I picture him in his spacious living room, perched on a stool before his spotting scope, focusing on the owl box he so perfectly designed and disguised as part of the tree bole a quarter mile below the rise on which the house sits, Madera Canyon and Mt. Wrightson the magnificent backdrop beyond. I see again the perfect crispness of the nighttime images he took of the Western Screech-Owl returning to this box with prey. I am numb. Not because I knew him well. Because I will never have the opportunity to know him better.
I first met Tom in Texas in the spring of 2004. It was at Barbara Kennett's on South Padre, and the circumstances were somewhat disconcerting. Barb's door was always open. Literally. Whether because she was a long-standing and semi-famous resident of the island, or because of her welcoming personality, or because it was widely known she was an ex-LA cop, she never locked it whether she was home or not.
In the '90s many hard core listers heard about and made the trek during spring migration to Barbara's home, a block from the ocean near the south end of the island, to hang out near her front room window which opened out at eye level to the water feature and citrus feeders only a long arm's length away. Hoping for that one big fallout. The bird photographers, both professional and serious amateurs, soon came as well and for the same reason. Barbara loved the birds, the photographers, and the birders, and probably in that order, and by the time I heard about her place Tom had been a springtime regular for several years.
When I went to South Padre in April of '04, Willow Creek had just published my first owl book, and I took Barbara a signed copy. She was happy for me, mentioned that Tony Mercieca and Tom were both on the island, and that she was anxious to show it to them. I had met Tony the year before, and though I had never met Tom I had greatly admired his work over the years. I thanked her and, not giving a thought to how this might play out, took off for the boardwalk.
When I returned after lunch to see if anything had dropped out of the skies into Barbara's little oasis on Ling Street, I noticed her car was gone but there were two other cars out front. Assuming it was just the usual casual birder traffic watching from her front window, I walked around back to the garden. As I passed the windows of the atrium and glanced in, there were two men sitting around her coffee table perusing my owl book like a couple teenagers with a Playboy magazine. Meaning they weren't doing any reading. They were just flipping the pages, looking at the pictures. One of them I recognized as Tony. The other, I realized, must be "the" Tom Vezo.
Though I was proud to have gotten a book done by a national publisher, I wasn't so full of myself that I wasn't keeping score. I was now famous throughout my entire family, but here were two giants of the small world of bird photography dissecting my humble beginnings. It took me five conflicted minutes to decide what to do. After coming this close (place thumb to forefinger here) to leaving without going in, I decided to go for it. With a flush of equal parts adrenaline and embarrassment I walked in on them unannounced and introduced myself.
Here's what they were doing when I walked in. I am not making this up. They were actually counting how many images each of the contributing photographers had in the book. Did I just mention "keeping score." It was a great reality check for me. A very graphic reminder of just how competitive successful people in any profession must be to reach the top. And a sore point as well. My editor at Willow Creek had told me they needed to include 200 owl images in the book to be able to market it properly, and though I submitted that many, she still had gone to stock agencies as well as soliciting from other bird photographers. The upshot was that only about a third of the images in "my" owl book were my images.
That was my self-effacing entrée to the conversation, and Tom immediately commiserated and went off about several instances in which publishers had done him wrong. The three of us spent the rest of the afternoon "talking shop," birds and cameras, places to go, and people to know. Formal training for me at the feet of two of the masters.
Here are the three facets of Tom Vezo's personality that I gleaned from that day four springs ago. First and foremost, unlike some high profile bird photographers who shall go unnamed, he was not full of himself. He seemed to sense my uneasiness with the situation in Barbara's atrium and seamlessly tried to make me feel comfortable.
Secondly, without sarcasm or criticism, Tom mentioned that he thought of another professional we all knew as primarily a "portrait photographer," not creative enough, patient or diligent enough, to seek out and wait for action. If you've followed Tom's work progression over the years, you know he's all about birds in action, birds in their habitat, birds doing something other than just posing. It's a lesson I've never forgotten, though it's been difficult at times in the scurry to build a portfolio.
Thirdly, and perhaps at the bottom line, Tom was enjoying what he did and was having great fun doing it. This came out in passing reference to another famous bird photographer with whom all three of us had had less than uplifting personal experiences, the consensus being that this person needed to slow down and lighten up. Bird photographers, the serious ones, often seem to end up much like their hard core birding counterparts. Their avocation becomes their life and they take themselves way too seriously and/or become totally immersed in the minutiae of it all. The textbook forest and trees syndrome. Photographers become tech freaks and gearheads. Birders become supercilious and arrogant. So not fun.
I will never forget an incident between Tony and Tom out on the boardwalk the next morning which perfectly illustrated Tom's approach to life and his profession. We had all arrived early and set up, big telephotos on tripods, anticipating an opportunity to photograph the resident Clapper Rails or the reputed Black Rail (sure, all serious bird photographers are optimists) reported periodically by birders.
We waited, searched, glassed, coalesced to chat, then split apart again, no rails anywhere to be seen. I was several yards down the boardwalk when I heard a loud commotion behind me where I had left them. Tony, seeing movement among the reeds, had momentarily stepped away from his tripod and Tom had run over, swung Tony's camera around, and taken several frames of Tony's butt with it. Now Tony was looking chagrined and Tom was cackling like a schoolboy. "Tony, hope you brought enough film" he laughed. Tony looked at me and rolled his eyeballs. That was just Tom being Tom. Knowledgeable, meticulous, and prepared, but he wasn't going to let lack of success spoil his day.
Though he wrote several rants about photographers undervaluing their work and being taken for advantage, Tom was generous to several environmental projects with donated images, among them the Ocelot Festival in the Lower Rio Grande Valley and the Friends Of Madera Canyon. No one realized more than he the importance of preserving the resource and turning armchair naturalists into participating members of the environmental movement.
So, here I am this evening in Madera Canyon knowing I could go down to Green Valley to see him one last time. But knowing I won't. I don't do funerals so much anymore and besides, I really don't feel like I knew him that well. I had contacted him about possibly collaborating on a project I had in mind. He had expressed interest and promised to speak with a publisher, but we both got busy and his contact wasn't excited about the project anyway. I last saw him a year ago. I had forged ahead with said project and had found my own publisher. He congratulated me and spoke about his next book. His images, someone else's text.
I suppose at some point I could have offered to write for him, but I am too obsessed with getting my own images published, my athletic background never fully releasing me from the scorekeeping. And, though I know I flatter myself for even considering it, he may well have seen me as a competitor. He told me once, perhaps in a backhanded compliment (he was, after all, an avid recreational tennis player) that he didn't have time to write. More's the pity. I suspect he would have been good with it. Anyone with his love and joy for nature could probably convey them verbally as well as visually.
Birders and those becoming interested in bird photography often query me as to the best place in Arizona for those endeavors. Night falls. A poorwill calls. A monsoon cloud climbs slowly up the southern flank of Wrightson, occluding a million stars and spewing "heat lightning." Here is the answer to that query. "Here.". Tom Vezo, arguably the best bird photographer of my generation and successful enough he could have lived anywhere in this country, anywhere in the world, came to ply his craft right here in the shadow of Madera Canyon when he graduated from the so-called New York Connection of bird photographers.
I know I will not go down the mountain tomorrow. I will go up the mountain. Seeking some sign. Tom Vezo has left Green Valley. The stars are gone now. Above me the Santa Ritas reverberate with thunder and the clouds explode. The rain washes over me, cleansing the numbness from my soul. Tom Vezo is on the mountain.
* * *
The morning breaks clear. I awaken to the dawn song of the Vermilion Flycatcher. I shoulder the 600 and beat the sun to Bog Springs. There are no bears along the trail. There are no Spotted Owls in the vine tangles on the sycamores. Two hummingbirds, a Berylline and a Broad-tailed, are having negotiations at the spring box, but the action is in shadow and too fast to capture. Hiking down, I come across a lizard on the trail. I think it is a Sonoran Spotted Whiptail. It has five stripes, bright yellow to off-white, and it has captured a grasshopper, a very large grasshopper, and is trying mightily to get its jaws around it.
The lizard is very beautiful. The grasshopper is very dead. I take several frames. It is action. It is the circle of life. Tom would be pleased with these images, and I know what he would say. "Better to be the skink than the grasshopper." Tom Vezo is on the mountain.