Missing Dad on Father's Day

  My dad on vacation - always with a tie. NYC, 1960-something

My dad on vacation - always with a tie. NYC, 1960-something

He was a wise man – a smart man.  And he taught me about unconditional love. He was my father, Art Alleshouse.

When Dad was born, this country was a very different place.  He was the eldest of three sons, and when he arrived in 1909, he was the third generation to be welcomed to the household in Holmes County, Ohio. I can only imagine my grandmother was delighted at the distractions of a new baby in a home that included her father and mother-in-law, and brother-in-law, as well as her quiet, somewhat taciturn husband.

Arthur Earl Alleshouse was born with her features, set in an interestingly triangular-shaped head. His brother Wayne followed in three years, and then his baby brother Paul three years after that. The three boys changed the demographics, and I’m certain the energy level, of the intergenerational homestead.

My father was a talented photographer – more of an artist, actually - who used black and white film to capture his understanding of light and dark. He found beauty in faces, figures, and form. And for him that form was found in settings ranging from the rolling hills of central Ohio to the linear angles of Midwestern American industry of the 1930s and 1940s.

But I didn’t appreciate all of that when I was a child. I always thought Dad’s photography was limited to documentation of the hundreds of recitals and performances organized by my piano teacher mother.

Mom always told me she had wanted to be a vocalist, but she lacked talent. So she went into piano teaching where having an ear wasn’t quite so important, as long as a professional tuned the piano regularly. She played with great passion and gusto that more than made up for any deficit in technique.

And my father was there to document all of those recitals, music competitions, and performances at the state hospital and old folks homes. He took great care to set up a tripod, examine its precise level with the accuracy of his engineering training, and then would set, reset, and set again the light aperture to ensure the smiles of Mom’s pupils were captured just so. Of course, the smiles would start bright and happy, as the photos were taken at the end of the recitals, but after Dad’s lengthy camera futzing, the shots he captured show strained impatient smiles of teenagers ready to go home already. 

 “Just grab a candid shot, Dad,” I’d say, totally ignorant of the assault that was to his artistic training that called for precision and care not to waste film. 

I have wondered how my father would adapt his photography style to the freedom of digital cameras, where the artistry is in the editing, resizing, and reframing of quickly snapped images. Photography today is less about capturing a memory by recording the facts of an experience than it is about fixing the image of the experience to fit a memory we wish we had. During Dad’s day, a cloudy overcast day was captured as just that – a cloudy, overcast day at the beach. 

Not today. With a little editing and added lighting of the digital image, voila! The day becomes sunny and our memory of the experience is equally altered.

The photographic artistry of my father required intense patience that waited for light to shift, or shadows to lengthen. He always preferred black and white because it didn’t fade, as did the color prints of the time. His photography reflected an honesty that was part of its, and his, origins.

Looking in albums of old color snapshots today shows how right his dedication to black and white images was. I’m pretty sure my mother never wore pastel-colored clothes as they now appear in those square photos of the 1960s and 70s.

I knew what I knew as a child about my father’s passion for photography by how he spent his limited free time. I knew he had his own darkroom. I knew he printed photos himself. Whenever Dad would disappear for long stretches of time, he would be off in his darkroom printing images of people and places.

It wasn’t until he was gone that I found the huge stash of prints and slides, along with charcoal sketches and drawings he made years before he became a husband or father. 

My son Ben gave me perspective about how we view the lives of our parents when he met my old college roommate, a relationship that clearly predated him. “It’s always surprising, Mom, to realize you had a life before I was born.  In my mind, your life started when mine did.” 

And that’s what I always believed about my father. Surely I knew he had been born on a farm, and grown up in rural Ohio. But I simply never imagined my father as a young man living a fascinating artistic life before becoming a husband and father.  How I wish I’d known to gather his memories of his young post-college years because the images we found raised so many questions.