I have always been interested in photography, and many of the earliest pictures of me show me with a camera. Whether it was the Kodak Duaflex III that belonged to my dad or the Instamatic-X35 I received as a gift just before my 6th-grade safety patrol trip, I loved the idea that I could capture a single moment in time. It came as no surprise to my dad, then, when I told him the summer of 1978 that I wanted a 35mm film camera. I had saved some money, but not quite the $800 I needed for a camera and a couple for lenses.
I had morning paper route then, and dad decided it would be a good time to teach me about finances. He offered to co-sign a one-year loan for me at his company’s credit union so I could buy the camera equipment. Before I invested, though, he wanted me to learn more about photography from someone who worked in the field. He asked a photographer he worked with at Union Carbide to come by the house to give me a primer on photography and equipment.
It wasn’t long before Greg Henshall showed up with several camera bags filled with different cameras and lenses. Greg was in his late 20’s, loved people, loved photography, and was close enough to my age that dad thought I might listen to what he had to say. I liked him immediately and not just because we shared a common passion. Instead, I liked him because he was genuinely interested in me, a lanky teenager looking for a way to express himself.
Greg spent a few hours with me that night, teaching me the basics of cameras and offering his thoughts on what kind of camera I should buy. Once I bought a camera, Greg showed me the technical aspects of photography—apertures, shutter speed, film speed. A few years later, he was kind enough to let me tag along on a few of his freelance jobs—mostly weddings and portraits—where he taught me the importance of composition, viewpoint, anticipating the action, and the importance of “waiting for just the right moment” to release the shutter.
In high school, I was a photographer on the yearbook staff and at Greg’s encouragement began taking portraits of friends to practice technique. He loaned me lights and other equipment whenever I needed them, taught me darkroom basics, and gave me tips as I prepared to teach my first photography class for Adult Community Education when I was just seventeen. I took my first real job with WBPY-TV as a staff photographer in 1983 and Greg was there again to critique my work, offering suggestions on where and how to improve my technique. When I opened my own studio and processing lab in 1985, Greg was my first lab client. And when I burned-out on photography as a profession in 1988, it was Greg who encouraged me to stick with it as a hobby. That was the one piece of advice from Greg I did not follow; I put down my camera and did not pick it up with any enthusiasm again for nearly twenty years.
I lost track of Greg when I moved from Charleston in 1995, but we reconnected through social media in February this year. Through our new Facebook connection, I learned his wife had died in 2000, and he had retired from Union Carbide about the same time. I understand he took assignments with FEMA documenting disasters for a while and more recently, he had become a “man about town” photographing events and activities for the local newspapers and his many, many, friends. I ran into him in Charleston over the summer, and the first thing he said to me was, “I’m glad to see you picked up your camera again. I enjoy seeing your photographs on Facebook.” We briefly caught up, and then he moved on to take another photograph. He was always anticipating the next moment. Greg never stood still for long when he had a camera in his hand.
From portraits to weddings, to natural disasters, to a night out with friends, Greg documented our lives with passion and empathy. He wasn’t just a good photographer we hired to do a job; he became a friend who instinctively knew what was important to us and did his best to help us achieve our goals. In doing so, he connected with each of us emotionally, giving a part of himself in a way that made that connection so special. That kind of relationship is something few photographers, in my opinion, ever achieve.
Late last week I was heartbroken to learn Greg had died unexpectedly. Tuesday many will gather to celebrate Greg’s life, and I am sorry I cannot be with them. But, I do want to acknowledge the important role he played my life.
I am thankful for Greg’s thoughtfulness and reassurance; he helped me find courage and self-esteem as a teenager. As a teacher, a mentor, and a friend, he helped me find a way to express myself when I words alone were not enough. For these lifelong gifts Greg helped me to find and foster, I find it ironic today that I can only pay tribute to him with words. Yet, words are the best way I can create a full image of Greg, one that truly captures how important he was in my development from a timid, gangling teenager trying to fit it, to the person—and photographer—I am today.
Thank you and Godspeed, Greg Henshall. You were one of a kind.