Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Author Spotlight, Edgar I. Ailor III

Have you seen the lead book review in Reader's Digest? (Hint! Hint! It's Blue Highways Revisited!)

interview conducted by former sales intern, Sarah Mason

Edgar I. Ailor III began his photography career on a high school yearbook staff. With a camera always nearby, he honed his skills through several decades of practicing otolaryngology. On retirement in March of 2005 he started Ailor Fine Art Photography in Columbia, Missouri, with Edgar I. Ailor IV. 

What inspired you to consider making Blue Highways Revisited (as opposed to only sticking with your photography business)?

I started reading Heat-Moon's Blue Highways on a cold winter's night in January 1983--I was hooked. The thought of getting in a van or even a car and traveling the back roads of America for three months was just so incredible that I decided then that someday I'd make that trip. In 1983, I was just three-plus years into my otolaryngology practice, and I had a wife in medical school and two precious children, ages eight and five, so that thought had to be put on hold for a few decades. I've been an avid photographer since high school; and in the five years before retiring from medicine, I knew my second career would be photography. Susie, my wife and most enthusiastic supporter, encouraged me to retire soon enough to be able to hike up those mountains and along those streams--before I was too old to do it. So on the last day of February 2005, after 27 years of practice, I saw my last private practice patient and started Ailor Fine Art Photography the next day.

Sometime in that first year, the seed that Heat-Moon's book planted in my cerebrum began to sprout. (I don’t think it would show up on a CT or MRI scan, but who knows?) The thought, once again, of traveling the back roads of America was now a possibility. In the spring of 2006, at Addison's Cafe in downtown Columbia, I pitched the idea to Heat-Moon about my son (Edgar IV) and I retracing his Blue Highways journey and capturing it photographically. Several things are most memorable from that conversation. Heat-Moon had originally planned to photograph the route in 1978, but he said he had trouble switching back and forth from left brain to write and right brain to photography. He ended up photographing mainly the characters he interviewed--the wonderful portraitures we see in his book. He also told me that the most common question from his readers was, "When are you going to take the trip again to see how things have changed?" So fortunately, he liked the idea. Years later he would confide in me that he didn't expect anyone, including me and my son, to retrace the entire 13,889 miles and put it into book form.

To combine the pure joy of photography with the several decades-old dream of retracing Blue Highways seemed to me to be the ultimate. It could only have gotten better if Susie could have made the entire trip with me. The result of combining the joy of photography and a dream is Blue Highways Revisited.

Who are your personal favorite photographers?

My favorite photographer since childhood has been Ansel Adams who set the gold standard for American landscape photography. Adams at age 14 took his first photographs with a Kodak Box Brownie on a family vacation to Yosemite National Park in 1916. That visit to Yosemite triggered a career of capturing America’s wilderness that lasted almost six decades. Many of the National Parks and wilderness areas we enjoy today were preserved because of his and the Sierra Club’s influence. He introduced America to the vast beauty of our wilderness areas though his photography and helped convince multiple generations that it was worth preserving.

A current photographer, equally talented, is Tim Palmer. He is an outstanding and prolific wilderness photographer. My favorites of his 20 photography books are Trees and Forests of America, California Wild, and Rivers of America. His most recent book, just released, Field Guides to California Rivers, will make it even more difficult to keep driving over every bridge I cross in California. When you look at Tim’s books, you want to grab your cameras, pull on your hiking boots, and head for those distant wilderness trails through mountains and beside streams that only a few individuals will ever visit.

If you could read a book for the first time again, which one would it be?

Naturally, for me, it would be Blue Highways. Only one other nonfiction book, Undaunted Courage, captured my imagination like Blue Highways. Heat-Moon gives such powerful descriptions that you visualize and often feel the scene--experience the grit--and no one else spins a yarn as well as he since Mark Twain. That explains why a pair of photographers would spend years photographing the journey, cafes, and taverns; spend years tracking down the book characters; and then spend the time to write Revisited some thirty years later.  

Do you hope to do another book in the future? Any themes you’d like to explore?

Yes! I’ve got lots of ideas. The most exciting and perhaps daunting would be to photograph Heat-Moon’s water route from New York Harbor to the mouth of the Columbia River in Astoria, Oregon--River-Horse. Does anyone have a boat they want to loan me?