Anatomy of a Hero
by Huntington Witherill
As you get older it is harder to have heroes, but it is sort of necessary. –Ernest Hemingway
I first became aware of the name: Steve Crouch, in 1969, via the credit line for a particularly alluring photograph that had been reproduced within the pages of a small paperback book titled: Not Man Apart. It was May 12, 1969 and I had just received the book as a gift in celebration of my 20th birthday. And although I didn't know it at the time, that little paperback book was about to change my life in some pretty profound ways.
The book, itself, had been originally published in 1965 as a Sierra Club Ballentine Book and it contained a collection of poems by Robinson Jeffers that were illustrated with photographs by a number of Monterey Peninsula area photographers who, in 1969, I knew virtually nothing about. Included were such mythical figures as Ansel Adams, Edward and Cole Weston, Wynn Bullock, Morley Baer, Steve Crouch, and a host of others whose pictures had served to visually compliment Jeffers' poetry.
The specific photograph that had initially so thoroughly captured my imagination (and which appears on page 131 of Not Man Apart, as well as above) is titled: Waterfall and Mist, ca. 1960, and it portrays a rather elegant cascade that I would later come to learn was Salmon Creek Falls, located in the southern reaches of the Big Sur Coastline.
Owing to the fact that the book: Not Man Apart – and more specifically, the personally captivating picture of Steve's that had been reproduced therein – had served as the initial spark and inspiration for me to summarily abandoned what was, at the time, a fledgling musical career in order to become a photographer – the ongoing importance of that photograph, and the photographer, himself, would only continue to percolate as time progressed.
Several months after initially seeing that reproduced image – and armed with an over-the-hill "Brand 17" 4x5 view camera, a few film holders, not the slightest clue about what in the world I was doing, and a lot of wide-eyed dreams – I packed up my belongings and moved from Santa Monica, CA, to the Monterey Peninsula with intentions of becoming a fine art photographer. And, as fate would have it, I would eventually meet a crusty old Texan who was to become one of my life-long heroes.
After settling into my new home, which during my first year on the Monterey Peninsula consisted of a stylishly appointed 8 ft. cab-over camper that was, more or less, permanently situated in camp space #22 at the long-since upscaled 17-Mile Drive Village, in Pacific Grove, CA, I wouldn't actually meet Steve (in person) until 1974.
Then, sometime in 1974, during a routine break at an Ansel Adams Workshop held at the Asilomar Conference Grounds, in Pacific Grove – while standing around swapping lies with some of my fellow students – up walks Stephen Dallas Crouch with an outstretched hand, a tip of his hat, and the pronouncement: Hi... I'm Al Weber! Of course, I already knew who Al Weber was. I had met Al in 1971. And, I also had a pretty good idea about who Steve was, based upon having just attended a presentation (not five minutes earlier) that he had given as one of the instructors at that workshop. I liked his disarming style from the onset.
Although I had no way of knowing at the time, Steve would quickly become one of my closest and dearest friends. Despite our respective 34-year age difference, and likely due to his exceptionally affable nature, ongoing encouragement, and tireless photographic mentoring, he became (and continues to be) one of the most important people in my life.
During the nine short years that I had the pleasure of knowing Steve, hardly a day would go by without a mid-afternoon visit from him for purposes of tea and conversation. Steve was the only person I've ever known who could actually prepare and consume half-a-dozen cups of tea using no more than a solitary tea-bag. No matter how aggressively I pleaded with him to accept a fresh bag, he would always politely decline. One bag was all he needed, or wanted. I also feel compelled to interject, here, my belief that the man must have had a bladder the size of a 55-gallon drum! We would sit and talk for hours on end about everything from music, to politics, to religion, his childhood in Texas, the latest gossip on the Peninsula – and of course we mostly talked about photography. Yet, not once during those countless visits do I actually remember him ever taking a bathroom break!
By way of a somewhat personally enduring anecdote... At some point in 1977 after having gotten to know Steve for a few years, I was sitting at home one afternoon feeling particularly sorry for myself as I contemplated the misfortune of having just officially failed in my first attempt at marriage. Although the relationship was, in retrospect, a rocky one from the start, this particular day had been the one during which my soon-to-be ex-wife had chosen to pack up and depart, for good. And it was, quite literally, no more than ten minutes after she had closed the door behind her for the very last time that I heard a quiet knocking on that very same door.
I, of course, assumed that she'd returned for one last forgotten item and when I opened the door, lo and behold... there stood Steve, hat in hand, feigning the need of someone to drive him, in his van, to a pending workshop... in Utah! Had he somehow known about the sorry state I was in? No matter. He explained that he was feeling a bit under the weather and he assured me that the trip would last no more than... six weeks! I inquired about when he planned to officially depart and he replied: I left about ten minutes ago. I thought for just a couple of seconds and replied: If you'll come in and make yourself a cup of tea, and give me a few minutes to do some packing... you've got yourself a brand new chauffer!
That particular trip proved to be one of the outstanding highlights of my life. For the ensuing six weeks, we traveled, camped, and photographed all over the American Southwest. I met a number of other prominent photographers along the way including Philip Hyde, Art Bacon, and Bill Ratcliffe. I also learned more about Steve, more about myself, more about the American Southwest, and more about photography than I have at any time in my life, prior or since. One of the greatest things about Steve Crouch was that – despite his obvious stature as an accomplished photographer, a gifted writer, and as such, a particularly celebrated individual – he always made those around him feel as though they were no less than entirely equal to himself... whether they were, or not. He set the kind of example that anyone who knew him would be hard pressed to either deny, or match.
Thinking back on all of this – now more than forty years later – there's no question that Steve was positively instrumental in helping me to become established as a photographer. The cumulative trust and confidence that he placed in me was both unexpected, and unprecedented. Whether he was lobbying to help me secure a teaching position with the University of California Santa Cruz Extension Photography Program – an association that I enjoyed for more than twenty-two years – and during which I even had the fortuitous opportunity to co-teach, with Steve, at a memorable Big Sur workshop where (during one of the field sessions) I would find myself standing side-by-side with the man at the base of Salmon Creek Falls... precisely at that vantage point through which my initial dream to become a photographer had first appeared – Steve effectively set me up for what has become a lifetime of inspiration and personal growth through the magic of photography. And to top it all off, he even exerted his considerable influence with the Monterey Museum of Art, in 1978, in order to facilitate and curate a two-person exhibition in the museum's main gallery that included myself, together with none other than... Edward Weston! Seriously... who does that?
Though I could never fully reconcile the immense debt that I owe to Steve... there's one thing I do know for certain. The very moment that I first saw his photograph in that little paperback book on my 20th birthday... my fate had been forever thereafter sealed. And, Stephen Dallas Crouch was the guy that made it all happen.
Toward the end of his life, Steve was advised by his doctors to significantly alter his life-style in order to forestall what had been an ongoing heart condition (a condition to which he finally succumbed on May 1, 1983). Yet Steve would have no part of a life-style change. He was not the type of individual to slow down simply to gain a few additional months of life enduring what he felt would have been an otherwise bland and regimented existence. He forged ahead at full speed and, in the end, he lived a life that was incredibly rich and full – and most importantly, he lived life according to his own terms. And then one day, he went to his closet to hang a freshly laundered shirt and... that was that.
On a shelf over the sink in my kitchen there is a cactus plant that Steve had brought back from one of his numerous trips to Mexico, sometime in 1981. He would often stop along the road while traveling in order to forage for unusual plant life to add to his garden. This particular cactus (Echinopsis chamaecereus) which arrived as a sampling no larger than a matchbox, continues to grow and prosper to this day. And that plant has since been split-off and shared with a number of other photographers in the community whose lives were also deeply touched by Steve's presence. He remains among us all.
As an aside, the original plant specimen – which around our house is more commonly referred to as: "Steve" – is currently the size of a large grapefruit and it continues, without fail, to produce an intense red bloom every few years. And wouldn't you know it... each and every morning when I go to make a cup of coffee, I see that cactus, I smile, and I can't help but be reminded about just how lucky I am to have such a magnificent hero!
About the Portrait of Steve Crouch:
In the spring of 1979, Steve conducted a travel and photography workshop in Baja, Mexico that had been scheduled to initially begin in the remote villiage of San Quintin, some 270 miles south of the Mexican-American borderline. My second (and forever!) wife, Tracy and I – along with Steve – were the first to arrive at the designated point of departure (by several hours) and Steve was quite concerned that other members of the workshop would pass us by, without notice, thereby becoming lost and delaying the start of the workshop, itself. So, after rummaging through the back of his van for what seemed a considerable amount of time, he produced a roll of electical tape and began to emblazen the side of his van with his name, and a camera, so that the soon to be arriving participents would be sure to notice... and stop! Upon completing the job we all agreed that his handiwork should be forever memorialized and thus, I made the resulting portrait using a Pentax 6x7 camera and 55mm Takumar lens.