Winslow Homer painted two watercolors on his first trip to Key West in 1895. The first was a relatively demure study of a coconut palm. There was nothing wrong with it, but there was nothing particularly intriguing about it either.
The second, “A Norther – Key West,” was also of palm trees, but in the middle of a storm. I’ve always been impressed by the way he got the mustardy hue of the light just right, making it look as if the sun were being filtered through a wad of old medical gauze. That’s how storms look here. Homer embraced the messiness of reality.
That’s what I was thinking about as I drove down to Higgs Beach the other morning, midway through Tropical Storm Elsa – the mustardy hue of the light – because while a skilled painter can pull something off by emulating a world sucked dry of its luminosity, it doesn’t work so well for photography. Everything loses its contrast and gets mushy, all edge and no middle. All your photos look like crap. (I find it helpful to make a lot of excuses for myself before I go out to take pictures.)
More than half the parking spots were full when I got there, people sitting in their cars staring at an overactive sea. Waves crashed over the seawall. Spray filled the air.
In the middle of the beach sat a white SUV and next to it a heavy-duty video tripod, the telltale mark of an out-of-town video crew. Apparently it’s important to park wherever the hell you want so it will seem more dramatic when you regurgitate information fed to you by the National Weather Service.
I wandered out past the SUV to the edge of the seawall. I took some shots of the waves splashing through the stairs. I was using a waterproof point and shoot, which, on the pro side, was waterproof, but on the con side, had a quarter-second delay between pushing the button and taking the picture, meaning I got a nice series of photos from just after the waves crashed.
The rain got heavier, then lighter, then heavier again.
In the parking lot at Rest Beach a wet, windblown rooster crouched underneath a Volkswagen with slowly deflating tires. He gave me the stink-eye, as if I was the one who had caused him all this misery. I took a couple of genre-defining photos from inside the car using my camera with the telephoto, thinking this – this! – is the photo that will convey the emotion of what this whole storm was about. (When I got home I realized there was no card in the camera.)
On North Roosevelt I pulled into a parking lot to take a photo of Douglas, the guy who runs around the island carrying a flag all the time, because he was running around the island carrying a flag in the middle of a tropical storm. I used the camera with the telephoto and no card. The shot was genre-defining, or would have been anyway.
At the Southernmost Point, two women with towels over their heads and matching Southernmost Beach Resort bathrobes posed. Rob O’Neal from The Citizen shuffled up in a pair of shower shoes, holding an umbrella, and took a few shots with his iPhone. He said he had a waterproof point and shoot, too, but could only ever find it in the dry months.
At home my wife posed the most important question: “Do you think Duetto will be delivering again by tonight?”