Serif & Silver Issue II: Artifacts - Past, Present, and the American Roadtrip

Every day we are fortunate enough to be able to look back on our past experiences and evaluate them with a more critical eye. We watch ourselves grow and see how we can improve in the images we make. If you have read the first issue of Serif & Silver (Polaroids: Instant Photographic Prints 2010-2015), you are getting this opportunity now, comparing this second issue to the words and photos within those pages.

Tomorrow you will wake up, go about your day, and think about the good or bad things that occurred just 24 hours earlier. These little life experiences help us improve ourselves, help us grow, and help us learn more about the world around us. But although they are necessary, it is undeniable the space they take up in our psyche. Similar to a roll of film, we are only allotted so much space. 36 frames to remember what we did well and what need to improve upon. Once filled, something new is often called for. It was this same idea that perpetuated the desire to begin publishing Serif & Silver, and the theme that was the basis of Issue I: the ability to step away and return later.

I am a fan of books as a printed format for sharing photography. During the planning and final production stages, or even within this issue of Serif & Silver, I have found myself faced with the concept of return many times. Perhaps you have too. After printing, culling, sorting, and organizing images in a physical space, inevitably you see that your images are more often better used as pairs rather than individually or in a larger collection.

You will see that your photographs support one another, but also rely on the opposing image to not only continue the story, but to make each one a better and more poignant image. Whether the images find their pair naturally or in a more conscious manner, before the shutter is pressed or during post-production, is inconsequential – because it isn’t how things come together, simply that they do.

Decades ago, after my father came home from work one day, we were brought out of our rooms by my mother. I was ten years old, my sister seven, and brother five; she explained to us that it wasn’t our fault, and that while each of my parents loved us children very much, and loved the other as the parent of us, they weren’t in love with each other anymore. As I’m sure you can guess where this leads, my parents separated, then divorced shortly after.

Later that evening we were lead down the stairs for the second half of the unwanted conversation from his side. Walking into the family room he sat alone on the sofa, staring at a TV that was off, waiting for us to arrive. I’m sure he could hear the discussion upstairs with our mom, us asking what was wrong, why, what we could do to fix it, and it probably went just as they had planned. The statements that were made on both sides seemed to be read directly from the divorce how-to manual. As many of those reading this know what the experience is like, it sucks; it changes relationships and the family dynamic.

That year we would still have Christmas together, and in what I’m sure was an effort to mask the tension in the room, I was given a Nintendo 64. It worked. I forgot about how uncomfortable my dad looked, and it allowed me to bring my old Super Nintendo over to his place. That, along with going to the apartment gym to watch cartoons or swim in the pool became great ways to kill the forty-eight hours we were required to spend there each week.

But the thrill didn’t last and shortly after we would grow to resent one another. Looking forward to getting out of school and enjoy the weekend quickly turned to being forced into the car to sit through two days of playing that old Super Nintendo, watch kids shows, or wait by the pool for everyone to finish. Arguments became commonplace, and after he remarried his new wife and her two daughters became more people to disagree with. Eventually, after a particularly rough weekend in which the police were involved, I stopped going to visit on weekends altogether.

Years would go by, and the tense relationship we had with one another would mellow out, but we never got to go back and make up those missed years. Yet during this time that have lacked a real emotional bond, we were able to find common ground in one area. Driving.

Each year, after school let out for summer break, my days became filled with road trips and quintessential family vacations, traveling over every state west of the Dakotas by Chevrolet Astro (later upgrading to a Suburban) with a camper trailer in tow. While some of these trips took us to visit family, there were many that existed simply for vacations sake. But the real beauty of a road trip is everything that leads up arriving at your destination. It was in these interludes that I was able to find solace with my dad, and if there is one thing that defines a road trip with him it is the hour you must be on the road by.

The night before departure would involve our real work. We checked off each box on the provided itinerary: five pairs of underwear, three t-shirts, a sweater, a jacket, two pairs of pants or shorts, a toothbrush. The only items allowed to go unpacked were personal effects, things that would be considered a carry-on, had our mode of transportation grown wings and a flight attendant. With every check, we moved closer to leaving. Once everything was loaded into the car, which became a Volvo 850 after the divorce, it was time to finally fall asleep.

Not that much of it would matter anyway, as by the time our eyes got heavy they would only stay shut in bed for a few hours. Three o’clock would come around, dad having never gone to sleep, or perhaps crashing on the couch for a moment, would eagerly encourage us to get in the car as to get as much distance between us and our home prior to the sun rising before us. It was a unceremonious departure, but it worked, and in reality provided him a little more quiet time in the car before my brother and sister fully awoke.

The air was cold, even in summer, while the night enjoyed its peak hours. The road was quiet, as the only other vehicle we would see was the occasional long-haul truck. Our headlights lit the road in front of us just long enough to ensure darkness didn’t get too close. The dashboard illuminated with lots of green LEDs – dad had described the center console as looking like a cockpit to me before he bought the car. In the backseat sitting to the left and right of our blue and white Coleman cooler, which doubled as a snack container and a barrier, my siblings would quickly return to sleeping.

Up front, I had my own passengers to deal with. Primarily our massive Rand McNally road atlas with the states along the West coast earmarked for quick review. Certain states had their own notes and suggestions for routes to take, as I-5 to Lake Tahoe was not as fast as the state route, but was our preferred method of travel. Tucked between my left leg and the center console was my dad’s thermos; a pebbled green Stanley with the chrome cup you could screw on and off. It was in these early hours of driving along the freeway that I, riding shotgun and pointing out things on the map, with Dad driving, that I would first get to see the world outside of home.

* * *

Five years ago, in the fall of 2010, I took a photography course at our local community college. At $200 it wasn’t cheap for what it offered, but the premise intrigued me. Many of the other classes on the list for that quarter were standard fare. “Getting To Know Your dSLR” and “An Introduction to Photoshop” make their rounds four times a year, so seeing the opportunity to photograph some of the regions within the Pacific Northwest, learn about technique, and chat it up with other photographers I was on board.

Unlike other photo groups and high school classes I had taken previously, the emphasis here was with the printed image itself. Our instructor, Warren Mitchell, has a specific way of getting his images into the world to be seen, and perhaps as important, actually purchased by the public at large. By printing the photos onto individual postcards that are sold at convenience, grocery, and book stores in the Portland area, he had made a name for himself with picturesque scenes that followed very strict rules.

His personal life followed these rules as well: up each morning at three, because that was when the newspaper was delivered. Begin photographing an hour before sunrise, and conclude your day with a late morning lunch. But it was within his prints that we as students found the most use.

Weekly lessons were provided to us in print form. As we talked about composition, background, and other objects within the frame (Mitchell was known for plucking flowers and breaking branches off trees if they would help the composition), we would look at photographs of his that supported this point. Not one to worry about the equipment being used, the prints would often be pixelated, as he was a big proponent of cropping the image to get a more interesting composition.

Our assignments were required in print as well. A selection of six to eight images, printed at five by seven size minimum, eight by ten preferred. After placing these prints on a table surrounded by the rest of our peers, we would stare, arrange, and ask questions about what led to the images being taken. It was only after Mitchell determined that sufficient discussion was achieved that a cropping tool would be pulled from his bag.

This large piece of cardboard was something I had never seen before; even since then, I have never seen in practice. It is a relic from the darkroom, and one that unfortunately hasn’t carried over into our more modern age. Cut into the face at a 45 degree angle is a four by six rectangle. You’re able to move and position this opening around your print, finding images within your image as we were often told. But the beauty would become more evident once you realized this opening could be adjusted to various sizes and positions. Portions of the original print were now removed completely, we would zoom in onto small details and pull new scenes out of the photograph that hadn’t been noticed before.

It was a confidence booster to no end. As you placed your raw images onto the table the other students would immediately support what was placed in front of them. Mitchell wasn’t as kind, but as he whittled away a few images after asking “What’s your subject?” or “Where does your eye go?” you would get the benefit of having exciting new photos within your print pointed out for you.

During the term, what had been a big attractor for me to sign up, was something I discovered I had not fully known what to expect. At three points during the course there would be field trips, not unlike what we had gone on as children in school, only without a bright yellow bus and lunches filled with Capri Sun and orange slices. These weren’t mandatory as we weren’t being graded, but there was a strong push to get everyone to attend with ride sharing and after-photo lunches planned. Like everything else within Mitchell’s life, these small adventures began early. Waking up three hours before sunrise in order to capture the light transforming was key, and most of the time we had finished our work for the day by ten.

It was within these two components, the reviews and group outings that problems within the work of the photographer began to arise. Images were both being made, and reviewed on a singular level. Within each assignment we were being trained to photograph for the individual, and not for the story. Looking back the evidence is there with Mitchell’s postcards. Each one was a lesson on its own, providing both the back story and information he wanted to present. This created a culture of photo making that wouldn’t be easily undone.

In the fall of 2014 I came back to the same community college, to the same class, with the same professor, and some of the same students. In my absence a small group seemed to have formed a photography club, with the same students taking two or three classes with Mitchell each year. Many of them even remembered me. I was the weird kid with the old camera(s). And the questions were the same, with only slight changes to the pronunciation of adjectives. “You still shoot film?” easily translated into “You still shoot film?”, followed by dismissal or vague curiosity.

But the similarities ran deeper, and while I was the one still shooting with the weird old cameras, I was disappointed to see the other students shooting with the same tired techniques. I should clarify; the images from a technical standpoint had gotten better. The composition and subject matter had improved greatly. It had for me as well, but where the photos fell short was their lack of connection to any other image within a series. These images are “Facebook Fodder”: designed to look pretty, to make people stop and enjoy them for a brief second prior to moving on to the next topic. Fundamentally these were the same photographs that were taken four years ago, and placed side by side it would be hard for me to distinguish what the new work had included.

* * *

Months after taking Mitchell’s class for a second time, Jenny and I had decided to take a road trip. We sat outside, hunched over a map of Wyoming, marking the places we each wanted to visit with various colored pens. It was a vacation we had wanted to go on for some time, tracing the landmarks and cities each of us visited when younger. It would be a few months before we would actually get a chance to leave, and in that time we ignored the bulk of planning. Our goal was to keep as much of our schedule as open as possible. There were landmarks, and days set aside for bigger locations like Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons; but for the most part we made it a point to only be persuaded by what could be seen in front of us.

Over the 11 days we spent on the road I was thrilled to revisit the destinations that I had traveled as a child. As we explored the places I once camped at, the air was still filled with a dry wood smell that transported me back in time better than any photograph could.

Waking up in Montana was horrible. The fan next to our hotel bed was on full speed, oscillating left to right like it was disagreeing with us. Despite its efforts, there was no help provided. The hot, stale air was being pushed on to us just long enough to keep the intruding bugs away. Earlier in the evening we had made an effort to air the place out, opening windows on either side of the room to allow for wind to bring tolerable conditions. In reality it only brought the moths and some large insect that looked like a fly’s skinnier cousin. It was the kind of discomfort that cannot easily be escaped from, but nonetheless we would certainly try. Neither myself or Jenny were using covers as we slept, lying in bed afraid to move as every time we would shift we could feel the pool of sweat we were leaving behind. Despite all this we had managed to get some sleep, and three to four hours had passed when we woke up. Checking my phone to see what time it was would bring this trip full circle to those of my youth, 3:00 am. We might as well get up and hit the road. Driving through the back roads of Montana into Yellowstone did not conjure up the joy of seeing the sunrise over the interstate as I had anticipated for this trip. Rather, we had the deck stacked even more in our favor with the ability to stop our car and sit on the benches near the hot springs, and watch the earth around us begin to light up.

Return isn’t the correct word to define an experience like this, nor is it the correct word for many occasions including both my photography class and our recent road trip. Because while you revisit, you aren’t ever able to return. A photograph is part of this idea. It is saving an incredibly precise recollection of time and location, a time and location that we will never be able to come across again. Perhaps more important is the realization of what truly connects us to these moments. It wasn’t Yellowstone, or the road trip that changed, it was me as a photographer. I was now able to look at the world from a different perspective and bring both the prior and current versions of myself into my work.

The photos within this issue are artifacts of one another, and recall pieces of myself through the years. They embody the adventure in travel and the influence of my memories of childhood. In these images are remnants of what once had been, and the tie to what is next.

From the hotel in Montana we planned to venture into Yellowstone for the second day. In doing so we’d see the sites that we had been more familiar with as a kid. Despite our unanticipated desperation to leave early, we had been slow in getting ready, checked out, and to the North entrance of Yellowstone. As we drove in at 5:00am, admittedly later than I would have liked, the sun had only started to ascend over the hills ahead of us illuminating the landscape.

We had passed through this northern portion of the park on our way to the sweat lodge that was our hotel the evening before, but were now seeing it in a completely different way. The pools of water reflected the thin morning clouds, generating steam as the temperature had remained low overnight. Herds of elk were slowly roaming the area, licking dew off the grass and lazily standing wherever they wished, often in the middle of the road to the dismay of the few humans trying to get by.

At this moment we weren’t going back to where we had already been; or to where the other tourists had, for the most part, disappeared. The general store and souvenir shops were still closed for hours, and the areas open to the public were empty, except for us.