Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Last leg of the First Journey

  Topeka Kansas to San Diego California in 50 hours in a school bus - I do NOT recommend it... That's the short version.  Here's the longer recount of what I recollect.

  After giving the workshop I finally had enough funds to get back home, so I decided to shoot straight for home - partly because the area that I was to travel through is extremely hot and I wanted to get though it as fast as possible and partly because I have a feeling that that is the same area which has the least possibility of generating random interest in this project by just showing up.  People in New Mexico and Arizona (especially the low-lands) are, in my opinion, not the most artistically-inclined.  I may yet be proven wrong on this during my future journeys there, but I know for a fact that during the hot parts of the year (and those account for 80-90% of it) it's hard to see a single soul on the streets there because residents just want to get from their home into the car, then from there into the place of business where they were going and then back in the same quick fashion - the ticket there is to spend as little time outside of an air-conditioned environment as possible.  So I decided to make the 1500mi (2400km) drive in as quick of a time as humanly possible.

  I left Topeka at about 5pm on Saturday and arrived to San Diego Monday at about 7pm - that may be some sort of a record considering the vehicle and that there was only one driver.  If commercial drivers licenses were given out simply by judging how numb someones gluteus maximus muscle is after a drive I would definitely easily qualify.  The drivers seat in Gilli is original and was not designed for long stretches of driving - 2-3 hours I can do easy, but after 4-5-6-10 straight hours of bouncing up and down in it I found myself having to stand up while driving, which is actually kinda fun and feels a little like surfing a giant metal board down a freeway.

  Kansas was nice and flat and not too hot and I drove well into the night exhilarated by the fact that I'm going home and hopped up on a major amount of coffee.  Still, I couldn't do the all-nighter and soon after I crossed into Oklahoma I started to doze off and pulled over somewhere either in Oklahoma or Texas.  Both of those states have parts dubbed Panhandle because of their shape and those parts are very similarly flat, boring and desolate.

  I woke up at 8am because the air was already starting to get hot and stuffy and proceeded to drive all day down to I-40 and then on in through New Mexico, past Albuquerque and into the northern part of Arizona before finding myself not being able to go on any further.  I fell asleep right after getting off the big highway just 40 miles or so into Arizona.  I think I did about 550 miles that day - knowing that my average speed is about 50 when on the flats that's 11 hours of pure driving time.

  In Arizona I chose the route that would avoid Flagstaff and at the same time would avoid the very low and hot I-25 that I had to deal with before (that's where Gilli overheated that one and only time and I have a prejudice against that road now).  So, after looking at the topographical maps I decided to go with a series of small one-lane highways thinking that it'll be relatively flat and not too extreme when it comes to elevation changes.  Somehow I must have miscalculated because soon after I started driving I found myself on a pretty steep incline.  Gilli does not like hills and I was going 25mph for abut an hour until I reached a 7000+ foot plateau.  It was a gorgeous drive up there and here are three images from that part of the drive.

  There is a national forest there and someday I'd love to go camping in it, but this was no time to stop - I was determined to make it back to San Diego by Monday night because one of my favorite bands plays very Monday in my favorite bar in the town of Ocean Beach, so that was the major incentive driving me forward. 

  When I got off the plateau it immediately got to be close to 100°F, which made me ever so more determined to keep driving as fast as possible.  The tough part was just coming up though and I was not looking forward to it.  There is a mountain pass in California just west of El Centro and I know that road all too well.  Back about 10-12 years ago I worked as a photographer for a portrait company that would frequently send me on shoots to Yuma and even a light-weight car that I drove back then did not like that climb very much.  I knew I was in for a slow ride, but I had not anticipated exactly how slow.  In a few parts of it I slowed down to 15mph and it was pure hell.  Going so slow did give me plenty of time to contemplate every boulder, dust off the dashboard and admire the glistening of broken glass on the freeways shoulder.  Here is a quick little snapshot to give those of you who have never been in this part of the country an idea of the landscape.  Elevation - 3000ft.

  It was still close to 100 degrees and Gilli was close to overheating for about 2 hours.  I watched the thermostat closely, but there are no marks between 180° and 240° and the point of no return is 220° - the needle must have hovered somewhere around 215°...  Tense! Thankfully she pulled through like a champ and soon I found myself on the wonderfully speedy downhill part barreling down toward San Diego.  

  I can't tell you how excited I was to see the sun go down into the ocean as I was approaching Ocean Beach.  It was very unfortunate that I was just about 5 minutes from the actual ocean and had to take this sinking sun photo from the freeway, but I think it was still worth it.  San Diego river can be seen on the bottom right and Pacific ocean is just beyond the background trees.

  Driving into Ocean Beach, my old hang-out, in a school bus was very surreal to me, but I did not count on there being still so many tourists and locals out - I completely forgot that it was indeed Labor Day holiday and people come out in droves for that occasion.  I barely found parking, stepped out of The Photo Palace and breathed a deep sigh -  the first trial-by-fire journey was over and Gilli and I were back in one piece!  Amazing...

  I am going to take a short break from posting updates on here and allow a little time to separate myself from that experience in order to write a fair and balanced recollection report.  Meanwhile I will develop the rest of the film shot, make some contact sheets, clean up the incredible mess that is currently my San Diego darkroom space, dig out the scanner to make some scans and, of course, print print print.


Saturday, September 1, 2012

Topeka Workshop Done - now back to San Diego

  Today I held a workshop at The Villages Inc. in Topeka KS - a group home facility for youth in need of a place to live and learn.  It is an alternative to Juvenile Detention Centers and some kids that live there have been in and out of 'the system' since being very young.  For the reasons of confidentiality I was explicitly asked not to post any images of them on here, which is a shame because before I knew of that rule I did take some great pictures of them at work.  

  I love how serendipitously this workshop came together!  On Thursday, when I was done with my research at Topeka Library concerning John W. Rahill and his lantern slides and general activity as a minister of Topeka Central Congregational Church, I decided to walk a mile and a half to Wolf's Camera Shop.  It was very hot and after just a few blocks I had a feeling that the walk is not going to be what I anticipated (pictures I wanted to take would have been rather boring as the neighborhood was pretty typical with no pedestrians to be seen and the day was just heating up) and I had a feeling that I should turn around and drive there instead.  When I rounded the corner of the library I saw a group of three people peeking into Gilli's windows and looking intrigued.  I offered them a tour and they loved the work and the concept.  As it turns out one of them was actually the executive director Sylvia Crawford and she said that some of her kids might be into it, took my card and called me back later that afternoon after finding out that indeed there was interest.  Sometimes things just work out when you follow your gut.

  Today I had four 16 year old students, two boys and two girls, and met them at the property at 9am.  They were very enthusiastic and as interested and focused as anyone at 16 can be.  We briefly went through the history of photography leaving out some more boring details and focusing more on the evolution of the process of printing. I got a lot of questions about Polaroid manipulation and the technique of light painting.  They loved seeing the historic daguerreotype next to the one of Gilli and me taken by Mr. McElroy just a week and a half ago.
  Then I launched into the relationship between film speed and shutter/aperture combinations.  Before I lost their attention with dry numbers I pulled out a light meter and showed them how it all ties in.  I think they got the idea...  Afterward I went through the number of formats of cameras starting with view cameras (the cherry Tachihara 4x5 seemed to evoke the most trepidation) and down to Minox - I illustrated all the cameras with my own images taken with the cameras I was displaying.
   Next I pulled out my favorite Tele Rolleiflex, loaded it with a roll of Tri-X given to me in Rochester by the wonderful folks at Kodak and we went outside to take portraits of them using that wonderfully classic combination.  I kept taking light meter readings and changing the camera settings, thereby reinforcing the material that I just presented to them.  Each kid got to do three poses - everyone wanted at least one shot by The Photo Palace Bus, seems like it strikes a note with everyone who sees it.
  After the quick photo shoot we went into the darkroom and I demonstrated what it takes to develop a roll of film.  We went through the times with various developers and settled on using Rodinal at 1/25 dilution for 7 minutes.  The pictures turned out pretty nice in my view, but, of course, girls will be girls and one of them was disappointed with the way her beautiful hair laid...  What can I do - we didn't have a make-up artist on sight, this wasn't a glamor shoot.
  Once the film was washed it force-dried with the aid of a conventional hair dryer because I would have taken a good hour or more for it to dry in current humidity that we are experiencing here.  The kids seemed to be fascinated with the look of negatives - they kept referring to the 'setting on the phone' that inverts the images and now they knew what it was actually emulating. 
  To give them a good idea of how gelatin silver prints are made I went through the various aspects of enlargement controls while making the contact sheet.  Then came time for them to chose their favorite poses and actually print one image on their own under my supervision.  They did all right - I think as good as anyone printing for their first time can do.  The prints came out a bit flat, but I wasn't about to push them to keep making infinite test strips because by then the darkroom was heating up pretty good and I could see the beads of sweat forming on their foreheads. 
  In the end we took a little walk down the picturesque hill on top of which their group homes are located and talked about Ansel and his pre-visualization concepts.  When we came back to The Bus their prints were dry.  I cut up the contact sheet and gave them each their three 6x6cm images and the 8x8in final prints.  The highest praise they could formulate is the it was "G as hell" and I took that with gratitude - anything that deserves the 'G' label in their world means that it impressed them to the maximum.
  The workshop ended at 3pm and we were all exhausted by then.  Linda, one of the house parents, invited me in for hot dogs and a protein shake and before I left supplied me with a care package of fruit bars, Oreos and canned fruit - I will enjoy them all on my long journey back to San Diego.

  Now I have the gas funds needed to make it back to California and am looking forward to being home again.  It's been almost 3 months since I left and the time couldn't have been more adventure-packed.  One thing I am not looking forward to is driving the remaining 1500mi through the scorching heat that is prevailing in New Mexico and Arizona...  I will be extremely thankful next time when Gilli has a roof air conditioner - this was really a trial by fire kind of trip, but it was well worth it.