Cambrian: Slice of Life

A photographer’s ‘fish that got away’: Stories of the perfect shot only captured in my mind

Kathe Tanner
Kathe Tanner

Such a nice man, to be so worried about me.

“Ma’am? Ma’am!!” he said, speaking faster and faster in a voice that escalated rapidly in volume and pitch. “Are you OK? Do you need help?

“Should I call 911?”

I could understand his concern. I was, indeed, lying very still on my side at the edge of a field.

But I guess my fledgling Good Samaritan couldn’t see the camera I clutched in my hand.

Of course, as soon as I told him “I’m fine, thank you so much for asking. I’m just trying to get a picture of this butterfly” … the butterfly flew.

The beautiful Monarch had been nibbling on nectar from a brilliant milkweed blossom, which could have been a really nice photo.

Oh well.

It became another great opportunity relegated into “mind picture” status, a photo captured only by my memory.

It’s a photographer’s version of the “fish that got away” story.

I have a headful of ’em … a fleeing bank robber … the triumphant fist pump … a kissing couple in front of a vivid sunset at the shore … the young soccer forward kicking the winning goal … a keeling sailboat being bashed by a storm wave … a hummingbird at a perfect rose … political opponents in a spontaneous hug … rescuers finding the missing man … three simultaneously breaching humpback whales … an intense rainbow over Hearst Castle … an incredible antique car with authentically costumed driver (going rapidly the other way on the highway, of course).

Those could have been the pictures that captured history, captured emotions or took a commonplace situation and made it photographically exceptional.

Images like that can even be award winners.

So many mind pictures.

Too many.

I was there. But the pictures didn’t happen.

Oh, I’ve gotten some good shots in my decades as a North Coast reporter-photographer. The boat-crash survivor being assisted as he walked slowly up the ocean cliff. The posture, agonized facial expression and hands of the exhausted fire chief as he kept doing CPR on a drowning victim. A plane dropping hot-pink retardant on a raging wildfire. A perfect cannonball dive into the Neptune Pool during a Hearst Castle swim party.

Some great-shot memories are painful, however, like the classical team-roping photos I took right before a fast-footed, recently castrated calf headbutted me on my hip, sending me airborne, tail over Nikon.

One of my favorite mind pictures was at the south end of Cambria’s Main Street. I was driving toward the stoplight and saw a trim, nicely dressed older man walking along in the narrow bicycle lane.

He paused for a second and seemed to be surreptitiously looking around. But, because my car was behind him, he didn’t see me.

Then — just like the delightful little boy he must have still been in his head and his heart — he hopped up on the curb, spread his arms out a la tightrope walker and surefooted his way toward Highway 1.

Unfortunately, the only photo I have of it is a mind picture.

If you take any photos, you know exactly what I mean. You’ve had the missed opportunities, too … the eagle soaring overhead … a rousing pillow fight …full moon over the skyscraper … bobcat dashing through the field … sleeping baby in a perfect pose, sleeping cat in a perfect pose, a herd of sleeping deer in a perfect pose.

All lost to the photographic ages because:

1) You were very busy doing something else, and by the time you could have found your camera and picked it up, the photo op would have been long gone.

2) You had your camera in hand, but its automatic focus didn’t, or didn’t do so fast enough.

3) The battery was dead.

4) Dummy you forgot to put the photo card back in.

5) Dummier you forgot to bring the camera.

For those kinds of pictures, there’s no second chance, no retake, reshoot or do-over.

Now, just imagine that happening if taking that photo is part of your job. Sigh.

There’s no photographic equivalent of the “dog ate my homework” excuse. A newspaper can’t print mind photos.

And on second thought, that’s probably just as well. Because some images really are best left only in our memories.

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