A Collector

February 08, 2018  •  Leave a Comment

words and images by Warren Wilson

Hmmm! Perhaps I should call it "pack rat". Although I like collector better, pack rat gives you a better idea as to what I've been doing all these years. It's not like I choose one thing to collect; I have many "hobbies" and fetishes. Once it's in my possession, I tend to keep it for years. In particular, this goes with my collection of T-shirts.

It's not like I like clothes. I usually avoid spending the money for them. They're an essential, but I'd rather collect other things. Like camera gear! So, I do have have my priorities. But, in the case of the T-shirts, I've been collecting them since the early 90's. I think my wife told me not to bring in another T-shirt in the year 2011. I've pretty much honored that request. It was a wise decision. I had run out of closet space and I'd lost my desire to wear a different T-shirt each day of the week.

A few Black Fridays ago, I picked up this book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo. I got as far as page 50, then put it down for 3 years. Finally, a few weeks ago, I picked the book up again and read the rest of it. Perhaps out of desperation, the book made more sense to me this second time. I realized that I had to do something with my "collections". And, why not start with something I don't use that much, like my T-shirts.

I have over 100 T-shirts. Each one tells a story. I believe I held onto the shirts because of the story they told. Usually the stories brought a smile to my face. But, there comes a time when we all need to move on. And, the time for me has come (at least in regard to the upper half of my body).

I figured one way to deal with a sense of loss and the fear of letting go was to take pictures of the shirts I toss and take pictures of each. Then, I'd share my stories with you.

So, here goes...

This T-shirt is one of my favorite shirts. Many years ago, a co-worker came running into my office and asked, "Did you know there was a Warren Wilson College in Asheville, NC?" Having been asked this same question about once every year, I had an answer, "Yes, I know the college is there. My great-grandfather was a  co-founder." (Not true!) Finally I decided to buy a T-shirt from the college. I called up the Campus Store. The lady who took my order didn't seem amazed that my name was the same as on the shirt I was purchasing. I suppose that should have been my first clue that none of this really mattered. But, I was proud of the fact and would wear the shirt with a frequency that my wife finally asked me to stop wearing it EVERYWHERE!!! Besides, she reminded me, it had a hole in it. Still one of my faves, it's time to get rid of it.


This one I purchased in NYC in 1990. I've always liked it. It was the week that my wife and I went to NYC, stayed at the Algonquin Hotel, went to see the NY Mets play, and hung out in NYC! A great week!!




A few years ago, I belonged on a bowling team. We had named the team 'The Three Stooges'. We decided it was appropriate for us to identify our team with t-shirts of the individual Three Stooges. Chuck chose Curly. Bernie chose Larry. The only one left for me to choose was Moe. Now, this is where it gets tricky...Chuck and Bernie must have been unaware that Moe was the leader. I had Moe's shirt. So,.....I took to calling myself the leader. Well, a few ha-ha's later, they decided to change shirts to a more generic T-shirt. We changed the design to a shirt with all three Stooges on each shirt. My days as leader were short lived. But, I had the last laugh...I still wore my Moe shirt and, on occasion, reminded that I was the boss...nyuk nyuk.



Kodachrome color transparency film was my favorite slide film. I liked it better than whatever Fuji offered. My favorite Kodachrome was their ASA/(ISO) 25. It possessed very little grain and was very easy to work with. Yes, Kodachrome stopped making ASA25 many years before they finally pulled the plug on the entire series. Once the ASA25 was gone, I switched to the ASA64. I came to love that film. I believe they had other ASA's, but they were more sensitive and, IMO, too grainy. Well, the day finally came where Kodak pulled the plug on the entire Kodachrome series. A National Geographic photographer, Steve McCurry shot the last roll of Kodachrome. And, Dwayne's Lab was the lab to process the last roll.


Eight-track tapes were such a pain. They liked to get caught up in the player. The player would chew the thin tape into accordion shaped strips, rendering your favorite album useless. Then came along the cassette tape. I remember the day I told my fellow bicycle friends at a rest stop that "I now declare the cassette tape my choice of recording". This was 1976 and I was still using the cassette tape until early 2000's. Such a great medium. (In fact, I was the only one at the gym using a cassette tape player. Everyone else had gone mp3. As I mentioned, something becomes my choice and I stick with it.) Anyway, my favorite maker of tapes was Maxell. Then, one day I saw this photograph in a store. LOVED IT! I even bought one (and, yup, it's hanging on the wall over my computer). And, of course, I had to have the T-shirt.

Of course, I went through the stage of going to all the outdoor arena rock jams. This shirt I used to wear all the time. Pearl Jam was great! (Notice Pearl Jam was like about 4th-5th billing. The big group was RHCP.) But, I was at my most miserable at this particular show. It was in some field in Northern Virginia. And, the rain would stop just long enough to allow the water to run off the field. Then, it would start raining again.


This shirt means a lot to me. I was invited by some Vietnam Marines to go back to VietNam with them. These guys were members of 3/5 Marines. They were part of a wicked operation in 1967. This particular operation saw several Navy Crosses, etc. The first Navy chaplain to be KIA in Nam was killed on this operation, the first day of Operation Swift. How do I play into all this? I was the photographer assigned to them on the first day of this operation. We got our butts kicked.


I had never heard of M.C. Escher until about 1971. A friend who lived in the apartment above mine introduced me to his art. I immediately fell in love with the artwork shown here. I finally had a chance to see a collection of his work. Great!!




In 1991, Washington, DC had a very high murder rate. I happened to have been working downtown DC during this period. Some 400 people were killed. I believe it was later determined that most of the murders were caused by drug wars. So, what's a better way to declare yourself a survivor than to wear a T-shirt?!!



National Geographic Society...I worked there for 35 years as a lab technician. I started off as a Black-and-White Lab Tech and bounced around the lab, finally being a part of the upcoming digital technology. I witnessed many changes there, starting with the family-ya'll come attitude to the if-you've-been-here-5-years-you've-been-here-2-years-too-long policy. But, the gig certainly had its benefits. I worked in areas where I saw the cream of the crop photographs and stories. Unknowingly, viewing between 1-2 million images in 35 years sharpened my religion concerning image quality.


Los Angeles...my wife and I LOVE L.A., more in particular Hollywood. Everyone always seems to shake their head in disbelief when they hear us say that. I don't know why, unless, of course, you don't like "seedy".




Ahhh,,,The Washington Nationals. I'm not big of a sports fan. But, when I choose a team, I become diehard. Such is the case with "The team that can't". My love affair began circa 2009. I went to at least a couple of games, preferring to sit and watch the drama unfold. During the past 8 years, I've seen them go from a team that couldn't get out of its own way to a team that seems to buckle under the big pressure. Great stars! But, put them under the lights in cool October nights, they suddenly forget why they're there. Sad!


I am....SUPERMAN. Reminds me of the REM song. It would be logical to think that I bought this T-shirt to show off that I am indeed the most self-confident person on the planet. But, the story is far less exciting than that. I bought it as a self-portrait shoot--Superman is performing a voodoo ritual on a stuffed Captain America. Do you see where this is going?



I bought this T-shirt to remind me of the time and effort I put into photographing the Maryland Renaissance Festival  (MDRF). Each weekend, starting in mid-August, I'd go both Saturdays and Sundays to photograph the happenings at the MDRF. The main reason I liked it was because the people loved being photographed in their costumes. It was great training for my street photography--thinking quick and being ready for the shot. I went each weekend for 4 years. I finally started weaning myself off the MDRF when I noticed that they started dropping the number of acts each year--the quality and frequency began to suffer. But, I remember days in mid-October where the people were so thick I had to tuck my camera to my chest and push my way through the crowd. Oh, yeah! Should you go, be sure to get the turkey leg!

Jazz and volunteerism...For years, I pretended to be a musician. I even went to school for a few years. That was when I learned about the East Coast Jazz Festival. I figured I could see some free music by volunteering. It was a fun gig...and I got this T-shirt  to prove I was "STAFF".



Ken's BBQ...You gotta eat, right?! This was one of my favorite hangouts whenever the wife and I would go down to see my family when they lived in Birmingham, Alabama. The BBQ was good (I always got the pork BBQ with 2 slices of white bread spread with mayo.), but the coconut custard pie was the best. Once they stopped making that, we stopped going. All 7 of us would put away some pie!



Another part of L.A. that the wife and I enjoyed was Santa Monica. We definitely were attracted there. Today, I'm hard pressed to tell you why...it wasn't Muscle Beach, nor was it the boardwalk, not even the people. We went for the bicycles. We loved renting the bikes for an hour and riding the path. Panting, we'd return the bikes and head off for lunch in the business district--usually the La Trattoria. (It looks like they've dropped the La and added C&O.) Delicious!! And, since I was a huge fan of Santa Monica, I had to get a T-shirt to remind me of the great times we had there.


While I'm talking about L.A., I'll tell you of my experience at the UCLA Jazz/Reggae concert. This happened on our 2006 trip. Listening to the music in the background, my wife and I toured the vendor tents. One in particular caught my eye. It was the Coke versus Pepsi Test. Now, I knew my Coca-Cola. Nothing compared to a very cold (possibly frosty) Coke in a tall glass brimming with chipped ice. As I told the vendor, "I know my Coke!" Sipping each, I smiled and declared which was the Coke (I know my Coke!) A life-changing event then occurred: I was wrong!!! The one I had chosen as my favorite was the Pepsi. Since then, I always ask for Pepsi. And, if they don't have it, I like to beat them into submission with the telling of the day I saw the light and became a believer.

My wife learned to watch me whenever I walked into a souvenir ship. After a 24-hour train ride from DC to Orlando, I wanted to eat at the Hard Rock. Good food, as I recall. But, I was most anxious to go shopping. On that short 30-minute shopping spree, I bought this T-shirt, a fanny pack (which my wife never liked and was happy when the zipper gave out a few months later), a couple of shot glasses and a mug. And, of course, I can't forget the cap. I was strickly a hard-rocker! My love affair with Hard Rock bit the dust years later while in L.A.  The first thing the waitress told us was that we had a time limit in order to eat. Since then, I've never been in a Hard Rock. And, why would I want to be? I still have this T-shirt.

Although my photography hasn't taken me everywhere I want to go, it has offered me a window in the lives of others--things I wouldn't ordinarily give a second thought. Such is the case with the 4-H Club. 4-H is comprised of young students learning what it's like to work in the agricutural field. And, it's also for me because I see them doing things I'd never think of, things like moving a sheep by sticking your finger in its butt. That's a bit too organic for me and I generally feel safe with my camera in my hands.


This shirt was given to me by a fellow Marine about 10 years ago. He had been my replacement in VietNam. Then, here we are meeting close to 40 years later. It was a nice gesture from him when he gave me this shirt. It took me years to get over that era in our American history. And, it's nice to be remembered in such a way after so many years apart.



And, how can I forget the Pig?! Piggly Wiggly is a grocery store I was brought up on growing up in the deep South. Great store with a long history. And, would you believe, I get most of the comments about this shirt. Whenever I'd wear it, at least one person would say something about the Pig.



This all started with my telling you about my collections, how I've been known to collect just about anything that would catch my eye. And, I keep my things for a very long time, often perhaps too long. Although it's not a T-shirt, let me end with an example of my keeping something just a bit beyond its appeal. This is a hat I purchased in L.A. (where else?!) Santa Monica. I loved this hat but had to retire it a few years ago. But, first I needed that picture to remind me of the great times we had together. Even this photo brings back a smile.




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