The Farthest Edge: The Story of a Photo

by Kathryn Price on August 1, 2013

Stone Arch Bridge “You’re not going any farther than this,” the man said. There was a warning tone in his voice and a charge in his eyes, which gleamed blue-gray in the last light of day, like the sky that was fading to dusk. We had walked from the street above us down a wooden staircase to this spot on the Mississippi River beneath the Stone Arch Bridge, looking for a place to take photographs. There was not much of a place there. The first space we had come to was taken by a family fishing; the next spot occupied by teenagers sitting on a concrete ledge of the superstructure of the bridge, and this third and final spot, by the man with blue-gray eyes and two companions. He was about twenty years old; his companions were both three decades older. Plopped into lawn chairs, with fishing lines stuck in the water, they glanced over at us and said nothing. Three mallard ducks walked about near their outstretched feet.  And just past this scene, there was a last bit of gravelly beach, and not much of it, just a few feet littered with broken glass. But I wanted the pictures.

I paused, considering. The man’s words sounded threatening, but what could he mean? He didn’t own the place. “What do you mean by that?” I asked him. His eyes widened. “I mean, you can’t go up there,” he said, pointing at the shadowy, wooded hill, thick with scrub brush and trees that rose sharply at the edge of our little gravel breach. “You can’t get through those woods, and it’s full of ticks.” The ticks didn’t concern me, but what he said about the impassibility of the woods at that angle was true. I pointed to the last few feet of shoreline, with its curves of broken bottles angling up in the gravel. “But we can get there.” It wasn’t much, but we could fit on it.

“Yeah, you can get there,” he said.  The two men in the lawn chairs looked at the river in silence. Then, as we started to pick our way through the gravel, across the slope of beach that took us just behind their chairs, one of them started to talk in a self-consciously loud voice and then he laughed, and the other laughed back in a way that felt like they were erecting a verbal shield around their psychic space, since we had invaded their physical one.

It was ludicrous: the two of us on the little broken glassed edge of land, the toes of our shoes already in the river, setting up my tripod which went one leg down into the river at first because of the angle there, before Geoff found a flat rock and we moved it to the edge of the water and balanced it as best we could on the slope. It was ludicrous: we were in the space the men had staked out for the evening, although we had crept to the farthest edge of it; as far as you could go before falling into the water. When the men had claimed this space earlier in the evening, they had not imagined anyone would go past it, farther than them. It was claimed, it was theirs, simply through logistics. Well, this wouldn’t take long, I thought.

We set up. We made quick adjustments to the tripod, while the  men talked to each other in voices that had the patina of lives lived hard, on the edge.  The ducks went into the water and came back, parading as a trio around the men in their chairs, an odd domestic touch, as if the ducks were pets and the men were sitting in loungers in their living room. I had never seen wild ducks come this close to people. And who expected a living room here at the farthest edge of the riverbank?

The light in the sky was also at its farthest edge, no longer day, but not yet night. It seemed to pause for a moment, faded to gray over the river. In a few moments, the lights on the bridge would come on. I took a few test shots and made some adjustments. I was conscious of my camera bag, that my camera and lenses were not inexpensive, although my tripod was cheap, and that the two older men looked a little surly. I was fumbling with the equipment, standing in broken glass with the sky growing dark. This was not necessarily a safe place to be, I thought. When the lights of the bridge came on and I started to focus the lens, Geoff said under his breath, “Hurry up.” So he was feeling it, too, this sense that  the two older men were not only unhappy that we were there, but that perhaps they were scrutinizing what I had in the bag.

“Look!” the young man shouted, pointing beyond us. We turned and looked into the darkness along the shadowy, timbered shoreline; I could see nothing. “It’s a crane! That would make a great picture!” The men turned in their lawn chairs. “Yes, it would. You really should get that picture,” they said. The problem was, I couldn’t see the crane. Neither could Geoff. “And even if I could,” I explained, “The lens I’m using is a wide angle so that I can get the whole bridge into the picture, and a crane probably wouldn’t show up on it. I mean, it would look very small.” “It’s a great shot for a photographer,” the young man said, “with the moon behind it.” “A great shot,” the men in the lawn chairs agreed. They were invested in this now; they were with us on this. I agreed that it would be a great shot if I could only see it. I felt bad that I couldn’t see what they were seeing, what they fervently wished for me to capture.

It was when we took the tripod down and turned to go that Geoff suddenly saw the crane. It took me a moment and then I saw it, too, perched in a tree at the edge of the river with the moon rising behind it. It was much closer to us than I had expected when the young man first pointed; I had missed it by looking too far downriver. It was, in fact, companionably close to our little group. I would have called it a heron, not a crane, but as I had learned earlier that summer, no one can seem to agree on the names of these creatures. The bird was hunched over and seemed to be gazing down at the water musingly; I thought of a philosopher contemplating the river of life, but the bird was probably just thinking about fish. There we were: the bird and the older men and the young man and the bridge and the lights and the river and us. It all seemed to merge for a moment; this was our place on the river together; we were, for a moment, one piece, companions on the far edge of shoreline. The heron was too much in shadow to get a photo without getting the tripod out again and repositioning it upward at a precarious angle, and no one pressed it now, the men just seemed happy that we could see it.

I took what I consider one of my best photos that night, a shot of the Stone Arch Bridge, but the better one is the one I have in my memory, the men in the lawn chairs with the ducks walking around their feet, the excited young man pointing into the dark and over us all, the heron and the moon. I wouldn’t have thought to ask the men if I could take a picture of them, but when I looked at my photos later they were there at the edge of the frame, what the wide angle lens had included without my noticing. If you look at the right edge of the photograph about two-thirds from the top, you’ll see them in the shadows, one young man, and the belly and outstretched legs of one of the two men in their lawn chairs. Although I had intended to frame only the bridge in the photograph, I wouldn’t think of cropping them out.

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