Only one photographer ever got my husband to smile for a portrait. Just one. And a genuine smile, not a fake smile-through-your-teeth “can we get this over with?” kind of smile.
That man is Elmer Sparks. That was the year he took portraits of every family in our church for the church directory. And getting people to smile is just one of his many talents. Mainly, it’s a by-product of the way he spreads happiness.
Two of those ways are through photography and bluegrass music. Oh—and his great sense of humor.
Last week we did some “people watching” using one of Elmer’s photographs. There are plenty more where that came from. Those people happen to be his daughter Anna, son Lucas, and daughter-in-law Tori.
Elmer has been married to Melody for 36 years. They live in Mukwonago, Wisconsin and have two adult children. Elmer hails from Crandon, Wisconsin, a small town that sounds a lot like Andy Griffith’s Mayberry (Mt. Airy, North Carolina).
Here’s how Elmer describes his childhood in Crandon:
“The Sparks clan was a heavy presence in Crandon at that time. My grandparents owned the food store. My aunt and uncle owned the movie theater. My cousin owned the hardware store. My other aunt and uncle owned the shoe store. My other uncle was sheriff and ran the jail. My aunt made home cooked meals daily for all the prisoners; the jail was a popular destination. Unfortunately, not a lot a little guy can get away with in a town where relatives are law enforcement and much of the town is related!”
See? Sounds like Mayberry . . . Aunt Bee bringing chicken and dumplings to the jail.
Elmer went into the military after high school, spending three years in the Army Security Agency. He then worked at Harnischfeger Corporation in Milwaukee for 27 years in various operations management positions. After that, he worked at HB Performance Systems in Mequon for six years, managing the Research and Development lab, machine shop, and vehicle testing facilities. This included all shipping, receiving, transportation, and warehouse operations as well.
Elmer explains how his passion for motorcycles dovetailed into his occupation: “Since I was an avid motorcyclist for most of my life, and this job meant I would be test riding motorcycles on a frequent basis, it was a good match. I managed a great staff of 25 engineers, lab techs, journeyman machinists, and union workers.”
Now he is retired, active at Cornerstone Presbyterian Church and in the local music community. As a cancer survivor, he helps to organize the local annual cancer walkathon. He plays guitar in a band and has been hosting a monthly community music jam at the Mukwonago Library for the past five years. (More on that next time.)
Photography is a passion, too. (All photos courtesy of Elmer Sparks Photography.)
How is photography creative?
Elmer: This anecdote explains it. Once, while riding through mountains for the first time, my camera fell off my motorcycle (TWICE!) at 70 MPH, bounced along the scorching hot pavement, and came to rest with a heart-wrenching thud. My first thought was, “How stupid could I possibly be?” The answer: Pretty Stupid!
My next thought was, “Why did I not remember to secure the camera to the backpack on the back of the motorcycle?” On TWO occasions! The answer to that question was, “Because I was still mentally processing the beauty and majesty of the mountain scenes before me.”
Every thought I had was engaged in “seeing”
and experiencing mountains for the first time in my life.
It was a touchstone moment.
I was a young man then, but I still remember it.
What does this have to do with creativity?
Creative photography is all about “seeing”.
The best camera in the world will not take a good picture
if the person behind it does not first “see” the image in his mind.
Obviously, this precept is not unique to photography. It exists in all art forms. Two creative people can observe the same scene and “see” it differently.
Skilled visualization/observation is an acquired skill. I love the fact that it can be continuously improved over a lifetime. I will always consider myself a student—on this and all subjects!
What makes a compelling photograph?
Elmer: We are often told to observe the “rule of thirds” or “Keep your horizon lines straight” principles when taking a photo. A creative photographer is aware of these rules, but, EQUALLY aware that the path to a quality photo sometimes means you ignore these admonishments to provide impact.
A photographer should consider who the intended viewer of the image will be. An example might be two people viewing an image of a toddler eating a graham cracker. The objective observer might think “Oh, a cute kid eating a cracker.” The toddler’s mother might interpret the image through entirely different eyes. She may see the image as confirmation that her little baby has now grown to be a toddler; the baby years are behind her. The same image evokes different responses in different people.
The Camera is a silent companion that can speak to you years later.
It leaves a track in time that can be revisited again and again.
When I pull up a photo from my archives,
it tracks me right back to the moment it was taken.
The memories, the history, and the vision are all there.
Capturing moments in the community . . .
How do you try to capture people in portraits?
Elmer: A few years ago I was hired to do a family photo shoot. One of their family members, a young man in his twenties, had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. He died about three months after the photo session.The grandmother, well up in years and also in the photo, died shortly thereafter.
I knew the importance this photo session held for them.
This was their last occasion for a photo of the entire family,
and everyone knew it.
They wanted the image taken in their home. I remember arriving at their very small house and wondering how I was going to get everyone in a single image in such a small space. It was a hot summer day and everyone was crammed into a very small living room. The walls were covered with old family photos. The living room was not well lit, so, I had to set up some artificial photo lighting–its heat only added to the closeness.
Being creative sometimes means you work with
less than optimal conditions.
The image I took still hangs in a frame on a coveted wall
in their dining room. I was reminded once again
of the precious memories held in photos
—another reason I love photography.
What are your favorite subjects to photograph?
Elmer: My best “people” images are taken when people are not even aware I am there. We all tend to be self-conscious when we think there is a camera around.
I find each person really has a uniqueness that makes them beautiful in their own right. The skilled photographer will capture the beauty in that persona. Most often the persona is evident when people are doing something they love to do. Many of my photos are of musicians who are passionate about their music. (Come back next time for those pictures.)
Nature photography holds a special interest for me as well. Doing it well involves many skill sets. There are the technical challenges associated with capturing birds in flight. Difficult lighting conditions. Eco systems everywhere–above us, underfoot, in the sky. Everywhere. I love it!
Any tips for others who want to learn photography?
Elmer: You will not learn photography overnight. Contrary to popular conceptions, it is not all about more pixels or more expensive cameras. I like technology. However, it often is perceived as the ultimate panacea for quality images.
The reality is that a quality photographer can take a
quality image with even the most basic camera.
Ansel Adams took iconic images with a box camera.
Manually. No electronics. “ONE” image per shot.
Learning serious photography puts you on a path to learn to slow down and more carefully consider life around you. You will find it sharpens your awareness. It is a creative journey you will not regret! Wishing you well, my friend!
In this picture, note the clock faces in the water drops. They are a reflection of a pocket watch I had placed under a piece of glass.
See more photos here:
What is a favorite photo of yours, whether you took it or someone else?
OR . . . if you enjoy photography, what are your favorite subjects to photograph?
I welcome your comments below!
P.S. Coming next: Elmer returns as a toe-tapping bluegrass musician who spreads happiness through music.