A MAC Photo

Washington Sean left a most interesting comment under the post below, Drinking From a Fire Hose.

My professor and mentor said that to make (not take) a great image the photo should have one or more of The BIG MAC ingredients. The Big MAC was his recipe for good photos and the secret sauce was M = Mystery, A = Ambiguity, C = Contradiction.

Easier said than done. I do not stage any photos, but do grab images in things I see. Yesterday, at a local hiking area, we came across a Red Tail Hawk, and I grabbed my camera and tried to get within range. Nothing was working on the camera, dead battery. I had to return to the car for a fresh one, and by that time the hawk and flown to the top of a tree. It was actually a better shot, and I made my way and started taking terrible burst photos. At a certain point the hawk was attacked by two ravens and a battle ensued. I will look at the photos today, but I am pretty sure I missed it all. I have so far to go in this pastime.

Even had I captured the raven/hawk encounter, I do not think it would qualify as a MAC photo. There is no ambiguity, no contradiction. The only mystery is why crows and ravens continually attack larger birds like hawks and owls. We often see this, as have the readers here, a large bird followed by a swarm of smaller ones. One time on the Audubon Christmas bird count in Montana, we came upon a loud and noisy tree, full of crows. Jim, the expert, said “Pay attention. We will find a hawk in that tree.” We did.

All I could think after reading Sean’s comment is that it had be be a very hard class, but a worthwhile one. Over lunch yesterday it occurred to me that I might have one photo that qualifies as a MAC, one that I did not take. See below.

That is my grandmother, Marie (nee Hand) Leonard. I  would know of her mystery, her hard, hard life, while others might guess. She was born near Sheboygan, Wisconsin. This photo was taken near Baker, Montana, on the family farm. The two places could not be more different. Wisconsin is lush and green, while Baker is on the hot prairie. The family moved from Wisconsin to Montana some time in the 1930s. I am told that as Grandma got off the train in Baker, she said “This is IT?”

Grandma was a school teacher and so had some education. She met and married George Leonard, and in typical farm fashion, started giving birth. Farmers need hands. The problem was that all seven of Marie and George’s children were girls. One of them, Mary Eileen, was my mother. She can be seen below, second from the right.

Not a lot of MAC going on there. In fact, Sean would have been kicked out of class for offering that one up. It is too cute. My mother and six aunts gave birth to 28 babies, one of whom was me. Me and two of my three older brothers have unique backgrounds, as the three of us all graduated college. None of the other 25 did. None even attended. It was that kind of family.

The Leonard family, all nine of them, lived as sharecroppers, or mere renters on a farm near Sheboygan. Why did they move to Montana? The house burned down. All survived. I asked Mom if they had insurance. She said “No. Wasn’t done.” Desperate, my Grandpa George contacted his brother Mike, who had small house near Ekalaka, Montana. Mike was not a homesteader, in fact, was a college graduate, as in those days it was seen as important that at least one child graduated college. He told his brother to come on out, that he could work for him.

Grandpa agreed, but did not tell Mike that he was bringing out his wife and seven daughters. The house was not much more than three rooms, kitchen, family room, bedroom. Mike lived alone.Facilities were outdoors. I interviewed Mom back in the late 1990s to get it all down. She said Mike was an angry man, but then said reflectively “I would be too if I had nine people move in with me.” Eventually the Leonard family moved from Ekalaka to near Baker. The kids were never hungry, and had a much better childhood than I am letting on. They walked to a one-room school, had friends, and would take the family car on trips to nearby North Dakota to attend dances, meet boys, and carouse a little. Grandma would bake a cake to serve as dessert for every meal, and Grandpa always got the largest piece, Mom remembered.

Back to the photo of my Grandma, which I reinsert below to save you from scrolling up and down.

We now know that Marie had a hard life. Her face was grizzled, as I always knew her to be. I would not be born until maybe seven years after this photo. There is not much staging, but I can see in this photo poverty. When my brother Steve listened to the interviews I did with Mom and Dad, his comment was that poverty, extreme poverty, was the common theme. But note that she is wearing dress shoes and a warm coat, and under it appears to be a nice dress.

My guess: She has just returned from church. The Catholic faith got them through many a hard time.

When Mom and Dad moved out (we moved them out) of their postwar shack in Billings, my wife and I cleaned out the place. There was nothing there that was not used up. It all went to the dump. In their closet I found very large photo negatives, and asked a cousin who graduated with a photography degree if she could make them into real photos, which she did, and which is why I have these and many other photos of the Baker days.

I am adding one more photo, just for sake of setting, and not for any MAC qualities.

Those are my two older brothers, Steve and Tom. Looking at that photo, can you intuit the day of the week?

Why, it is Saturday, of course. Bath day, followed by church day.

6 thoughts on “A MAC Photo

  1. Why not just enjoy yourself and let goals be stepping stones or frameworks for exploration. Unless you need to ‘make it’ in the eyes of others? Be that approval, commerce or competitions (though these things can be added you as a result of loving what you do).
    Just as you adjust and align your camera and settings, so can you be guided and aligned in what you see or notice, how you see it and serendipity as the gift – call it luck if you want.


  2. Wisconsin to Montana…”The two places could not be more different” I’d say inthe winter time they are the same place…Freezing! I assume nine people enclosed would at least make a warmer house.


    1. People in close quarters … Mom told me of the seven girls walking through the house and out the front door and slamming the screen door, one after another, just to irritate Grandpa. (I did not know him beyond the back of a man in a rocking chair on a porch in Milwaukee who never reached out to me. Not to make me a big deal, just that he was at least in later years cold and indifferent.) That would be in Baker and not in Mike’s place in Ekalaka. Grandpa was irritable, the girls were rebellious. Lots of untold stories there, especially the Sheboygan house burning down. We will never know. I suspect demon rum. They were always tight around Ma and Pa, but I suspect the attractions that formed, my Mom and Dad and my many uncles, came from alcohol experiences. My Mom and aunts were remarkable and good people, by the way. I got to know every aunt in my youth.)

      One of my aunts, Lucille, was independent-minded and wanted out of school, so Grandpa decided she would be useful in digging a well. It took all of a day of back-breaking digging to put her back in the classroom. Not that she would have not been better off in the hole.


  3. I’m flattered you’d take the Big MAC approach to heart as you looked to the skies and observed the battle of hawk and raven. In fairness, nature photography with animals as subjects is heavily dependent on either A) getting very close to an animal that holds still, or B) using extremely long lenses. And in the case of birds or other animals flying, then the long lens need also have fast shutter speed and crazy depth of field, usually which runs thousands of dollars or even over 10K. (Sports photographers use similar equipment to nature photographers). So the desire to create a Big MAC photo of birds in flight is not an easy task, and your boldness is admirable in my opinion — the student that knows no folly is willing to take the biggest risks.

    But getting a good photo is not dependent on your gear. Visual elements, like converging parallel lines, proper framing and exposure, and staging your subject can all lend themselves to creating a Big MAC. I remember at a Jet Boat ride up the Rogue River. After a few miles skirting up through the boulders in only a few inches of water, the boat captain cut the throttle and pulls up to a beach where there is this ‘bald eagle’ that is just kind of sitting on the beach. All the tourists grabbed their cameras. One woman asked the captain: “why is he just sitting there? Is he sick?” I quipped back “maybe he is an ill-Eagle?” The sarcasm garnered a few chuckles from the other occupants. Later I cornered the captain at the picnic lunch to confirm my suspicion, as it was all too obvious they’d trained this bird to enhance the specatacle.

    The photo of your grandmother Marie is unsettling. The poverty, the grizzled face, the Contradiction of her nice clothes with what appears to be an intentionally spread semi-circle of manure at her feet. The Mystery of why she is sitting there, what is the occasion? The intentionality of it all makes me wonder, who took it and why? Thanks for sharing.

    Two other things that I appreciated about my professor were that 1) if you were late to his class, you would have to come up with a poem and share in front of the class before you would be allowed back in and 2) when it came to getting the shot or making the image, he gave extra credit for trespassing.


    1. I am pretty sure Grandma was either coming from or going to Catholic Mass. There would have been a procession of Ma and Pa and seven daughters to church each Sunday. That went on for everybody’s entire life, me and my folks and by brothers and all my cousins were raised to be Catholic, and it took. I was 38 years old before the spell broke, and for most of them, it never broke.

      There are not many photos of the Baker days, and for some reason Mom had the negatives of this day, as they had company. My Dad was there in his Army duds, on leave, possibly before being shipped overseas. Mom had moved back home with the family with her two boys while Dad was away. There were other people I did not know and my Aunt Helen, from Dad’s side of the family. It was a large gathering of family and friends during the war, is all I can say. The photo negatives were heavy plastic and very large. I do not know who took the pictures, possibly Uncle Mike, as he could afford a camera and is not in any of the photos. The seven girls on horseback is staged, something he might have done on a family visit.

      Your thoughts on photography are very insightful. My only hope with wildlife is to set the camera at the highest resolution and shutter speed I can, and hope I have something where the crop yields a good photo.We do have a spotting scope, but the D3500 is not amenable to attaching so that iPhone will have to do, digiscoping I think they call it.

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s