In 1976 I searched for first-time parents with the intent of photographing their first year of adjusting to a new baby. A Lamaze instructor gave me a list of names. After several couples turned me down, John and Judy McGarvey agreed to a month-by-month trial run. It’s been 35 years and I’m now photographing a fourth generation of the McGarvey family.
The difficulty of a project that lasts decades is photographing now what will be important in the future. Like the letters in a game of Scrabble, the best of my pictures are connected to each other in many different directions. And that means I’ve photographed many situations that turned into dead ends.
In his youth, the McGarvey’s second child, Morgan, was an excellent baseball player and I thought he might go far in that sport. However, as time went on it was obvious that he was too short and wasn’t good enough to play pro ball.
Morgan also was a “Top Gun” kind of kid. When he was in college, I thought he would be a Navy pilot. I was even planning how I could get pictures of him landing his first plane on an aircraft carrier. But over time it became clear that his allergies would prevent him from becoming a pilot.
I have a picture that I really like of him and his girlfriend selecting an engagement ring. She broke up with him before he could propose to her so that picture is worthless because it connects to nothing in his future.
And then there are the events I didn’t photograph, like the 4-H Kentucky State Oratory Contest. At age 9, he won his age group. The next year he entered again and I opted not to go. That time, he beat 18-year-olds to win the state championship.
I didn’t guess that his speaking talents, intellect and ability to stand out in a crowd would lead to a career in politics. This past spring he clinched the Democratic nomination in the state Senate primary. He’s virtually assured of taking office because he faces no opposition in the fall election.
Morgan was named after his grandfather, Elmer Everett Morgan. In the beginning, I wasn’t interested in the grandparents. Now I wish I had photographed the first time Morgan’s grandpa held him. Several years passed before I realized how close they were.
There were seven other grandchildren and Mr. Morgan loved them all, but Morgan and his grandpa had the same personality, sense of humor, and outlook on life. They were best friends. Morgan’s grandpa was present at all the small and big moments in his life and Morgan was there for his grandpa during his final years. Morgan always found time to play cards with him or take him out for a beer. And when he visited the 91-year-old in the hospital, Morgan held his hands, looked into his eyes, and implored, “Grandpa, I’m not ready for the adventure to end.”
Pam Spaulding, a 1985 Nieman Fellow, has been a photojournalist for The (Louisville, Ky.) Courier-Journal since 1972.