Friday, October 11, 2013

Found In America - Route 66 Tintype Project

  OK,  it's been a week since Gilli and I got back home to San Diego after 4 months on the road, and only now have I had a chance to catch my breath and to sort through most of the plates made while traveling.  It's been an incredible trip and I can not even begin to recollect all the great things that happened along the way - thank goodness I have the previous blog entries to remind me of all of it in the years to come.  A quick and rough count revealed that there are about 350 3.5x4.5in tintypes that were created in 4 months, but that doesn't include all the ones that got sold or were commissioned to begin with and it also doesn't include larger size plates, so I think it's close to 400 overall.

  As promised in the previous post this one contains tintypes from Route 66, which is the route I took home from Chicago to LA, and the short recollection of that stretch of my travels.

  A bit about the project.  I call it 'Found In America' for several reasons.  First off I, as an immigrant, am still finding the parts of US that are forgotten by media lime light to be fascinating.  After finding myself here at the age of 16 I have never stopped looking for new aspects of this country be they it's history, current culture or lanscape.  Secondly the imagery is of completely empirical nature with no guidance from elaborate travel booklets or inviting road signs.  Whatever scenes the road was to present me with would be immortalized in tintype format with equal attention.  Lastly, by now Route 66 pretty much HAS to be looked for and discovered.  Large stretches of it have been completely incorporated into modern freeways, some sections have been abandoned and are no longer drivable and a lot of parts wind through towns and countryside without any clear signs pointing one where to go, so the process of discovery was to be a big part of this project.
  Some of you may know that Route 66 is known as the Mother Road.  For a few decades before completion of the interstate highway system this road was the major route for travelers to take from mid western US to the Pacific.  Built in late 1920s the road retained it's popularity into the 50s and 60s, but now is completely overpowered by highways travel and lays nearly forgotten.  I wanted to find out for myself how The Road looks - to me that meant that I should concentrate on the Actual Road in my photography.  None of that 'exploring the sites' stuff - what does The Road itself offer as far as imagery?  What would travelers of today see if they were heading west down the Mother Road?  How would the landscape change and what would that look like if we were to be looking west in the direction of our travels.  Sounds like a simple enough assignment, right?  Well, try adding a tintype format into that mix and you might think differently...

  Route 66 heads almost directly south from Chicago, then curves south-west around Missouri before running almost directly west from Texas to California.  That meant that I had to shoot in the direction of the sun for about 60-70% of the time!  That was challenge #1.  Challenge #2 was the fact that wet plate photography requires that the bus be stopped and parked (preferably on a relatively level surface), chemistry and camera must be set up and the plate prepped, exposed, processed and washed before chemistry and camera were put way and the bus started up again...  Route 66 runs just over 2.400 miles and I managed to get 118 plates done during 12 days.  So on average I was stopping every 20 miles.  That means that the huge CAT engine had to be started over 100 times and sometimes up to 14 times a day...  I don't know what that did to the starter and pistons, but I just thank god that I made it back without another major mechanical issue popping up.
  The first sign for beginning of historic Route 66 is located downtown Chicago on a very busy Adams street.  I was determined to start the series with that image, but that meant navigating a 35ft bus through Chicago traffic and then praying for a suitable parking spot withing sprinting distance from where the camera had to be set up.  Chicago does have some heavy traffic, but I managed to get to Adams St. and when I was rounding the turn I quickly realized that any hope of a parking place was in vane - skyscrapers all around, left side of the one way street completely full of cars parked in metered slots and the right-hand lane reserved for city buses only!  What was I to do..?  Thinking on my feet I decided that I will do my very best to get this shot done in the minimum amount of time possible and that in the 15 minutes or so that I will be there I will just hope that no parking enforcement will take place.  So I boldly pulled right into the Buses Only lane (after all - Gilli is a bus, right?), turned on emergency flashers and, with cars zooming by and pedestrian rushing in a steady drove past Gilli, I hustled in the darkroom as fast as I possibly could.  In fact the location was so picturesque that I decided to pull one more plate after the first one was secured, so I was probably parked there for about 20-25 minutes and indeed didn't attract any unwanted attention!  It wasn't even 4 blocks from that location that I again saw a composition that demanded to be captured and so again I quickly chose a totally prohibited area to park in, and again nobody bothered me during the making of the third plate!  I think that was the most exciting moment in the whole trip and so I thought it deserved a special mention.
  After downtown Chicago the road quickly dives into suburbia and then into the open fields of Illinois.  From then on parking was no problem all the way until I got to Los Angeles. I followed turn by turn directions given by, so I had some idea where to go.  I found that the route is marked best in Illinois, followed by New Mexico.  In some parts of it there were no plaques at all distinguishing it from an average surface street that runs through any small American town, so I had to follow those directions pretty carefully (can't even recall how many times I got off the road and only realized it many miles later).  The guide recommends driving down a small access road during parts of the road that at swallowed by a larger freeway - those roads are very poorly maintained and after taking a few of them I decided to opt out of that and to go on the highway until Route 66 splits back off from it.  I still got onto those access roads here and there, but also did a lot of highway driving.  The completely abandoned parts that are not drivable now were also off the list as Gilli is not an off-road vehicle, driving around all the potholes in all the little towns was already hard enough on her suspension.  I do think that considering these circumstances I did stick to the actual Route 66 for about as much as it was humanly possible, so I'm pretty happy with that outcome.
  So, what did I see?  Well...  America is a large country and one gets a really good feel for that when one is out in the middle of nowhere, somewhere on a two-lane highway.  There were many towns built around the tourist traffic brought in by the road - now a lot of those towns lay either completely abandoned or are dilapidated to the point where they probably should be abandoned.  Some places had other things going for them, some other industries to keep the town alive after the tourists were gone.  Those cities and towns have almost invariably homogenized into average culture-lacking dwelling concentrations with same shops and fast food joints lining the street no matter which state they are in.  There are however some little towns that are probably surviving on local agriculture, but which are too small for major chains to get into, so they lay nearly intact as they were in 1930s in a state of suspended preservation.  Those places offered me a glance of what pre-WWII America must have been like and I really appreciated that.  I have to say that the landscape itself and it's gradual changes from the forests of the east to the western deserts was quite a marvelous thing to experience.
  I drove steadily westward, stopping to make about 10 plates a day.  I slept mostly in the bus and chose locations to park overnight so that in the morning I would often make the first exposure right from that spot.  A couple of times I did get motel rooms, but found that although the experience of sleeping in a real bed was gratifying beyond words, the comfort was too much and I would wake up too late for my liking and the sun would be almost ready to dip into that western part of the sky making all my subjects back lit for the rest of the day...  Very frustrating!  In either case though, I believe I managed to pull some good plates and that's all that matters.
  As most people know, and others refuse to believe, there are some good people everywhere you go.  Wherever I pulled over for the night I met some friendly locals or those rare tourists who were still looking to recapture some of the glamor of the old Mother Road.  Whenever possible I would show them the process of making tintypes and invariably they were grateful for that opportunity.  I had great weather accompany me (now that I think about it, the weather was actually amazingly nice the entire 4 months of the second cross-country trip!) and it rained only once and even then during the night when I was tucked away in a hotel bed in Texas.  The rest of the time it was sunny and warm, only in the deserts of Arizona and eastern California did it start to get a little too warm for comfort, once again making me wish I had the funds for an A/C unit...
  I loved seeing all the quaint Main Streets in small towns that I passed through.  The little mom and pop shops that are still surviving amid the boarded up buildings and shiny new Wallmarts made me think about the resilience of American entrepreneurs and the strength of the will to be your own boss.  More power to them - I supported as many local shops along the way as I could, but I'm sure they can use a lot more help.
  The middle of the stretch was the hardest.  The road goes through the panhandle of Texas and there it's completely barren, straight and devoid of any visual stimulus...  You'll find some of the images from stretches like that below - they are easy to spot.  When the road goes through New Mexico and Arizona it actually follows the higher plateaus of those states and so that makes for some really stunning scenery, I highly recommend that area for your next vacation getaway.
  When I got close to the overwhelming urban sprawl that is Los Angeles I was quite ready to call the whole thing off.  I was tired, it was starting to get hot and I was only 120 miles away from my home!  From Barstow I could have just taken I-15 south and would have been back in 3 hours...  How could have I abandoned the project though?  Never!  I pushed onward and stayed on the road one more day.  I fought through LA traffic, weaved on and off it's many freeways and parked where no human was meant to be parked - all in the name of Art.  I think the ending was most symbolic.  While the rest of the road contains a lot of neatly mounted historic markers they are almost entirely absent in the city of angels and in fact the spot where the mighty Route 66 finally comes to an end there is NO marker at all to commemorate that.  So physically Route 66 ends in complete obscurity, just like it seems to be ending in the history of America's development as a country.  I parked in the lot of Western Dental on the corner or Lincoln Blvd and Olympic in Santa Monica, made exposure #118 and that was it!  
  Here are 117 images (I must have missed one plate while copying them yesterday, so there is a 'mystery plate') from this project.  I chose to display them with only plate #1 being in order - the rest of them are as random as the project itself.  The road goes on forever with the asphalt and the westerly view orientation being the only constants.  I did not varnish the plates right away, but kept them in 4x5in sleeves inside a Beseler binder - some of them survived perfectly well, but a few (I think there are 4-5 of them) have chosen to jump out those sleeves and got pretty badly damaged due to a thousand miles worth of traveling free.  I guess that just adds character and road-cred to them.  I copied them using a Canon 5DII and 100mm macro lens.  Here I again must make a note - there is NO WAY to copy all the information on a plate by using a modern camera or even a high resolution scanner AND on top of that you are looking at a screen-resolution JPEG, so....  yeah.... the plates are a lot more beautiful that one can imagine.  I am hoping to exhibit this whole body of work and would love to hear of any offers for such an exhibit from my readers.  At the exhibit I would I would like to provide a high-power loupe by some of the plates so those who wish could really get into the real details of the image.  Let's just say that with an average magnifying device I was able to very clearly read the word 'Australia' on one of the stickers on the pole below the Route 66 Begin sign in the first frame, in these JPEGs you probably won't even be able to distinguish that there is indeed an sticker there with an Australian flag....
  I am open to making prints (up to 20x30in) of these plates.  If you are interested in purchasing them, please feel free to contact me via email.  While the images below are very quick digital copies with minimal attention paid to tonality the prints for sale would be scanned at very high resolution and adjusted so they are the closest possible representations of the original tintype plates in tonal range and color.

  Oh - just to frustrate even further the folks upset about the lack of order in the images above, and surely there will be some of those, here is a list of all the plates I did IN ORDER of their creation and separated by day.  Think you can match them all up?  Be my guest!
1&2- Adams - Michigan
3- Adams - La Salle
4- Adams - Ogden
5- Ogden - Roosevelt
6- Ogden - W 30th
7- Ogden - Harlem / route 43
8- Harlem / 43 - 40th
9- Joliet - S La Grange
10- Joliet along I-55
11 - Main st. / veterans parkway, Bloomington
12- by Mc Lean IL
13- SE Vine / SW Arch, Atlanta IL
14 - Paul Bunyon, Atlanta IL
15 - 5th / Union st, Lincoln IL
16- Broadwell IL
17- Elm/Main, Williamsville IL
18- Farmersville IL
19- Hamel IL
20- Old Springfield/Center Grove, Edwardsville IL
21-Bel Air Dr Pontoon Beach‎ IL
22- McKinley Bridge into MO
23,24- Salisbury/14th St. Louis MO
25- Salisbury/ N. Florissant
26- Florissant/21st
27- Florissant/19th
28- 13th/Cass ave.
29- looking down 13th
30 - 13th buildings
31- Convention Plaza/looking down Tucker Blvd.
32- Tucker Blvd/Clark Ave
33- Gravois Ave/S Jefferson Ave, St Louis
34- Watson rd/Blackthorn, Websters Grove
35- Pacific, MO
36- Highway AT near Villa Ridge
37- Jesse James wax museum, S Service Rd E, Sullivan‎ MO
38- Cuba at Filmore st
39- Elm/Drury, Lebanon MO
40- after Conway
41- before Marshfield
42- Glenstone onto St. Louis, Springfield
43- St. Louis and National ave
44- St. Louis after Kimbrough ave
45- MO266 Plano ghost town
46- Carthage Drive-In
47- Main/Washington, Carterville
48- Main/5th, Joplin MO
49- Main/4th, Galena KS
50- Rainbow Bridge KS
51- Military ave/E 10th st, Baxter Springs KS
52- Main/Central Miami OK
53- Route 69 between E140 and E150rd OK
54 & 56- 1st/Mulberry, Afton OK
57- 11th/Atlanta ave, Tulsa OK
58- 11th/Frankfort ave, Tulsa OK
59- Crossing Arkansas river, Tulsa
60- Main/7th, Bristow OK
61- Arcadia round barn
62- Bridge to Yukon
63- El Reno, OK
64- Main/State, Weatherdord OK
65- past Weatherford along I-44
66- 10th street, Clinton OK
67- 3rd/Madison, Elk City OK
68- bus under oil rig, Elk City OK
69- 4th/Maple, Sayer OK
70&71- 5th/Main ave, Texola OK
72&73- Grand ave/4th, Texola OK
74- 12th/Main, Shamrock TX
75- Leaning water tower, Groom TX
76- Front/Wilkerson, Groom TX
77- Bug Farm near Conway TX
78- 2161 past Conway, TX
79- Amarillo Blvd/Hill st, Amarillo TX
80- Between Vega and Adrian TX
81- Midpoint Cafe, Adrian TX
82- Glenrio, TX
83- Route 66 blvd/Chactaw st, Tucumcari NM
84- Cuervo NM
85- Route 66/11th, Santa Rosa NM
86- Dilla, Route 84 mile 78, NM
87- Los Montoyas, Route 84 mile 96 NM
88- Ribera, just before town
89- highway 89/Camino Reybal, Pecos NM
90- Cerrillos rd/Calle del Cielo, Santa Fe NM
91- Camino del Pueblo/ Calle del Norte,  Bernalillo NM
92- Santa Fe ave/Hall st, Grants NM
93- NM-122/I-40, Thoreau NM
94- 66/Patton Dr, Gallup NM
95- Northern Frontage rd/Grants rd, Lupton AZ
96- abandoned section by Pinta Rd AZ
97- Navajo Blvd/ Hampshire st, Hallbrook AZ
98- 3rd/Pope st, Winslow AZ
99- Old bridge, Winona AZ
100- Route 66/Verde st, Flagstaff AZ
101-  66/Main st, Seligman AZ
102- 66/Diamond Creek Rd, Peach Springs AZ
103- 66 past Truxton AZ
104- 66/Airway ave, Kingman AZ
105- 95/Shore dr, Golden Shores AZ
106- Broadway/Desnok st, Needles CA
107- National Trails Highway/Sunflower Springs Rd, Essex CA
108- National Trails Highway, Amboy CA
109- National Trails Highway before Ludlow CA
110- Main st/Cal ave, Barstow CA
111- National Trails Highway, Oro Grande CA
112- Cajon Blvd by I-15, San Bernardino National Forest CA
113- Foothill Blvd/Promenade Pl, Rancho Cucamonga CA
114- Foothill Blvd/ Tindalo rd, Arcadia CA
115&116- W Subset Blvd/Crornado st, Los Angeles CA
117- Santa Monica Blvd/Wilton pl, West Hollywood CA
118- Lincoln/Olympic, Santa Monica CA