The photo was taken when I was 12 or 13 and had been sent out to the yard to cut firewood. It was bitterly cold, there was snow on the ground, and I was staying warm not so much from my bulky plaid coat, work boots and cap that had built-in earmuffs as from the exertion of swinging an ax while wearing all that clothing.
As I split lengths of wood and chased down the ones that bolted away from me, a big, black car pulled up on the dirt road running by our house. The driver rolled down his window and called me over to the car.
“Hey, son, do you mind if we take your picture?”
I looked in the car. There were several well-dressed men and women, and they had a good camera. It seemed safe enough, and besides, this was years before such a request might have been deemed suspicious.
“I reckon,” I told them.
They took my picture as I worked, thanked me and drove away.
I’ve always wondered about those city dudes in that car. I liked to imagine that they were taking photos for a book about rural America; Appalachia, perhaps. They were using my photo to illustrate rural life, I reasoned. Or snowy scenes in the South. Or the benefits of physical activity. Or the perils of wearing awkward fashion that weighed as much as I did. It might even have been an exposé on children who got frostbite while doing chores in the dead of winter.
Over the years, I’ve frequented bookstores and libraries and read a great many books that had pictures in them, but I’ve never found myself. I’ve come across photos of unknown backwoods singers and musicians who were nobodies until folklorist Alan Lomax traveled the South and recorded people who went on to become important voices in blues, country and folk music. Anyway, I wasn’t singing as I swung that ax, and Lead Belly had no fear of competition from me.
I’ve seen other books about government agencies that hired writers and photographers to document the trying times of the Great Depression. I came along after the Depression, however, though you could have fooled me as I chopped firewood in the snow.
Countless times we have seen that Depression shot by photojournalist Dorothea Lange called Migrant Mother, showing a poor woman surrounded by kids as she ponders her plight. Then there was the Afghan girl in a Pakistani refugee camp, whose hazel eyes pierced us from the cover of National Geographic several decades ago.
Great photos all. The only one missing is of a skinny, hardworking lad whose breath is visible as he bravely fights the chill to provide warmth for his family.
I haven’t given up. There are lots more books out there to look through. I might already be famous and simply not know it yet.