As some of you may know I chose to take Route 66 back home all the way from Chicago to Los Angeles. Route 66 has been called 'The Mother Road' because from 1920s until the magor freeway system was built up and completed it was the major route for travelers to take from the east to out west. It runs just over 2200 miles and millions of people have traveled down it's winding turns. I decided that at least once in my life I have to go on it from start to finish. Making lots of quick stops along the way to make tintypes and averaging about eleven plates a day (except for today when I only did 3 because I was visiting Bostick and Sullivan in Santa Fe and that visit took a lot longer than expected as I'll explain below) I have progressed about 150-200 miles per day. I have chosen not to copy the images I make via iPhone camera and to save them all for the time that I complete the trip - so far I have92 plates as of today and I expect the total number to be about 130 by the time I reach Santa Monica. Because of this decision this update will be rather sparse in photos, but here is a brief description of how the journey has progressed so far.
I started out from Chicago and was determined to make my first plate by the marker that says 'Route 66 Begin'. That sign happens to be located RIGHT downtown on Adams Ave by Michigan street. If any of you have ever been there you can visualize what a nightmare it would be to park a 35ft bus there in the middle of a weekday. For those who have not been there I'll just say that it took a lot of guts to park Gilli right in the 'buses only' lane with hazard lights on during rush hour with cars streaming all around. Luckily by now I have gotten my system down to where I can stop, make an exposure and get going in under 20 minutes, so no cops ever had the chance to question what a big yellow bus is doing blocking traffic, I even decided to do two plates from that perspective because the skyscrapers were just too picturesque and I knew what I won't encounter anything like that down the road.
The route quickly dips into suburbs and then into the rural country. Over the years it has been pretty much abandoned and overshadowed by major freeways that in a lot of parts have been built directly over it. Because of that the roads suggested by websites dedicated to traveling the entire length of Route 66 run directly parallel to a large highway, which is little fun to drive. Not only do you not go as fast, but those roads are poorly maintained and that's just not good for my faithful bus and her suspension. In light of that I decided to jump onto the freeways for some stretches and to get off at various towns where life may be expected to be seen. I also chose to take a very literal approach to my photography during this project. While various attractions visited by crowds of motor tourists throughout the decades lay just off the route I decided to focus on the ROAD itself. For that purpose every one of my images (other than maybe 4-5 so far out of the 92) include the road and all of them are oriented to the west since that's the direction that I'm traveling. This decision has definitely been adding an extra challenge to the photographic aspect of the trip. The road first goes pretty much directly south and then curves to the west in around Oklahoma. That meant that I had to shoot directly into the sun with back lit subjects and glare off the pavement filling the frame. It took a little adjustment to exposure and development, but I think I'm getting some rather decent results.
Route 66 was once traveled by heavy crowds and I met people along the way who still remember it being a busy throughway filled with traffic and picnicking families along it's sides. Now it's a pretty dismal scene with a lot of towns having gone completely abandoned and those that are still hanging on being in a terrible shape. Other towns, which had something else other than the road going for them, that are still bustling hubs of civilization are by now so modernized that they all look alike in accordance with the universal law of Americana - shopping malls, fast food joints, auto parts stores.... That makes for a nice contrast I think and I can't wait to lay out all the plates in a succession once I'm done and to see the whole road as it progresses. That's still about 4 days away at least as I have about 800 more miles to cover, so let's see how it goes. I do know that I'll be tempted to stop a lot more once I reach Arizona and the desert of California - I've been on certain sections of 66 there before and remember a lot of completely decayed buildings and I love shooting that kind of stuff, so I'll have to try to limit the amount of stops as I'm sure that this constant stopping and starting is not good for the engine...
To cut down on the time it takes me to wash all the plates I've been holding them in little 4x5 and 5x7 trays (for three of which I have to thank Lyosha Svinarski) until I get about 6-8 of them and then doing a batch wash. You can see the various grounds that I had encountered under the trays in these images.
Here is one plate though for you to see as it's being washed. This is a shot of the Midpoint Cafe in Western Texas. As the name suggests it is situated right on the halfway point between Chicago and LA and, baing famous for just that, has managed to stay in business all these years.
Before I reached that though I went through Saint Louis Missouri where I was fortunate enough to meet a really cool person whom I'd like to give a mention here. Kristen Detec is another traveling photographer with a really cool mission. For 6 months she's traveling around US in a little pickup truck, visiting the areas worst hit by the Great Depression of 1930s and rephotographing them as they are now. She has a really great spirit and is actually using film for most of her photography, which I give her major kudos for. She was actually thinking of making the back of her truck into a darkroom, but sleeping quarters won over and I don't blame her for that at the lest. Kristen had me make a tintype of her for which I am very grateful as it provided another 25 gallons of fuel for thirsty Gilli. I look forward to seeing her work complete and all the great images that I'm certain she will come out with. Here she is in the back of her truck. Go Kristen!
Other than that I have met a lot of people who are still traveling Route 66. Some to reminisce about the trips they have done 50 years ago as young people and some doing it for the first time. All of them have been very kind and a lot of them have been invited on board to see a tintype being developed. The locals are great too - they all seem to be enchanted by Gilli and I get a lot of 'cool bus!' comments and thumbs up from cars driving by. Well the road goes on, but before I get back on the freeway and check out what a town of Grants NM looks like close to midnight (I really don't expect much, but I'll stop there and make my first plate there in the morning) I do want to tell you about the fun little visit that I started the my birthday with.
Santa Fe is home to one of the leading suppliers of photographic chemistry to photographers all over the world. Bostick and Sullivan has been a place that I have ordered directly from for many years and whose prodicts I have seen on many shelves of photo stores across the country, so when I realized that I'll be passing them I could not help but stop there and see the operations for myself.
As with Photographer's Formulary (you can read about my visit there in one of the entries from July) this is a family owned business and I got to meet all three generations of Sullivans. An unassuming building that you see above houses a bunch of raw chemistry that any alternative and traditional film photographer needs on daily basis, so I felt right at home there. B&S are also the only ones to supply premixed chemistry for making wet plate images and I have been using their products since the very start of my tintype career. I really like the results that I'm getting and I really see no reason to start mixing my own collodion and varnish, though I may try it once I go to much larger plates to try to save on costs. They are also the only ones to make things like ziatype kits and precoated carbon tissue (of which I got a roll while I was there because I have been wanting to try my hand at carbon printing for a while now). Not only that, but here's some news and this may be the first time anyone is mentioning this! They are now working on bringing back OIL PRINTING! This technique is very similar to bromoil printing which uses regular black and white paper, but it is slightly different in that it uses enlarged negatives exposed via UV in contact with the dichromated tissue before applying the ink with either rollers or brushes. The results are very pictorial and soft and both of the techniques were introduces at the turn of 20th century as photography's answer to painting. The production is still in experimental stage and the first coated paper (a beautiful rough watercolor stock) may be available by special order early next year, so stay tuned - this is gonna be the return of a very cool technique and I bet a lot more people will be practicing it now that they don't have to coat their own gelatin! The test results saw were really impressive. Here is a quick snap of work in progress - two prints about 16x20in that were still drying on the work table (hence the glare on the bottom one). As you can see one can use any color of inks, you can even selectively add color or do transfers and by doing those from color separated negatives you can even get a very painterly full color image - possibilities are endless!
Dana Sullivan is responsible for the wet plate portion of the business, so I was very interested to talk with him and see the darkroom. I got to admit that the darkroom was Spartan in its furnishings, but really did warm my heart is that it was pretty much entirely dedicated to wet plate process. That can actually be easily explained by the fact that alternative photography these days doesn't actually require a darkroom since most people chose to make large negatives on their inkjet printers and then all you need is a UV exposure unit (and I did see some really nice ones there making me want to come upon one larger than 11x14, which is what I have not). When I walked in Dana was in the middle of plunging a plate into a large bath of silver that he uses for his 12x20 work and so I decided to capture that moment for all of you to see.
I don't know what he was planing to photograph, but before long I found an 8x10 camera with a Russian Industar lens (which warmed my heart even more) pointed at Gilli, which was parked right out front. Dana has just mixed up some new collodion and it took a couple of tries to get a perfect plate, but he persevered and in fact presented me with a great 8x10. Here you can see him developing one of the plates and the final result with yours truly behind the wheel.
Well, it's almost midnight my birthday's almost gone. The continuous repetitive happily electronic music emulating from one of the nearby arcade machines has almost driven me insane and I'm sure it will be invading my dreams in the near future. I must get back on the road - the hills of western New Mexico slow Gilli down to below 40mph at times and who knows how long it will take me to reach the town of Grants.
Cheers to all!