We called them "centerpieces."
I wrote a lot of them, but I'll always remember one, because that was the way Bob Thayer taught me about the magic of the true photographer's eye in a single click of the shutter.
When I worked there as a reporter from 1995 to 2000, The Providence Journal had robust, daily zoned editions produced by legions of talented, dedicated writers, photographers, editors, and designers.
The "centerpiece" was the feature that anchored the cover of each local section. Depending on the size of your bureau, you usually had to come across with one at least once a week -- and possibly have another in the can for emergencies.
Centerpieces were both blessing and burden: They were reporters' chance to showcase their feature-writing chops at a writer's paper, but there was a catch: You had to have really strong pictures, or it wasn't going to work.
Every state-staff reporter covered a town or a beat or both, but you always had to have a centerpiece ready to go. Stuck for one during my stint in the Newport Bureau, I came across a glassblower's shop. Artsy, I thought. This'll work.
Bob Thayer -- a brilliant photog with bright red hair, a round, ruddy face, and a lovably sheepish laugh -- got the assignment, and off we went. He did his thing, I did mine, and the story ran on the front of the East Bay section.
His main image was creative and striking, naturally, because you'd expect nothing less from Bob: A glassblower had a giant egg he'd created, and while it was still on the pipe, Bob positioned him so the egg appeared where the guy's head should have been.
But nearly 20 years later, it's a different picture I've never forgotten.
It ran small, in black and white: Just a detail shot of a glass bottlestopper no more than an inch high.
But then I looked more closely.
Bob had shot through the tiny stopper, through the front window of the shop, and out into the street -- capturing an inverted image of a dog in the back of a pickup truck outside.
I'd spent just as much time in that shop as Bob had. Maybe more. I'd toured the place thoroughly, done my interviews, checked out the merchandise, loaded up my notebook.
But at the very same time, Bob wasn't seeing what I saw: He was seeing things I couldn't see.
That was his priceless gift.
After a few more years and many more stories at the Journal, I moved back to New York for a new job -- and I told the story of Bob's photo in the glass shop more times than I can say.
And I started trying to make pictures of my own. Never, never as good as his, of course -- never could be -- but I tried to remember the way Bob saw things. I tried to remember to look harder for the blink-and-you'll-miss-them moments of the world and capture them from a different perspective.
When I learned Thursday night that Bob had been found dead at his home by a Journal co-worker after uncharacteristically missing assignments, I immediately thought of that day at the glass shop, and looked back at some of the many, many stories we worked together, and gave thanks for how much I learned from him.
In a piece he wrote for the Journal in February, Bob said he'd been fortunate to grow up around art and artists. His final lines summed up perfectly the philosophy of his own much-honored work -- and his life.
"Every time I round a corner, I know I will see something new that will remind me that everything is art, if only we take the time to relax and enjoy it, and really look at it," he wrote.
"Look and live, I say. Look and live."
That he did.
I am very, very lucky I got to work with Bob. His vision is and will be missed.
I can't tell you how much I wish I could show you that one small black and white photo from the glass shop. It's here somewhere. I'll keep looking.
I'll keep looking.
That's what Bob Thayer did so very well.
May he rest in peace.