The Last Photograph by Ronald P. Wolff


Robert Smith took a seat in a Denny’s restaurant at the intersection of “I’ve never been here before” and “I never want to be here again” and glanced at his smart phone.

“Dear Mr. Smith,” the e-mail began, and he believed for the briefest of all possible eternities that good news might be on today’s menu.  “I regret to inform you that Outdoor Wilderness magazine has no interest in publishing the images you submitted recently.  In view of your persistence, we thought it best this time to send more than our usual form rejection.  While we like the areas you visit, the photographs simply exhibit no originality.  We receive hundreds of similar boring and mundane submissions every week.  Technical excellence by itself simply provides no incentive in the era of ubiquitous digital cameras.  We seek the original angle, the unusual thought process, the once-in-a-lifetime moment that only you can capture.  Best of luck in placing your work elsewhere.”

He looked up to find a skinny waitress chewing on a piece of gum the way a homeless man might devour sliced turkey at the Salvation Army’s annual Thanksgiving banquet.  “Hi, I’m Angie, and I’ll be taking care of you today.”  The gum was bright red.  “Can I getcha anything to drink?”

“How about coffee, black?”

“Comin’ right up.”

Angie tossed a menu on the table, and Robert picked it up.  Not that he really needed it.  He liked Denny’s.  There was a certain predictability that soothed his nerves.  The eggs were always lukewarm.  The bacon was always greasy.  Fortunately, the distinctively shaped yellow and red signs appeared at regular intervals along the roads he traveled most frequently.

He glanced at his phone again, as though somehow miraculously the last e-mail would be transformed into the acceptance he craved.  The cry of an infant three tables away escalated from annoyance to disturbance.  Waitresses dumping dirty dishes clashing into the bin under the counter seemed not to care what decibel level they created nor what the impact would be on customers seeking quiet refuge from the constant irritation of freeway vehicles moving either too fast or two slow.  The little bells the cooks pounded to inform waitresses that their orders were ready had been muffled by years of misuse; only dull thuds ensued when delightfully competent pings were required.  Employees wearing black uniforms graced by artistically repulsive “Try Avocado Today” buttons scurried about, getting further and further behind the faster they moved.  Facing Robert about ten feet away, a man with flaccid upper arms and a waistline approaching forty inches starting talking on his cell phone between gigantic bites of a club sandwich – something about whether he should or shouldn’t buy AT&T, and if so when, and if so how many shares.

Along with the fat man’s catsup-smothered fries, Robert’s appetite disappeared.  He drew a $5 bill out of his wallet, flung it on the table just as Miss Gum was approaching with his coffee, and mumbled that he had to leave suddenly.  He took refuge from the cacophony in the driver’s seat of his decrepit but functional Honda, leaning his head against the steering wheel, breathing deeply in a deliberate but vain effort to banish pain from his internal organs.

Robert arrived at this place and time through no fault of his own.  Born to an automobile mechanic father and a stay-at-home mom who timed her ironing around “As the World Turns,” he followed two older brothers into the world and arrived eleven months before the sister his dad had always wanted.  He was never ignored and never special.  He was good friend to many and best friend to none.  At the age of twelve, he complained one night to his parents that “all the good hobbies are already taken.”  Expecting a list of alternatives to what his brothers were already engaged in, eagerly anticipating his opportunity to deviate from ordinary, he got instead “son, more than one person can play baseball.”  So he batted eighth in the lineup for the Rockets of Fairmont Junior High School and roamed right field, praying that the ball would be hit in the other direction.  At sixteen he started dating, with measured success, until the girls dumped him for true love.

Casting about in his senior year for an elective to cover the vacant fifth period, Robert signed up for photography.  Mr. Dunsfield, who shot weddings on weekends to bring in extra cash, recognized the boy’s eagerness and nurtured his talent.  “You’re pretty damn good,” he would say, shuffling through black and white images of vacant hallways accenting contrast and graphic design.  “Have you thought about using more color?  Have you thought about shooting, well, something alive?”

Mr. Dunsfield took his job seriously.  He arranged to take his class on a field trip to a wildlife sanctuary, even renting a telephoto lens for the students to share.  Carefully shunning the appearance of favoritism, he nevertheless ensured that Robert got a lot of time with the powerful glass.  And the results were stunning – at least for a high school student.  While other kids clicked the shutter seemingly at random, returning with junk or teenage whimsy at best, Robert chose interesting subjects, composed carefully, and even eliminated distracting backgrounds.

The “A” Robert earned in photography bumped his final grade point average up to 2.9, and he graduated without distinction in a crowd of 426.  Sitting on the 40-yard line in the football stadium during the ceremony, surrounded by people he knew but whose houses he had never visited, he declined the opportunity to throw his cap into the air and scream with ecstasy.  He felt no ecstasy.  He was merely grateful that Mr. Dunsfield, suffering from a bad shoulder after years of lugging multiple cameras and lenses to his weekend wedding gigs, had offered him part-time work as an assistant and apprentice.

A metal ring tapped loudly on the half-open car window, and Robert sat up straight.  Mr. AT&T stood outside.  “Hey, buddy, just thought you should know, got a flat tire there in the back.”

Robert had learned to accept bad news without verification.  “Yeah?  Well shit!”

“You need help?”

Robert shook his head slightly, repulsed by the sight of catsup on the man’s white T-shirt.  “Nah, I’ll take care of it.”  But he couldn’t face the prospect immediately and put his forehead back on the steering wheel.  His skin slid on a thin layer of sweat until it achieved equilibrium.

Robert earned enough money working for Mr. Dunsfield to keep gas in his car and fast food in his stomach, living at home and watching his parents glow with delight at the reports of his older brothers’ academic and athletic success.  “Those boys are sure going to amount to something some day, aren’t they?” he overheard one evening from the bedroom behind closed doors, knowing “those boys” didn’t include him.  He retreated to the bathroom and threw up.

Six months later Mr. Dunsfield called Robert on the phone, anticipation in his voice.  “I just heard about a job you might want.  There’s a studio that has a contract with the school district to take class pictures in all the elementary schools.  They need another photographer.”

“Cool,” Robert replied.  Three days a week he carted his well-used Nikon, zoom lenses, strobes, and a heavy backdrop into gymnasiums across the city, coaxing smiles as best he could from faces dripping with tears and noses full of snot.

For his birthday, his parents got Robert a subscription to Outdoor Wilderness magazine – a welcomed and unexpected deviation from the shirts he would rather have picked out himself or the sports equipment that languished under the bed.  Every month he marked the images he admired the most and begged Mr. Dunsfield for critiques and tips.  He saved for a sturdy tripod – a necessity for scenics – and a new camera with features like HDR, panoramic, and remote electronic shutter activation.  Rangers at the nearest state park started remembering his name.

“You ought to submit something,” Mr. Dunsfield suggested, reviewing the waterfalls and close-ups Robert was now producing with regularity.  “You’ve come a long way since those dreary black and whites of empty hallways!”

“I don’t think I’m good enough.”

“What’s the worst that can happen?”

“Maybe someday.  I need more experience.”

But the seed had been planted.  Gradually, it grew into an obsession – a perceived opportunity to obtain official sanction for something he actually cared about.  Robert expanded the radius of his exploration, including some national parks, and trod the well-marked paths of local wilderness landmarks so often that he became an unofficial employee.  “You know, there’s a tree blown over the trail about half a mile from the base of the falls,” he would tell the superintendent, and the next time he hiked he would find sawdust and a trail fit for a grandmother.

About a year later, “someday” arrived.  Robert composed a carefully worded cover letter to the editor of Outdoor Wilderness magazine and attached two of his best images to the e-mail.  Three weeks later the curt but professional rejection arrived.  No explanation.  No hints on what to do differently.  No encouragement.  “Your photographs do not fit into our current editorial plans.”  Period.

He tried again several months later, submitting images taken during a spectacularly colorful autumn.  Same result.  Spring, with tender green leaves and water rushing toward the ocean at breathtaking speed.  Same result.  Summer, with its dry heat and enormous cumulus clouds billowing over magnificent mountain peaks.  Over and over again, the same stock rejection: “Your photographs do not fit into our current editorial plans.”  Robert reviewed each issue cover to cover, poring carefully over the photographers’ notes: such-and-such an f-stop, shot at 1/30th of a second, polarizing filter.  Not so different from what he was doing, but somehow always slightly better.  Silently he would curse.  He got discouraged.  He felt he was no good.  Photography was merely the most recent chapter in a failed life.  “Your amorous desires do not fit into my current romantic plans,” the girls of his desire might as well have said.  Or, like a jagged knife plunged into his heart, “Your mediocrity does not fit into our current parenting plans.”

Robert’s phone announced an incoming text message, and he lifted his head off the steering wheel.  “Your brother just got promoted to partner. Can you send him congratulations?  By the way, where are you?”

A vague notion, a long-standing ambivalence, suddenly became a plan.  It provided the motivation necessary to fix the flat tire.  But two of the lug nuts wouldn’t budge, and he had to call for help.  That left $19 in his wallet – one dinner and one breakfast.

The waterfall would have to be high – at least a hundred feet, and preferably more.  A practically inaccessible shooting location with an impressive view would have to be identified, and the remote shutter trigger would need to be powerful enough to transmit across a considerable distance.  He would need to be able to hike from the camera to the top of the falls quickly enough to avoid excessive battery drain.

Robert had been scouting the area near Portland, Oregon – renowned for spectacular landscapes.  Thirty miles from the city, gigantic Multnomah Falls plunged not once but twice, observable from an ancient stone footbridge.  That’s where most of the published photographs of this stunning phenomenon were taken.  He would do them one better!

He glanced at his watch.  One thirty.  The sun wouldn’t set until seven.  Plenty of time to explore.  Robert hiked every foot of the 1.2-mile trail from the footbridge to the top, locating at one crucial switchback an opportunity to crawl 300 feet through dense brush toward an isolated promontory.  Ten feet from the edge, bedrock took over.  A few small clumps of hardy moss challenged the desolation, nourished only by perpetual mist.  The view of the falls was unmatched! Unconventional!  Sensational!  Plunging water skirted the edges of multi-colored rock formations, some of it sliding over gracefully, some of it rising in an aura of mist and mystery.  Light and shadow, with only a hint of blue from a colossal sky bruised by swelling thunderclouds, danced incessantly, delicately.  He mounted the camera on the tripod and shot some tests, varying the aperture and time exposure.  Perfect at f/11.  Flawless at 1/8 of a second – short enough to preserve clarity in the clouds, long enough to perceive motion in the falls.   Leaving the equipment behind, he advanced as far as he dared along the shallow rock ledge, gaining more than half the distance to the top of the falls before the footing became treacherous.  He pointed the remote at the camera and clicked, squeezing the button long enough to review the Reader’s Digest version of his life and confirm the purpose of his mission.  Returning meticulously, watching every step for fear of slipping and sending his plan cascading prematurely into the dark pool of water below, he approached the camera breathlessly.  It worked!  The images were spectacular.  But…were they spectacular enough?  As is, he concluded, no; they would not be good enough to “fit into the magazine’s editorial plans.”  But next time.  Ah!  Next time would be different.

Robert crawled once again through the obstacle course that wilderness had thrown in his path, pushing the tripod in front, holding the camera off the ground for protection.  Sharp twigs cut the bottoms of his hands, and rocks embedded in the ground tore holes in his jeans at the knees.  Branches never before disturbed by human contact scratched his face.  But the images burned into his camera’s memory card crowded out all other sensations.  It wasn’t until he had stowed his gear in the trunk and turned the key in the ignition that he realized he was bleeding.

Robert parked his car outside the decrepit motel and carried his gear into the room.  The Wi-Fi had started working again.  He checked the weather forecast and was relieved to find that current conditions would last one more day.

“Dear Mr. Dunsfield,” he wrote.  “The day after tomorrow you will find my camera in an isolated location near Multnomah Falls.  The link in this e-mail identifies the trail, and the cutoff will be clearly marked when you get there.  Please submit the images you find to Outdoor Wilderness magazine.  Thank you for everything you have done for me.  You have made life almost bearable.”  He hit “send.”

“Dear Mom and Dad,” he wrote.  But then the words failed.  Five minutes stretched into ten.  Nothing seemed right.  “Shit, I’m not even good enough to send you a proper goodbye.”  He hit “send,” stripped to his underwear, and tumbled into bed.

* * *

Sunlight crept through the holes in the curtain, sending an uncertain welcome into the tiny room.  Torn by the contradictory desires to stay in bed and proceed with his plan, Robert reluctantly threw his legs over the side of the bed and went to the bathroom to arrest the impertinent messages originating in his bladder.  He threw on the same clothes he had worn the previous day, then checked out.  If the knowledge that this was his last lonely night affected him at all, it wasn’t obvious in the methodical way he put his gear in the trunk, entered the driver’s side, and turned the ignition.

Recognizing the need for some energy for his ordeal, Robert stopped first at Denny’s.  Miss Gum recognized him.  “Coffee black, right?”

“Yes.  And two eggs, sunny side up.  Bacon, as crisp as you can make it.”

Ten minutes later the eggs arrived, sunny side over.  The bacon was greasy.  The coffee was lukewarm.  It didn’t matter.  The string of perpetual repudiations was about to stop.  He ate very little, emptied his wallet on the table, and left.

Robert drove immediately to the trail-head and retraced his steps from the previous day. He placed the tripod in exactly the same location. The top of the falls was clearly visible in the frame, along with most of its precipitous descent, illuminated like a painting by the threatening sky.  He set the camera to autofocus, continuous shooting, and shutter activation by remote control.   Then, instead of moving along the ledge, he retreated through the brush, clutching only the remote control, and headed up the main path toward the top of the falls.  He hiked to the point of no return, pressed the button on the remote, and jumped.

* * *

“Dear Mr. Dunsfield,” the editor of Outdoor Wilderness magazine wrote.  “Please accept our sincere condolences.  If it’s any consolation, this is one of the most stunning images of this overly photographed waterfall that we have ever seen.  Of course we will Photoshop out the falling body, with your permission, but will happily publish the resulting picture on the cover of our December issue.  As you requested, it will bear the caption: “Last Photograph of Robert Smith.”

Ron Wolff retired recently from a career as a nonprofit executive, preferring to spend his time writing, photographing, and napping. His short stories have been published in several literary magazines, including “East Jasmine Review” and “Compass Literary Journal.” His novel “Operation Capitol Hill” was published in 2006. Wolff lives in Claremont, California. Follow him on Twitter (@WolffRonald) and Instagram (@opcapitolhill).