, who he was and what you received from his love of life etc. It was a great story. You were really blessed as a child to have those experiences. I just want you to know that I so enjoy your writings about your images etc. You are such a good writer bringing one into the present by your side as you describe the experience of photographing your images. Thank you for your enthusiasm and skills of sharing your love with those of us who have taken workshops with you and read your every post. Hope you are doing well and staying safe. I await the time when I can take another of your workshops.
Great story. I wish I would have had the opportunity to meet him. I suspect he would see you as a great living legacy.
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