August 1, 2009

My Life in 4-H Part II

When I was a teenager, it was apparent that I was not going to earn my keep as a chef or tailor. Like many activities tested by children, 4-H fell off my list. I was – and remain -- interested in telling stories through words and pictures.

My second summer of college I was hired as a reporter/photographer by our local county daily newspaper. I was assigned to cover the 4-H cattle, hog, and sheep shows because the editor surmised I had the right kind of background. My father was an agriculture teacher and my grandparents owned a farm that had been in my grandmother’s family more than 100 years.

Here are some points that test the logic of me as expert. I never showed an animal in 4-H, in fact I never went near an animal (except our beloved collies). While my brother was a long-term 4-H member and showed cattle, hogs, and sheep, I was terrified of most animals. I did visit the barn twice to obtain a VISA card from my father’s wallet. Does that count?

While my brother and father froze at the barn in the dead of winter delivering baby pigs, I had my warm nose stuck in a book at the house. And it was not a book about animals.

Early on the first morning of my new assignment, I arrived at the Show Barn with the paper’s Twin-Lens Reflex (TLR) Rolleiflex camera. The Show Barn was an arena with six or seven rows of plank bleachers on both sides. “Classes” of animals came in by breed, and judges graded both the animal and the 4-Hers. Often, a steer looked better than its presenter did, with the steer groomed immaculately and a colorful braided tail.

I shot pictures of the top animals in each breed with their proud owners. This was before the days of digital cameras, and using that heavy, manual Rolleiflex in a dark, dusty arena was not an easy job. Since the camera had two lenses, you had to look down into one which reflected the image. The f-stops also had to be set manually, so you had to gauge the amount of light or use an incomprehensible analog light meter.

No one told me to put a pan of food in front of the animal so he would be in the correct pose for the picture. At 20, I had no idea how to manage the children. Thank goodness, she said wryly, I had the parents there to help me. There was nothing called a “helicopter” parent in those days, but there was a “4-H parent”. I received plenty of directorial assistance from parents who arranged little Jimmy and big Bossy to their liking. I would snap the picture, and then the parent wanted Jimmy and Bossy to stand in a different pose like Vanna in front of the big board on Wheel of Fortune.

That first summer I was not skilled at using the Rolleiflex, and I underexposed damn near every picture. This was not discovered until the film was developed in the darkroom. (For the young folk: in the ancient days, a photograph was shot on negative film, developed in chemical trays in a dark room, and then a positive enlarged and printed on photographic paper.)

My performance as a photographer was not stellar and the newspaper editor received many calls about a whited-out Jimmy and Bossy. I was not fired, rather put back on the police beat and covering churches of Whitley County and stories such as the biggest tomato or melon that summer.

When the next year’s 4-H fair rolled around I had taken college photojournalism and was much better at handling the Rolleiflex. I learned all the animal and child tricks, and even managed the overeager parents better.

This was my Brother’s ninth year showing animals in 4-H. He did well that year, so several of the Grand Champion pictures I took featured Brother and his prized pig “Horse” and lamb “Wilbur”.

Naturally, when Brother won I took excellent pictures. Nobody remembers that I also took excellent pictures of everyone else who won that year.

Mr. Murphy’s law prevailed. The newspaper editor received a string of phone calls from parents who asked, “Why are there pictures of the photographer’s brother on the front page?” Possibly because he won!

I am now retired from the animal picture business, except of course for photographing my cats. Quoth the raven.

A disclaimer: I truly appreciate my farm heritage, and am grateful for the values and tradition going back to 1839 when my ancestors came to Washington Township to begin a new life. I am the family historian as well as the repository for many family relics. I just don’t do “outside.