Capturing Time

Photography offers a retired Spanish teacher inspiration, purpose, and reason for travel

At a piazza in Sicily, Patricia Solano watched her fellow photography students get turned away every time they asked to take someone’s photo. Solano, who’d spent 20 years as a high school Spanish teacher, spoke some Italian. So instead of asking for photos, she turned on her charm.

“I like your shoes,” she told one man, as she walked past him toward the other side of the piazza.

That was enough to gain entry into his and his friends’ world. “They were waving me back. I got so many photos,” Solano says.

The encounter was nothing new to Solano, who has traveled to every U.S. state (except Alaska) and 58 countries. Most of that travel has happened in the years since her retirement, and much of it now centers around photography.

“I love that I found photography,” she says. She was 67 when she bought her first professional-grade camera (called a DSLR). “I’d been taking trips and had a point-and-shoot. I was getting a lot of feedback from people that I had a good eye,composition. I thought I’d get a real camera.”

Solano struggled at first with learning to switch the camera’s settings quickly enough to get the shots she wanted. But she stuck with it. Looking back now, she says she wishes she would’ve learned photography when she was teaching Spanish because she says her struggle with understanding the mechanics would’ve helped her understand better her students who had trouble grasping Spanish.

It’s all about stimulating your brain, which is the same as stimulating your body to stay strong. 

A decade later, Solano has taken multiple photography workshops, and has photographed weddings, headshots, and former students’ families.

“It’s constant, constant, constant learning,” she says. “It’s all about stimulating your brain, which is the same as stimulating your body to stay strong. The best thing I ever did for myself was sign up for weight training, and this is weight training for my brain.”

This summer, Solano plans to stay close to her home in Vernon Hills, Illinois, so she can spend time with family and work on her house. However, she’ll also spend a week in Door County, Wisconsin, for a photo creativity workshop. 

“I am never bored,” she says. “But here’s the thing that hangs over my head: the window of good health. I am on no medications, except for an estrogen blocker. My maternal grandmother died at 97 because she fell off a ladder. I’m trying to keep up with the weight training, keep up with the mind training. There are just so many things I want to do. I don’t feel like I have enough time.”

Photography offers a way for Solano to capture individual moments and chance encounters, and hold onto them. It has filled her life, she says. “I’m 78. If I don’t give it my all right now, I’m going to look back in five years and think, ‘If I’d just tried a little harder….’”

Solano reflects on her art, travel, and life as she edits her photos. She publishes them — along with the stories behind them — on her blog at 

“It really is an affirmation of my work, that people like what I do,” Solano says. “You put a lot of time and investment into it. You want to be good and for people to say you’re good.”

After all, who doesn’t like to be reminded of that? Especially when they’re looking good, in their chic Italian shoes, in the middle of a piazza.

Originally published in the Summer/Fall 2023 print issue.