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Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Remembering Greg Ammons

I'm going to take a break from my Orlando Trip Report to remember a good friend, Greg Ammons.

For the past five summers, I have worked for Greg Ammons at Ammons Portrait Studio in Pendleton, South Carolina.  My heart was shattered Saturday morning when I heard the terrible news - Greg had passed away during the night from a severe heart attack.

Recently, Greg loved to tell the story of how I got my job.  A shy, young girl came in to pick up her photos and said, "Mr. Ammons, do you need any help this summer?"  What he would often leave out of the story is that initially, he turned me down.  He had already promised someone's mother that she could work that summer because she really needed the help.  But I pushed a little further... I told him that I was good with computers and knew Photoshop.  Later that evening, I found a message on our machine - "I've thought it over, and I could really use you this summer.  Come in tomorrow morning."

Most of my work was in post-processing and printing, and Greg and I taught each other new tricks.  A few weeks ago, Greg admitted to me that he used to spend the evenings learning Photoshop on Youtube so that he would sound knowledgeable when he was explaining things to me the next day!

Greg was an outstanding photographer.  His natural talent combined with lighting and composition skills are a rare find today.  He was a perfectionist, and though I would sometimes get a little huffy when he wanted me to "take out more of the red in his face and print it again," I admired his determination to only produce his best work. The longer I worked with him, the less we had to redo.... because my eye for imperfections improved.

When I started working for Greg, I was not a photographer.  My introduction to photography was quite backwards, actually... I became interested in how the photo was made through my work in post-production.

Last summer, Greg invited me to bring my own camera and shoot alongside him at the Clemson Open Water event.  The coordinator of the event had arranged for him to go up in this airplane and take aerial shots.  Greg wasn't too fond of heights, so he suggested that I go up in the plane, instead.  I was so excited for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.  Unfortunately, the sky wasn't clear enough for me to go up in the plane, but Greg insisted that I at least pose in front of it for a photo...

Oconee Airport

Greg's attention to detail would often astound me.  He could interpret so much about a person just by their expressions and mannerisms, as well as the clothing they wore and how they styled their hair.  Sometimes after talking to a potential client, he would tell me that they were definitely serious.  "How do you know?"  "I could tell by her shoes."

Because of his gift to notice obscure details about a person, I could never get anything past him.  He could tell when I was happy, tired, grumpy, or annoyed just from my posture or how I walked.  Last week, he told me that my expression was in my eyebrows.... he then spent the next 40 minutes searching photos of Vivien Leigh who also expressed herself through her eyebrows.

When describing me to someone recently, he talked about my purse.... "Victoria always carries a small purse, just enough for the essentials.  One day I looked inside, and I noticed that the lipsticks were placed neatly in a row in a side pocket.... that told me so much about her.  She doesn't wear a lot of make-up, though.  Her lipstick is always a natural color if she's wearing any."

About a month ago, I lost my Clemson class ring (the only piece of jewelry I've worn religiously since I got it).  The first day it was gone, Greg made a comment.... "So you're tired of being an alumni?"  I just shrugged it off without telling him the embarrassing truth.  The second day... "Alumni status getting old?"  Then the third day... "So why aren't you wearing your Clemson ring, anymore?"  I had to confess that I had lost it - to which Greg was truly sympathetic.

On Friday, Greg noticed my eye shadow.  "Oh, it's new.  I got it a few weeks ago but am just now trying it out."  "It looks good on you."

Greg had the ability to recognize things about me that I never even knew about myself.  Something so simple and typically overlooked... like how I organized my purse and what color lipstick I wore or the new eye shadow I was wearing.  He didn't just notice it... it meant something to him.

A few years ago, my mother set up a photo shoot with Greg, having Rachel and I photographed in her 1979 Junior Miss dress.  It was my turn in the dress, and I am much more comfortable behind the camera than in front of it.  He gave me a little flower to hold, like he would a child.  "What am I supposed to do?  Look at it?  Talk to it?  Helloooo little flower!  I feel like a storybook character!"  Greg was rolling in laughter.  He loved that photo, and just a week ago, he mentioned making a wall photo of it for the gallery.  "That photo?  Really?"  "Yes!  I need it in my window!"

Hello, Little Flower

It never failed that about halfway through the summer, Greg would start moaning about how I was going to be leaving him, again.  He would tell clients about how I would be heading off to school soon, leaving him by his lonesome.  This summer, it was worse.  Rather than returning to Clemson, I'll be going to grad school at UCLA in Los Angeles, California (I have found that I need to clarify Los Angeles because it's not unusual after telling a Pendletonian that I'll be going to UCLA that they ask me, "Now where is that in Louisiana?").

"Just leaving all of us behind, going to school in California!"  "But it's a good school!"  "You're going to get homesick."  "I'm not going to get homesick."  "You know you're eventually going to come back here and be a professor at Clemson."  "Ugh!!!"

Last week, though, Greg stopped pouting so much about me leaving and decided that instead, it was his rightful duty to teach me all about the music culture in Los Angeles.  He started by teasing me with his California music video playlist which included everything from the Eagle's Hotel California to Katy Perry's California Girls.  He found a BBC special on Youtube about the evolution of the music industry in Los Angeles which we watched while we worked.  During the concert scenes, Greg would get up and dance around the studio while I laughed and shook my head.

Before leaving work on Friday, Greg pulled up UCLA on Google Earth, and I showed him my apartment building.  "You're going to take the bus?"  "No, I'm going to walk."  "But you're right by the bus stop."  "I'm not taking the bus."  He started playing with routes and distances... "It's a four minute walk."  "See!  Why wouldn't I walk?"  "Because you could hop on a safe bus!"  "Buses aren't that safe."  "You just need one of those little wheely things that you stand on like a scooter... what are those called?"  "A Segway?"  "Yeah!  You need a Segway."  "I think I'll walk."

Greg had always been worried about me leaving him.... who would have ever thought that he would be the one to leave me?

And my heart still aches.  It aches because I lost a great friend.  It aches because I won't be able to tell him about my California adventures.  Because I never got to tell him good-bye.  Because he'll never hand me another Diet Coke can and say, "To share with my BFF."

And when I stop being so selfish, my heart aches for the family he left behind.  He told me often how lucky he was to have his wife, Grace, and how she was the most beautiful woman he knew.  And he was so proud of his children - his 17-year-old daughter, Cat, who sings opera at the Governor's School and his 14-year-old son who plays football, wrestles, and sings in the chorus.  Greg was so excited about Cat's upcoming senior trip to Europe.  He would sit at the computer and Google the places they would be singing in.  And just last week, I got to hear Greg tell the story four times about how John had tackled the opposing team's quarterback so hard that EMS had to come get the poor kid off the field.

I hate that Greg won't be here for another one of John's games.... for the rest of Cat's concerts... to sit in the shaded West End Zone at the Clemson game this Saturday... to photograph another class of high school seniors or a Miss Landmark pageant... or to Facebook-stalk the photos I post from California.

One of the great things about Greg, though, is that he never hid his emotions.  And he rarely held anything back.  We don't have to wonder if he loved us.  And judging from his ability to read people, Greg knew that he was loved by us.

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