On Route66 and Pastel Coloring

Jenny and I sat at our table inside of the diner right along mainstream in Holbrook Arizona. The exterior, though we couldn’t see it from our seats had been painted a pastel pink. A shade that was surprisingly pervasive throughout the town, though I couldn’t tell if it was due to brighter red tones being faded from the southwestern sun or if they intentionally chose a color that matched the sandstone surrounding us so closely.

 The interior had wood paneling on the walls and a fabric pattern on the seat backs that when combined with the beige vinyl underneath us made for a color palette that at one time was probably described as “Navajo”. The bacon and eggs were just that, standard diner fair though the hash browns did leave some room for improvement. I had covered my plate with hot sauce though which generally does a good job of making everything acceptable to eat regardless of the flavor actually embedded during preparation. The waitress/hostess/manager came up to us,

“I’m just going to leave this here” she said without making eye contact and slipped the check underneath my water glass that was already dripping in condensation so as to soak the teal and white piece of paper. It stared back at me, $24.63. At this point I should have been used to sales tax being applied to everything and making the numbers lose their rounded splendor as you go to pay but the shock was still there. I pulled out my card and looked at Jenny, “Do we pay here or at the counter?”

“Up there.” She pointed at the register though I could she was no more sure than I was.

walking to the counter I got my last chance to look at those sitting around us, inside this faded pink building with it’s layers of veneer on the interior. The man with the varying leg lengths and shoes to correct it staring at the back of the man without capacity to chew with a closed mouth’s head. To my left was a large table, what looked like it could seat a party of 14 and had done so recently. Empty glasses with used silverware and napkins were scattered about. Some dishes with food scraps had remained as well, perhaps to be picked up when things died down more. Though with only three tables in the restaurant currently I wasn’t sure how much quieter things could really get.

“How was everything?” The waitress/hostess/manager said to us without looking up. Her eyes were instead focused on the rapid clicking of her register, and without skipping a beat or making eye contact she pulled the card from my hand to continue her methodic clicking of the keys.

“It was great” I said, lying.

“Good, good.” She now moved to the credit card processor, typing in another set of numbers pulled from the register itself. $24.63 again. “If you’d like to leave a tip enter it here” she said as she turned the keypad around to face me this time. I mentioned that we’d left cash on the table, this piqued her interest. “Thank you, makes it easier that way, and keeps the government out of things ‘ya know?” I smiled and nodded as if I did.

I pulled a pen from the cup nearby, like most other things in the area it was branded for Route 66. This restaurant, and what I assume are most business in the area don’t have much else to go on. What was once a means to get past this city is now the only reason to stop. Restaurants, hotels, and convenience stores alike all selling a piece of has-been Americana at the low-low price of $3.99 per sticker. It didn’t take long for me to focus back on the task at hand, this pen, that sticker, the patch hanging from a spinning rack nearby. It was the same stuff we had seen regularly for the past few days. Each town with their individual claim to fame. In Winslow, AZ it was a song from the Eagles that played on repeat from a store across the corner.

“Standing on a corner in Winslow Arizona and such a fine sight to see” they sing as a throwaway line in a middle verse of ‘Take it Easy’.

It’s confusing and understandable at the same time. This nothing line means the world to a town that outside of this song and the fandom that goes with it would be nothing more than a dot on a map people would think to stop at for gas or a bite to eat. But does that mean they have less a reason to exist? And so to see it here at the restaurant I’m standing in doesn’t come as a shock but a weird comforting sensation. Each trinket and piece of Chinese-made America offers up an individual piece of their lives. Without this, the restaurant we chose to eat at, with it’s pastel paints, wouldn’t have enough customers to remain open. I finish my signature on the small piece of thermal paper, and a portion of my money has been left here in Holbrook.

“Have ya’ll seen the movie ‘Cars’?” the waitress/hostess/manager says with more curiosity and interest than she showed throughout our visit and when discussing the food options.

“Yeah” Jenny and I reply, nearly in unison.

“You know Lizzie and Stanley? The old ones in that town from the movie?” She asks.

“Oh yeah” we confirm again with a timing that to an outsider would have felt scripted.

“Let me show you something” she says pulling out a three-ring binder. It’s nothing extravagant from the outset, black plastic vinyl covering and sitting on a shelf. To those looking at it behind the register it must have seemed like a repository of financial statements and business documentation. Yet from her facial expressions it was clear that this was her way of letting us in.

“They were based off my parents, Lizzie and Stanley were. Disney came here and sat right at this table,” she said pointing to one of the booths near where we sat. “And this,” she pointed at a photo in the binder, “this is my grandma with the animator. He brought his daughter in that day and they ate here before heading out down Route66 for inspiration. They came around a lot, were here for weeks, really trying to capture everything about the area.”

We stood there, flipping through the pages of this handmade photo album. Filled with pre-production images of the film and her family. I was unsure of what else to say, my mouth suddenly dry and without a thought crossing past. The silence was suddenly broken by a simple “If you’re looking for something else to do, the town museum is right around the corner. It’s run by the historical society. Free entry too. They’ve got all sorts of displays in there, some really neat stuff. I think you can even go and sit in the old county judge seat as it used to be the courthouse before they built the new up up on second street.”

I realized the logo pen was still sitting comfortably between my index and middle fingers twirling back and forth as though it had somewhere to be.

“Thank you” I said, “We’ll go check that out.” and we walked out the door. Leaving behind the fake wood paneling and pastel exterior paint. We left behind the dishes sitting on that large table nearby and the man with the different sized legs who was still slurping down his egg soaked hash browns. We left behind the imported stickers and patches that desperately wanted to be a part of this piece of America. And we left behind our waitress/hostess/manager/storyteller as we had no other choice.

It was clear in that moment that there are two people who embody this portion of the road, of Route66. There are those who must live it, who are forced to sit within the confines of a false history. One that praises the cross-country capabilities of a road that travels from Los Angeles, California to Chicago, Illinois. One that requires you to stop at small towns and tourist traps along the way, weather because of a genuine interest or a need to take a break there was a purpose to be served. And there are those who, like myself only see it as a fleeting moment. A place to stop not because we are forced to but because of a genuine curiosity. One that may not necessarily be satisfied with what we find or even to meet the expectations of the city itself. Because for every Winslow Arizona that may have a corner to stand on, there is an expectation that something of interest will be there. But if it’s not, even if it is simply the desire for one to survive the circumstances of their own restaurant on a dying road, shouldn’t we try and find something that piques the interest within us?

The Cycle of Documentary Photography as it Pertains to Diluted Truth (Introduction)

This is the first in a series of four short essays

In school I never much cared for literature classes. Because as the semester wore on, inevitably they would shift from discussions on the stories read within the class, to a deeper meaning behind the stories themselves. As we spoke of themes and hidden clues to the authors real intentions, I would speculate, or wonder, what if the story was written just as that - a story? What if Frost was simply ranting on a time when the path split in two, and not trying to compress an entire life of choices into this short parable. Because we always would like to look deeper, to be the one to find more meaning in something. And this reasoning offers context as to why people look at art as a whole, to see something within themselves, within the work, that was not always defined by the artist. But to say that all works have this deeper meaning cannot be true, but what of it is projection? And what of it is inherent?

I think it’s clear that my style of photography can most closely be defined as documentarian. A look that has progressed and shifted through photography itself in different forms. It is a style that seeks not to tell a story of deeper meaning, but to simply tell the story of what is. It’s often presented without comment, without a structure, only to inform the viewer that this, as a subject within the photo, has existed at one point in time. There are no claims made that it will exist in the future, or even that it exists now. For the moment the shutter is pressed this image, like all images, exist exclusively in the past. And through that, I’ve come to realize that all photography is a story of what was. Never of what is or what will be. So how can we claim, as documentary photographers, that what we offer is the truth? I argue instead, that it is simply one form of truth, and in acknowledging that it must be understood there are other forms of truth, meaning the image itself is a lie.

Once this has been accepted, it can be defined that photographs lie in three distinct ways, each stemming from the same cycle of repetition:

Production - The taking of the original photograph
Distribution - The original photograph is offered to the public in some form
Reception - The original photograph is seen by a third party
Consumption - The original photograph embeds itself into the third party
Interpretation - The original photograph becomes distorted when reflected on by the third party
Projection - The (potentially incorrect) themes are pushed into the third party’s work
Reproduction - New work is created retaining elements of the original photograph
Repetition - The cycle begins again

The first lie is a personal one. It is embodied in how we perceive memories due to the retelling as seen within the image itself. Skewing what we remember as having occurred when we were there as the image was taken (this can also skew the memories of those who were not there, or were the subject). As an excess, think of a photograph from your youth, perhaps one when on vacation, a photo that you have seen time and time again is best. As the photograph is of you, it’s clear that you were looking at the camera when it was taken - or at the very least, not at yourself. Yet try to remember anything about that moment other than what you can see in the frame. We can make easy assumptions like, “dad always had the camera, dad isn’t in this photo, therefore, he probably took it”. But to recall anything else will lead us down a path with no acceptable answer at the end.

The second lie is an artistic one. Photographs are often spoken of in terms of inclusion. Terms and phrases like “The Subject”, and “The Composition” (as a noun, a thing) are used to describe the acts the photographer took to bring things in to the frame and arrange them in a pleasing manner. However, the reality is that photography is an act of exclusion. By excluding more of the foreground the image becomes more visually dynamic through the rule of thirds. We, as photographers, are constantly shifting, nudging, and re-framing to bring our vision into the scene. All these exclusions, of which there are many for every image, lie to the viewer through not malicious intent, but rather one of storytelling.

The third lie, is that of a shifting baseline. I have written of the shifting baseline often, including it within other essays, but as a tool it outlines and reiterates the messages found here. With each passing cycle of repetition, the work shifts further from the source and acknowledges less of what it was each time. Yet, as is often seen even within my own work, there are certain elements that remain despite their inability to correctly tell the story that should be told - the story of the truth.

It isn’t enough to understand, or even accept that the above is factual, it must be worked on as a task much like any other. To see that there are lies surrounding us that are presented as truths is a burden that is passed along through each repetition. To stop this however, is impossible as we cannot remove the lie from the image. The task then becomes a goal of awareness and understanding. To accept and see that not always is there a hidden meaning of mystery and decoding life’s secrets, but that the hidden meaning is seeking out the factual in all photographs.

Poolside

Jenny and I are sitting in the hot springs pool of the Days Inn in Thermopolis, Wyoming, the evening of our last night here. The weather is calm and clear after a flash thunderstorm appeared earlier in the day. It left a fresh scent in the air, keeping the dust and dirt down or washing it away entirely. As we sit down and relax another group comes to join us. The woman walks up, complaining that her box of wine was now empty as she quickly hops in.

“Where are you from?” She asks.

“Portland. Oregon.” Jenny quickly replies.

The woman thinks for a second to herself, staring at her empty glass.

“I’m from Wisconsin. We’re the only state without an accent!” she proudly proclaims. Saying it with a kind of enthusiasm like it was the state motto on the billboard as you cross the border.

Wisconsin: The Accent-less State.

“That’s neat” Jenny says with a puzzled curiosity, “We’ve never been. What is there to do in Wisconsin? Like, if we were to visit?”

“Well.” She pauses, thinking for a second. Her eyes moving back and forth while her tongue shifts in her mouth, “we’re the only state without an accent!”

A few months later I tell this story to a co-worker from Wisconsin who has as very distinct accent, she doesn’t find it as funny.