Raggedy Ann’s New Dress

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People seldom notice old clothes if you wear a big smile. —Lee Mildon

To live is to dance, to dance is to live. —Snoopy

Ad Libitum (And A Little Mustard)


From fuzzy snapshots fastened to the world’s refrigerator doors all the way to Robert Capa’s accidentally damaged D-Day images, the best efforts of photographers frequently fall short of what is expected. Circumstances differ, but we all feel the same “if only” pangs of disappointment.

Yet it’s these photos—marred, some would say, by being out-of-focus, under/over-exposed, or hurriedly composed—that often linger in the mind after our editing is completed, teasing us with “what ifs.” Perhaps all is not lost when we make a mistake in the field.

Consider Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, arguably Ansel Adams’s most well-known photograph. From his account we know he worked feverishly to get one exposure—the evening light disappeared from the cemetery crosses before he could flip his film holder for a second shot. As a consequence the resulting negative, improperly exposed, proved very difficult to print, even for the skilled Adams. What prompted him to keep working, instead of dropping the film into a trash bin?

I believe the sensations surrounding us as we take a photo—whether the laughter of a child, the fury of ocean waves, alpenglow, or that fading long-ago light in New Mexico—are fixed to the images as surely as any darkroom chemical or pixel cluster. When these are sharp, and stimulating, we’re going to pursue the photo’s potential for all it’s worth. Never mind a blemish or two.

I thought of this while editing pictures from Utah’s Horseshoe Canyon. The day I was there was beautiful, with strong light bouncing around the high rock walls. When I came around a bend where a group of cottonwood trees grows close against them, I stopped in my sandy tracks. “Dancers,” I thought, “set free in a grand, restored theater.” I could hear music.

I took their photo with a new-to-me Zeiss 35mm manual-focus lens, and in my visual excitement missed critical focus on the largest tree. Not by much, but I can tell. This was a disappointing realization, but I didn’t reflexively hit Delete because my enjoyment of the picture wasn’t (and isn’t) diminished by the technical error.

What I did instead was adopt an old lemons-to-lemonade axiom—when you’re given sauerkraut, put it on a bun, add bratwurst and mustard, and call it a hotdog. For my dancing cottonwoods I discovered that converting the image to monochrome in Photoshop, and then adding a measure of graininess, displayed the spirit I’d felt while capturing it—nothing more and, because I didn’t give up on it, nothing less.