Against a wintry backdrop, a man peruses a magazine while a woman shovels snow behind him. The couple are Don and Dottie Hagan, of Des Moines, Iowa, and something about their photo reminds me of Grant Wood's painting, American Gothic. Do you see it too? The Iowa setting, Don's deadpan expression, that shovel, the house in the background.
Unlike American Gothic's subjects, who were father and daughter, Don and Dottie are husband and wife. You won't be surprised to learn that they have been married for fifty-six years.
When I saw this photo, my first question was who took it?
And that changed the way I looked at the photograph because nothing gets my mind racing like a good self-portrait. Stick with me for a couple of paragraphs and let's dive deep into why this image is a perfect Valentine's Day post.
Don is a hobbyist photographer with many years behind the lens. His favorite subject matter is nature, and he shoots his landscapes with a view camera. These unwieldy box cameras, recognizable by their bellows, require the photographer to meticulously address every aspect of the shot. Don learned to slow down and think. He composes his photos with deliberation.
The backyard photo was captured with a small DSLR, specifically a Canon G12, set at 160/f4 and the lens at 6.1mm, but Don's attention to composition is the same. Everything in the frame is there for a reason. I asked Don what he was hoping to capture that day and here is what he said:
"I am part of a photo/computer club in our adult community North of Tucson. Most of the snowbirds have returned by December. We are unusual in that we stay longer in Iowa because of family and the Christmas holidays. I took this so that these folks could see how desperate I was to leave this snowy area. I am holding an Arizona Highways magazine, put on my Kent Feeds cap (to let them get a feel of how farm folks live) and set it up on a tripod with a self-timer. After looking at the first image without Dottie, I decided she had to be a part of the image. I placed her far enough away so that me and my magazine (selfish!) would still be the image center. Our AZ friends were saying: There's Don just basking in thoughts about AZ, while Dottie is doing the real ("women's work") in the background."
I asked Don how many times he clicked before he got the shot he wanted. "Nine."
I asked if Dottie minded the cold. "Not at all," he said. "Dottie has always been agreeable about photography."
And this supportive relationship shows up in the image. Don is in the foreground, doing his thing, while dependable Dottie works quietly in the background. Throughout their marriage, Don followed his hobbies and Dottie followed her Don.
Something else in this photo catches our eye: the color red in Dottie's jacket and Don's cap. Despite their gazes off camera and their distance in the yard, the color links them. All colors mean something, and in this photo, it seems obvious that red means love. Because this photo tells the story of two people who love each other. At this point in their marriage, their roles have reversed. Dottie depends on Don now and he is a loving caretaker.
So, there are a couple of layers to this photo. Like a New Yorker cartoon, it never ceases to make me laugh with its subtle humor. I swear, if Don did look into the lens, we would see a twinkle.
But the more hidden layer, the soul of this photo, the truth that maybe the photographer himself didn't realize he was imparting, is that Don loves Dottie and Dottie loves Don.
A gallery wall of Don's landscape photographs:
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