OCEAN SPRINGS, Miss. (Tribune News Service) — There’s likely no one in Ocean Springs who’s more of a “people person” than Vietnam War veteran Charlie Taylor.
Taylor and his wife, Ginny — Ms. Ginny to most — have resided in their Lover’s Lane home since the mid-1980s. Over the years, particularly during his retirement years since the early 90s, Taylor has become a fixture in local coffee shops and pubs, where he and some of his lifelong friends hold court each morning with coffee and afternoon with cocktails.
Along the way, he’s made scores of friends — many who are 20, perhaps 30, years his junior. Taylor enjoys laughing and making others laugh, often at his own expense. A few years ago, he came to the downtown Ocean Springs Halloween event dressed as Uncle Fester of “Addams Family” fame — complete with the lightbulb in his mouth.
So it’s something of an oddity that this man who so loves people and is talented with a camera in his hands hates taking photographs of people.
“I’m not interested in doing people,” he said flatly during a recent interview with The Mississippi Press. “I’ve done it — high school senior pictures, wedding, all of that, but it doesn’t really interest me.”
But the subjects he loves to shoot become works of art.
Taylor, 76, was born in Laurel but spent most of his childhood and adolescence in Biloxi, where he graduated from Biloxi High School before moving on to the University of Southern Mississippi, where he was in the Army ROTC program.
In May 1967, Taylor graduated from USM, married Ginny, was commissioned at 2nd lieutenant in the U.S. Army and received orders for Vietnam — all in a span of two weeks.
He shipped out to Vietnam on New Year’s Day 1968. With poor eyesight, he couldn’t get into a combat arms unit, so he was assigned to the Quartermaster Corps. Arriving in Vietnam, he was assigned to a logistics unit in La Drang, where he was promoted to 1st lieutenant.
Taylor and his unit were there for the Tet Offensive. He recalled his unit killed 600 North Vietnamese during a two-week period, an experience he calls “pretty gruesome.”
Taylor says he recalls being interested in photography from watching his father with an old Kodak, and later a Browning, as well as a college friend who had a Polaroid. But it was during his tour of duty in Vietnam he first acted on that interest.
“I had R&R in Hawaii with Ginny,” he remembered, “and on the way back I went into this small PX and bought a camera and some slide film and started working with it during the little bit of time I had.”
Ironically, a man whose work now features birds, plants, butterflies and beautiful landscapes along the coast took his first photographs in a war zone. Taylor said he still has every slide he took in Vietnam.
Once he returned after his tour in Vietnam, arriving in the States on Christmas Day 1968, Taylor had to set aside his budding interest in photography, focusing instead on “building a career and starting a family.” He remained in the Army, rising to the rank of captain, stationed at Fort Gordon in Georgia. Taylor might have remained in the Army longer, but circumstances dictated otherwise.
“They wanted me to go back to Vietnam, but I had lost trust in the leadership in Washington by that point, so I got out,” he said. He would remain in the Army National Guard, retiring in the mid-1990s as a lieutenant colonel.
Returning to the Mississippi coast with Ginny, Taylor would ultimately forge a career in the mortgage loan business. He notes his very first loan was to lifetime friend and fellow Vietnam veteran Ron Skrmetta to build a house.
The Taylors would welcome two sons in the 1970s — J.T., who turns 48 next month, and Jason, now 46. They have two grandchildren, Landon and Charlie — named after his grandfather, of course.
It wasn’t until he retired from both the National Guard and the mortgage business that Taylor would find his way back to photography.
“Ginny and I were at a flea market in Mobile,” he recalled, “and I saw a little Minolta film camera and bought it. It cost $26. I got some film and started to teach myself again.”
Outside of a few seminars, Taylor is entirely self-taught. As his photography skills advanced, so did photography with the advent of the digital age.
“It was around the late 90s I started entering a few photography contests and shows, like the Ocean Springs Art Association show and the Singing River one,” he said. “I won some awards and did well with it, so it just kind of progressed from there.”
It certainly did. Taylor estimates he’s won 20-25 awards at various shows and prints of his work — produced on canvas, paper and metal — can bring between $100 and $500, sometimes more. He’s the lone photographer among the featured artists at My Happy Place Gallery in downtown Ocean Springs.
Taylor said what really pleases him about some of the awards he’s won is that they’re not typically given to photographers. He clearly takes pride in the fact his photographs are more than just pictures. They are art.
But his passion for photography isn’t driven by awards or money.
“I do it simply for the enjoyment of it,” he said. “The fact I’ve been able to win awards and make some money doing it is just a bonus. What I love is what I call the ‘Wow!’ factor. I love to be able to create something with the camera that produces a ‘wow’ from people when they see it. That keeps me going.
“I may take 100 shots and keep one. If it says ‘wow’ to me, I know the colors and composition are right. If it doesn’t say that to me, it’s not going to say it to someone else.”
While Taylor has fully embraced the digital age of photography, he hasn’t abandoned the “old school” ways. Many of the images he’s making these days are taken with vintage lenses from the 1970s and 1980s that he’s adapted to a digital camera. All of them are manual focus.
In addition, he insists a photographer’s work isn’t complete until there’s a print.
“Some people are happy to take a photo, post it to Facebook or Instagram or some other site and that’s it,” Taylor said. “But I believe a print is an integral part of photography. I don’t believe it’s complete until there’s a print, whether it be on metal, canvas or paper.”
He says his feelings towards his craft are summarized in a quote by expressionist painter Camille Pissaro: “Blessed are they who see beautiful things in humble places where others see nothing.”
But Taylor’s blessings go beyond his ability to “see beautiful things in humble places.”
Taylor admitted to considering putting his cameras away a couple of years ago, saying he was feeling “burned out.” But he credits the owners of My Happy Place, Dr. Ray and Hyla Weiss, with giving him a second wind with the camera.
“I was going to sell all my equipment, drink more whiskey and put out the ‘Gone Fishin’ sign,” he said. “But I was at the OSAA awards show and Ray Weiss came up to me and said he was turning the kitchen shop into a gallery and wanted me to be the featured photographer. ‘You’d be the only one,’ he told me.
“I thought about it and agreed to do it. I’m glad I did. It’s kept me going and been a blessing to me.”
His biggest blessing, however, has been by his side for nearly 55 years. Charlie and Ginny Taylor will celebrate that milestone anniversary in June. Army wife, mother, homemaker, best friend and talented gardener — Ms. Ginny’s garden has frequently been the subject of her husband’s photos — she has been Charlie’s North Star.
“She’s been my right hand, my rock,” Charlie said. “If it wasn’t for Ginny, I’d either be dead or in prison. She’s just a great, beautiful, wonderful lady. I’m fortunate to have ever met her.”
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