April 12, 2016

We Were Young, We Had Forever

From Erik Kirton:

Of course, my story is no different than many of the other anecdotes you’ve been told and know firsthand, but to me, they’re as unique and precious as the memories of Debra’s laugh and the sadness often reflected in her eyes.  I hope, at least, that my recollections offer insight into Debbie's life, before she was known to the world as Debra McClinton.

Debbie Barry and I were friends…

From 1983 – 1984, she and I attended drama together at A.C. Reynolds High School, in Asheville, N.C.  Even though I was only a year older than Debbie, we were separated by two grades; I was a senior and Debbie was a sophomore.  Fortunately for me, our drama class was comprised of all grades.

Although she and I were already acquainted through common friends, it wasn’t until we actually sat next to each other in class, my senior year, that we began to recognize that our lives were, in many ways, very similar.  Apart from coming from upper middleclass families, neither of us actually came from Asheville.  She was from Buffalo, New York, and I came from Orlando, Florida.  The two cities, comparable in population, were far cries from where we were growing up.  If that somehow contributed to the longing she and I later felt to escape rural North Carolina, is impossible to say.  After all, she came to N.C. as a small child.  Fact is, there was the same underlying tension, in her, that I felt in myself; a tension which would ultimately lead us both from Asheville, and one that we would, later, best be able to express through our creative work.

One of the first things I noticed about Debbie is that she didn’t enjoy feeling physically constrained.  Tight fitting clothes were not things she would frequently wear, for instance.  I remember how she would kick off her blucher mocs, sit barefooted in class, and stretch her toes as if they had finally been liberated from her shoes; an endearing idiosyncrasy that she apparently kept as an adult.  Much later, I understood that this was an outward projection of a much deeper emotional side.  She didn’t enjoy feeling constrained, period.  Outwardly, Debbie was approachable and she liked being around people, but she also learned to hide behind a smile, a smile more radiant than the sun.  It was a mask that she successfully wore.  I don't mean to imply that her smiles weren't heartfelt, but rather, if one looked close enough, sometimes her eyes told a different story.  Debbie would never had wanted to burden another person with her troubles, so she beamed like a thousand-watt bulb.

As we grew closer, we slowly revealed aspects about ourselves that, although often mirrored each other's, were occasionally complete opposites.  Much like a film negative, where one would see darkness, the other would often see light, but in the end, the image was the same.  Later, this was to become a metaphor I would use to describe my own work:  Shadows cannot exist without light, nor can form be depicted without shadows.

Debbie was the light in my world.

Undoubtedly, people were attracted to Debbie like moths to flames.  She was't a person one would likely see sitting by herself in the cafeteria.  She was popular for the right reasons.  It was easy to love her quickly, but I found it far more rewarding that she allowed me into her deeper, more emotional world, so that I could learn to love her over time.  It built the foundation for our mutual trust.  In my entire life, she was one of very few people I was ever able to cry in front of, without feeling ashamed.  She would wipe away my tears, embrace me as only a friend could, and whisper to me words of encouragement and faith.

Our relationship was reciprocal, and as I mentioned, trust was mutual.  Often, Debbie would show up at my house, at the strangest hours of the night, just to talk.  She couldn't articulate her concerns, though.  She would talk about anything other than her problems.  I would listen, and after a while, she would smile and we would part; nothing more.  These rendezvous were somehow exhilarating, and as the months passed, they became more frequent.  I would miss the nights when she didn't show up, though.  At the same time, I recognized that she couldn’t be held, and if I had attempted, I would have consequently lost her as a friend.  I believe we both recognized that in each other.  For us, any other type of relationship would have failed because neither of us would have been able to commit without sacrificing a part of that which we cherished in the other.

As you know, Debbie could fill a room with light.  When she smiled, the whole world smiled with her.  Conversely, when she left a room, she created a vacuum.  Without question, she was beautiful.  Still, it wasn't merely her natural superficial beauty that most people found so attractive, but rather the way she made people feel special when they were close to her.  When she would unexpectedly sit down next to a person, one would never have the feeling that she was intruding.  One would feel blessed.

In retrospect, I believe most people overestimated her strength, though.  I remember that, at times, she would draw her legs to her chest and have a distant melancholic look in her big blue eyes.  In those moments, she would seem incredibly vulnerable, but like turning on a light switch, she would become the most radiant person one could ever wish to be around.  Consequently, many people failed to realize, that she, too, carried her own ballast.  Once, I remarked that she was the saddest happy person I'd ever met.

In 1983, the summer before her sophomore year, Debbie traveled to Europe.  We would often talk about her experiences there.  She could tell the most fantastic stories, but it was also then that I knew we were both destined to leave Asheville, and our days together were limited.

I graduated in May 1984, and was determined to become an intelligence analyst.  It offered me a ticket out of Asheville.  Accordingly, I demanded that my first station would be in Germany.  I left North Carolina on June 20th, 1984, and after my initial training in Ft. Huachuca, Arizona, returned home, for a few weeks in November, before ultimately departing for Bavaria.

During my stay, Debbie and I met on the parking of A.C. Reynolds high school and I drove her downtown to a restaurant called Gatsby’s, where we talked about our future.  Later, we walked around the city without saying much, but that night, for the first time, I told her that I loved her and that, no matter what, I would always be there for her.  She flashed a smile which quickly faded into an awkward silence, but her eyes answered where her voice failed.  Later that evening, she gave me the photo, which I've attached to this mail.  In the last thirty-two years, without exception, the picture has been with me, no matter where I’ve travelled in the world.  The words on the back have given me strength in my darkest hours.  So, in the end, it was Debbie who was always there for me.

As I drove away, that night, I remember looking back at her in the mirror.  She had remained standing in front of the high school, watching the taillights grow smaller.  Had I known it would be the last time I would ever see her, I would have never left.

I took several photographs that evening, but as fate would have it, my camera was stolen at Chicago O'Hare, on my way to Germany.  As recently as one week ago, I told a friend that I never fretted over the camera, but the film inside was priceless to me.

In Debbie’s first letter, after my arrival in Germany, she apologized for being incredibly nervous during our "date" (her quotation marks, not mine).  Her words surprised me.  It wasn’t until, much later, that I understood that our “date” had marked the maturation of our relationship.  On that evening, we were saying goodbye to each other, but we were also reaffirming that our days had, somehow, really mattered.  They were real, come what may.

Regrettably, as time passed, our letters became more and more infrequent, until one day, they eventually stopped, altogether.

In 1989, I departed Germany for Monterey, California.  Still working as an analyst, my free days were spent wandering the streets of San Francisco and Berkeley.  I enjoyed sites that would later become an inspiration for some of my photographic works, and by a stroke of luck, in Carmel, I was offered the opportunity to exhibit some of the stills I had taken in Europe.  I had found my destiny.

It was exciting for me.  At the same time, however, I often wondered where Debbie was.  Since leaving N.C., five years before, my parents had moved and my brothers were attending a completely different high school.  I had no one to point me in the right direction.  If only the internet had been available...

In mid-February 1991, I returned to Asheville as a civilian.  I realized the increasing need to express myself artistically and began an internship at Dale's Graphics, a graphic design studio in the downtown area.  To pay my bills, I worked at the Grove Park Inn.  As luck would have it, I met a girl there who knew Debbie.  Unfortunately, my colleague could only tell me that she had left Asheville.  Likewise, common friends, whom I would occasionally meet, were unable to offer even the vaguest starting point for a search.  Of course, one could wonder why I didn't attempt to contact her parents; it's a question I really can't answer.

Debbie has a way of sneaking into person's consciousness, at the most unexpected moments.  Shortly after arriving in Asheville, for instance, while driving across the parking lot of the Westgate Mall, I thought I saw Debbie.  Like a deranged fool, I jumped out of my car, but the girl had disappeared as quickly as she had entered my line of sight.  To this day, I'm uncertain if the person I saw was Debbie, or merely a hallucination induced by a strong desire to see her again.

As the months passed and my internship ended at Dale's Graphics, I acknowledged that Asheville was still too small for an aspiring artist.  So, in February 1992, almost exactly one year after arriving, I said goodbye to North Carolina and returned to Europe.  

Shortly after moving to Germany, I began working in both the graphic design and photography fields.  I found employment in photofinishing and I moonlighted doing commercial retouching for Volkswagen and a few other major German companies.  Strangely, though, both jobs took me further and further away from that which I had originally set out to do.  My own cameras were in mothballs, and creatively, I was producing naught.

Around 1999, I discovered Classmates.com, and attempted, once more, to find Debbie.  Although I was able to contact many of my former classmates and colleagues, Debbie’s name wasn't listed, and, still, no one knew where she was.  It was as if she had completely disappeared.  Little did anyone know that Debbie Barry was now Debra McClinton.

A new millennium began.

For the next seven years, I continued working in my dead-end job until the point that I knew something had to change.  Gathering inspiration from artists, such as Sarah Moon, I decided to quit moonlighting.  With a newfound determination and more time for myself, I dusted off my cameras and, once more, began taking photographs.  I remember the date.  It was November 2007; a strange coincidence, indeed.

If anyone had asked me what I believed Debbie was doing professionally, it would have been difficult for me to answer.  I might have guessed that she curated an art gallery.  On the other hand, I tend to project my own passions onto others and mistakenly presume people are equally interested in that which I find fascinating.  One thing I would have been certain about, however, is that she wouldn’t be in Asheville, as just another “provincial success story.”  If you’re going to fail, then fail big.  Still, it surprised me to learn that she had become a photographer.  After all, Debbie hadn't shown a particular interest in visual art, during the time we were together.  Admittedly, my own interest didn’t really grow until I had been out of high school for a couple of years.  Perhaps what surprised me most, though, were the similarities in style that I've since discovered, between some of her photographs and mine.  Especially the haunting sepia works.

I believe that, in both of our work, our upbringing in rural North Carolina is reflected in the aesthetics.  When once asked where my inspirations came from, I answered that, as a child, I looked in the cracked and antiqued side mirror of an old pickup truck.  I saw the golden leaves and heavy mist of autumn reflected, therein.  It was beautiful.  Since then, my life has been dedicated to recreating that single moment.

Looking at it from today’s perspective, it’s almost ironic that, through photography, our paths could have eventually crossed again.  Maybe, though, we don’t get a second chance.  Our time was our time.  Light and shadow… both extinguished in the click of a shutter.

On April 6th, after thirty-two years, I finally found Debbie.

She was the pendulum which provided my spirit movement and I feel terribly lost knowing that I will never again have the opportunity to say goodbye.

We were young... we had forever.  Never let your children believe that, my friend.  We don't have forever.  It takes four seconds to fall two-hundred feet.

Erik Kirton
Berlin, Germany

August 19, 2015

From Todd Craig:

"Could the love that always and never was have made a difference

I now you are a part of me that is missing

and I struggle with it too

If I could go back in time to change my life

I would want to change two

You remember.  The full moon.  The rock quarry.

I wasn't ready then.  I am now.

Why am I so selfish?  The fact that I didn't know till now, I think, makes it hurt that much more.  My own fault.

Please forgive me.  I am so sorry.  Now I can only hope we will find each other in the next life."

November 6, 2013

Hey Deb:

Amanda is now a freshman in college at Miami University in Ohio.  As I recall you did some photo work in Ohio so please keep an eye on her, ok?!  Each day I know she feels your presence and knows you are guiding her along her path in life.

She has a project she is working on right now and she is focusing on you and Boo Boo.  We went through some pics of you all tonight and wish we could somehow get you back!  We know you are looking down on us and we miss you so much!  Love ya!

Brian and Dawn

October 21, 2012

Miss You !!!

November 18, 2011

A message from Robin...

Hi Debra,

It's me Robin, or as you would say "Raaaaaaabiiiiiiinnnn!" I was your muse in 2005 - 2006. One day I did the terrible model "no show" and you were rightfully upset with me. I wrote to you over the ensuing years feeling terrible as it was indeed an isolated poor form incident on my part. I truly thought you were upset with me all these years until last December, 2010 I finally googled your name and was in utter disbelief.

I'm so happy that your website is forever on the world wide web. So many of my images remain; cover of the Opera, shoes, feet, legs, beauty, etc....I was able re-live each of those days shootings as if they happened yesterday. Your constant laughter is what prevails most in my memory. I also loved and admired how you were such a hands on photographer. You wanted to help with the lighting, brush my hair aside, stack the apple boxes, lie on your stomach so you could get the perfect angle even though you had assistants to help you. You made me so comfortable, in whatever we were shooting, even in the complete nude! I still model today, and have yet to meet a photographer as hands on as you.

You introduced me to another lovely muse of yours, Marlee. The 3 of us had some grand times shooting till all hours of the day. (Marlee if you're reading this please get in touch). So much fun and creativity was had at your studio on Bryant. That was the time that I learned you were genuinely interested in me as a person, and not just a subject to shoot. I found it odd but quickly learnt that it was indeed a wonderful connection as you taught me to be more open, me, such a recluse who did not mind being photographed.

Sometimes I see flashes of blond hair braided into pig tails and I want to run up and tap you on the shoulder. Other times I hear your voice or that infectious laughter. Thank you for introducing me to the world of photography and for creating such lovely images. Thank you also for your sense of strength in dealing with death (your sister and my mum). In a way I'm kind of glad we never had to say good bye. It's as if you allowed me keep some of your energy for me to revisit when I am in need.

I'm so happy Frankie has your strong traits as you've encapsulated in your photographs. You have obviously left such an indelible mark. Love to you and your family.



December 3, 2010

From James Yuanxin Li:

Dear Debra:

You are much in my thoughts this Thanksgiving weekend. The last time we talked, it was over a plate of dolmades at the Greek restaurant in North Beach. That was such a joyful afternoon as your daughter, dressed in her princess dress, wandered amongst the small tables clutching her bright pink wand. You were so proud.

I always looked forward to going to our mutual friend’s events knowing that, halfway through the evening, you’d show up and add your boundless energy to the mix. I think I must have circled the inside of that art gallery in the Embarcadero at least four times looking at all the student artwork before you arrived. Thanks for always being willing to talk about your craft with this point-and-shoot, always-set-on-automatic photographer. You were constantly generous with your time and your words.

James Yuanxin Li

November 18, 2010

Three years on

Debra, I still miss you mightily. There aren't many day when I don't think of you, and I so often find myself telling stories about you and our trips together—and the extraordinary people we met—because you found everyone extraordinary.


November 22, 2009

I was thinking about Miah today

I was thinking about Miah today, she is amazing and funny and beautiful. My best friend is such a strong woman. I thought about what could make her so strong- in the heart, the mind and the spirit. My thoughts went to Debbie. How she must miss her, long for her. How everyday Debbie’s courage must inspire her. My heart goes out to all that knew her better, all that she made stronger. Those who she touched, even with just a smile or a hello. We all miss her, even the world who didn’t know her.

Thank you so much, I wish you the best in the world


November 18, 2009

Thinking of you today and always!

July 27, 2009


Thank you for your inspiration and all the gifts you bestowed on me.
I miss you so much.


July 25, 2009

July 24, 2009

Thinking of You...

It's your birthday and I am thinking of you...I find myself doing that more and more these days.

June 4, 2009

Debra in Scotland

I came across some more photos of Debra from our photo expedition to Scotland in 2000 that I had somehow misfiled. Here she is loading film into her Pentax using both hands and her mouth.

These photos were taken in Daviot Scotland.

March 27, 2009

Everytime I hear it, I think of you.....

Why did she have to go
So young I just don't know why
Things happen half the time
Without reason without rhyme
Lovely, sweet young woman
Daughter, wife and mother
Makes no sense to me
I just have to believe.

She flew up to Heaven on the wings of angels
By the clouds and stars and passed where no one sees
And she walks with Jesus and her loved ones waiting
And I know she's smiling saying
Don't worry 'bout me.

Loved ones she left behind
Just trying to survive
And understand the why
Feeling so lost inside
Anger shot straight at God
Then asking for His love
Empty with disbelief
Just hoping that maybe.

She flew up to Heaven on the wings of angels
By the clouds and stars and passed where no one sees
And she walks with Jesus and her loved ones waiting
And I know she's smiling saying
Don't worry 'bout me.

--- Instrumental ---

It's hard to say goodbye
Her picture in my mind
They'll always be of times I'll cherish
And I won't cry 'cause.

She flew up to Heaven on the wings of angels
By the clouds and stars and passed where no one sees
And she walks with jesus and her loved ones waiting
And I know she's smiling saying
Don't worry 'bout me.
Don't worry 'bout me.

Don't worry 'bout me...

January 1, 2009

_______ She Walks In Beauty ______

by George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788-1824)

Composed June, 1814

She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that's best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes:
Thus mellow'd to that tender light
Which heaven to gaudy day denies.

One shade the more, one ray the less,
Had half impair'd the nameless grace
Which waves in every raven tress,
Or softly lightens o'er her face;
Where thoughts serenely sweet express
How pure, how dear their dwelling-place.

And on that cheek, and o'er that brow,
So soft, so calm, yet eloquent,
The smiles that win, the tints that glow,
But tell of days in goodness spent,
A mind at peace with all below,
A heart whose love is innocent!

For my friend, my family, my love

I will look for you always..

With Love

Elaine Hollifield Kuykendall

December 28, 2008

Memory from Anthony G

Debra was very nice to me. I only talked to her twice, maybe three times.

Not that it matters, it really takes one time to remember her. It wasn't just because she was beautiful, she had a certain spirit that glowed beneath the surface of her skin.

Finding this tribute and watching the video was moving, emotional and very special. I could feel how powerful her spirit was thru the words that were written and the photographs that were posted. That video was amazing, it made me feel like I just got taught a lesson on how to live and especially how to smile. What a smile, such joy and energy!

How fortunate are all of you who really knew her beyond a couple of conversations. My heart goes out to you, I can feel your heartache. Although, I can say with confidence, that she will live thru your love, which is a thing that cannot be measured, but, be assured, that your love is so tremendous, it can genuinely touch a person who barely knew Debra.

I hope your grief and sorrow can eventually transform into a celebration of her life and that you can honor Debra by living your life as fully as she did.

—Anthony G

November 18, 2008

Letter to Debbie

Dear Debbie:

Time passes by and slightly changes the colour of grief. As you affected us in your life, you still do. Deb, I know you would be happy to hear this:

  • I went to Asheville in April. I reconnected with your family. You know how important you were. It is a gift to have them back in my life.
  • Ray took me out for breakfast. Remember how he would take us out for biscuits and grits before school? He is still the best hugger there is. He makes the world a better place with his hugging.
  • I talk to Sue regularly. She is still one of the most amazing women I know. Always was, always will be.
  • Sue kindly gave me the black sweater I knitted for you in 1986. I wear it in my workspace at home when I work late evenings. In the beginning it was sad, now it gives warmth and brings back memories.
  • I have one of your framed and signed pictures from the mountains of North Carolina facing me when I wake up in the morning.
  • Judith and I have re-established our friendship. We just spent three days in New York together. We played “Hey Jude” very loud in the hotel room and Judith demonstrated to me how you used to sing that song to her every time you spotted her in high school.
  • We talked about you many many many times. Judith and I always cried together, still do. We also laughed and giggled at good memories and knew that you would be thrilled by us being together again. I introduced her to Chianti wine from Italy. We missed you there at the table.
  • Danny is my friend on Facebook. We mail. I hope he can teach my boys to waterski one day when I bring them to North Carolina and Lake Lure. His girls are extremely beautiful.
  • Miah is going to Paris. I hope she will make it to Oslo.

Thank you Debbie for the positive impact you still have on our lives.


My Kind of Girl...

"She wore a raspberry beret. The kind you find in a second hand store." Thanks for the great memories, Debbie. You were one in a million!

hey little buddy

i really miss you.

love bye.