Micah Nelson’s tender editorial portrait depicts the story of his grandfather – complete with fascinating detail
When it came to telling a visual tale, one subject came to Micah Nelson’s mind. “The subject in the photo is my grandfather,” he says, “better known to his grandkids as Papaw. My dad’s dad was born, raised, and still lives in East Tennessee. He was a life-long mechanic, and to this day finds the strength to sharpen the mower blades and consult us on our miscellaneous car sounds.
“Papaw doesn’t get around as easily as he used to, and definitely doesn’t care for his picture to be taken on a regular basis. But, as a photographer, I wanted to honor him with something that encapsulates who he is. I felt it was important for all his kids, so I pulled the grandkid card and asked him for this very important favor. To my surprise and delight, he said yes – or actually, something closer to, ‘I reckon that’d be fine.’”
Setting the natural scene was key in fulfilling the editorial brief. “The background was inspired by the window light in the garage and Papaw himself,” Micah recalls. “I should note, he wasn’t just a mechanic, but an Appalachian mechanic. He would hold on to anything he thought might be useful one day. Useful things, unfinished projects, and gifted tools fill this garage. In a lot of ways, it’s a reflection of him: serving, hard-working, caring.
“I didn’t actively tell Papaw where to look, and he wore what he had on that day. His ‘pose’ was just him, and I couldn’t have asked for better. We talked, he reflected, and I photographed.
“The week before, I checked periodically on the window light to see where it fell in the garage,” Micah adds. “When I saw the position I liked, I made note of the time, so I knew exactly when to ask Papaw for his photograph. The only thing left was to pre-place the chair where I wanted.”
Explaining the decision-making behind her choice, it’s evident Alison was moved by Micah’s entry. “This image immediately drew me in,” she says. “The light pouring in from the window, falling onto the man, is beautiful. It also feels very organic to me, and tells a story. I love his cane in the photo, as well as the little tools and objects in the background. There is something quite special about this portrait.”