The Gift of a Second Chance

October 06, 2014  •  Leave a Comment

Mr. Ellis Reading the Newspaper

In the years that I have been photographing seriously, I have rarely had a second chance to correct a serious creative error. This week, I got such a chance.

In 2009, I had the honor of photographing inside The Ellis and Sons Iron Works located on the corner of Front Street and Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard in Memphis, Tennessee.  Ellis and Sons is among the oldest, continuously operated businesses in Memphis, and despite profound economic shifts that have severely diminished the business, it survives.  In 2009, I enjoyed spending a few hours inside the foundry, photographing the massive machinery and interesting textures, lines, and shapes that fill this old warehouse.  I remember that around every turn in this old building were so many interesting things to photography that it felt overwhelming. Among the favorite photographs that I made that day in 2009 is this one of a piece of machinery used to melt metals for casting into molds.

My mistake in 2009 was failing to photograph Mr. William Ellis himself, the namesake and direct descendent of the founder of the business.  I met Mr. Ellis that day, already then in or fast approaching his nineties, and he was among the most gracious and proud men that I have met.  He has worked in this same factory since he was a fourteen-year-old boy.  He toured me around the shop, telling me of the history of this family-owned business that an earlier Mr. William Ellis established in 1862 to cater to the boats carrying freight on the Mississippi River, one block west of the foundry.  Mr. Ellis then gave me free rein to wander through his shop unattended. And yet, I never turned my camera to Mr. Ellis himself. I have regretted this oversight every time I review the collection of photographs of the industrial forms I made that day.

Today, I atoned for my creative sin.  While walking in the South Main District of Memphis during the late morning hours, I wandered past the Ellis and Sons Iron Works building. As I did, my mind went back to 2009 and my failure to photograph Mr. Ellis.  And suddenly, there he was, visible through a dirty old window of the foundry, surrounded by piles of newspaper and equipment and framed by reflections cast in the window.  There he sat in soft midmorning light reading the newspaper as he probably does every day. And he did not see me.  

First I photographed him from the front to reveal his face; and then it struck me that a far subtler photograph was to be had if I photographed over his shoulder, and just as I moved into position, he lifted his left arm and rested his hand on his neck. When I made the exposure, I knew immediately that I had the photograph that I have longed for for five years.

After I made the photograph, I considered going inside to ask if I might photograph him formally. For a moment, I worried about the clutter surrounding him in the portrait and thought a photograph made inside would be "cleaner."  But then I realized that this clutter has surrounded him for the eighty years that he's worked in this building, and it is part of what defines him.  So, I did not go inside. I knew that I had the photograph that I wanted. But more importantly, it seemed that going in and interrupting him would diminish the extraordinary manifested in this most ordinary of moments.

Photographers rarely get second chances, but on this day I did. And I am deeply grateful for having been in the right place at the right time.

Cheers, Mr. Ellis. Carry on with your daily routine. And thank you for a moment in which the ordinary was suddenly bathed in the extraordinary.


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