This is Ben Black Elk. This is where the photographic story starts in the summer of my 18th year. This picture is responsible for my career as a Navy photographer. Native Americans say we reach an age when we would gladly trade the rest of our life for a single summer in our youth. Should that time come, I’ll take the summer of 1965 when college friend Lenny Kaczor and I walk off to look for America. During that summer I take this photo of Ben. The portrait impresses an editor, and gets me my first newspaper job in 1966. Quitting college and taking the newspaper job kills my student draft deferment. I'm quickly drafted but join the Navy to avoid an Army tour in Vietnam. My brief newspaper experience gets me into the Naval School of Photography, and the tour begins.
It’s highly unlikely one can repeat a summer of their youth, but it’s an intriguing thought. If I could only have a moment in life to repeat, I’d take that instant of epiphany, under the dark cloth, when the old Sioux prophet came to focus on the ground glass of my antique press camera. So compelling is the surging current in my soul, only my tripod keeps shaking hands from blurring this image of Black Elk.
Young and foolish, I think I’ve discovered an old Indian in full Sioux regalia who just happens to be sitting around Mount Rushmore National Monument. I don’t know then that Ben is considered the most photographed Native American in history. I take my photographs and he calls me to sit with him.
He tells me the story of the first photographer he had ever seen when he was my age. “The man had a camera just like yours,” says Ben gesturing to my rare 3 1/4 X 4 1/4 press camera. “The photographer scared my people with his magic because we felt he captured our spirits with his strange black box.” Ben goes on to explain that time, education, and understanding has taught him differently. Yet part of him can’t shake his original belief that cameras steal a bit of our souls.
From that conversation forth, I know I’m a photographer. I go off into the world with a new understanding of my place in the grand scheme of things. I take a piece of Black Elk’s force with me, and live the life of a spirit catcher.