The Breakfast Club

Every Wednesday morning at Tex & Shirley’s, fellowship and photography are served over easy

By Jim Dodson

On a drizzly late winter morning, a lively buzz of voices flows from the rear dining room of Tex & Shirley’s Friendly Center restaurant where nine members of the Bokeh Photography Club are catching up on each other’s adventures since their last Wednesday morning gathering.

The group, which has met weekly for more than two decades, can range anywhere from five to fifteen “members” on any given Wednesday morning. But as de facto spokesman John Poer quickly notes, “We never quite know who is going to show up. We’re just a bunch of people who share a love of photography and enjoy each other’s company over breakfast.”

“In other words,” says Doug Swanson, a retired CPA who spent several years working as Dale Earnhardt’s chief operating officer, “we have no rules, no dues, no bylaws — just a lot of great conversation and talk about photography.”

“We’re a diverse group who love breakfast and expensive cameras,” puts in Bob Poston, just back from a fishing trip to Costa Rica, where he caught two marlin and fifteen tuna and “took a couple thousand photographs.” Together with wife, Diana, Poston owns Greensboro’s historic Guilford Building. Prior to his retirement twenty years ago, Poston enjoyed a long career as a pioneering computer expert who ran, among other things, NASA’s Western Aeronautical Test Range in the early 1970s. Now his computer expertise serves fellow members of the Breakfast Club who often show up at his downtown office to tweak their digital photography.

Across the table sits Tommie Lauer, 74, a retired psychiatrist and former commercial photographer for Alderman Studios, who learned some of her early craft under Gerhard Bakker, the acclaimed American photographer. “I’m still something of a newbie to the club,” she explains, “only been in for four years. But I love these folks. The gab is fantastic. We all share ideas and learn a great deal from each other.”

Lauer is particularly drawn to photographing street people, iconic buildings and fast cars. “That’s one of mine right there,” she says, pointing to a dramatic portrait of a cowboy that hangs with the work of other Bokeh Club members on the meeting room’s walls and across Tex & Shirley’s entrance lobby. “I just happened to see him sitting at Starbucks at Quaker Village and asked if he would let me take his picture. He did. Splendid, isn’t he?”

Indeed he is, this urban cowboy. But equally arresting are the diverse photos of other club members (including O.Henry’s stalwart, Lynn Donovan; see page 56) who are on hand for pancakes and favorite egg dishes this morning. Their regular waitress, Susan Almazan, quips that she rarely has to write down an order. “Like their photos, every one is different. But I know exactly who wants what.”

To her point, the work of Cheryl Garrity and Doug Swanson’s bird photos are nothing short of breathtaking. Ditto Chicagoan Sandy Groover’s candid people shots, some of which she takes for the Rhino Times newspaper. “I’m just a point-and-shoot photographer,” Sandy modestly insists. “I shoot and hope for the best. The others are so technically savvy, I can’t keep up with them. Also,” she adds wryly, “I’m the only Canon user.”

But one look at her shots of her granddaughter mugging by a blue jean statue downtown or her photos of the Wyndham Championship or a group of costumed mermaids gathered poolside, and you realize what a gifted eye this former secretary for Jefferson Pilot possesses.

Groover’s Cannon quip provokes a good-natured groan from the others around the table — most, if not all, indeed, use sophisticated Nikons, some owning several.

Graphic artist and photographer Stephanie Thomas believes she might be the oldest member of the unofficial club, dating her arrival at the Tex & Shirley’s breakfast table from 2006, when much of her work was shown at several prominent galleries. One day several years ago she took a photo of a homeless teenage girl that changed her life. “I was so moved by her, I started shooting homeless women in Greensboro.” Eventually Thomas’s project developed into a photo documentary book called Pushed to the Corner, which she recently completed and is now in search of a publisher and literary agent. “Working in their world opened my eyes,” she adds thoughtfully. “The material things I used to value so much just fell away.”

Sharon Canter listens, smiling, just back from one of her famous wintertime shooting trips up at Roan Mountain in east Tennessee. “She’s the real star — our award-winner,” says her frequent travel pal, Cheryl Garrity, a retired elementary school guidance counselor and hiking enthusiast. Garrity once led hikes for the Sierra Club but got so frustrated trying to identify wildflowers and native plants that she began taking photos of them — which in turn brought her to a photography class at GTCC hoping to improve her craft. There she met Sharon Canter. For an anniversary present, Cheryl Garrity’s husband, Dale, gave her a very nice Nikon camera and soon she and Sharon were off on photographic expeditions to Roan Mountain, Lake Mattamuskeet and other unspoiled corners of the wild — often braving the most extreme temperatures.

“We’re usually up there well before sunrise and never come back until way after dark,” says Garrity. “Sharon is totally fearless. I can never keep up with her. We’ve spent a lot of nights searching for great photos in the dark.”

After one of their memorable photo jaunts in sub-freezing temperatures, Garrity wound up losing the tip of a finger to frostbite. But her photos of the mountain and night skies — especially the Milky Way — are stunning.

Garrity and Canter joined the photo group about the same time around 2009, making their first trip to the Smokies soon afterwards. “The group was such a pleasure — no competitiveness, just smart photographers happy to share their knowledge,” says Sharon Canter. “We both learned so much about lenses, for instance. We’ve been hooked ever since.” 

Canter grew up in Kernersville hoping to be a veterinarian but switched to conservation studies at N.C. State. Like many of the Bokeh Club members, she picked up photography as a hobby with the arrival of children. “Around the year 2000 my oldest son got married and my husband suggested that I get a really good camera to record the event. One thing just led to another,” she adds, describing how her family photos blossomed quickly into a full-blown passion for landscape photography. She talks of a “Bucket List” trip she still hopes to take to California’s Yosemite National Park.

Canter’s photos of Roan Mountain and other nature shots have found their way to the pages of Wildlife In North Carolina magazine, Backpacker, and collected a Best of Show award at the prestigious Appalachian Mountain Photography Competition in Boone, an annual photo contest that draws more than 900 entries from all over the Southeast.

Regulars Claude “Monet” Hutcheson, 77, and Ron Day sit eating and listening to these reflections, nodding in agreement. “I don’t consider myself a photographer,” says Hutcheson, a retired engineer who earned an M.F.A. degree in industrial design and worked for Xerox for more than two decades. “I’m really more of a painter who has seriously upgraded his photography skills thanks to being associated with these folks.” (Hence the affectionate nickname). His specialty is wildlife.

Ron Day’s photographic love is capturing weddings. An engineer who served as the last superintendent of Cone Mills’ Proximity plant before it shut down in the late 1970s, Day, 73, enjoyed the blossoming of a second career as a wedding photographer who has covered more than a thousand nuptials. “I also do some birds and landscape and always dreamed of being a photographer for National Geographic,” he adds with a wry smile. “Haven’t quite made it that far yet.”

But others associated with the Tex & Shirley club have done so, notably Paul Salazar’s daughter, Gabby, 29, who now shoots regularly for the internationally respected magazine and who got an early start on her career attending the breakfast sessions her dad organized — and named — more than two decades ago. At age 11, Gabby sold one of her photographs to Our State magazine, an image of a butterfly on a flower.

“A few of us used to get together at Tex & Shirley’s for breakfast and then walk over to the camera shop in [Friendly] shopping center to look at equipment. This was back in the dark ages of film,” Paul Salazar remembers. Salazar now resides in Port St. Lucie, Florida, where he teaches photography to various skill levels at the Elliott Museum. The name “Bokeh,” he explains, is a Japanese word that simply means a soft focus of light, often a background. “The group just grew and grew by word of mouth. I’m guessing forty or fifty people have been part of it.” Many of them, he adds, belong to the larger Triad Outdoor Photographers organization that conducts seminars and stages shooting trips. “But the breakfast club was always a more informal affair,” Salazar notes. “It’s really as much a social gathering — but a great deal of sharing without any competitiveness goes on there. That’s something really special, and why the club is still going.”

Salazar passed the mantle of leadership on to the genial, John Poer, a longtime systems analyst for BP whose specialty is outdoor photography. “There’s really no leader in this group,” Poer insists, “or oversized egos. We share a love of shooting beautiful photographs, wherever that experience takes us.”

Poer, who was just back from a 10-day photo shoot to a game preserve near Glacier National Park where he shot snow leopards, tundra wolves and Arctic foxes in their wilderness habitat, notes that rapidly changing technology and constant innovations make sharing knowledge all the more important. Among other things, he’s become something of an expert on an Adobe digital darkroom system called Lightroom and happily shares his knowledge of the system with fellow members.

“Essentially,” Poer says, “photography is about the art of capturing light and the image that Henri Cartier-Bresson called the Decisive Moment when an action takes place, whatever its source. That’s why, no matter how digital and scientific photography becomes, there will always be the vital human element — the mind and eye of the photographer who sees the image even before the picture is taken.”

“And that’s why we come every Wednesday, rain or shine,” chimes in Sandy Groover. “For good friends, a good breakfast and a chance to learn even more how to take the perfect photograph.”  OH

Jim Dodson and his wife, Wendy, regularly have breakfast at Tex & Shirley’s ons Saturday morning before going to the Greensboro Farmers Curb Market.

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