Sunday, September 22, 2013

Take The Long Way Home - Good-Bye My Friend

I first noticed Ed Farmer's photography in early 2011.  I had this vision of turning my watercolor blog into more of a traveling journal.  I was already an avid hiker and backpacker but not a photographer and my blog needed some photographic guidance. I was using a "point and shoot" camera.  I wasn't satisfied with my own work so I started looking at the works of others and developing a plan to create the vision I had in my head.  Little did I know this quest would lead me into a life-altering passion for photography and would also lead me to some amazingly inspiring people.  Ed Farmer is one of those people. 

I'd seen Ed's website and then found him on Facebook. I was fascinated by his style, it was quiet and thoughtful and resonated somehow.  I'd comment often on his work, but I could rarely get a response from him. His images led me to believe he was a quiet man who appreciated his solo time in the woods in Virginia and The Great Smokies.  His images are tranquil and poetic.  I loved his artistic sense of composition, but he rarely seemed to speak. In 2011, we became Facebook friends, but he never actually communicated with me until almost a year later.  He would later explain to me why. 

My images were really amateurish, cluttered and over saturated. Photography seemed so much more difficult than my beloved medium of watercolor. I just couldn't get the brush, or in this case,  the camera to do what I wanted it to do. So I set off on a journey to understand photography.   Eventually, wanting to pair that with my writing as I ventured out into the great Sonoran desert with my dog searching for the meaning of life. Looking back, I was so lost,  I read as much as I could, pestered the professionals until they listened to me and studied the works and techniques of others.  I lived and breathed photography every minute I could. 

Then one day, I received this message from Ed:

"Hi Valerie,
I've been watching some of your work. Your dedication is hard to miss. You have a great eye for composition. Some seem to continuously shoot at the same level without growing. Unlike them, you are definitely progressing and growing in the quality of your work at a very fast pace. That too is hard to miss.
If it sounds like I'm being judgmental or harsh of others work, I'm really not. It's a fact of life as a photographer or any creative pursuit. Some have it, many don't ... you do.
Just felt you deserved to hear that from a fellow shooter who appreciates your work and the thumbs up you've been sharing. Have fun with the new camera. Very smart choice. Looking forward to seeing your new posts.
Take care, Ed"
These kind words from a photographer whose work I'd admired much were a great source of inspiration for me. I felt like I was on the right track and I was beside myself that he noticed. It started our friendship and a long series of discussions about photography, the business of photography, philosophy, people, life and all things in between including his own impending death. At the time of his death, I had over 500 messages from Ed. Here are some of our conversations.

Ed: "You're becoming exactly what you want to be"
Ed talked about his profound connection with nature and it was something we both could relate too. I completely understood his desire to venture out into the landscapes alone. He mentioned something once that so resonated with my own personal experience.
"Why people don't fully want to experience the power in nature and connection it gives us with something so much larger and more exceptional than our own simple humanity I'll never understand. I don't know if you experience the same or not but I can actually "feel" generations of life when I reach out for quiet moments of meditation away from it all... outdoors ... waiting for the surroundings to respond. No, not voices in my head, a different "sense" outside of the normal 5?"

Valerie: "I climbed to the top of North Mountain today and sat on a special ledge and watch the's 2000 feet above North Phoenix and I watched as the sun's very centering...physically demanding..but humbling...sometimes you just need those moments to remember who you really are"
Ed: "Thought I'd share the sentiment with a fellow workaholic perfectionist photog"
Valerie: "Dare to go out on your own and you are officially ...the outcast. Frankly, I'm content with being the outlier suits me I'm not much for cliques."
Ed; "Continue to work hard ... master the skill set of a photographer as you fine tune your artistic vision ... keep humble ... and never let anyone take any of it away from you with their comments or games. There will always be someone who will if you let them. Keep it real but stick to your dreams and path you want to follow."
Valerie: "I'm looking forward to long nerdy weekend of shooting and exploring a new place. I'll be hiking and photographing in Zion...either Friday or Sat. and then making my way around the park and optimal times...the rest of the time...'s off to buy some cold weather clothes for this desert girl"
Ed: "Your technical weaknesses masked how talented your eye was when I first saw your work on FB. I was honestly blown away at the difference in your work in only a few short months when I looked at it again. Only when I saw that you were an artist first did it make sense. I was actually wondering how old your first posts were compared to when they were actually posted. The difference was that dramatic in only 3-4 months."
Ed was a continual source of positive and encouraging messages. He was always kind and often our messages would go well into the late hours, off on some silly tangent. We laughed a lot about the dynamics of social media and between the two of us, had a little mini "like" competition.

Then in January, I saw this message come through my phone:
Ed: "Hey Val. Short message. Do not let anything get in the way of your goals. Life can change in an instance. Myself. Diagnosed with brain cancer this week out of blue. Headed. To smokies one morning on ambulance shortly afterwards with diagnoses that morning. Your talent is phenomenal bud. Don't let anything distract you from your goals"
Valerie: Ed? I hope you didn't really mean brain cancer? Ed.... I'm so sorry. I don't know what to say. I'm just heartbroken for you. I realize you may not be able to keep in touch...but I'll keep trying to see how you are doing. Been thinking about you all day. You realize if you don't get better, I will surpass your record for FB "likes" on any given image?"
Ed had collapsed at work right before heading out for a shooting trip. He immediately had surgery and he was completely paralyzed on one side of his body. For awhile, it was impossible to even make sense of his messages. Eventually, they brought in his laptop. His hospital stay was extensive and he talked about missing his dogs. But never gave up hope that he would return to his beloved photography.
Valerie; "PS...your FB fans are all sending you their best wishes and prayers..(me, I'm just working on highjacking your watermark and replacing it with my own)"
Ed: "Ok watermark alert noted. Been using FB to communicate. Life can change quick you keep your images and watermark coming strong want to keep seeing lots of of your images to keep spirits up".
Ed and I talked about his near death experience very frankly and he described the experience of almost going beyond and meeting what he perceived as God. What was incredible at this point in his life was the he was not angry at all. He called his cancer a blessing because it had brought him back into contact with what I gather was an estranged relationship with his father. He told me he was not afraid to die. He continued to miss the outdoors, his photography and his dogs.

Ed: Valerie, Thanks for becoming my friend.
Valerie: Thank you Ed, for being my friend. Thank you for always being kind and honest.
He talked about how special his girlfriend Martha had been through all of this. He talked about how influential photographer Tony Sweet had been for him. He constantly spoke of being extremely fortunate. For many months, his paralysis prevented him from typing and I lost contact with him.
I randomly sent this message out one day
Valerie: "'s the big question Ed. What's the meaning of life?"
Ed: "Don't waste any of it! Follow your voice it's always guiding you to succeed. Your voice is God"
Ed spent most of his time in the hospital and rehab. He sent a message one night about how a big storm had come over so the staff turned his bed around and he could watch it from his window. He had also had visits from his dogs. He talked of upgrading his camera.
My last message from Ed was on April 9th and it said:
"Used to be lost as a teenager, until I picked up my camera and depression disappeared for good. To be depressed saved my life. Literally. Being totally open and serious. The beauty in nature and wildlife changed my life is what I meant." We chatted about that for a bit. His love of his camera and photography were never far from any conversation."
Messages came fewer and fewer and over the last few months, his friends had told me that he started to suffer series of strokes. I knew Ed's days were coming to an end. A few weeks ago, I mailed him a card and told him how much his friendship had meant to me and how much I'd appreciated all his help with my photography

My last message to Ed was on June 9th. I wrote:  
Valerie: "How are you Ed?"
I never heard from him again. I found out today that Ed passed away this morning. He survived 9 months passed his initial diagnosis. He was in his early 50's. I'll miss his photography and our conversations.
Another time and place Ed, we have a few unfinished conversations. May your family be comforted knowing that you live on forever in the spirit of your beautiful images. Thank you for being my friend. You'll never know how much that meant to me.