The Big Picture

The first big picture of Merrie-Woode campers in the summer of 1924 in front of Castle.

On a partly cloudy day 93 summers ago, a photographer wielding a large panoramic camera coaxed all the girls of a summer camp in Sapphire Valley, North Carolina into position in front of their beloved activity space named Castle. The camp, whose ethos was steeped in Arthurian legend, was a bucolic retreat that encouraged young girls to follow their hearts and develop their spirits with resolve and purpose.

This past year Castle was completely rebuilt, keeping to the original look, but outfitted with a beautiful new stage for their legendary plays, among other improvements and expansions. My wife, Laurie Shock, who was in the middle of writing and designing the centennial history book of the camp, decided we should again photograph all of the campers in front of Castle as an homage to their beginnings and a marker for the next 100 years. The numbers had multiplied as generation after generation of camper had grown, had kids, and sent their own daughters, granddaughters, and even great-granddaughters to Camp Merrie-Woode. We wanted to honor the spirit of the original photograph and began planning for our big picture.

In order to match the depth and clarity of the original I chose a cumbersome large-format camera for the task, eschewing the new millennium’s preferred pixels for the sheet film wielded by photographers in the 1920s. I set up the camera on the back of the camp pickup truck and waited for clouds to soften the light, just like the photographer did over nine decades ago.

The author preparing the shot.

The sun was beating directly onto the hillside where the campers would place themselves, a harsh light which would result in a contrasty image of hundreds of squinty eyes hidden in the shadows of their brows. It wouldn’t do. The forecast called for clouds, though none were in the sky, so we decided to wait and let mother nature work on its own time frame. The campers scattered to the four corners of the camp, engaging in the activities of the day, but given the order that when the camp bell rang, they would have 15 minutes to change into their clean uniform and get back to Castle. They referred to it as a Photo Emergency Drill.

I waited, eyes to the sky, for signs of the white puffy scrims that are a photographer’s friend, covering the sun and softening the light to a gentle glow. A few hours later, the clouds began gathering and as I saw them moving toward the ball of sun the bell clanged and a chaos of campers swarmed toward their cabins and changed into their uniforms. Miraculously, within the allotted time, over 200 campers, counselors, and staff were gathered on the hill, smiling at a man under a cloth composing an image on plate glass.

The plate of glass where the image appears upside down and nearly impossible to see without a blackout cloth draped over the photographer’s head.

Using a large format camera is a slow affair. The image appears on a 4X5 inch piece of glass on the back of the camera, inverted and upside down. I have to place a cloth over my head to block out the light in order to focus the image. Once focused and composed, I load the film, which has been placed into a light-tight holder, onto the back of the camera after which the image is no longer visible on the plate of glass. I lift my head from the cloth, holding a shutter release in my hand, and yell at the assembled multitudes to smile like they mean it. They oblige, I click the shutter, remove the film holder, disappear beneath my cloth, refocus and compose, and load another plate of film. I am across the camp road from the hill and have to pause as deliveries are made to the camp office while the assembled yell and gleefully gesture to the drivers. My digital camera, a technological, computerized marvel that I use for most of my work will shoot up to seven images per second, this was a decidedly slower pace. In the few minutes I wrangled my shot, I was able to take four photographs. Many prayers were said that they would come out, that I had chosen the right exposure, that I had gotten all of the upside down girls sharp, in focus, smiling, and with eyes open! Being the nervous person I am, I shot some backup images on my more modern accessory, but in the end, they were not needed and the old-school box of dark and light produced an image hard to match with its more modern progeny. Something to be said for old things — maybe even old photographers.

Over 200 campers, counselors, and staff, all smiling with eyes wide open as I shot this large format group shot. I told them that if anyone made a funny face and ruined my shot that I would hunt them down and they would be very very sorry.

After the final shutter click, a cacophony of girls exploded from the hill, a simultaneous chatter from hundreds of voices that had just experienced their first photo emergency.

Each year the summer’s exploits are relived in skits and songs at the final camp banquet. This year the girls wrote a song commemorating the event, “Centennial Photograph” sung to the tune of “Photograph” by Nickelback.

Replete with a black cloth hood, a young camper-actress embodied my role and sang:

“Centennial Photograph”

Would you look at, Billy’s back!
“What should I count to this time?”
I don’t know, Billy, maybe three?

This is where we grew up
And now Castle’s been all fixed up
Everyone stand upon this hill
And wait for the cloud to come back

And what is that loud alarm?
I’ve never heard that emergency sound
Is there an intruder?
Oh wait it’s just photo time

And there goes UPS
And the mailman too
Recreating the original pic
No t-shirts under our middies
Sweat’s running down my face

Every time Billy counts up to three,
I hope it’s time to go back to activities
It’s time to say it
Time to say it

Merrie-Woode, Merrie-Woode
Every time I think it’s almost over,
Billy says, “How exciting, let’s do one more”
It’s time to say it
Time to say it’
Merrie-Woode, Merrie-Woode.

In taking that photograph I was standing on the shoulders of another photographer, plying his craft almost 100 years before me. Much like me, mother nature gave him a partly sunny day and the campers had to wait as the photographer watched for the clouds to cover the bright sun. They also memorialized that occasion with a poem by camper Rebecca Bullock in the 1924 camp newletter, The Ripple.

The panorama photographer, captured in this photo from the camp in the 1920s.

“Having Our Picture Took”

When we found we were to have our picture took
With wild excitement the whole cabin shook
We all rushed down took a seat by the lake
Where the photographer was our picture to take
We combed our hair, and straightened our clothes,
Then M.T. put under us all our toes.

We looked quite pretty we were sure — 
Some looked vampish, some demure.
But Sandy spoiled the whole posed thing
By jumping right in the middle of the ring
Finally we were quiet and neat
But suddenly we heard a sound of feet —

It was Lewis dashing up, with a pout
Because he thought he’d been left out
“Ready!” yelled the man and we were quiet, without a doubt
But just then the sun came out.
“We will have to wait,” said he to the crowd
“Till the sun goes back under that cloud.”

We waited, and waited some more
For waiting you know is quite a bore
Finally that sun went under and wasn’t seen by the gang,
So up we jumped and the camera went off a-bang!
Oh! We are happy now, you can tell by every look,
All because it’s over and we’ve had our picture took.

And thus it was that in the summer of 2017 I became a legend in a small girls’ camp nestled into the shadow of Old Bald in a pristine North Carolina mountain valley. I have had my share of recognition over a lifetime of work, but none will match the moment a girl belted out a song about the day I took her camp’s big picture.

After the shot everyone started coming down the hill, I yelled for them to stop and told them to look like they were having more fun than they had ever had in their entire lives. They obliged and I snapped one final shot with my digital camera.

for more information about the camp and about ordering the book, click this link:

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