Photographer Richard Ballarian, whose career spans more than fifty years, on the first picture he ever took.

When I was a teenager, my family and I would often drive to Powder Mills Park, in suburban Rochester, to have breakfast on Sunday.

On the way, we’d always pass a lone American Elm tree.

Rochester was long the home of Kodak; at that time, there were [probably] 25,000 employees, and everyone seemed to have a camera.

One day, I took a photo of the elm tree from 300 yards away with a camera that my uncle — who had previously opened an unsuccessful photography business in the Midwest — sold to me for $25.

The tree was old. It obviously was once part of a forest, but when I took the picture, there was nothing around it but an open field.

I developed the photograph in a dark room that my father let me build under the back stairs of our house.

The image was striking — in spite of everything else that had happened, the tree was still there, a symbol of what was left.

I had the impression that it was fighting with the earth, battling to stay alive, to survive. I realize now that the photo was very ordinary, but then, to me, it was marvelous.

— as told to The Thick

Did you see? Makeup artist Christy Coleman shares her favorite images from a lifetime collection of Polaroids, collage artist Kalen Hollomon takes The Thick Questionnaire.


All photography by Richard Ballarian