I used to think that exceptional images happened as a result of talent, hard work, dedication, and a singular commitment to excellence. All my life I have labored under the wickedly false impression that cream rises to the top, and that merit eventually wins in the end. My chance encounter with Satan quickly disabused me of this quaint notion.
Long days in Yellowstone were yielding little, and all the while my shooting companion George Stocking was steadily kicking my butt, racking up an impressive collection of masterfully composed photos while I wallowed in mediocrity. In a moment of frustration, I angrily strode off on my own, leaving George and his mocking smile behind. After hiking for hours, I found myself in the aphotic depths of a dark ravine, alone from prying eyes and shielded from the blazing sun. It was there, in the wilderness, that He came for me, rising from the pit on a chariot of fire and smoke. The Prince of Darkness. The Morning Star. Beelzebub. Apollyon. Lucifer. He goes by many names, but to all he is the Beast, the enemy of that which is good, just, and clean. Anathema to little girls with Hello Kitty backpacks everywhere. Pure evil. The Kim Kardashian of religion.
He called my name and beckoned me near; I came as close as the flames allowed. He did not mince words or waste time with pleasantries, getting down to business immediately: would I be willing to sell my soul for the power to make great photos? I was taken aback, and he snickered, perceiving my naiveté and my foolish adherence to the bootstrap principle (to wit, pulling oneself up by one’s own). “You don’t think that great photographers get that way by sheer force of will, do you?” he bellowed, belching flame and darkness from his demonic mouth. “How do you think your friend George has gotten to where he is today? His skill and determination?” Black laughter echoed through the surrounding hills as the dark seed he planted in my mind quickly grew to its full potency: George had sold his soul to the Devil (which, now that I thought about it, explained quite a bit). The archfiend’s voice lowered: “Everyone else has done it, so should you.” Even though he was beginning to sound like a street corner hustler trying to get high school kids hooked on weed, his words had the ring of truth.
His flickering claws reached forth, dirty nails pawing at the place on my chest where my heart lay mute, frozen with fear. The next step would be simple, easy, almost effortless: I would release my eternal spirit into his grasp, and reap (in this life) the rewards of my wickedness. Greatness could be mine, and perhaps even a monthly column in a major photo magazine. All for the bargain price of my soul, a somewhat vestigial appendage I don’t use much anyways.
What the Devil did not know about me, is that, despite the fact that I am not a particularly honest, moral, godly, or righteous man, I don’t like it when people (or fallen angels) mess with my life. The choice, for me, was easy—I’d rather be mediocre than someone else’s meat puppet. I told him no thanks, and with no small sense of irony, that he should go to hell.
Impressed by my impertinence—or unconvinced by it—Lucifer flashed the same mocking smile I had seen on George’s lips all week. ”In time, you will be mine” he stated, simply and without artifice. And then, as he sank back into the underworld, he raised his head in a mighty laugh, a deafening roar of contempt. Shrouded in a miasma of fetid smoke, his horns pointed to the sky like hideous spears defying the light, he returned to the abyss.
The moment before his descent was complete, I was struck with a tingle of inspiration. Out came my camera. Click. Best shot of the whole trip.
About the image: Demonic intervention? Naw, just a bison rolling around in some dirt. I positioned myself to ensure that the dust was backlit by the setting sun. When the bison lifted its head high, I knew I had the moment I was waiting for. Canon 5DII camera, 500mm lens, ISO 400, f/5.6, 1/1250 second.