On June 15, 2012 Nik Wallenda will be the first person ever to attempt walking over Niagara Falls on a highwire. After petitioning both the U.S. and Canadian governments he successfully received all the permits necessary and is now set to make history. Here’s why it matters to me – my own little bit of history with the Wallenda family…
Twenty years ago I had a burning ambition to work for National Geographic Magazine. After much persistence I was able to get an appointment with an associate editor at the magazine. She told me that every photographer wants to work for National Geographic, but very few have what it takes. My coal country work was dismissed preemptively, as others had covered the subject before me. She said the best way to get my foot in the door with the organization was to pitch a story idea for their children’s magazine.
I recently had photographed aerial performer Delilah Wallenda, granddaughter of the famed tightrope walker Karl Wallenda, on assignment for another magazine. Delilah, her husband Terry Troffer and their two children, Lijana and Nikolas, trained and traveled together, and I thought they might make interesting subjects for the Geographic kids’ magazine. The editor agreed, so I phoned the Wallendas to see what they thought of the idea. Delilah and Terry were enthusiastic and invited me to their upcoming performance at the Tennessee State Fair. So I loaded up with film and gear, and drove down to Nashville to take some preliminary pictures. I worked hard and had a great time.
Unfortunately when I got back to the editor at National Geographic, after taking one look at my photos she told me Lijana looked much too old to be in the children’s magazine. At the time I believe Lijana was 14 years old, and was part of her parents’ show. Nik, 12, was in training but not part of the act except for a brief clown appearance. Sorry, but Lijana couldn’t appear in the magazine and so my story proposal was rejected. After much expense and effort I began to trim my expectations of playing in the major leagues. (For a while I even considered leaving everything behind to become a photo reporter in the Bosnian war, but that’s another story and fortunately I didn’t do it.)
Twice I’ve had the privilege of visiting the Wallendas at their home in Florida, the last time to take a photo of Delilah and Terry for her book on the Wallenda family. But my photos from the Nashville trip never were seen by anyone after NG’s rejection, with the exception of two images of Lijana that appear in my editorial gallery. Upon finding the others in my file recently I decided to Google what the Wallendas are doing these days. Lijana continues in the family tradition, appearing at Caesar’s Palace and other venues with aerial acts such as “Absinthe” and “Esteemed Gentlemen of the High Wire.” As for Nik, he has pushed all boundaries and is the first person ever to gain permission from both the Canadian and United States governments to walk a wire across Niagara Falls. This event is scheduled to happen in a few days, on June 15, 2012.
In light of this news my old photos seemed interesting enough to put online. They were shot on Kodachrome film; the photos made under the big top were especially challenging due to the light conditions. With Terry Troffer’s help I had placed strobes on the platforms and in several other spots before the show; even so in the cavernous, dark space of the tent photographing moving subjects on film was difficult. With a bigger budget and more lights (or of course today’s digital technology) things would have been much easier. These pictures were to have been just the beginning of a much larger project which sadly didn’t materialize. Yet as it turns out, I feel fortunate to have them and hope you enjoy them.
And thanks of course to the Wallenda family, whose kindness and generosity made these pictures possible.
For more on Nik Wallenda’s upcoming walk across Niagara Falls see http://www.indiegogo.com/nik-wallenda-niagara-falls
An interview with Lijana Wallenda-Hernandez from Nevada Public Radio can be heard here: http://www.knpr.org/son/archive/detail2.cfm?SegmentID=8796&ProgramID=2483