Flash flood control is taken very seriously here. On the Giant Road Trip these wide and sculpted concrete constructions began to show up in southern Kansas, and continued through Oklahoma and Texas. Towns were designed to channel and survive occasional events when the dry arroyo turns into a mini-Amazon. Another way this showed up was in really long highway bridges over...nothing but scrub. Then you realize that in the right storm conditions, the bridge will span a raging torrent of a couple feet of water that would sweep cars, much less people, out of its path.
The Pennsylvania Photography Workshops has asked me to lead a weekend session in June. This is a new organization with great enthusiasm. It has studio and darkroom space in a reclaimed industrial building—The Pajama Factory—in Willamsport, PA. My program in June is sponsored by the Susquehanna Greenways Partnership. Part of the idea is for participants to tune up to enter the Partnership's yearly photography contest. The towns along the river are fascinating, with scenery and architecture that reflect several century's history from the first Westward expansions of colonial America, through the Industrial Revolution, to the booms in oil and coal. The river itself is quite amazing. The longest on the East Coast that drains into the Atlantic. The towns within easy reach of Williamsport offer a treasure trove of subjects to anyone interested in vernacular architecture or industrial landscape, and there's plenty of landscape/waterscape material to revel in as well.
Williamsport is a substantial small city, while Jersey Shore is a small town. I discovered it about a decade ago after I photographed The Port drive-in theater, actually in Linden, PA, just west of Williamsport (there's almost a tradition of DI theaters being named for a town that is nearby, but not actually where they, you know, really are). I grew up in New Jersey, twenty miles west of Manhattan. When I was a little kid my parents were fond of making day trips in summer to the Jersey Shore to get smacked around for a while by ocean waves at Point Pleasant, and then go to their favorite seafood restaurant. For some reason, while having their Shore Dinner platters they insisted that I wanted the Southern Fried Chicken, which I detested. Not a small part of why I've been vegetarian for decades. So, when I got on the Interstate after shooting at The Port, and the first sign said the next exit was for Jersey Shore, I just had to take the exit and spend time walking around making pictures. Can't wait to go have another look.
After photographing the theater at Dodge City on May 27, not wanting to go all the way to the next one at Medicine Lodge, I thought the farmland around Greensburg looked interesting in the late afternoon light and the GPS said there was a Best Western in town. There didn't seem to be a town, just the new hotel, and some half-completed residential and commercial buildings. Once I got checked in and hooked up to the WiFi, I discovered that the whole town center was blown away in a tornado almost exactly five years earlier.
Still, the Kansas wind on a clear day is amazing. By this time I'd gotten used to driving in gusts so strong that you simply have to let the car shudder and shimmy a little while letting the steering wheel shake in your hands. You keep a steady enough course by snubbing the action of the wheel at a few degrees rotation—trying to hold it still just doesn't work. A mile or so out of "town" on the two-lane highway 183, I turned onto a narrow side road between the wheat fields and looked for a spot to photograph the old bus-now-billboard with the wind-bent trees, grain elevator behind them, and traffic on 183. My idea was to get out the Lumix 45-200 lens, which has image stabilization, and shoot out the car window, when suddenly the car was bucking and jumping like the engine was idling on three cylinders, "what the hell?"...then I realized the engine was shut down, parking brake engaged, stick in first. It was the wind. So much for shooting out the window. After moving the car forward just enough, I got out (nearly having my foot amputated by the wind trying to slam the door back on me) and crouched behind the tailgate in the wind shadow of the car to make the shots. I've used a car or truck to create a windshield on other expeditions in other parts of the country, but never needed it so badly before.
In comments, Scott asked about tracking and indexing the material from The Giant Road Trip, and I thought it might be of interest to expand a bit on the subject. The system I use centers on something I learned from an Adobe Tips 'n Tricks video I saw way back in 2004 when I first began to do commercial assignments with digital capture. The two parts of last year's drive-in theater expedition accumulated something like 18,000 captures (weirdly close to the number of miles traveled) and the approach served well.
The system centers around filenames. At the end of each day, I download the SD cards from both digital cameras into a newly created folder inside the DI Expedition folder on the Captures external hard drive. Then I navigate to the new folder in Bridge (other browsers will have similar abilities), select the full set of files and then go to View-->Sort-->by Date. This actually sorts not just by date but by time down to the second, so if the two cameras' internal clocks agree, you have a perfect chronological sort. Then I go to Tools-->Batch Rename and set things up so that the new name will be in the format yymmdd_0001. Make sure to check the "preserve original file name in exif" button.
So, now the file name of the picture above is 120526_0384. This does a couple of things. First, any files, in any selection or grouping, in either the finder or a browser that sorts on date, will automatically arrange themselves in chronological order. So will any groups of derivative files like JPEGs for this blog, or .psd files prepared for printing. Also, I know immediately that this was the 384th file shot on May 26, 2012.
That's 120526_0285, shot in the evening on my way from the hotel room I'd secured in Wilson, KS, back down to the Kanopolis Drive-in. When I finish shooting at a location, as soon as I'm back in the car I make a note either by hand or with a voice recorder, with any relevant data about the location, plus the last digits of the last file number for each camera. Just noting the exact time works pretty well too. As soon as these notes are typed up I can quickly look up information about any picture by picking up the date from the file name and then jumping to that date in the text file.
Also, as soon as the information is available (which may be from memory, right away) I select all the shots from a specific location, hit Command-I to bring up the file info dialog, then type the name of the town, along with other things like a theater name, in the Description box. From then on, any time I look at a picture in the browser, again including any derivative files, a quick Command-I shows me the identification info. If there's some confusion about, say, some pictures made from the side of the road out in the middle of nowhere, in Bridge I can look at the File Properties pane and see the Preserved Filename as the second item. A quick search in the notes document will turn it right up. Since for more than forty years I've always titled my pictures with the place name where they were made, nowadays I just hit a couple buttons on the GPS unit in the car to come up with the info to record. One thing I like about this is that I don't need any additional tools or programs. I'd imagine any decent browser will have some sort of batch rename function and of course any word processor will do for the notes. A final touch is that my little Olympus voice recorder shows the date and time of each MP3 recording on the LCD panel, so even if I haven't typed up the notes I can quickly locate the relevant recording based on the date in the filename.
For the large format negatives, I've always used a simple indexing system, so that 12.717.043 is the 43rd 7x17" negative made in 2012. How to keep track when accumulating scores of negatives on a long road trip? I keep an older digital camera in the 7x17 case. Each time I finish a shot, I get that camera and shoot a few frames of the setup, including from behind the camera so I can see which format I used, then record the last digits of the final capture of that setup, along with any other relevant notes. Once again, after the notes are typed up they can quickly be correlated to the date/time-stamped digital captures.
There probably are some photographers who have never made a self-portrait, not even a picture including a shadow or intentional reflection. Then there are a few who make nothing else. I guess there's a sliding scale between the two, and I'm way at the left. Back on April 23 I had just reloaded my sheet film holders, as shown in this blog post from the road. After I'd made a snap of the changing tent setup, I noticed the interesting morning light in the economy motel room and knocked off a few frames. Then I was ready to set off for a day that would cover about 300 miles, mostly in Missouri, and get photographs at four drive-in theaters. Quite a typical day for the trip in fact, exactly the average mileage, though with more closely packed theaters than usual. It's too bad I didn't think to do another motel room mirror shot six weeks later, at the end of The Western Loop of the Giant Drive-in Theater Road Trip, to record the grizzled Ancient Mariner look that had set in, but it didn't occur to me. Too tired, probably.
Back on April 24, 2012, I left Houston, MO, where I'd photographed The Phoenix drive-in theater to head for the next theater on my list, at Seymour, MO. US Route 60 alternated stretches of limited access four-lane with older two-lane highway sections, and on one of these I spotted a derelict drive-in theater screen. The screen was missing half of its panels, but the grounds were well-kept. Inside, I found that a permanent flea market was in operation, owned by Willard and Donna Hill. A building at the back of the field had once been a single screen indoor theater (The Phoenix had a similar arrangement, though on different terrain and with both operations still in business).
The theater was out of business when the Hills bought the property many years ago. They've never operated the theaters but I did get to have good talk with Willard before moving along toward Seymour.
This room is at the Abilene West, Best Western motel—the place with the interesting lobby—where I stayed on June 3 while I photographed the Town and Country Drive-in Theater in the afternoon and then early morning.
Back in September of 2011 I did a twelve day road trip in the upper Midwest where I found that independent old-fashioned motels had almost entirely disappeared, but low-end chain motels (ie, Motel 6) were with just one exception, perfectly acceptable places to stay. On my travels this summer, independent motels were again almost non-existent, but also with a couple exceptions the inexpensive motels looked really awful. I ended up having to stay at mid-level places, considerably raising the cost of lodging, which was already figured as the single biggest expense item.
At least the better motels tended to include good WiFi service. This was typical evening activity. One portable hard drive is backing up the MacBook's internal drive, a second is storing all the digital capture files, while a third is used to back up the capture drive. My smart phone is charging, and behind the computer a camera battery is on its charger. The computer is online at Blogger, probably working on the blog post linked at the top of this post. Missing is some additional clutter: a pair of external speakers to play the internet feed from Sirius XM. I must not have set them up yet when I took this snap. It was really wonderful during weeks and weeks on the road to constantly have access to the Symphony Hall and Real Jazz XM channels in the car and the room.
There have been some questions about some of what went on behind the scenes on The Giant Drive-in Theater Road Trip, dealing with both technical and aesthetic choices. I managed to reach a total of 107 theaters, more than I'd expected, but I knew from the outset that I wouldn't be able to photograph all of them with large format. Aside from direct expense, I'd never finish developing that much film—simply not feasible. Back in 2002 I made a smaller though still substantial trip hunting drive-ins across the upper tier of the country as far as Montana and Idaho. I'd guess I only photographed about half of the theaters I found on that trip. The others were either cookie-cutter dull, or simply didn't offer any unique aspects in either structure or setting. In retrospect, I wish I had photographed them for purely documentary purposes using 35mm film, but it wasn't on my radar.
On last year's trip I was again looking for unique combinations of structure and landscape, but this time when I decided to do an 8x10 or 7x17 inch shot, I backed it up with similar framing using digital capture, then went on to document any other interesting aspects of the place. If I decided a theater wasn't distinctive enough to get large format film coverage, I still shot the most interesting views I could find using "free film." In a few cases, the theater's appearance was so "about color" that I shot only digital capture for that reason. Above you can see my sunrise setup at The Sunset theater with a 7x17" Korona on a big Ries tripod and a mirrorless 4/3s camera on a very sturdy series No. 4 Gitzo.
The Town and Country Drive-in has an enormous field with three screens. Along with pictures with both big cameras I shot a lot of other angles digital only. There were several oil wells on the site, but sadly they don't belong to the theater owner. "If I owned the mineral rights here, I wouldn't be worrying about the cost of converting to digital projection."
The vast majority of digital captures at the theaters were made with a Lumix 7-14mm Varifocal, a lens with stunning optical quality that I bought specifically for this project. You can see a two-axis bubble level in the accessory shoe of the Lumix G3—I wanted the digital captures to reflect the same architectural/documentary style as the view camera work, which among other things meant keeping the camera perfectly plumb and level. Harder to do hand-held than you might expect, because at a drive-in most of the subject matter is not level. Screens lean forward, the ground is plowed into semi-circular ramps, concession stand roofs are often slanted. It's a lot easier to use a tripod and a level. This also meant I could work at optimum aperture and base ISO no matter what the light level. That's a compact quick release mount between the tripod platform and the camera.
The constant process of deciding whether each theater was going to get large format treatment was the hardest aesthetic judgement of the project. Also, I found it was important to do that first—begin by finding the ideal 8x10 and/or 7x17 shot, if there was one. Only after doing the large format work, or deciding not to, was it safe to do the digital capture coverage. I discovered that if I began with capture, it threw me off finding the perfect position for a large format shot. I know some people use digital capture as a kind of sketchbook to explore or scout a location, even using the captures to help decide what the best spot is to set up a large format shot, but that approach totally backfires for me.
Aside from structure and setting, two other things influenced the format choice. A few times, the moment I looked at a place I could see the platinum print in the back of my mind. Or, as I found the perfect place to stand, I realized that I would really love to see this as a big print. I've never been drawn to gargantuan prints, and of course I've done a great deal of my work using very large cameras to make rather small contact prints in platinum. But the drive-in theater subject in particular lends itself to prints larger than I normally make. Partly it's that the pictures often combine a broad landscape view with highly detailed structures that invite close examination. A scan of a 7x17" negative allows a very large panoramic print with exquisite detail and tone. A few years ago I had an exhibit of some of the earlier project material, showing prints with a 13x32" image area. (Less than a 2X enlargement.) While doing the scans and prints, I repeatedly found picture elements—a tractor mowing a hay field in the background, captured in a half-second exposure exactly as it rounds a corner of the field, for example—that I had been hyper aware of as I made the shot, but forgot about afterwards and didn't notice in the contact prints. Most of the time I'm happy with prints in the 11x14 to 16x20 range, but with this special subject, sometimes the best presentation is a much larger print with quality only available from large format film.
The weather has kept me from doing much new work recently so here are few more things seen on The Giant Road Trip. This one is from back in June. A sign around the corner declared Gatesville the spur capital of Texas. The museum wasn't open early on a Sunday morning, so I didn't get to see why.
Having escaped from the driveway, we went to a local Mexican restaurant for lunch to celebrate Tina's birthday. Sunlight reflecting off a car windshield in the parking lot threw a light beam across the room casting a shadow from a potted plant.
Around noon we found out the guy who plows the driveway when it's too deep to scrape off by hand, decided it's too dangerous to plow here. He was getting stuck on flat driveways, while ours is steep and circular/keyhole. With rain beginning to fall, the snow could only become more impossible to deal with as it became more saturated. Two and a half hours of shoveling cleared a just wider than the Honda lane down to Washington Road. At that rate, if it doesn't get worse, it will take five hours to clear the rest of it so the oil tanker can get in and fill the tank. The stuff is so heavy, getting worse as rain drizzles down, that each shovel-width has to be taken in four layers to get down to the asphalt. Each shovel full sticks to the shovel so you end up moving every pound of snow at least twice. Tina, meanwhile, got her sharp gardening spade and worked on the piled-up mountain of pushed slush the state trucks piled up at the mouth of the drive. At least six feet high, more than that deep at the base, and the far edge is out over the painted line for the travel lane of Route 47. A Good Samaritan, I think he works part time for the construction business with its office across the street, stopped and helped Tina. They finished with the mountain—just wide enough for a Honda Fit driven straight through—almost exactly as I met them working down the steep forty-foot straight section at the base of the circle. I thanked our benefactor and introduced myself. Buck, a compact man with a gray beard who looks to be about my age, had been flinging the packed ice off his snow shovel with abandon. He shook hands with a paw that felt like iron. He allowed as how he'd be happy to give me a book about The Good Word of the Lord, but OK if not. I allowed as how that didn't fit my interests, but said I hoped that I'd have the opportunity to do him a favor sometime in the future.
Tina said, "Very clever, put the girl out hacking away at the mountain by the road and see if you catch a Good Samaritan."
Freezing rain is in the forecast, which would make the stuff literally impossible to shovel. The plows across the state, by news reports, have run out of places to put the snow, or can't maneuver safely on the gradients. They are having to find front-loaders and haul trucks to get the stuff out of the street. Lots of in-town people have shoveled their short driveways only to find 38" of virgin snow in the street.
I decided I wanted to move the Honda from where it had been parked to near the bottom of the driveway while the shoveled pavement was just wet, not need to do it in the morning with new ice on the drive. So while I was at it I made a short errand trip into town, took a look around, and did a couple of snaps.