Autumn’s Canoe18 min read

By Robert R. Mercer

I remember Ralph Bimington as the kindest man I ever knew. Perhaps that is why he accepted me, a high school student who never held more than a Polaroid camera, as an apprentice.

Unlike those other famous photographers that I read about in the magazines, who all had great beards and greater egos, Ralph was a true “shoe clerk”: even at 71, he was willing to serve and to help where he could. While others spent their best years capturing the “gritty” streets of New York, Ralph just kept taking pictures in the solitude of Oklahoma. And yet, against all odds, the national marketplace discovered his exquisite black and white prints.

His small studio roosted at the top of a long flight of stairs over our small-town hardware store in Osage County. I was probably the only person in Fairwell, Oklahoma, who knew “Old Man Bimington” was big name artist. He kept a low profile in town, but I had a subscription to one of those glossy New York magazines. When I recognized a local farmhouse in one of his photos, I hunted down the man who shot it.

He opened his door to me and invited me in. I found my way to his studio many times, and he was happy to talk shop. At first, we discussed f‑stops and shutter speeds – but there are limited combinations of those. He really didn’t have any technical secrets. He told me he knew nothing of art or design or composition. “Just an eye for images.”

I often tried to trap him into revealing what makes a photograph really great. Never worked. “A great photograph is one you can sell,” he would laugh. And, by his standard, he had a lot of great photographs. But one was the greatest of all: his “Autumn’s Canoe”.

It was a simple river scene under spreading cottonwood trees. A woman in shadow stood beside a canoe on the bank of that broad, braided stream, ready to push off. In color, the photo might have graced the cover of a sporting goods catalogue. But robbed of the easy prettiness of hue, Ralph’s black and white instead concentrated on the dancing radiance of light through the multi-toned leaves.

Not only had it been judged a “great photograph” by the marketplace, but Ralph Bimington really loved the picture, too, never tiring of making more reprints when they were ordered.

“That’s my wife, Mary,” he told me when he first showed me the master print. Every for-sale image has a master print, complete with odd markings noting exposure and dodging and burning and contrast adjustments. Some photographers also include notes on projection angles or development chemicals, but I never found any such on Ralph’s masters. He exposed all his prints on a no-frills Omega D-2 enlarger bench and developed them with a simple Dektol 1:2 mixture, without the fancy tricks other photographers used to save bad shots. “It was after Peggy died,” he added.

He never explained to me who Peggy was. Ralph’s niece visited later that summer and said Peggy was the Bimingtons’ daughter, nine years old when she died. Ralph and Mary had married late, and there were no other children. Mary herself had been dead two decades by the time I came along.

One art buyer who visited the studio gave Ralph’s wife all the credit for his success. Told me that Mary was the one who made all the trips to New York, with Ralph never visiting even once. Said Mary was the one who refused to give up on his work, demanded the art world take notice. Claimed she lived hand to mouth beside him and really believed in him and his images.

“Too bad she died just as he finally took off,” the man had observed. “And it was ‘Canoe’ that did it. We figured her being diagnosed with terminal cancer would destroy him. Instead, he comes up with the most perfect image of his life. He couldn’t have dreamed a better shot.” Then the man went back to leafing through Ralph’s latest offerings.

As he was leaving, the buyer added, “It saved him, you know. Making those ‘Canoe’ posters is like printing money. It made all his other work possible. It was exactly what Mary worked for.”

By the time I knew him, Ralph Bimington prints sold for top dollar from New York to L.A. The prairie scenes sold okay, but not as well as his mountain scenes. Most people just hate prairie and don’t even want to see a picture of it. Which was too bad, because he saved his most careful eye for those great expanses of earth. He taught me to print many – even the majority – of the negatives in his collection. A couple of those mountain negatives were the seed corn of my own career.

But even the least sensitive critic felt something awfully special when they looked at “Autumn’s Canoe.” And that, he never taught me. I never was allowed to print “Canoe”; not even to see the negative. I was with Ralph Bimington a year and a half in total. Folks ordered prints of “Canoe” six, seven times over that period. He always tidied the darkroom before working on “Canoe”, and I helped with that, but when he was ready to print, he always found another job that I just had to get on, and he’d close himself inside. When he finished, he would always call me in to dry the prints and prep them for shipping.

With the repeated steps required for archival processing, I became very familiar with the details of that print. I knew the count of cottonwood trunks on the bank. I noted the light footprints in the sand walking to the canoe. The woman’s delicate balance between shore and water kept me expecting her to continue her launch. But she remained forever frozen.

After a few printings of the negative, it became obvious to me why he excluded others from his darkroom: he talked to himself when he printed it. This was unusual: he was not a chatterer in general, and I never heard him talking to himself while working other negatives.

Usually, his conversation with the dark was a low, unintelligible, mumble. However, one time, passing the darkroom door, I heard him say, “Yes, such a good day. I’m hurrying. I’ve just a few more exposures I want to make.”

It was about this time that the magazines became excited about some experts who had analyzed Ansel Adams’ “Moonrise” to determine exactly when it was made. You’ve likely seen the 1941 photo: the Moon hangs in a black sky over a bright New Mexico cemetery. The image shows up in ads and museums and dorm rooms alike. By knowing where he stood and where the Moon was, the experts could tell exactly what day, hour, and minute he took it, something Adams said he could not recall.

The magazines published a flurry of stories analyzing old photos to recover details of their creation. I became one of those who believed that we should preserve what the distracted masters of our medium had considered too unimportant to write down. Ralph Bimington did not keep secrets per se. He just appeared to feel the details of his life were too obvious to require any explanation.

So, I decided to badger Ralph as to the details of “Canoe.”

We were driving to the Oklahoma Glass Mountains that day for the June wheat harvest. I’d been with him for a year then. He had kept an eye for years on a particular mesa with a large wheat field at its base. He wanted the majestic mesa and contrasting field, sure, but he also wanted harvest combines sweeping across the field beneath those overhanging buttes.

That was a Ralph Bimington trademark: people inhabited his photographs. He mocked the “rocks and trees” photos. “People make the scene real. They give a landscape scale. They make a story matter.”

Ralph could often see the perfect photograph before he looked through the lens. In fact, he described to me exactly what the perfect exposure of the mesa wheat field would be, angle and f‑stop. The question was whether Nature would deliver at exactly the right time of day.

Wheat ripens on its own schedule. Ralph convinced the owner of the field to call us the day before to say it was cutting time. We rushed across the state, pushing the speed limit to make our deadline, all the time watching gathering thunderheads in the northwest. If they retained their billowy whiteness as they passed to the east, then the evening light would add to their luster. If they turned to rain, the combines would stop, and we would have to shoot tomorrow. But if they just became overcast, the combines would continue cutting wheat and the photograph would have to be attempted the next year.

Years were becoming precious to Ralph. I’d turned 16 over Spring Break, and this was the first trip he had asked me to drive. I thought he was just making me feel important, but looking back, I realize he needed me to drive. He had limited arm endurance for holding the camera steady.

As we passed through the town of Enid, with our four-wheel-drive humming on the four-lane west of town, I broached my question.

“We’re coming up on the Cimarron River. Is this the area you took ‘Canoe’ in?”

He laughed. “Naw. Oh, I guess I could’ve once upon a time. Some springtimes, before irrigation sucked her dry, there was enough water in her to float more than a bar of soap. But, no… we never canoe’d her.”

“Where did you make that shot?”

“The Arkansas… yeah.”

I let it lay for quite a number of miles. As we rounded the big curve and straightened out for a direct shot across the Cimarron River bridge to the grain elevators of Orienta, I asked, “Where on the Arkansas?”

“North of Old Keystone. Before the dam was built.” He sipped at a quart carton of buttermilk. I never did figure out whether he liked being country or liked appearing country to buzz the New Yorkers who peddled his pictures. Maybe both.

He swallowed and rested the buttermilk on the left knee of his khaki work pants. He leaned on the open window, evening out his trucker’s tan. “In autumn, sure.” He began to say more but quick‑snapped his jaw shut.

I pressed. “What were you doing that day?”

“Just canoin’ and takin’ pictures.”  He always dropped his gerunds and grew laconic when he was putting me off.

I tried a different tactic. “What about ‘Prairie Sphinx’? What do you remember about that photo?”

“November, 1963. It’s written down somewhere. Check my day books for that year. Just after breakfast. Lousy coffee. ‘Course, that one’s easy… couple of days before Kennedy was shot.”

“Would your books have the records for ‘Autumn’s Canoe’?”

“Probably not. Didn’t seem like the kind of day for recordin’ nothin’. Don’t remember. Don’t care, really.”

“Can’t you tell me anything about it? I’m sure I’ll get asked someday.”

“It’s the happiest moment of my life. That’s about it.”

And that was it. We reached the view of the mesa he wanted. The combines rolled, the clouds cooperated, and Ralph checked another shot off of his ever-shortening list of desires. He mostly slept on the ride home.

The marketplace judged it “another great photograph.”

About a month later, late July, Ralph Bimington seemed to suffer a stroke. A minor shake appeared in his right leg. The doctor said not to worry, but Ralph redoubled his efforts to take several photographs he yet wanted. He acquired a cane and started calling himself “Tripod”. But he kept moving.

Winter had almost set in when he announced he had taken the last of the shots he’d laid out for the year. He seemed most pleased even though his palsy-like affliction from the stroke became more pronounced and moved into his arms.

We received another order for “Canoe.”  Frankly, I had printed the last two big customer orders – both for poster stores wanting multiple copies of “Prairie Sphinx”, “Winter’s Light”, and his other grand landscapes. I’d printed them by myself completely, with Ralph only passing final judgment. He said he was pleased with my efforts on those negatives.

As was his “Canoe” custom, he cleaned up the workbench before starting. He seemed to waver when he stood, so I mixed the chemicals and laid out the paper. Then it came time to pull the negative from its file and put it into the enlarger.

Ralph hesitated at the filing cabinet. “You know, the control strips for the film processing line haven’t been read lately. Shame if the chemicals got out of balance. You should go take care of that, if you please.” He glanced back at me, his eyes directing me out of his darkroom.

I stayed. “Look, let me print this order. I’m sure I can do it. You should rest. There’ll be more orders.” Ralph had really made me feel I could do anything by then. More and more he treated me not as his student but as his friend.

“I’ve always printed this one. No one else can do it right.”

“You sure? Your arm shakes. How are you going to do a controlled dodge with that?”

“I’ll figure it out. Go.”

“Look, Ralph, what is this? What is the great master photographer trying to hide? Have you been printing the ‘Canoe’ negative backwards by accident all these years and are trying to keep it a secret?” I laughed.

“None of your damned business. It’s mine, I’ll print it.”  He was serious.

“Okay, I’ll help you keep your dirty little secret,” I snickered. “It’ll get out eventually, though.”

He started to snap back, then camouflaged it with a smile. “Yes, but it is my secret, and I’ll keep it just a little longer, anyway, if it’s okay with you.” He used his cane to prod me out the door then vanished into the dark.

I went to check the control strips.

I was sitting at the workbench making notes on the E‑6 chemical balance when I first heard the voice: a woman’s, dim and indistinct. I poked about, thinking the radio was on. It wasn’t. I checked the storeroom and the portrait studio. Nothing.

When I heard the voice again, I realized it was from Ralph’s darkroom. Only one door to that. No windows, obviously. I started to knock but stopped short of the door by a quarter of an inch.

“Ralph, it is such a beautiful day. Let’s push off.”

“Let me finish this exposure, dear, then I’m done.”

“Peggy would have liked to be here with us.”

“This is her kind of day.”  Ralph’s voice seemed fuller, yes, healthier.

“Are you about finished, dear?”

“Yes, yes, I’m done now. I’m coming. You think Peggy is waiting for us?”

“I’m sure she is, probably impatient. It’s such a good day,” the woman said again.

“Yes, Mary,” Ralph said. “The happiest day of my life.”

Something clattered, sounded like a tray dropping, then water sloshing and a thud against the wall. I knocked. “Ralph, Ralph, what’s going on in there?” I knocked harder. “Ralph, can you answer me?”

I was scared. The door was locked, but one doesn’t just open a darkroom door, even if it isn’t locked. I stared at the sign he had taped beside the knob: “Do not open this door. You’ll let all the dark out!”

Finally, I grabbed the door key and let all that dark out, anyway. In the half light, Ralph Bimington lay sprawled on the floor, fixer soaking into his pants, a print half-stuck to the dripping tray by his hand.

It’s one of those stupid things one does in a panic: I picked up the tray and flashed water into it over the face-down print before I turned on the light to see if Ralph was okay. I really knew he wasn’t. Avoidance, I guess.

Sheriff answered my emergency call first, with the ambulance about a quarter hour behind. The sheriff’s deputy and I alternated CPR only because the book said so, not because we believed it could help. When the ambulance did show, they just took the body away and left me with the mess. Ralph had no family left in Oklahoma, so it was up to me.

I started the print washer tumbling, then I swabbed the floor. When I was finished with that, I took the sheets from the washer and clipped them on the line to dry. I counted them: Ralph had finished the order. In sixteen beautiful duplicates, his lady stood ready to travel down the river.

I looked at that extra print he’d had in the fix pan when he died.

I flipped the print over in the tray. It started blackening in the light – too short a time in the fixer bath. Well, at least he’d printed enough. And then I looked closer.

The same cottonwoods overshadowed the river, leaves glistening in the long autumn light. The river still braided its way to the sea. But no lady was present on the shore. No canoe dug its bow into the sand. Instead, as the print continued to dim, I focused on what appeared to be a small canoe floating down the stream carrying two people. Then the image went black.

“I’m cross-eyed crazy,” I mumbled. Maybe he printed another negative from the same film roll? I looked, but there was no sleeve of negatives on the bench. “He left it in the enlarger,” I thought.

But the truth is: the negative carrier was empty. The fact is: when his niece and I cleaned out the studio, we never did find that negative. Nor any other frame from the same shoot. And, I swear, over the years, I’ve asked others who worked with him before me.

No one ever saw the negative of Ralph Bimington’s “Autumn’s Canoe.”

Autumn’s Canoe” is also published in 87 Bedford’s Historic Fantasy Anthology.

© Copyright 2020 Robert R. Mercer

Author’s Note

This story, like the photograph in the story, was almost lost with its creator.

My name is Stephen. Robert Mercer was my father. He wrote this story for me. My first crib was under his development bench, and I hauled camera equipment for him all over Oklahoma. He crafted the tale out of experiences he and I shared.

When I started getting my own stories published, I asked him for permission to edit his story and maybe get it published, too. He said yes – but then neither he nor I could find a copy of it! The only printout I’d kept had turned to dust in storage. My father died on January 21, 2020. That night, sitting at his desk, I saw an ancient, battered laptop (seriously: 15+ years old) sticking out from behind the desk. Why did he even still have it? Why was it behind the desk? I will never know. I dusted it off, spent some time guessing Dad’s password, and got it to open up. Lo and behold, there in the Documents folder was “Autumn’s Canoe”.

I intended to just edit the story, but instead I became a second author for it. You see, Dad just assumed I would know “an Omega D-2” was an enlarger stand or the significance of “that Adams Moonrise shot”, but those aren’t things that most readers would have learned in elementary school. And I fixed a couple plot holes that bothered me even when I was a kid!

The tale is fiction: my mother is still happily alive; she and Dad enjoyed 46 years together. But there is one key factual element in the story. There really is a photo called “Autumn’s Canoe” in my Dad’s collection. Its print hangs on the wall of my parents’ bedroom, and I really don’t know where the negative is. I have asked my mother and my dad, separately, about it. They both, independently, gave me the same short answer: “It was a very good day.” And it clearly made a very good story. And I am thrilled to be able to share it with the world.

—Stephen R. Loftus-Mercer

Robert Mercer (1947-2020) was a photojournalist and college professor, the first community college professor to earn a Fullbright professorship. He loved writing about Oklahoma, and you can find other stories by him in the archives of Oklahoma Today magazine. His photos from around the world are archived in the University of Oklahoma’s Western History collection. This story was revised for publication by his son, Stephen Loftus-Mercer.

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