Wandering Photographers: An Afternoon With the Wheeling Shooters

I am not a photographer. I tried it for a few years when my first kid was born. I took some decent pictures, thanks to some help from my Nikon lenses and some great teachers at Oglebay Institute. Now, with the advent of smartphone cameras and beautifying filters, the family photos practically take and edit themselves. That’s where my skills end, though. I don’t understand light. I don’t know how to look for details and textures. I can’t “see” a photo in my mind before I take it.

And yet, I’d like to get back into photography. I’m more of a literary artist than a visual one, but it would be nice to learn some new skills. I’ve quietly wished for some coaching (I suspect I’m not alone), but I’ve been too intimidated by talented photographers to put myself out there.

Then, one approached me. Pete Wildey is a local photographer. I came to know him through fellow photographer and his wife, Heather (with whom I’ve studied the healing practice of Reiki). Last fall, he invited me to spend an afternoon with the Wheeling Shooters, a group of photographers both new and experienced who gather quarterly for what they call an “instameet.” Afterward, they connect on social media to share photos and advice. It sounded like a fun afternoon to me, so I went along to see what it was like.

When I arrived, a group of folks was milling around Heritage Port, camera equipment at the ready. Some just had a single camera, while others had a backpack full of lenses.

“We meet up and just work together and share ideas and experience to promote a helpful, friendly learning environment,” Pete said. “We give participants a list of hashtags to use when they post their pictures on social media after the shoot. The admins of the pages will pick some and feature them (giving them some exposure and encouragement which in turn boosts their self-confidence).”

Wheeling resident Jason Foose and former Wheeling resident Andrew Croft started the Wheeling Shooters group several years ago. (For a time, they were known as Ohio Valley Instagram and can still be found on Facebook as such, but the group has since returned to their original moniker.)

September’s gathering was a Wheeling Walkabout, a scavenger hunt for photographers. When the group had fully assembled, Pete handed out a list of hashtags to each shooter, some of which included #ws_rooftops, #ws_suspensionbridge, #ws_marsh and #ws_victoria. The idea was to capture a photo that somehow represented the subject of each hashtag and, ultimately, upload them to Instagram so the group could comment and share. They started with a group photo. It was hotter than hell, but everyone had their equipment bags and a few who were smarter than I brought water. As the walkabout began, the group evaporated before my eyes. People just wandered off in various directions and, before I knew it, it was me and Jason and Pete. We walked up Water Street together, and Jason peeled off when we reached the elephant, drawn by a scene or a shot or a detail that I didn’t notice.

Pete and I moved up toward The Capitol Theatre. I turned my back for a moment, and suddenly Pete was down on the ground on his belly. He was shooting north. I couldn’t see what he saw through his lens, but it got his attention. Jason appeared again, and they focused in on mystery details.

We headed down the alley just south of Williams Lea Tag. I’ve been through it many times. To me, it’s just an alley, but Jason spent several minutes looking at and then photographing the southerly wall. I noticed he was using a Nikon. My own camera, at home, is a Nikon as well.

“I’m the Nikon guy,” he told me. “So I can help the Nikon people. Pete’s the Canon guy.” Both Jason and Pete are happy to help new photographers better understand their equipment. It can be complicated and overwhelming at first, especially in the digital age, but every member of the group has something to offer in terms of experience.

As we strolled, I still felt like I was just looking around at the same buildings I see all the time. I knew I needed to find fresh eyes, but I didn’t know how to do that. We made our way to Market Street and walked south, past the dilapidated and exposed back of the W.H. Colvig Building that faces Main Street.

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“Wow,” I said. “That is ugly.”

Pete smiled.

“You say ‘ugly,’ we say ‘cool,’” he said as he zoomed in on what looked like a complete mess to me. “If only it were safe enough to get a model up there.” He was clearly seeing things in his mind I couldn’t grasp: the potential of an unusual space to become something beautiful or intriguing or, I surmised, even grotesque.

I worked on shifting my perspective, but I still saw the same old architecture. I asked him about our tendency to miss the details a photographer sees. He said he’s always looking for textures, contrasts and clouds. What’s more, he looks up, while I was looking straight ahead.

“Nobody looks up,” Pete said to me as we make our way down Market Street. In my head, I protested. Of course I look up, I thought. I know the silhouettes of all these buildings. But then he pointed out the stone falcons on a Market Street address.

“There’s so much detail on the tops of the buildings,” he said. And he was right. He pointed out lion faces, fleur-de-lys and names on buildings. How did those get there?

In particular, I watched Pete and Jason as they framed shots that seemed impossible to beautify, in my mind. I continued to look up at clouds, but power lines seemed to intercept every view. Hey, it’s a city, right? We need juice. I didn’t understand until I looked at the uploaded Instagram photos later how these photographers make it work.

“Wires can ruin a picture,” Jason said. “But sometimes when there’s a ton of them it can be more interesting.”

Pete and Jason each offered musings as we walked:

“Cloudless days suck.”

“A nice moody sky helps.”

“Today the clouds diffuse the light.”

The group doesn’t always go on scavenger hunts, as they did in September. If you peruse the Wheeling Shooters Instagram page, you’ll see unique places and perspectives. Each instameet is different. They’ve gathered in outdoor locations like Oglebay Park and downtown St. Clairsville as well as indoors. Over the summer, the photographers met in an abandoned church in South Wheeling, at the owner’s invitation. They brought some friends along to serve as models for the unique photo shoot, complete with makeup and costumes. And no matter where they’re shooting, it’s the group dynamic that makes the event worthwhile.

Wheeling Shooters  on the Belmont County Courthouse steps at an instameet in St. Clairsville.

“It’s nice to get with other photographers,” Heather Wildey said, “Because you get so many variations of the same shot.” Although the hashtags direct participants to the Capitol and the Victoria Theater, no two photos will be the same.

By the end of the shoot, I’d seen things in downtown Wheeling that escaped my gaze for 40 years. I wandered down a few unknown alleys and looked at power lines and rooftops in a new way. The perspective shift was enough to make home seem just a little foreign, as though I was a first-time visitor. It was an exciting change.

Join the Wheeling Shooters for their Spring Fever Instameet at 2 p.m. Sunday, March 17, at the Dollar General on Route 2 in Wellsburg, W.Va, There will be ample parking available. This instameet will be a scavenger hunt with a list of hashtags to locate and photograph within walking distance. Please arrive at 1:45 p.m. so the group can take a photo beforehand. Find them on Facebook and Instagram @Wheeling_Shooters.

Laura Jackson Roberts is a freelance writer in Wheeling, W.Va. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Chatham University and writes about nature and the environment. Her work has recently appeared in Brain, Child Magazine, Vandaleer, Animal, Matador Network, Defenestration, The Higgs Weldon and the Erma Bombeck humor site. Laura is the Northern Panhandle representative for West Virginia Writers, a blog editor for Literary Mama Magazine and a member of Ohio Valley Writers. She recently finished her first book of humor. Laura lives in Wheeling with her husband and their sons. Visit her online at www.laurajacksonroberts.com.