It’s hard for other people to use my camera. I have a Canon 40D, and when most people try to take a picture with it, nothing happens. They press the button, a light turns green in the viewfinder, the lens gives a few promising whirs of focus…and then nothing. No satisfying clunk of the shutter falling, no photo taken. But most of the time, it works for me. I’ve learned what kind of pressure that finicky button needs, internalized the camera’s idiosyncratic rhythms. I’m reluctant to get the shutter fixed, partially out of thrift and sheer laziness, but also because I like the way it will only work for me. It’s like the camera is some wild stallion that only I can ride.
This can frustrate my companions who might grab my camera to snap a quick shot. I remember my friend Brendan cursing from the backseat as he tried to capture scenes of rolling hills and farm fields as we drove through Wyoming. It was the second half of a three-week road trip through the West, a clockwise loop starting and ending in Los Angeles. There were four of us in the car, and that day I was at the wheel, leaving Brendan to fumble with my Canon in the back. It was the first of August, 2011.
It wasn’t just the hills that he was trying to get a shot of. An impressive series of storm systems were sweeping through the Wyoming plains. Clouds loomed on every horizon, billowing and mutating masses of intense grays and blues. Every time the road curved, we turned to face another immense mural, some breathtaking testament to geology and climate. Our world was stratified, the black of the road leading to stripes of browns leading to greens leading to blue then gray then black again. Brendan’s expletives behind me were replaced with my own Oh my Gods and Holy shits. I asked him for my camera, which he gave more than willingly. I needed to take hold in some way of what stretched out before me, just through my windshield.
Keeping one hand on the steering wheel I snapped shot after shot of what was in front of me and to my left, taking my eyes off the road to make sure I had aligned the horizon. The clouds ahead seemed closer and more solid than I had thought possible, like they were about to fall on the cars ahead of us. The sky was encroaching on the earth, stooping low to whisper some ancient secret. I felt compelled to accelerate over every hill before the clouds and road could converge and bar our passage. Not that I would have minded. I was in no rush. I had a front row seat in an endless and primordial theater, a western stage where the curtains were the show. The players were elemental, just light and water and air.
The road curved again and I pulled the car over. The view was such that I couldn’t risk a photo with a tilted frame or an obvious reflection. I rolled down my window. The breeze was heavy and unsure of itself, at one moment cold, and in the next moment warm. There were few sounds apart from the three clicks of my shutter. They were all I needed. The last I took was a vertical shot of a distant plateau nestled under a stack of marbled giants. The landscape was completely unreal, and yet altogether natural. It was big and it was quiet, an old story of color and expanse that I was learning mile by mile on the Wyoming interstates. I was in the West. It had just been there this whole time, and I hadn’t.
Raphael Shapiro is from Sag Harbor, NY, a village on the easternmost end of Long Island. An old whaling town, Sag Harbor has a brief mention in Moby Dick. Raphael, to the best of his knowledge, has never whaled. Send him an email at email@example.com.