The week had been an intensive learning experience. We, the students, fourteen of us from different parts of the U.S., had been guided, challenged, and tutored by Steve Crouch, a true master of the camera.
Our goal had been to photograph the wonders of Big Bend National Park in Texas. From a highly varied landscape of cactus and sand to the Rio Grande River squeezing its way through towering rocks, we had looked closely many times only to decide we needed to scramble for an even better look. Then, and only after precisely adjusting the camera, were we ready to capture the view on film.
All too quickly, Friday came, time to say our goodbyes and head for home. That’s when I was surprised to find out Steve and I were going in the same direction, he in his old and trusted Ford van and me in my VW Bug. I’d planned to do some photographing at White Sands National Monument before heading east toward Alabama. Steve had thought of doing the same thing on his way back to San Francisco. We agreed to follow each other.
With half the afternoon already gone, we started up Route 118, a narrow strip of blacktop road draped over a hundred miles of lonely vastness. We’d driven about half the distance when Steve pulled off the road, I did the same, and he walked back toward my car.
He suggested we spend the night there. As veteran road warriors, we each had enough snack food for an adequate supper. He would sleep in his van and I in my tent.
After we finished eating, we sat quietly and watched the sun touch the horizon, then disappear as the landscape took on the look of evening. Darkness fell and we marveled at the canopy of stars above us, the only source of light. We hadn’t seen a single vehicle since we’d left the park, nor were we likely to until the next morning.
After small talk about the workshop, our conversation shifted, and I began to experience Steve’s other side. It was neither the teacher nor the widely known and acclaimed photographer whose creative works mirroring the American West were already appearing in books and hanging in noted art galleries.
Rather, he began thinking and expressing himself as a perpetual student. I could feel his sense of curiosity emerging. It wasn’t a matter of a great mind merely wanting to know, but one insisting on knowing. By what pattern of thinking, he asked, did I weigh all the evidence in arriving at that moment when I decided to release the shutter and capture the image for all time?
That’s when I realized our roles had become reversed; I was the teacher and he the student. There, under a star-filled sky, I was pouring out to him the deepest of my thoughts as related to the creative process of which I was the sole owner. He kept probing to finally reach the point of wondering if it applied to the process he was using and, if so, exactly how. He even extended it to the question of whether he was directing his talents in the right direction. I responded by sharing my opinions and beliefs.
This continued for almost two hours in an environment without any other sounds except for occasional yelps from distant coyotes. Exhausted, we decided to call it a night.
Before sleep overtook me, however, I realized why he was such a good teacher, why I and many others intently and reverently followed through on his suggestions and urgings. Yes, he had learned to teach photography, but, at the same time, he had also become acutely aware of how much more there was to learn not only about photography, his chosen craft, but also about life and living.
Following the line of pure logic, he had seized upon this rare occasion to take advantage of an opportunity to expand even further his wide range of knowledge.
No wonder I’m frustrated when a teacher who routinely is or was accustomed to being the smartest one in the classroom, firmly defends his or her imagined status as being an authority on everything.
When I look to the sky where Steve surely must be, I thank him for showing me by example the indelible mark of a genuine teacher.