Tuesday, March 23, 2010

On Safari


It was a cool, cloudy morning, the sky as hazy and indistinct as my consciousness, clouded by a short, restless sleep the night before. I had stayed up late, almost to midnight, completing the finishing touches on the viewscreen of my 8"x10" box camera, and now it was time to take it out, "in the field," as it were.

I had loaded up two film holders with a total of four paper negatives. I have more film holders available, but figured it would be a challenge, not knowing my ultimate destination, to complete just these four. I had thought about driving up the Turquoise Trail to Madrid, an old mining town, but decided against it due to incoming weather, and instead decided to search the environs of town for possibilities. Going on a photo safari is somewhat similar to big game hunting, with the exception that you don't know what the beast will end up looking like until you come upon it, passing it in your haste to get down the road, then hurriedly stop, back up and park, and unload the big game paraphernalia.

I drove through town, aimless wanderings that brought me through the south valley of Albuquerque and up onto Nine Mile Hill, the bluff along the city's western edge that overlooks the valley and mountains to the east. Sandy wastes of trailer homes, decrepit ranch houses, tracts of newly built sprawl, plopped down upon the dry scrub like some Monopoly player's gambit.

I ended up at the very western terminus of Rio Bravo Blvd, where it meets up with Paseo Del Vulcan, at the very southwest corner of the metro area. There, in a rough clearing of gravel, asphalt and trash was a corner where two fence lines meet. Beyond them just rangeland and a line of high-tension power line towers, drawing themselves into the distance toward the south.

I parked, popped the trunk open and began unloading tripod, box camera and backpack. It was windy, the incoming storm front in the distance, and a mist-like veil of rain drifting with the wind up the valley below. I positioned the camera and tripod near the fence, reconsidered the composition, then moved the rig a few yards to the east, capturing in the foreground a nearby cross, erected to memorialize some lost soul. In the distance, past the barbed wire fence, the line of towers receded into the distant landscape. I made the 4 second exposure, fretting the camera's vibration from the wind, certain that the image would consequently be softer as a result, but was impelled to proceed nonetheless; when the Muse strikes, one must respond accordingly.

I drove through the north valley of Albuquerque, through old neighborhoods whose landscape was gray with the fallowness of late winter. I found my way to Guadalupe Trail, between 4th street and the Rio Grande, and drove the slow, winding lane through neighborhoods quaint and quiet. There I found an old, abandoned house that beckoned to be captured on silver gelatin paper, whose allure caused me to suddenly stop, back up several yards and park along the lane's dirt edging.

I'm constantly aware, when photographing in residential areas, of people's curiosity and potential for offense at my interloping. I make a point to stay on the public road's right-of-way, avoiding private property, yet am also aware that my camera's gaze points into someone else's life and property. There's a history to this old, abandoned relic from a previous era; a reason why it stands as it does, hasn't yet been torn down to make way for a standalone garage or other improvement to the property. I set up the tripod, then mount the camera, and begin to fiddle with the tripod's position when a neighbor, taking a walk from a nearby street, inquires as to the camera. It's an inquiry that I immediately realize is not motivated out of fear, but curiosity. He asks me why I take these pictures, if it's for my own purpose. We exchange smalltalk, then he proceeds on his walk. I'm thinking that this gentrified, affluent area of the north valley inspires a more aesthetically cognizant resident; what in other parts of town would be a sharp inquiry as to what I'm doing - I was once even accused of carrying an animal trap, when hiking in the Sandia foothills with a box camera and tripod - instead I'm adorned with curious inquiry.


I take a wide shot of the house from across the road, then decide a closer view is warranted, and so pick up stakes and move the heft of tripod-mounted box camera across the road, staying clear of the driveway entrance and the road itself, self-consciously aware of my vulnerability, a potential target of curiosity or venom, then purposefully push those thoughts out of my mind. I've done this enough so that I've disciplined myself, knowing that the more I appear to be doing some purposeful activity, the less likely an interruption.

I use a black shirt as darkcloth, placed around my neck backwards, collar down. Once I have the camera positioned about where I think I want it, camera level with horizon, f/8 aperture stop in place, I pull the shirt up over my head and wrap it around the rear panel of the camera, shielding the viewscreen from the surrounding glare. The vista from the bright viewscreen I'm still amazed at. Though upside-down (as are all in-camera images) I can distinctly see the plane of best focus move in and out with my adjustments to the box's length, as I decide to focus most sharply upon the worn, wooden door of the shack, its framing making the appearance of a cross. I fiddle with the lateral position of the tripod head, do a final level to the horizon, then pull the shirt off my head, swap out film holder for view screen, replace the f/8 with the f/90 plate, and make the 3-second exposure, the wind now calmed to a barely recognizable breeze.

Part of the process of capturing images onto silver-coated paper is that you don't know what you have until later, when the image comes up (or doesn't) in the developer tray; much too late to do anything about it, not like with an electronic camera that plays back pictures for you instantly, permitting a second (or third) chance. There's no chimping here, no second chances, everything has to proceed exactly as required for the results to turn out acceptable. Regardless, I will get what I get; the resulting images (or lack thereof) a document of the process, just as much as writing about it is, too, a document of the process.

There's one more image to be found, one more paper negative awaiting exposure. The hunt, although interrupted by a pot of afternoon tea at Winning Coffee, is not yet completed.

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~Joe

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