Working as a news photographer in Chattanooga most of his life, Alex McMahan has photographed many aspects of our community as well as life happenings. Seeing the world through the lens and capturing moments in time is a mystic experience for Alex.
One of the best experiences in his life was when he became a father. “I have always wanted a daughter. Savannah is amazing. I took her to an acting camp that she and her mom had found this summer and I photographed the first few days of this camp,” he says.
Alex’s interests in photography came about when he was 21 while he wasn’t quite sure what he wanted to do. “I was at my Aunt Patsy’s house and flipping through a photography magazine; she did photography on the side,” he remembered.
“I had asked her about a Canon camera that she had and I asked if it was a good camera. She told my dad that he needed to get me a camera and I got one for Christmas that year. I was floored because I knew how much it cost and didn’t expect it. It was literally like opening up a new door for me. I thought, ‘I can do this’ - I knew I had an eye for composition,” Alex declared.
He remembers as a child watching television with his brother and sisters in the basement at night. When he or his baby sister, Laura, were the first to fall asleep, the older siblings, Mike and Lindsay, would turn off all the lights and go to bed. “That was frightening to wake up not knowing where I was – but then to realize I was in the basement was even more scary!” Alex laughs.
Revealing that he never saw much closeness between his parents while growing up, Alex felt a need to achieve that connection. “We had a great family but there was a distance. My uncle married this Greek woman who had this great big smile and was very affectionate. She was so friendly and made me feel special. It made an impression on me and I wanted to make my daughter feel that way. I show her affection and try to have a close relationship but she may be at the age where that is ‘not too cool’,” he quips.
Alex’s father Sonny was born on a farm and had worked as a machinist at Combustion for over three decades. His mother Myrna worked in the newspaper industry which gave Alex a direction to go with his photography.
“My mother brought me into the fold and I was brought into the Dade County Sentinel and had learned a bit more about photography and a little about newspapers. I hadn’t considered newspaper work at all and I credit my mother for getting me into that. She got the job for me and steered me in that direction. I was a fish out of water and felt out of place but she always helped me and gave me confidence,” Alex says.
“I saw a help wanted sign at Violet Camera Shop and thought I would do that for a while,” he says.
Alex moved away from his mother’s workplace and was hired on at Violet working as a clerk for about three years. Part of his job was making deliveries to the newspapers, which brought him back to the news business.
“I always felt as though I was on the outside looking in. I didn’t feel like I was a part of anything. I didn’t really feel connected with anything until I got to the newspaper and developed those friendships. I had always had that mentality of a spectator instead of a participant in life, which is probably why photography felt like a natural fit. You are observing, recording, and watching other people do things,” Alex expresses.
“The old Free Press fascinated me. People were all right there in the editing room and it was like a busy beehive of activity. I missed the newspaper stuff so I talked to Bob Nichols, a photographer there, and got a little guidance from him,” Alex says.
Alex had put together a portfolio but never got a call back. Bob had told him to contact Lee Anderson and try again. He found that he did actually have the job.
“I was thrilled! It was an unlimited training ground for my photography and the people at that place were great – it was like a good summer job that never ended,” he says.
After having his dream job, Alex’s dream of having that daughter he always wanted had surfaced during the middle of his career. He was already past 40 and had the normal uncertainties most men have in deciding a right time to start a family.
“I remember talking to my uncle Howard telling him that I was not sure about being a dad at that age and I wondered if I could afford it,” Alex admits.
He and his then wife Kathy decided to go for it. “I had spent 20 years imagining having a daughter and what I thought she would look like and all the things I would do with her,” Alex says.
“A lesson Kathy may have inadvertently taught me was something I had learned during the birth of our daughter that ties into what photography is to me,” Alex says.
Kathy and Alex wanted photos of Savannah’s birth but they didn’t agree on who would photograph them. Alex couldn’t fathom the idea of not being the one to capture that most important moment, yet Kathy wanted him to be a part of the birth, supporting her and seeing the birth of his daughter in the realness of the moment.
A family friend was there to take the photos but Alex still felt compelled to bring his camera. “I was holding Kathy’s hand with my left hand and my right hand had the camera. It was such a moment! When they had placed Savannah in the warmer and I went over to take more photos and this feeling came over me like an unwelcomed visitor. It crept in as if ‘this was an assignment’ - and I finally got it,” he says. “It was a life lesson.”
Alex valued the pictures he took, not just because he was able to capture that beautiful moment in his life but because they helped him to understand that he needed to participate.
Alex had gotten so used to watching and documenting other people living their lives as it happened when he himself had a life to live. He had to learn to make changes and begin to connect in his life with more than just photography and at the same time balance it with this overwhelming feeling of detailing the process.
“To capture moments you want to remember is a priceless gift we have with photography, but for a photographer it requires balance so you don’t miss the connection of your own life. That's something I continuously practice,” Alex says.
As a child, Savannah had a performance quality and stage presence which her parents supported.
In 2003, she got to be an extra for The Adventures of Ociee Nash filmed partly in Chattanooga. “One of the pictures I had taken was of Savannah in the wardrobe trailer with those great big brown eyes of hers just looking up at me,” Alex says.
His talent in photography knows no range or limitations and it is obvious that he has an acute eye when photographing children.
“Maybe what comes through when I photograph children is how I see them with the innocence of childhood, the amazement, the wonder and excitement as they are discovering the world – it’s in the eyes,” Alex conveys. “To get a picture of that – really speaks volumes and it just has a universal connection.”
Alex had been a staff photographer at the Free Press for 18 years when they merged with the Chattanooga Times. Having gone through a divorce and with the changes at the news publication, it had brought about a new turn in Alex’s life.
“The McDonalds were so good to give someone in my position an opportunity where as now you would most likely have to have a BA in some related field to get a job there,” he admits.
Alex left the publication after 25 years of service. “I saw an opportunity to do contract work that would allow me to do my freelance work a little easier. I picked up jobs on the side while at the paper, but after the merger it was not easy to keep doing that. I had to start asking for clearance before getting commercial work – that didn’t set well with me after being there for two decades. I didn’t take it personally but I also knew it wasn’t a mom and pop operation anymore,” Alex says.
Scheduling time to have his daughter on weekends made Alex feel almost as if he were a visiting uncle when most of his life he had wanted so much to be a father.
Through trying to work out more time to be with Savannah, it is important for Alex to be involved as much as possible with his daughter’s life.
Savannah says, “We don't get to see each other as much as we'd like to and we don't always get along but I love my dad. He seems to enjoy my performances as much - and sometimes more - than I do!”
The Atlanta Workshop Players Camp in Gainesville where Savannah recently had attended an acting camp was another moment in which Alex practiced that balance of documenting yet trying to experience the moment.
“It was interesting following my daughter around to photograph and actually not trying to follow her around but I still couldn’t help seeing her from time to time. At first she didn’t look like she was having a good time but there was an opportunity to audition for a movie and she got a call back. She was excited about that and I finally saw a smile on her face,” Alex beamed.
Savannah said, “My dad has always been really supportive of me and my endeavors. I'm lucky to have a dad that cares so much.”
Savannah was picked to do a 2-3 minute monologue on video and have it presented to talents scouts the next day. “I got to see it, she didn’t just ‘hit the ball out of the park’ – she hit it to the next county!” Alex exclaimed.
“The video was awesome. They were impressed with the fact that she wrote it herself; that went over really well. We are hoping to hear something on that,” Alex says.
Savannah has been in several plays at the Chattanooga Theater Center such as “Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing” and she played ‘Leslie’ who was one of the leads in “Bridge of Tarabithia”.
Alex now works freelance, photographing weddings, portrait work, shooting events, corporate work for brochures or websites, business portraits, and product photography.
Alex has an ability to tell a story. “I feel like I can do something with what talent I have and I am not sure that I have been utilizing it lately, the way that it can be utilized,” he admits.
“Maybe I am at a crossroads where I can now do something to feel like I contributed. Through my photos, I want to make a positive impact in the world,” Alex maintains.
Savannah voices with pride, “He's great at what he does. If I've had a bad day at school or I'm just not in the best mood, my dad will crack a cheesy joke and try to put a smile on my face.”