Laughing on the bus,
Playing games with the faces,
She said the man in the gabardine suit
Was a spy.
I said, “Be careful,
His bow tie is really a camera.”
Lyrics by Paul Simon.
There’s a conservatory in the city of Rochester, New York that is perched on the edge of a park that was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted. The original conservatory was built in 1911, and as happens to many buildings built in that era, time had beaten the heck out of it. It was rebuilt in 2007, as the reconstruction effort kept a watchful eye towards retaining the original historic appearance using both old and new materials. When it was finished, the surname of Alexander B. Lamberton was attached once again above the front door.
Most of us in this century who don’t live in the UK refer to this type of structure as a greenhouse, and it’s a nice place to visit during the winter when everything else is barren and cold. My wife and I have annual passes, which allows us to come and go without paying each time. On the balance of it all, this works out for us, as we’ve each gone five or six times this past year.
We went at night over the Christmas season when it was filled with poinsettia plants and twinkly lights, and that was kind of nice, but the week before Easter, they had set up hundreds of pots of tulips and other bulb flowers. Even though it’s a greenhouse where one would think plants would bloom all the time, that isn’t the case at all, but everything was blooming now. The whole area, some eighteen hundred square feet, smelled like a florist’s shop. It really was amazing.
When we walked into the lobby, we flashed our membership cards, and then walked smack dab into what could politely be called a busload of senior citizens on a field trip. Part of me wanted to groan about this, since it would seriously affect my usual zip-zip-zip through the displays, but it made me slow down. A lot. I pulled out my camera, fiddled with the settings, and started to snap a few test shots. It’s a DSLR with lots of dials and buttons and lenses and other junk that makes me look as if I know what I’m doing, and as I was snapping away, an older gentleman came up next to me.
“That’ll take better pictures than this,” he said, holding up a Samsung smartphone.
I’ll admit that I had seen him taking pictures as soon as I walked in, although I was unaware that as I was watching him, he was watching me. It had immediately struck me how adept he was at using his device. OK, that’s a little judgmental, but he didn’t look a day under eighty-five, so not exactly in the age group one usually sees with a Galaxy S7.
“On a good day, maybe, but those take great shots,” I said.
“I gave up my big camera a few years ago,” he said, “this thing has twelve megapixels. It’s amazing. You like the Canon?”
We talked for a bit about cameras, and how we both used to shoot, develop and print film, when it dawned on me how far cameras and technology in general has come in eighty some odd years. We parted ways shortly after that, as we both had our own private agendas. This was the second thing I noticed.
Camera people tend to be solo sorts. I don’t know why this is, but if one were to observe a photographer among a group, they would be the one who is off on their own. This gentleman had separated from his group early, very likely the moment they hung up their jackets in the lobby, and while they were being guided from one flower to the next, he, the photographer, was a good deal behind them. Mrs. G. had already given up on me, so I sat for a bit, chimping the viewscreen to see if I had everything right, but I was really watching my new old friend kneeling, moving in at eye level and composing his shots. I then started to fill in the imaginary blanks, something Mrs. G. wouldn’t have had to do since she would have asked him more questions than I.
I imagined him to be a widower, since he was alone in the group. This caused me to openly sigh, but he looked happy. Maybe happy isn’t the right word. More content, I guess. He was intelligent, that I knew right off the bat and from our conversation. I imagined him holding some white-collar position at Kodak, back in their heyday. The way he held back from the group also made me think that he didn’t feel as if he was part of them. He was an outsider by necessity or circumstances. He liked being there at the conservatory, but he didn’t give a hoot what the guide was saying about Latin names and growing seasons or the name of this flower or that. I watched him carefully step over the curb, into the forbidden zone where the plants grow, trying to get in close to some sort of flower. That’s old school fixed lens photography, not the lazy stuff we do now with lenses doing all the footwork. I left him behind while I walked around, trying to catch up with my wife.
I found Mrs. G. in the Tropical Dome, sitting on a bench near the outside wall. This spot gives a person a nice view of the entire space, plus the occasional quail. There are dozens of these small birds zigzagging around on the ground since they rarely fly, and if one isn’t careful, it could be a very bad day for one of these little guys. She had taken some pictures on her phone, and was swiping over them when I sat down next to her.
The conservatory is divided up by design and habitat into themed rooms, this one being taller and more, well, tropical. Mrs. G. was posting something on Facebook when I saw the photographer trying to snap pictures of a fast moving quail as it zipped around the floor. He gave up and settled on the slower moving turtles, while most of his group was already one room ahead, bogged down in the desert environment and its towering cactuses. I lost track of him after that, as my wife and I doubled backwards around to the other side, bypassing the tour group.
Mrs. G. and I soon misplaced each other once again, so I wandered about with no particular destination, and really observed what was going on around me. There was a man who had settled into a bench for the long haul with a book, something I’ve seen here often. Somebody was sketching into a Moleskine notepad. There was a mom with two kids who were fascinated by the turtles. Two older women found one of the quail houses, and waited patiently until one or two birds ran inside. There was a lot going on, but today was mostly senior day, and if one likes to fill in the blanks, there is no better group of people with whom to do this. In my case, I did a little of that mixed with a little imagination.
“That was great,” I said to my wife as we walked back to our car. I don’t think I’ve ever said that about a trip to the conservatory. “That was nice” is usually all I can muster, but if a guy the age of the photographer can see something new and interesting in something he’s seen a hundred times, on a hundred identical field trips, I can at least try harder. Next time I go, I’m bringing a book though, because I want to see what that’s like. And of course, a camera.