I slammed on the brakes to back up or turn my pickup around so Ken Elkins could snap the unbelievable picture.
That particular road in the boondocks of Cherokee County was slippery at the time, not wet but well-worn from traffic of the years.
As I watched the mirror, horse and rider scrambled upright. Elkins had missed a chance that day to get a dandy picture, a rare blank by him.
He laughs about it now.
But we’re here today to talk about successes for the photojournalist who on Friday received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Alabama Press Association.
It honors and recognizes Elkins for outstanding service and accomplishments during his 42 years in photojournalism, 27 of them at The Anniston Star. He retired in 2000.
Elkins suffered a stroke in January 2006. It left him paralyzed on his left side and with some blurred speech. His speech has improved some.
The scene that lazy summer afternoon was a page from our playbook, Elkins’ and mine, as we mined the thickets and roadsides for pictures and words.
It was our job. Find it. Get pictures and words to show and tell readers of The Star about life beyond the asphalt jungle.
That episode could be likened to his second best hobby -- fooling fish into grabbing his lure and setting sail. Being the bass fisherman he is, Elkins can identify with the angler who feels a lunker’s mighty tug, but then the subject flinches, rights itself, adjusts its rider and continues clip-clop along the country road.
Or something like that.
Suffice it to say that Elkins didn’t get that rare picture, not even a shot of the mirror that ever so briefly held the evidence.
But know this. His repertoire of pictures is legion from the time he cradled a Brownie Hawkeye in World War II Germany, not many days from his classrooms at Arab. Army life across the pond was his escape from the cotton fields of Marshall County.
That Brownie was the first step in a mighty satisfying career that yielded many prize-winning photographs -- his forte and rhyme and reason for this essay today.
Consider the “Picture Taker” himself, the mantle he’s worn since the release of his book by the same title. Published in 2005, it’s a collection of his best 100 black-and-white photos.
With a reverence for older folks and their good profiles and serenity, Elkins’ objective, as always, was to catch people being themselves.
It’s not easy to tell which type picture he liked best: folks with great faces etched by the toils of hard living, or children brimming with their innocence, their simplicity, their wonder, their happiness or curiosity.
Too, he loved animals, whether framed by his viewfinder or not. More than a few times, he would carry food back to feed a stray dog or cat some cruel soul had abandoned along a road.
Elkins had a born-with talent he honed to a fine skill. He could persuade just about anyone to assume a pose in a feature shot. He had a kind, gentle tone that set subjects at ease.
He could have that effect on writers, too. Once he conned me into wading a stream with him to get pictures and story of a Cleburne man who grappled with his bare hands under watery creek banks for big loggerhead snapping turtles.
We never knew as we clambered over fallen trees across the creek if our feet would find bottom or not. We worried about snakes -- and the snappers, too. That little expedition of years past is still occasional fodder for nightmares.
As usual, Elkins reveled in the expedition.
Through his career, his focus embodied a touch of Americana, embracing artistic things and landscapes, abandonment and desolate scenes. His passion could be intense.
He talked to me at length once about an old broken sofa dumped in some tall weeds along a roadside. He thought, with the proper cropping of his picture, good page display and the right words, the old sofa could have been a prize-winner.
It sure had more argument power than the horse that went belly down in that road.
Basil Penny is retired Associate Editor of The Anniston Star.
Buy the book
ITALPicture Taker: Photographs by Ken Elkins,UNITAL features 100 black-and-white photographs, with a foreward by Rick Bragg and an afterword by Basil Penny. $35, University of Alabama Press, available at online bookstores.
Ken Elkins has prints of his work for sale. He has a few duplicates of the photographs in ITALPicture Taker,UNITAL plus several hundred other black-and-whites that didn’t make the cut when he selected photos for the book. “I got enough to do another book,” he said.
Those interested in buying prints can call Elkins at 256-835-1045, or his friend Eddie Motes at 256-405-9080.