Photography by T. L. "Tom" Cubbage II

Getting to know more about the photographer

"More About Tom Cubbage:

The Man and His Spiritual Side"

Self-Portrait, c. 1983

"Bless all whose lives are closely linked with ours, and grant that we may serve Christ in them, and love one another as he loves us." — Episcopal Book of Common Prayer.

Christian spirituality does not involve a withdrawal from the world; rather it is a renewed way of viewing and living in the temporal world. There are doorways through which we enter the spiritual world. Art is one such doorway.

Photography is an art form. I have always loved photography. It is a medium in which I am an artist. Some of my earliest memories involve photography.

My father was a serious amateur photographer and my mother was the one who opened and encouraged that interest in him. In 1936, when the two of them honeymooned in Mexico City, mom brought dad a German Zeiss-Ikon Compur-Rapid folding camera. It is still in good working order. From time to time I use it—just to know what it was like to be a serious photographer sixty plus years ago.

When I was born three years later, in 1939, my dad used that camera to record my first days. Over the years I saw that camera pointed my way lots of times, and I can still hear dad saying the magic words—"Say Cheese."

I got my first camera in 1952, when I was twelve. It was a Kodak Brownie Box. I used it to record a family trip to New York City. The Brownie Box is long gone, but other camera have followed. By the time I was in high school here at College High I had a Kodak 35mm rangefinder camera. I was ready to do some serious picture taking.

It was then that I decided I wanted to be was a portrait photographer. My only sister—two years my junior—and some of her friends were my first models. Some of my girl friends also modeled. I especially remember Mary Elda Scarth, Lillian Overlees, Carol Bricker, and Linda Perkins. Linda was such a good model—she had the Grace Kelly look—that I married her. But I am getting ahead of myself in my story.

In 1957, at eighteen, just out of high school, I went to Europe. I took my camera with me, and lots of Kodak slide film. During the two months that I traveled alone in Europe I photographed the great landmarks of London, Paris, Zurich, Milan, Rome, Capri, the Riviera, more of Paris and the French Line ocean liner that took me over and back. I also took my camera to the top of the Matterhorn at Zermatt to record the part of the trip I planed but did not tell my parents about before I left.

I took a camera with me to college, and several more when, in the Army, I went to war.

In Vietnam—in the months that preceded the 1968 TÍt Offensive—I recorded the beauty and vitality of Saigon. Then, during the month-long battles in and around the city I recorded the horror of destruction that marked the ebb and flow of hotly contested urban warfare.

During all this time I was a serious photographer, and for a time I still wanted to be was a professional photographer, but I didn’t follow that dream. Photography, then, did not become my vocation, but it remained my serious avocation. It has been a means for me to express my right-brain vision; a way of recording what I saw and felt about the world and people in it. In my life and several careers I have also used photography as an adjunct to my work and play—

—to record my family’s life,
—as an intelligence gathering tool,
—as the basis for a photo journalist cover in my spy master days, and
—as a tool for the practice of law.

I never imagined that one day photography might be a doorway to ministry in the service of God. Of course, at the times I was thinking about photography, military matters, and a career in law, I really wasn’t thinking about ministry, nor about God, to be perfectly truthful. Let me digress for a few minutes.

I was born here in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, on April19, 1939. My parents were both Phillips Petroleum Company people. We moved a lot—usually back and forth to Borger, Texas, until 1951 when my parents moved back to Bartlesville and stayed. I finished grade school at St. John Catholic School, and was a Col-Hi Wildcat graduate. In 1957 I went away to Notre Dame University and from there to the OU Law School in 1961.

Between semester in my freshman year in law school Linda Perkins and I were married, and we started our family that included two girls and a boy.

Out of law school in 1964 I spent a year in private practice in Cushing, Oklahoma. Then, in May 1965, I went on active duty as a First Lieutenant in the US Army. I served in the Military Intelligence Branch for six years and rose to the rank of Major before resigning in 1971.

I seriously considered going to work for the CIA, but decided that if I was ever to use my legal training again I had better give the law a second chance. As it turned out Phillips Petroleum Company needed a lawyer in Amarillo, Texas. I went there for six years; then Linda and I came back to Bartlesville, our home town. I continued to lawyer for Phillips until, after 21 years, I elected to take an early retirement in May 1992 during the corporation's first of many downsizings.

Let me again go back in time, and along the way perhaps I can find and trace the spiritual thread that runs through my life story.

I was baptized at St. John’s Catholic Church in 1939. I attended Catholic grade schools from the third through the eighth grade. I was confirmed. I was an altar boy, I learned my catechism well, and I believed in God. When I went on to Notre Dame—even though I was in the business school—I took enough electives hours to get minors in theology and philosophy. As I look back I can see that as I was growing up I learned a lot about God, about Jesus, and about the Bible, but I never really had a personal relationship with God the Father or Jesus. I knew who the Holy Spirit was, but I never really paid any attention to Him at all.

Through my post-graduate and military days, and into the late 80’s I was a practicing catholic, which meant—for me— that I would be counted on to be at church for mass on Sunday morning. Then for a while—the kids were gone from home by then—I became a non-practicing Catholic. During that period I had the foolish and pride-full notion that it was better to be a fallen-away Catholic than any sort of Protestant. I guess I imagined that a lapsed Catholic would get a better seat in hell after God passes his judgment! It was a great rationalization, while it lasted.

By 1990 I also knew that without a connection to God there was a big hole in my life. But I wasn’t doing anything about it. In early 1992, through the evangelizing work of one of the women at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, my wife Linda began to go to church here. Linda found something here and she asked me to come to church with her. By then I was very accomplished at finding an excuse—any excuse—for not going to church, but when she asked I surprised her (and myself) and said I’d like to do that. By then I sensed that I needed to see what was causing the change in Linda’s life.

Immediately—and I do mean immediately—I knew that there was really something different about the Eucharist service at St. Luke’s. On the surface the liturgy rite was not so different from the post-Vatican II English language liturgy at St. John’s Catholic. The difference was in my experience of the presence of the Holy Spirit.

In the months that followed I began a new walk with God that has involved me in an intimate personal relationship with the three persons of the Trinity. In the last three years a lot has happened in my spiritual life. I daily thank God for that.

I finally understood who the person of God called the Holy Spirit was, and what his role in the church and the kingdom of God is. I discovered that He is the one that empowers us with the gifts of the spirit so that we can do ministry according to the will of God. I found out what apostle Paul meant when he said in Galatians 2:20 that "I live, yet not I, but Christ lives in me." I learned that each of us is called by God, and as soon as we heed the call, and acknowledge his lordship, we are sent by him into ministry. As Paul said: "[W]ork out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure." (Philippians 2:12–13)

And I have learned that we must be ready to minister to others in their time of need and in the oddest of circumstances. As soon as I learned to let go and let God, I learned that it was well to live by an old military maxim: "Always expect the unexpected."

In the summer of 1996, for example, I learned that even in the midst of a very intense photographic workshop experience there can be an opportunity for personal ministry. I learned to see that sometimes the opportunity for ministry comes from simply realizing that the circumstances of a situation are not always about my business, but may be about God’s. Sometime God is not as interested in our ability as in our availability.

I learned that sometimes we have to be like Philip in Acts 8 who was preaching the good news to many in Samaria when he was directed to put aside for the moment what he was doing to go to Gaza to instruct one person.

To illustrate this, let me tell you of my very special encounter with a photographer’s model in Santa Fe who I will call Miriam. Here is how that came about. And, as you will see, the threads or photography and spiritual things were about to be intertwined.

We are never too old to learn, and a little formal schooling is also good for serious photographers, especially if the opportunity to study with world-class photographers presents itself.

In June 1995, I attended a course taught by the New York-based fine art photographer Joyce Tenneson. Her week-long course, taught at the Santa Fe Photographic Workshops was entitled "The Figure Study and Portrait Workshop."

The first model I worked with at that workshop was Miriam. At the time she was thirty. She was also three months pregnant with her first child. We worked together only briefly, for about thirty minutes, in the sculpture garden of a private residence in Santa Fe. Out of that session came several very nice portraits of Miriam. I was pleased that I had captured the mood of the moment on that rainy, overcast day. In them, I later thought, she had a very melancholy look.

In her looks that day she was concealing a painful story. At the time I did not know what was troubling her. I had worked with her, and yet I had failed to take any notice that something sad was going on in her life. Over the years I think there were a lot of times when I worked with people and never really knew what was happening in their life.

After the 1995 workshop ended I contacted Miriam to ask for a model’s release, and sent her copies of the prints. She wrote back and thanked me. She also said that if I was ever back in Santa Fe and needed a model she would like to work with me again —after her baby was born.

A year later I did return to Santa Fe to attend another workshop. This time the course was "The Nude Portrait" taught by Greg Gorman, one of the most successful of the Hollywood celebrity portraitists. The opportunity to work again with Miriam became a possibility.

I arranged my schedule so that I could arrive in Santa Fe several days before Greg’s workshop began. I was joined by a long-time friend and professional photographer who lives in Amarillo. I was also joined by a New York photographer that I had met during Joyce’s class. We three planned to do two days of shooting on our own. I arranged for Miriam and two other Santa Fe models to work with us. Miriam was to be the key to the shoot. She is a Tewa Indian of the Santa Clara Pueblo group. She grew up in the Santa Fe area, and we planned to shoot at locations close to where she had lived as a child.

Until the day I arrived in Santa Fe I was worried about the possibility that something would come up in regard to a case I was working on that would make it impossible for me to go to the workshop. God had plans of his own and was not about to let any trial date scheduling orders interfere with the trip.

The day that Norm, Herb, and I arrived in Santa Fe it was raining. It was the third day of rains that had broken a 280-day drought in Santa Fe. But, on the first day we were going to shoot the clouds broke and the sun came out and the shoot was on. The fact that the photo shoot could go forward delighted the models.

Santa Fe is an expensive place to live. Many of the local people have several sources of income. Miriam, for example, in her early 30's, is a published author and poet. She teaches English and creative writing at the high school level. She also teaches New Mexico Indian History, and is a ceremonial dancer at her native Pueblo. She designs traditional clothes, and last, but not least, she models for both painters and photographers.

The venue that Miriam had selected for the first day’s shoot was at a waterfall on Embudo Creek, near Dixon, north of Santa Fe on the road to Taos. As a young girl she had lived near the falls. It was close to the road, and yet private. It was a beautiful location. That day, Norm, Herb and I each worked for two hours with each of the three models. In the rotation I worked last with Miriam. She seemed tired when we started to work at 6:00 p.m. For my part, I was not that inspired. I had already been shooting for four hours, and she had been modeling for the others for that long. The temperature was about ninety, and we were at about 8,200 feet. I had done some really good shooting with the other two models and I decided that Miriam and I were just too tired to work more than thirty minutes. In fact everybody was a tired and we called it a day and drove back to Santa Fe.

That night the rains returned and it was still raining at noon the next day when the models met with us at La Posada de Santa Fe where we were staying. We all realized that there was no possibility of finding a dry place to work at any of the locations we were considering. Even so, all of us really wanted to work if we could find a dry place. It was Miriam that suggested that we stay at the hotel and shoot inside in the bungalow suite where Norm and I were staying. We moved furniture to clear space so we could work with the available light by the windows in two of the three rooms. Shooting indoors without studio lights is always a challenge, but we decided to see what we could do—the alternative was simply to sit inside all day and grumble about the weather.

That day I worked first with Miriam, and we worked for two hours by ourselves in one of the bedrooms on the front side of the suite. There was one small window in the room, but the light was good. There was also a strong antique ice chest that served as a night stand that we moved next to the window for her to sit on. My plan was to do portraits of Miriam, taking advantage of the very directional and Vermeer quality of the light.

I did not take me any time at all to discover that all was not well with Miriam. She was not complaining and was responding well to my posing directions, but there was an incredible sadness in her eyes. As I looked through the viewfinder I could see her anguish. Her pain was almost palpable. I was at a watershed moment. On the one hand, I could have asked what her problem was, discovered that she was trying to work through a personal crisis, concluded that her problem that was getting in the way of the shoot, paid her for her time, and let her go—probably with a resolve never to book her again. But that is not what happened. The Holy Spirit prompted me to go in a different direction, and I did. "Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others," said Paul in Philippians 2:4.

There, sitting before me was a person in real pain. I told her that I could see a deep sorrow in her expression. I asked her what was wrong, and I told her that if it was something that she wanted to talk about I was there to listen. As soon as I said that, tears welled up in her eyes and she told me the story behind the pain that I could see. She told me how she had been hurt and was left with the belief that she was unloved and that whatever beauty she had was lost.

In one of those instances of perfect clarity I knew that what was going on in that room at that moment was not about me, or about my photography. Instead it was about one person crying out to God for help. It was not a Kodak moment that I was presented with, but a ministry moment. So for the next two hours we talked—well, she did most of the talking—while I guided her and encouraged her. And all the time we were doing that I kept on shooting. It seemed like the most natural thing in the world for me to do and she did not mind.

She told me that what had happened had left her feeling that she was neither lovable nor beautiful. I said that it was not true, and that I would continue to shoot until I could capture for her the pictures that would prove that she had not become ugly. I told her that I would continue to shoot and, in doing so, look for the woman of beauty to return. She said she hoped that I could find that woman for her. In her hurt she had become blind in a sense, and was unable to see her true self in her mirror. As I worked, and as I assured her that what I saw was a woman of beauty, she regained her ability to see herself as she truly was.

I will not share with you the details of what caused Miriam to be in such pain. That is her story and an unimportant detail in this story. What is important is for you to know that the two hours we were together was an incredible spiritual experience for the both of us. Miriam wondered if she was still lovable, and if so, who loved her and why. I reminded her about her Creator, and told her that as a person made in His image she was more beautiful that she could ever see with her earthly eyes.

There we were. If one of the other models or photographers had put their head in the door to that room they would have seen one photographer and one model. But Miriam and I knew that others were there with us. God was present pouring out his love. Jesus was there comforting her. The Holy Spirit was there, guiding me, and healing her by giving her a new understanding. There were angels there too.

I do not know why Miriam could not talk about her problems with her mother (a woman a little younger than I am), or why she could not tell her sisters, or her close friends. All I know is that she couldn’t—she told me that much. And yet she could tell me. Maybe it was because she was posing nude. Maybe because she was already naked in body she had no inhibition about baring her soul as well. When I, really no more that a stranger, saw her pain and asked her what was wrong, she suddenly felt the freedom to confess the cause and depth of her anguish.

I realized at the time that I was the one who was called, and sent, to be with Miriam that day and for that one important purpose. The person of Jesus needed to be incarnated for her. I was given the grace to see that my photography was merely an incidental circumstance in the situation. I was able to listen and respond as she talked to God through me.

Why me, you may ask, as I have? The answer is simple: I was there, I was available: mine were the only eyes, ears, and mouth that was ready to serve when the Holy Spirit decided to begin the process of spiritually healing Miriam. In the two hours that we were together I was both a servant, and an onlooker, for I was allowed to record the healing process by which Miriam rediscovered of her own self-worth. Deep down Miriam knew her worth as a person, and why God loved her, but the actions of another had caused her such deep pain that she had become blind to that truth. During the ministry time we shared she rediscovered it—God renewed her vision of her true self.

At the end of the two hours, when it was time to take a break, I laid my camera aside and asked Miriam if she wanted to pray about what had happened. As I asked her, I held out my hands to her with my palms ups. When I did she grasped my hands as if she was being rescued from a storm-tossed sea. I began to pray, and as I did she leaned toward me until her head was above our hands. As I prayed tears welled up in her eyes and fell like two streams on our hands. Tears also came to my eyes as I felt the close presence of the Spirit.

And then when we said Amen, she thanked me and smiled. It was the first time I had seen her really smile. Later, when we had finished the day’s shoot, Miriam left first. Maria, another of the models—the one who knew her best, remarked at how she had changed and Maria asked what had happened. I said that New Mexico is truly the land of enchantment, and that a miracle had graced her earlier in the day.

Later, after all the models had left, both Norm and Herb remarked at how full of life Mariam was that day, as compared to the day before. I told them that I knew why it rained today, and why we had to do the photo shoot indoors. I said that God wanted to heal Mariam today and he had simply created the wonderful opportunity for the healing process to begin as it did.

Obviously, God could have healed Mariam in an infinite number of ways. I just happened to be the one who was blessed with the opportunity, on that day, to see a truly remarkable demonstration of how God can and does work in all things—even in a photography situation—if we are open to do his work with our lives. Why did God wait until a year after I had met Mariam and after I had traveled almost seven hundred miles to be there. I don’t know. All I do know is that whenever something like this happens—I mean when prayers are answered and a healing take place—both the one who receives the gift and the one involved in giving them are equally graced.

When something like this—a spiritual healing—takes place I know that we do not have to wait until we die and the final judgment comes to find out what the mystery of the resurrection is all about. We need only learn from such experiences how God heals and renews us throughout our lives.

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Text and image: © 1997 by T. L. "Tom" Cubbage II - All Rights Reserved

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This page was first published on 11/2/1997.

Updated 5/2/2005, at 13:45 hours CST, by Webmaster Tom Cubbage

"Eyes are the gateway to a person's soul." —Anon.