By Karen Long
Capturing and Preserving Moments of a Lifetime
Sure, it was ridiculous to even try, but I was an outlier. I heard the dare as a personal invitation to be the exception.
As a college student in Buffalo, NY, I took up photography as a hobby. But I had a lucky accident, sold an image to American Greetings, and I was off to the races. A fellow student saw my work in the darkroom and said: “You know, there’s a school an hour east of here in Rochester called Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) where you can get a 4-year degree and learn photography.” Our instructor overheard this and told me not to waste my time – “You’ll never get in.”
Of course, I jumped on a bus the next day and walked into the Office of Administration at RIT. A receptionist greeted me quizzically and called the School of Photography. That’s when Professor Lyttle appeared; he might just as well have walked right out of Grimm’s fairy tales, complete with a long, white beard. Introducing himself, he asked how he could help. I answered in a matter-of-fact way, “I heard this was a great school to study photography, and I would like to become a student here.” Puzzled, he asked if I had a portfolio. “No, I just have these 2 prints,” I said. “How about alumni – know anyone here?” “Nope.” “And money – this isn’t a state school.” “No money,” I said – “just heard it was a great place to study photography.” That was the interview – probably less than 10 minutes.
A couple of weeks later, I opened a letter from RIT inviting me to come as a “special student” for 10 weeks. Doug had talked the Board into inviting me. I packed my bags, thanked the photo instructor for his support, and left for Rochester.
I might have been on drugs for the entire time I spent at RIT because I was just plain high on learning. Doug was one of my first instructors, and I soon learned that he was wildly popular. I studied portraiture and loved it! I didn’t mind if it was -10 degrees outside or if I had classes that began at 8 AM on Saturday. I was living the dream and was being groomed to express my ideas and to create images that could move others. I got good grades, but more importantly, got considerable encouragement from all my instructors, but none more enthusiastic and engaging than Doug. There seemed to be no limit to what he could offer as support and I drank it in like Kool-Aid.
Doug also knew that despite the success I enjoyed at school, my parents were wary of a career that wasn’t mainstream – so photography? Well, that was just plain crazy. In fact, it was a terrible idea!
After graduation, I had a photo studio in NYC. Over the next 15 years, in a poor economy, I was able to develop expert skills in photographing food (not people) for ad agencies and enjoyed the recognition.
Meantime, I kept in touch with Doug Lyttle. We spoke occasionally and after a period of burnout, I decided to take a break from photography and studied graphic design. Doug was engrossed with his magnum opus, “Miracle on the Monastery Mountain,” an impressive compendium of 400 images he had culled from more than 26 trips to a monastic community in Greece. He needed someone to do the layout for the book, and we decided to work on it together. It was a joy to spend time with him again. After the book was finished, he asked me why I wasn’t shooting people, what he knew I loved. Shooting food was a practical decision, but I missed the connection with people. I decided to go back to it, and he was, as usual, wildly enthusiastic.
That one quality – enthusiasm – is probably what I miss most about Doug; he was enthusiastic about almost everything. We really were kindred spirits and became good friends. We would drive around town and just look at light – crazy for most people, but not for us. Over the years, we would go to the symphony, have lunch on the canal, argue about politics, discuss philosophy, religion, and relationships, visit his church, set up lighting in his home and, later, we did this even in his nursing home. I watched him play tennis when he was in his ‘90s. When I remarried, he flew to Virginia, and I was honored to have him walk me down the aisle. I knew him longer and more deeply than I knew my own father! For me, he was the model of how to live life and how to age: people thought he was the Energizer bunny!
Sometime after his book was finished, I took a class studying videography. As one of my first projects, I chose to interview Doug. I thought about the themes of his life and knew he would enjoy sharing them. So I made a list of questions – some about his life and some that I always wondered about. Here are a few:
- What did you dream of becoming as a boy?
- When did you know that Margaret (first wife) was “the one”?
- How would you describe yourself?
Shooting video was a new skill for me for sure. I knew only the basics and struggled with the shooting, editing, and audio quality, but in the end, it worked. I believe it worked because it is an authentic representation of Doug on any afternoon you might sit and have a conversation with him. I shot the video over the course of a weekend and used the natural light in his home. I didn’t create any storyboards and, when I remembered, I occasionally changed my camera angle to add interest. But somehow, in my lack of experience, I lost a good chunk of video while he was telling me the story of growing up – probably 5-10 minutes’ worth. His stories were so compelling that I decided to locate dozens and dozens of appropriate still images to help bring the stories to life: some were maps, others were stock images – I even used some cartoons! His stories were intimate glimpses of a complex, deeply religious, and yet playful man with a childlike curiosity and great sense of humor.
I struggled over the course of a couple of years to figure out how to work with the editing software to finish this film, all the while knowing that in his late ‘90s, Doug might not ever see it. I was lucky – he did see it and loved it! I could have used a mobile phone and a simple editing tool to do the same thing now, but I was in a learning process with video and strove for the same quality I learned with photography from Doug.
I was amazed at how much detail he remembered in the stories he told. In particular, he remembered something he heard at the age of 13, which illuminated for him the qualities that his family stood for: a great honesty and respect for others. He spoke in detail of the courtship with his first wife. He had a mischievous quality always and related the ingenious plan he cooked up to be one of the only individuals allowed into the hallowed monastery he visited in Greece – he called it a “life-changing” trip. He was about 92 when we did this interview. Even then, he spoke with the same excitement and enthusiasm that was the hallmark of his personality.
When he talked about changing careers to become a photographer, he really lit up – he loved teaching, being an active part of that community, and especially enjoyed watching learning happen. It was obvious that this is what he was meant to do with his life.
Doug was a rare bird. I was lucky enough to know him and be invited into his family as an honorary “adopted” daughter. And although he seemed to be a stand-in father for me, he always treated me more like a colleague than a sycophant. I know that my life was irreversibly shaped and enriched beyond measure by this wonderful teacher. Others have mentors, but I have never met anyone who has ever had this breadth of experience. I know how fortunate I am to have known him; he was one in a million.
Doug died last year, and the video I made was played over and over at the service – people loved it, and it was as if Doug himself were there with us – he exuded that much energy! Everyone who spoke had similar stories of how much he loved to teach and how he lived his life with so much exuberance. One daughter wrote me afterward, telling me I had told the story of the father she knew. Dozens of people approached me to thank me for making that video and told me how much it meant to them. Despite the frustration I felt making that video, I was so glad I persevered. I felt that what I created for Doug, his family, and friends was simply priceless.
You can see the film here: https://youtu.be/qMkw_8EnMtQ
If I could offer some encouragement to anyone thinking, “It’s too hard to make a video,” this is what I’d offer:
- Keep it short – 10 or 15 minutes is probably just right.
- Choose questions that are relevant.
- Find a photo, icon, or other meaningful item to talk about.
- Be a good listener.
- Most of all, be enthusiastic!
I’m so glad I was able to express my deep love and appreciation for Doug and share that with everyone who knew him.
For more articles on legacy planning, click here to subscribe to Legacy Arts Magazine.
Karen Long grew up in Brooklyn, NY, and now lives and works as a photographer and videographer in Santa Fe, NM. Karen has been photographing people for more than 30 years. She is known for helping clients feel good about themselves on-camera, even if they’ve never been comfortable or had good results before. She also provides videos for businessowners who want to introduce themselves to clients online. Her latest passion lies in documentary filmmaking and will soon be offering more legacy videos to clients who want to tell a story, teach a lesson or simply leave a record of what matters most to them for family and friends. Karen never seems to lose her enthusiasm for helping people who struggle with their on-camera presence to feel at home and be seen at their best. She knows it’s natural to feel vulnerable when a lens is pointed at us and works to earn the trust of her clients by collaborating with them to create results that best reflect who they are and have fun in the process. Additional training as a professional coach gives her the tools to help put people at ease, enabling her to draw out the unique person inside, instead of just creating a recognizable, good-looking image. Invariably, this, not their looks, is what makes a compelling photograph or film. Karen knows she’s been successful when the viewer of her work feels as if they have already met that person – there is a real connection through the eyes that she believes draws us toward that person’s energy and makes us want to know more about them. You can see her work here: www.karenlongportraits.com.