The calculus of photography and life

By Laura Grimes

Sometimes life plays tricks and secrets sneak up when you least expect them. Hidden talents. Buried stories.

Three months ago I went to a high school reunion. (I won’t tell which one.) Before this year I had been a pill about attending them. I had really terrific friends in school. I had lots of great memories. But that was then and my life now seemed so far removed.

Invariably every five years some of my closest friends from school would make all the reunion arrangements, I would ignore them, and as the date drew close my phone would ring. “Grimes, get your butt up here!” And I would oblige.

Of course, I would have a great time. Laugh my guts out. What was I thinking? I was such a twit.

So this year, I just gave myself over to it from the beginning. (The phone call was looming anyway. I really didn’t have a choice.) I paid early and booked a room with friends. I looked forward to it.

But something very curious happened this time.

I don’t know if it’s because we had reached a certain distance from school and left behind all the silly cliques and baggage. I don’t know if it’s because we’re old enough now to be comfortable with who we are. I don’t know if it’s because our parents are older and many have gone and we have a new appreciation for just living. I don’t know if it’s because many of our classmates are now gone. I don’t know if it’s because many of us have kids, some of whom are grown, are married, have kids of their own. Maybe it was just me. Maybe it was a comfort zone. Maybe it was the sacred ties of childhood. Maybe it was because we’re strangers in many ways now, memories are fuzzy, and it’s safe to come together briefly, cut loose and part ways again. But something was different.

Stories opened up like I had never heard.

I spent a short two nights and two days with these people, some of whose faces I didn’t even recognize but most of whom, almost scarily for so many decades (reveal oops), had hardly changed a bit.

Many years ago, I had spent hours, days, huge chunks of my life with these people at a time of profound change and easy influence. I knew their brothers and sisters and parents and pets and hopes and dreams and grade-point averages. I knew their jump shots and their mile times. I knew the drummer and the saxophone player. I knew who smoked behind the hedge across the street.

But in one short, cramped weekend, I learned things I had never imagined.

It turns out the wonderfully loving family we all idolized (for good reason) was nurtured by two parents who had endured severe trauma when they were growing up. One had been orphaned and homeless. The other had been sexually abused and ostracized. And yet, through all that, they created a warm and happy family. They were at every track meet and every performance. They had vowed their family would always come first, and it did. How did I spend that much time over so many years with a group of people and not know that?

One classmate had severed ties with his family after disagreeing about how to care for his developmentally disabled brother. But when his mom died a few years ago, he had to cope with the pain of unfinished business, strained family ties and being the only one in a position to go through her belongings. As he did, he was surprised to find precious information about his father, who had died when he was very young. How is it possible that someone I barely know and happen to bump into at a hot, sunny picnic can bottom out and open up so quickly and so completely?

There were the messy divorces, the wedding pictures of children, the suicide attempts, the soccer games, the cancers, the child with profound disabilities, the child who excelled at dancing, the child the family didn’t know about for years, the sexual abuse, the promotions, the kids bound for college, the addictions, the joblessness, the successful entrepreneurs, and the loving marriages that are just meant to stick.

And then there was Byron. At the reunion, he carried around a portfolio. I had heard murmurs that it was wonderful. Finally, near the end of my visit, I stopping chatting and zipped it open for a look.

The air stopped moving.

I turned the pages to see one magnetic photo after another. They were all of people. People who were in crazy costumes. People who were frozen in elegant dance moves. Some were astonishing split-second action shots.

The photos had great technical skill, timing, composition, and that undefinable quality of getting a subject to open up, lay bare, give something of themselves and have unflinching faith. Getting exceptional photos of people requires boldness and humility, a very delicate balancing act of give and take. It takes a rare gift of being willing to approach strangers, make a connection, gain their trust and then seamlessly blend into the background again as if you’re not there. It takes a deep sensitivity for social circumstances. All of those things have to come together in an instant. A click and a creative expression is sealed — both the subject’s and the photographer’s. These weren’t quiet scenic shots or arty lighting. These weren’t setups in a studio. These were people naturally revealing the very core of their humanity. Why should that be so remarkable?

Because Byron and I both had calculus.

Calculus was the highest math level taught at Bothell High School. It was only for seniors, and only 18 out of a class of 400-plus got in that year.

Only three were girls. The three of us sat in a line in the back row in the far right corner. One became an accountant. One became a manager at the Government Accounting Office, writing reports for Congress about how the Coast Guard handles national security. And then there was me.

My claim to fame was coining the term “quick as a guy,” as in, I could come to class, run to the bathroom and be back again before the bell. I’m convinced I got into the class only because I had moved to the district six years earlier. I had come from a school where I could keep up fine, but I wasn’t the very best math student and the instruction was challenging and fast-paced. It was also many months ahead of my new curriculum. Math at my new school was old and boring and I blew through it. Consequently, I was fast-tracked into the upper-level math courses, and I was there to stay until the end of high school, whether I deserved it or not.

I didn’t always understand calculus, and more stupidly, when I would ask my boyfriend for help with homework, I would argue with him and insist my way that wasn’t working was better. He was two years older and a math major in college.

Out of the 15 guys, two received congressional nominations to military academies and became pilots. Many went on to become software engineers and computer executives. One went to work for Microsoft when it was just a fledgling. He retired in his mid-30s to his house and boat on Camano Island.

If you put all 18 of us together, it was just possible that we might demonstrate a few social skills. We had the class president and the class clown (who were not the same). But mostly we were the science freaks and the electronics nuts. We were the brainy kids with the high grade-point averages, which meant that in that class, at that school, we all had one thing in common: We were the creme de la geeks.

Most of the guys were not at the proms. They were shy and awkward and still waiting to grow into their tennis shoes. But in calculus class, we rocked. We were all geeks together, no one geekier than the other.

Mr. Sanford loved us, and we loved him back. As Byron put it recently, “He made you feel lucky to be in there.” We were.

The dynamic magically gelled in that class, probably in no small part because of Mr. Sanford’s easygoing wit. We were forever funny. All of us. Anyone could speak up. Outside of that class many of us were on the fringes of the student body, but in there we were the elite: We were laughing, happily helping each other, solving this strange abstract math together.

Mr. Sanford would (cleverly) insist that he didn’t want anything to do with parties. So we would “secretly” pass around sign-up sheets. Sometimes it was a notable occasion, sometimes it wasn’t. While he turned his back to scribble formulas on the board we passed around treats and napkins and cups so that when he turned around we would “surprise” him.

One student came back from Germany with a box of chocolates just for us. We passed around the box, and as one student after another bit into a piece a little exclamation would erupt. It was hard to figure out what was going on, but the anticipation was building one noise at a time. By the time the box got to me in the far corner, I couldn’t wait to find out what all the fuss was about. I was prepared for something unusual, but the chocolates looked perfectly and disappointingly ordinary. I picked one and bit into it. A thin juice ran down my chin. I frantically lapped it up and shoved the whole chocolate into my mouth so I wouldn’t make a mess. That’s when a whopping alcoholic hotness hit my tongue and spread across my nerve endings. The chocolates were filled with cherry liqueur. To our somewhat uninitiated palates (I can only speak for myself, but we were generally the good kids), it was potent as heck. We all looked at each other with big surprised eyes and mouths bulging with chocolates. A stunned silence fell across the room as we realized we had all just knocked back a naked shot in a public high school.

Byron remembers (not that I do) that Mr. Sanford was big about showing practical uses for calculus, not just theories. Right off the bat he gave us the problem of a can of soup (I’m trusting Byron here). We had to figure out a container that would hold the maximum volume while using the least amount of metal.

That class was so unusual that we were given special permission to designate it as an achievement in our senior biographies in the yearbook, just like a club or a sport. (Because I was the yearbook editor, approval was easy to come by. I realize that now that I have publicly admitted to my corruption that I can never run for public office.)

At the end of the year, we had one big wild calculus party at a student’s house. At least, it would have been wild if all the guys hadn’t been bunched around some crazy-looking new gizmo with a keyboard. It was one of the first personal computers ever made, and probably the first I had ever seen. Computer science had been added as a class offering only the year before. In size and sheer camaraderie that end-of-year party didn’t compare to any other (except, perhaps, the small secret gathering of my closest friends with our very favorite teacher, for which I snuck in a bottle of champagne, but I didn’t really type that).

So, again, why should a bunch of photos of people be so remarkable? I knew Byron as this tall, lanky guy, not so chatty outside of calculus class, one of us creme de la geeks, pursuing pure logic in a world of careful formulas and mostly parallel play. Usually in that circle, connecting with other people happened only when it was absolutely necessary, and only to take care of business.

But here was an artistry, a talent, I never knew. Those photos told me about a whole new person. Byron was a software engineer for years. Beyond computer codes, this was his form of self-expression, a language he was completely comfortable with. Sure, a camera can be a perfect geek choice. It’s a gizmo. And it provides an easy excuse for conversation, even an easy screen to disappear behind and allow voyeurism to run free. I could see Byron willingly melt into the background to get a great shot. But those photos also required something more: They required switching to the other side of the brain. He shares a deep mutual respect with his subjects. Every time he clicks a photo, he puts himself on the line just as much as they do.

As I was standing in the covered picnic area in August thumbing through the portfolio, I realized that as a rare calculus grad who went on to liberal arts, as a writer who shares many of the same voyeuristic tendencies as photographers, as a student who had more math and science classes than my brain could successfully manage, I was in the unusual position of understanding not only all that goes into getting a photo of high quality — the crux being connecting with people — but also the long distance traveled from the complete flip side — the easy safety and comfort of pure linear formula, bereft of people. Here was the whole package from the extreme sides of the spectrum. But it shouldn’t have come as a surprise. After all, calculus had taught us that combining both science and humanity was not only possible, but also a transcending and necessary experience.


According to his professional photography biography, Byron specializes in festivals, parades, ethnic music and dance events. He covers them all over the Northwest. The Portland Pirate Festival, Renaissance fairs, Faerieworld, Seattle Zombie Walk, belly dancing. He loves people in costumes.

Check out his beautiful web site.

He’ll be at the Swashbucklers Ball tonight, a benefit for the Portland Pirate Festival.


ILLUSTRATIONS, all by BYRON DAZEY (top to bottom):

  • Rider and horse: Tricks from Washington Midsummer Renaissance Faire 2010.
  • Fairy: Faerieworlds 2010.
  • Smiling girl: Portland Pirate Festival 2009.
  • Sword fighters: Shrewsbury Renaissance Faire 2010.
  • Three women: These are not the three wenches from calculus class. Our combined sum of chest sizes would not equal one of these. This is from the Washington Midsummer Renaissance Faire 2010.
  • Zombie couple: Red, White & Dead Zombie Walk 2010.
  • Pirate big and small: Portland Pirate Festival 2009.
  • Pirate: Portland Pirate Festival 2009.