Farewell, Barney Sellers

My family said goodbye to a dear friend on Friday.

Barney Sellers, faithful husband, father, grandfather – and friend – passed away on Jan. 2, 2012, at age 85. He and his wife, Betty, had just celebrated their 64th wedding anniversary on Jan. 1, and he died about three hours after midnight.

Barney was an award-winning photographer, known for capturing on film everything from civil-rights marches to celebrities to heads of state, including at least two kings: Elvis Presley, the king of rock and roll (happy birthday, Elvis), and “Martin Luther the King Jr.,” as the hospice chaplain who spoke at his memorial service jokingly told the gathering.

But I knew him as a gentle man devoted to family and friends first and to taking pictures second.

When Barney retired to Batesville after 36 years as a staff “photog” (as he called it) at The Commercial Appeal in Memphis, he and Betty Sue moved across the street from my parents in 1988, while I was in college at ASU. Barney and I had that in common: We both earned journalism degrees at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro, not too far from Barney and Betty’s old stompin’ grounds in Walnut Ridge.

While he and my dad became fast friends (they both loved to tell stories, and lots of them), I looked to him as a source of teaching. As a student journalist, I, too, was interested in photography. Beyond technical skills, however, the tips I picked up from him had more to do with composition than f-stops and shutter speeds.

Dad and Morgan at Barney’s

Barney wasn’t one to photograph people – although one of my favorites is a black-and-white picture he took of my dad and niece sitting together on a bench in Barney’s front yard when Morgan was about 3. And, as a favor, he took my wedding pictures (and wouldn’t accept payment). In fact, it was on my 14th wedding anniversary last week that my mother told me of his passing. (If you subscribe to The Batesville Daily Guard, take note of Page 1 of the Jan. 3 edition, which features not only a photo of Barney accompanying the article but a shot he took of downtown Batesville under a huge full moon.)

My house and my mother’s house are adorned with pictures Barney took, and I can’t recall being allowed to pay him for a single one of them. I would be at his house, admire a picture among the dozens (or sometimes hundreds) he showed me on a particular visit, and the next thing I knew the photo was double or triple matted (by Barney) and given to me or my family as a gift. Mom was responsible for taking them to the frame shop, although the birthday gift he gave me one year (an aerial shot of the White River dam in Batesville), a wedding gift (of a huge full moon above a barn) and my favorite gift from Barney – a photo of double streaks of lightning in the night sky above the Memphis bridge – came complete with frame. He was very generous with his artwork.

Barney’s newspaper years were successful and spanned decades, but, after his official retirement, he was better able to indulge his passion for rural scenes. His “business” was called Barney’s Barns and Rural Scenes, but he was more teacher than businessman. He held photography workshops, taking eager students around scenic Arkansas and elsewhere, teaching them how to see the beauty in a simple dirt road, falling-down barn or old rusty plow.

His son Stanley – or “Chobee,” as I’ve always known him – told me Friday that probably 80-90 percent of Barney’s work centered on his beloved Ozarks.

Yes, Barney saw things that no one should have to see – he photographed civil unrest in the Memphis of the mid-20th century, he went to war (serving two stints in the Navy) and he was there the day singer Jerry Lee Lewis lost his 3-year-old son to drowning in 1962. But despite that – or perhaps because of it – he was able to see the beauty in God’s creation that many of us are too busy to notice.

I remember the time he was visiting my dad at the shop Dad had built in our back yard, and Barney saw a spider web hanging from a corner of the building. Barney said, “Don’t touch that,” or some such admonition to leave the web alone. He trudged back up the hill to his house, returned with a squirt bottle, misted the spider web and shot a typically stunning picture of it, water droplets sparkling in the moonlight.

If not for Barney, I probably wouldn’t have had the “eye,” or the presence of mind, to snap a picture of the spider-web-covered jade plant in Morro Bay, Calif., when Mom and I visited in 2006. In fact, I’m sure that my affinity for photographing “plant life” over “real life” had something to do with Barney. When I spent a summer in Guatemala after college graduation, I took lots of shots of hillsides, mountains, rivers, lakes and volcanoes, and when I returned home and proudly showed my parents all my wonderful pictures, Mom said, “Where are the people?” (She is more of the “line people up like statues” school of photographic thought, whereas Barney wasn’t so much into that.)

Barney liked to tease my mom; he had a wonderful sense of humor – sometimes mischievous, sometimes dry like mine. He loved to laugh, and he loved people.

Barney’s “uniform,” as I recall it, was a pair of khaki pants, a chambray shirt, a bandanna, sometimes a vest, thick eyeglasses and – more often than not – two cameras hanging from his neck. And when he would amble down the hill to our house – whether on foot or in his Jeep on the way to photograph some dilapidated thing down some dirt road (Chaplain Brent said he was told that Barney “knew where every barn was in the state of Arkansas”) – he frequently carried a can of Coke supplemented with Metamucil. “He’d nurse that thing all day, it seemed like,” my mother recalled Friday as we reminisced on the way home from the service. To me, the Coke and Metamucil were simply part of the Barney package.

Barney was old school and had his own way of doing things (hence the recording of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” at the memorial service). According to his family, he took “thousands and thousands and thousands” of photos in his lifetime, all of them with a film camera. His daughter, Susie, had tried to convert him to digital photography but didn’t succeed. Chobee told me about all the prints and negatives in the house, in the garage, in a 10-by-16-foot storage building. Chobee had tried to get his dad to let him sort and catalog them but, again, didn’t succeed.

“He had his own way of cataloguing them, and none of us knew what that way was.” Chobee tried to reason with his dad: Someday we’ll need to know your system. Barney promised to teach him the system, but that day never came.

Barney’s health hadn’t been good in several years. His children had been trying to persuade their parents to leave the split-level house in Batesville – where Barney didn’t do well on the stairs “and kept scaring the daylights out of all of us,” according to his son Richard. They wanted their parents to move back to Memphis, where Barney’s cardiologist and other doctors were. So, even though “his heart was in Arkansas,” according to Chobee, he and Betty Sue finally left their home state and in 2007 moved back to the Memphis area, where Barney died.

There are a few things I regret in life – not getting my Nanny or my Aunt Jo to teach me how to quilt (I paid for classes at a store after both of them had passed on), not getting my Grandma Tressie to really teach me how to sew garments, not spending more time with Dad underneath all those cars he worked on, so I’d know how to change my own oil … and not spending more time at Barney’s elbow, soaking up his knowledge of photography and his love for all things rural. Now it’s too late for all of that.

But if there is anything Barney taught me, it is to keep doing what you love – and to love your family and friends while you’re doing it. I’m determined to keep working on that lesson.

We will miss you, Barney.

It’s appropriate that Barney’s family had his remains deposited in a vintage camera case. On a date to be announced, his ashes will be scattered at his favorite spot in the Ozarks.

I took a small portion of information for this post from The Batesville Daily Guard and The Commercial Appeal. To view some of his work, please visit both newspapers’ websites (links above). The Commercial Appeal‘s site includes a gallery of Barney’s news and feature photos.

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