Welcome back for another installment of my monthly "Behind the Camera" series. In this series, I delve a little bit into the motivations behind my photography and why I do some of the things that I do. This month, I have decided to talk a little bit about my interest in the rusty and aged subjects that I have been shooting here of late. I'm actually scheduled to do a webinar on this very topic later this month with Singh-Ray so this is a chance for me to start to get my ideas together on the topic.
I started photographing old barns almost immediately when I got my first camera. In fact, the first day I went out with the intention of capturing "art" instead of just pictures, I found myself at the Old Mill in Guilford County, and also found the remnants of an old house well in the woods off of W Market St in Greensboro. Those constituted my first images with my first "real" camera. From there I started to concentrate more on landscapes, but if I came across a nice barn I would shoot it as well. I read recently that old barns are a favorite subject for newbie photographers and I guess I fell right into that mold. My primary motivation for photography was capturing the landscape though. It just took me a while to learn how to organize things in the landscape to make a compelling image. I think that this is why barns are a favorite subject for photographers. There is already a point of interest in the landscape, and an anchor to capture the eye of the viewer. My landscapes at the time looked like a layer cake with the sky above, with a fairly flat horizon and not much in the way of visual anchors to draw you in. A barn added instant visual interest to the picture and I enjoyed that!
For years, I would go out to capture the landscape, but I would keep finding rural settings that would grab my attention more and more. I found that I loved to see how the wood aged, and how rust would start to coat the metal roofs. Then I found my first location with some old trucks. I had not thought to capture vehicles before, but for some reason the rust caught my eye. There were a total of four trucks at this particular property, three of them were stuck in the woodline, and the fourth was just on a ridge at the beginning of a clearing. There was even a pair of tractors that I started working with in the same area. In the end, I had a whole bunch of pictures with subjects that I had never really worked with before. I was amazed at how much personality that the images had, and the textures of the rusted trucks added a pretty cool touch. I was so impressed with the way one of them turned out, I actually entered it into a photo contest later that year. It actually won a third place ribbon, but I forfeited it because I felt that the judging was flawed across all of the categories. That is a different story altogether. The point was, the pictures of rusted vehicles were obviously appealing on some level to others as well.
It wasn't until I came back from a long hiatus from my photography that I started to learn why I was being drawn to rusted relics, and old barns. I had even been drawn to rotting tree trunks over the years. As part of my re-education in photography, I selected a lot of books to read in order to brush up on some of the new technology and techniques. One of these books was Creative Landscapes, by Harold Davis. In addition to hitting on lots of different elements in landscape work, he also touched on some of the concepts behind it.
As I moved through the book, I came upon another concept from the East which really should have stumped me, but it was like a light had turned on when I read it. The concept that the author was trying to convey was an ancient Japanese aesthetic and world view called "Wabi-sabi". This view accepts that everything passes, and is by nature, transient and incomplete. Art which is based in the Wabi-sabi concepts accept that this decay and decline is beautiful. That decay is then used as the prime vehicle for conveying the emotion in the imagery. Simply put, "All things pass, and in their passage lies beauty."
|Under Cotton Skies|
|A Rusty Streak|
There are other times that I rely on word of mouth as to where to find these cars. The salvage yard where I found this rotting Buick was based on a tip from a friend of mine. I have since been to White's Salvage yard twice to photograph the different cars in the lot. They have a lot to choose from and every time I go there, I come back with some pretty amazing images. The nice thing is that the owners don't really mind that I am walking among the boneyard. Their only request is that I do it during business hours and let them know that I am there. I find that completely understandable.
The other end of the spectrum to finding these cars and even barns is that so many times they require entering the property to photograph them. This is harder than it sounds, especially with me being a police officer. I just don't feel comfortable walking right onto private property to photograph something. Ideally, I will be able to make contact with the property owner so that I can ask permission. The conversation usually goes a little something like this: "Hi, I'm a photographer and I enjoy photographing old cars and barns. I notice that you have a ____________ in the back yard and I was wondering if you would mind if I shot a few pictures?" The answer is typically "You want to take a picture of that old junk back there?" We chat for a few minutes and then with any luck I will get permission to enter the property. Other times, I am denied that permission, oftentimes before I'm ever able to ask.
|Cracked but Intact|
Several months later I returned on a Saturday and figured that I would do the same thing. I got my gear and started to get set up near some cars up front. This time, there was a guy that slowed to a stop in the road. I went out to meet him and asked if he was the property owner. He wasn't but stated that the owner lived right down the street and that I should probably go ask him. I could handle that, so I went down the road on foot and found the house where the owner lived. I knocked on the door and stepped back from the door allowing a full view of myself (hey, I understand folks get apprehensive about strangers knocking). While waiting for the door to open, I caught a sense of movement from the side of the house. I looked over and found a gentleman coming around the corner with a gun in his hand. OK, it wasn't pointed at me, so I was not terribly concerned, although I was unarmed. He inquired as to why I was there and I gave my normal speech. He was less than impressed and said that he never wanted to see me on his property again. I attempted to plead my case one more time, and was met with a similar reaction. I left, and have not returned since.
That was the first time that I had been turned down for a chance to shoot on somebody's property. It was one that I will always remember since there was an off chance that I could have gotten shot. Although, I am glad that it went that way rather than him finding me among the cars and shooting first and asking questions later.
There was another time that I was coming from Hanging Rock and stopped off to photograph a truck that was sitting under an overhang of an old gas station right off of the road. There was nothing but businesses around, and it was a Sunday. I got out and set the camera up and started to get my composition just right and I see a truck coming from a little ways down the road. They slowed and entered the lot. Before I could ask anything the driver asked (with his right hand conspicuously out of sight) what I was doing there. I answered that I was photographing the truck sitting under the overhang. His response was "Who takes pictures of things that don't belong to them, you need to go." I tried to show examples of what I did, but he was not interested, and I still couldn't see his right hand. I figured it was time to go, so I packed up, and while loading my camera gear back in the bag he continued to question why I was there. Knowing that there was probably a gun aimed at me, I opted not to engage in any arguments. I got in the car and left with him following behind me for a mile or so.
On the other hand, I have had the completely opposite experience when photographing these rural scenes. One of my favorite stories is one that happened recently in East Bend, NC, at Outlawed Restorations. I had found this location after a full day of photography in the mountains. It was just too good to pass up, so I pulled off to the side of the road and surveyed the scene. There were a couple of houses that could have been attached to this property, but with the changing weather I needed to shoot fast and didn't have much time to ask any permission. I figured that the scenes that I wanted to shoot I could get from the street. I started working out positions and compositions, but before long a gentleman stepped out of the shop that I had assumed was closed since it was a weekend. I was all prepared to be told to leave, but saw him motioning me in to talk.
This was where I met Dean Cornelius and he was quite gracious about letting me onto the property to photograph whatever I wanted to. What a nice surprise!! He told me a little bit about the vehicles on the lot and about what he did there. The difference being able to be on the property versus standing on the road was huge. The picture above was shot with my 70-200mm lens zoomed in to almost 200mm to get the composition I wanted for a panorama. Once I got onto the property, I was able to swap to my 24-70mm lens and get images like this...
|Ole Caddi at Home|
There are plenty of times that I am unable to make contact with the owners of the properties, and in those situations I have to make a choice. Should I just come back another time, or try to capture something from a location that I feel comfortable in. I've shot a lot from the side of the road, and I've ventured onto property that looks to be relatively abandoned. Every time I do this I expect to have a property owner approach me, so I usually work fast in case I am told to leave. I'm always very conscious of signs indicating that they don't want anyone on the property, or fences that provide some type of barrier to the property. Again, as a police officer, I just can't risk a criminal charge over my photography.
|Found on Roadside Dead|
|Time to Mend|
|Guarded and Weathered|
The next time you are driving down a country road and thinking to yourself "this is such a nice road," consider why it is a nice road. There sure isn't a lot of high rises, and concrete. The cars aren't flashy, and you will see that weathered wood and rust dominate the man made elements. Might it be you too are enjoying the beauty is the passage of time? We say it hearkens back to a simpler time, but I would disagree. Sitting in your car with air conditioning and an automatic transmission whizzing down the road, are you really thinking that working on a farm is simple? Maybe driving a car with three on the tree and an AM radio is somehow more relaxing than what you are in. Somehow I think we are getting things confused, and we are actually seeing these things in the waning stages of life which is much simpler than when they were in full functioning trim.
For me, there is a certain quiet, calm, reverence to these old structures and cars. I can remember the good times that were had in and around them, but not really the hard work. I see many happy memories that I have never experienced first hand, and that helps to center me in a current world of turmoil. I guess in a way I am capturing a fantasy image of what once was, while celebrating the life of the subject I am photographing.
Another equally valid point to this type of photography is that you never know when these pieces of our collective history will be gone. Case in point is this bus. I have shot it a total of three times in various states of decomposition. This was the most recent and it dates to 2014. Shortly after I shot this bus, the property sold, and the new company that bought the building had this bus hauled off. I don't know of the outcome of this bus, but I do know that it will never be here to be photographed again. My camera was able to document the last days of this bus that served proudly for a career. With every click of the shutter, I might be taking the last picture of an object that will ever be shot. To be that kind of historian is pretty impressive when you think about it.
I hope that I've opened your eyes a little bit as to why I'm drawn to these rustic scenes and rusty old cars. I really do believe that there is a lot of beauty in them, and I really hope that I capture that beauty in a way that speaks to you. I know of many in my audience that don't really care for these types of images, but I know a good many are coming around to enjoy them on some level. There is beauty at all stages of life, and we owe it to ourselves to stop and enjoy it when we can.
Until next time, enjoy the beauty that surrounds us!! If there is anything that you would like to know about my photography, let me know. I'm always looking for inspiration for these Behind the Camera entries.