Photography is a Solitary Activity
The Road Trip and the Camera
We are all familiar with the concept of the “road trip”. It brings to mind the spirit of youth, non conformity, automobiles, music and escape. It’s romantic sentiment of long gone mom & pop neon lit one story motels, gas stations and cafes is no longer based in present day reality. The abandoned relics of roadside architecture are a curiosity to pop culture enthusiasts and photographers. While the restored structures along route 66 have brought visitors back in search of nostalgia, modern roadside amenities begin and end on the interstate in corporate chain establishments.
The road trip has been used to market cars, sunglasses, beer, soft drinks, cell phones, radio stations etc, etc, etc… The script is written by marketers outlining the imagined experience on the great American road trip. That might be: eating fast food in your car, listening loudly to music while driving, sticking your arms out the window to feel the wind or dreamily looking up at the passing stars as you wiz through the desert night. We’ve all seen the commercials. Epic books by John Steinbeck, Jack Kerouac and William Least Heat-Moon, to name just a few offer the classic backdrops to the revival of the modern american road trip. Movies and songs round out the vision of what is to be expected.
Having expounded on my wariness of road trip cliches, I want to set that aside and recall how practices with my camera, the car and roadside travel has evolved for me, as a photographer over the years; but first, let’s indulge in a tiny snippet of the quintessential road song, shot from my dashboard on interstate 40. Buckle up!
First Things First
Early on in my career as a commercial photographer, before moving to northeast Wisconsin, I worked as an assistant to a still life and product photographer in New York City. It was at that time I met my wife to be. It didn’t take long before she was indoctrinated into the selfish exercise of my craft. In our travels, early in our relationship, I would, of course, carry my camera. A weekend to a bed & breakfast in Pennsylvania, or a trip to the Jersey shore in a rental car or the ultimate three week trip out west provided me with unending visual stimulation. I thought nothing of pulling over to the side of the road and running off composing and snapping away while she waited in the car, sometimes for a half an hour.
Recently, I found a photograph that illustrates my inconsiderate roamings. Years after I took the photo, I discovered a face in evidence in a car in the foreground. In the lower right quarter of the image, my wife’s tiny face is looking back at me, from inside the car, lit only by the overhead dome light. I was hiking up a hill behind the motel at dusk to capture the image. She is looking back…waiting for me, again!
For years, without regard to who was sitting next to me in the car, I stopped when I wanted, taking time to capture what I was compelled to, whenever a scene presented itself. There was a solution: do it alone. That kind of stress free adventure was welcomed by my wife, as long as she was not involved.
Photographic road trips have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember, beginning in the back seat of the family station wagon as a kid, with an instamatic, so that part of me wasn’t going away.
A grand trip out west alone, before our first child was born was what I planned. I could stop when and where I wanted, get out of the car without apology before a new chapter began.
After that trip out west , I realized I had to make photographic adjustments. I wasn’t always going to be alone while traveling. If I was going to go with a companion, I couldn’t selfishly run off with my camera, so I purchased and kept a high end portable – Nikon P7000 near me in the front seat. I began to shoot through the windshield. With the mode set to auto, it was safe and easy. The camera also has the capability of shooting video. Before setting off on a drive, I would make sure the windshield was spotless inside and out.
The point of all this is not to show a few of my roadside travel images, but rather to relay the recognition of how my images have changed to accommodate traveling with another person on a road trip.
From a creative standpoint, by including part of the dashboard or the windshield’s frame edge, in the final image, the idea of road trip photography becomes obvious. Typically, I will crop in to eliminate those indicators. I want to say that for safety, most often, I pull over and shoot, (not getting out of the car, thus eliminating any passenger irritation.)
Shooting while Stopped
What’s in Front of Me? (and all around)
For me, the visual drama of life can be on an interstate, at a gas station or out my windshield with a grey flat landscape rolled out for miles. The pause at a traffic light on a busy corner can reveal interactions and private moments of fellow earthlings.
Sunsets are boring…