Monday, May 26, 2008

Lenni, Pennsylvania, Memorial Day, 1974

Not long after I began spending most of my down-time making pictures in the tiny town of Lenni, PA, I learned that the annual Memorial Day Parade would be a really big deal. It turned out that the VFW Posts, the civic clubs, boy and girl Scouts, and high school marching bands from several larger towns all gathered for the Lenni parade. I never could find out how the tradition began, but it had been going on as long as anyone seemed to remember.

Flags were everywhere the morning of the parade. Big flags on a few houses, clusters of little flags on others. People handed flags out to the kids as they arrived to watch the parade.

This was the only occasion during all the time I spent in Lenni when the calm, quiet peacefulness that made it seem like a throwback to easier and gentler times was replaced by a real sense of tension. It was 1974, so the Vietnam War wasn't just a vivid recent memory, it was more like an open wound. The bands played and kids joined in from the sidewalk to march informally with the parade. But the VFW members all looked on-edge, as if expecting trouble. I wondered if, in recent years, before the end of the war, the parade had been targeted for anti-war protests. I couldn't seem to get a firm answer from anyone.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Lenni, Pennsylvania, 1974 (III)

At the Flatiron Tavern

Not everything in Lenni took place outdoors, of course. The Flatiron Tavern, named for the shape of the building whose first floor it occupied, was a convivial indoor gathering place. Draft beer (Schaeffer and Pabst) was 25 cents a glass. Bottled beer was considered an elegant alternative. Mixed drinks were a rarity ordered mostly by the owner when he came down to ask the barmaid how things were going. There were several pool tables (quarter a game in the coin slot). The patrons tended to middle age and older, though there were always some young adults around. But the jukebox all summer seemed to play almost nothing but Elton John's current hits. A classical music listener, I had to go look at the juke to find out who the guy was, singing half the song in a strong baritone and half in a raspy falsetto. I wondered whether the somewhat older audience here in the bar was really open to new things, or just not paying attention.

Minibike Repair

The little repair business had its own inside space. Trike conversions and minibikes and engine blocks needing new rings all passed through. At one point I wasn't quite circumspect enough with my glance, and the proprietor told me about his wooden leg. No, it wasn't from the recent war in Indochina. A few years back he'd gotten dressed up as a ghost on Halloween. After far too much liquid preparation, he jumped on his motorcycle to go check out the trick or treat action in neighboring towns. The sheet got into the drive-chain, his leg got separated from his body.


"Doc" told me a lot about the town's past. When I asked if his nickname came because of a career in medicine, he just shook his head and smiled at how stupid an outsider can really be.


Not everyone played outside.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Lenni, Pennsylvania, 1974 (II)

Living Out of Doors

In the previous post, looking back at my picture project from a small Pennsylvania town in 1974, I mentioned how even back then it was startling to see how much time the kids spent playing outdoors, with no adult supervision. It wasn't just the kids. Older folks spent a lot of time sitting on porches, talking over fences and railings, doing yard work in yards no larger than the living room.

The young adults in town also spent a lot of the summer hanging around outside on the street. One of the few businesses left in town was an informal custom garage. You definitely could not get your state inspection sticker renewed, but if you needed someone to help you work on your trike conversion of a '61 VW chassis, it was probably the best place in the county to go.

Families spent lots of time on the porches. Nearly every house had a front porch, many had a side porch as well. Porches seem nearly to have disappeared from suburban house design over the past decades. Even when a subdivision's houses have porches, they seem to be nothing but an architectural decoration that nobody uses.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Lenni, Pennsylvania, 1974 (I)

Lenni, Pennsylvania

In the summer of 1974 I'd been working as a free-lance photographer for a couple of years, with clients around Philadelphia, PA, and Wilmington, DE. I drove through the tiny village of Lenni on my way home from an assignment at a nuclear power plant, for the Philadelphia Electric Company's annual report. The town, even back then, seemed locked in a previous era. It was only about 15 miles outside of Philly, surrounded by rapidly expanding suburban sprawl. But it sat on the side of a steep hill, near noisy railroad tracks. All the houses, and the few businesses, were old construction. The place fascinated me, and all summer I spent any time not on assignment hanging around the small town with a couple of cameras. This slow immersion let people get used to seeing me and the cameras. Eventually I became more or less invisible to them.

I noticed that most of the time, the kids played outside in the street, on the porch, or in the woods at the top of the hill. This contrasted to what I'd seen in the New York and Philadelphia suburbs. The term "soccer Mom" wouldn't be coined until years later, but organized, programmed, childhood was already becoming the suburban norm. I remember thinking these kids were lucky to avoid that. Lenni was a neighborhood. That was one of the things I wanted to document about the place.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Drive-in Theaters, White Churches

Silver Bow, Montana

The Silver Bow Twin

The subjects in my pictures are generally found through a process of forced serendipity. That is, I spend a great deal of time out looking for things to photograph, but I seldom go looking for anything specific. To go out looking for subject X might make me overlook a better possibility with subject Y. My drive-in theater project is an exception to this. There are still nearly 500 drive-ins operating in the United States (a fact that surprises people) but that means they are spread far too lightly on the ground to depend on chance encounters.

Once I'd covered rural New York state and Pennsylvania, which, after Ohio, have some of the largest counts of DIs still functioning, I had to research locations and plan out an itinerary to find more. In July of 2002 I loaded my pickup truck with equipment for shooting 5x7, 8x10, 7x17, and 12x20 inch negatives and set out for a 13-day, 6,500 mile trip that took me across the middle-northern tier of the country as far as Montana and Idaho, then back through the Midwest. I had a long list of theater locations, mostly researched on the internet. So, like anything researched on the web, a lot of them didn't really exist, or weren't where they were supposed to be. Others had great romantic-sounding names or locations that made me anxious to see them, but turned out to be disappointments.

For some reason, I was particularly expectant about the Silver Bow Twin, outside Butte, Montana. It was not a disappointment. When I exited the interstate highway, the view at the end of the ramp is exactly what you see above (click on the image to get a bigger version, or better yet, inquire about purchasing a 7x17-inch platinum print or a 13x32-inch pigment ink print). The Silver Bow sits in a bowl of sagebrush on the high plateau with the Rockies rising to the west, a space so vast the 60-foot tall screen at the north side of the theater seems like a child's kite. I stayed around for more than a day to try the view in morning, mid-day, and evening light. I also got the theater's history from its owners, Mark and Holly Hansen.

In the course of the trip I also found several theaters completely out of the blue, not turned up in my research. The way I find most subjects. Also, I photographed several church buildings to add to a growing collection all found by chance encounter. I found this one on a side road on my way from Billings to Butte. St. John the Evangelist was built in 1880 by Irish immigrants who came to the Butte area to work in the mines.

Boulder Valley, Montana

Next step is to find the funding to photograph drive-in theaters across the South and up the West Coast. I'll probably run into more white church buildings in interesting settings along the way.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Project Work

Pike Drive-in Theater, Montgomery, PA

Welcome to a new blog which will be filled with not-current pictures. Pictures made some time ago, on projects already completed, or projects that have been under construction so long that some of the pictures are from years ago.

When I began my Working Pictures blog about a year and a half ago, I had a vague notion of posting current work (I'd been interested by PAW and PAD blogs I'd encountered online). I thought I'd follow a discipline of posting every day (one picture at least, maybe more) and I thought I'd write quite a bit to go along with the photographs, but it didn't work out that way. Posting every day, from work done no more than a few days before, became addictive quickly. Writing about the pictures did not. I found that pictures made in the past week or so had better speak for themselves, and I'd need months or years to have anything interesting to say about them in writing. When I had some technical stuff that seemed worth discussion, I posted it at my friend MJ's TOP blog. Working Pictures will continue with no changes, except new postings.

I expect to write more about these older pictures, though I may surprise myself again. I don't intend to be compulsive about posting once a day, though I'll post frequently.

My work always organizes as projects. Related pictures with a theme, a common, shared, subject. It's likely that everything I post here will be part of an extended project. As I figure out the new interface blogger has given me with the opening of a new blog, I may use the title feature to clue the project for each post.

Winsted Drive-in Theater

In 1999 I noticed this abandoned drive-in theater while traveling on the old highway (there's a newer limited access superslab nearby). The subject seemed strong, and I decided to return at dawn when the light might be good. Weather forecasts were favorable (clear sky in the east, storm coming in from the west) a couple days later, so I returned before dawn. I was, at the time, testing a European brand of sheet film of somewhat uncertain origin, for possible write-up in a photo magazine. It had done OK in early tests so I used it, and luckily it was a perfect fit for the subject. I chose the camera position largely for the downed speaker pole in the foreground. I remember being amused about how simple the shot was to make—a bit of front tilt on the 8x10 Deardorff with my usual 240mm lens, a few seconds at f/45, all done. Backstory: The only time I'd ever been to a drive-in theater as a kid with my parents, the show was an incredibly gory historical drama about the British wiping out the Highland Scots and The Old Man got so grossed out he just had to leave...without unhooking the speaker from the window. We kept picking out the little squares of shattered safety glass from every nook and cranny of that '56 Plymouth station wagon for the next ten years. So I knew what a speaker pole was.

The next year I made some pictures of another drive-in theater I found near the Ohio River at Kanauga, just across from Point Pleasant, West Virginia. I don't think I connected it in my head to the Winsted, I just liked the subject, but the negatives suffered the worst dust attack I've ever encountered in all my years working with large format sheet film cameras. So I never printed them in platinum. (I will at some point scan the best one and wipe out the dust in a matter of a few minutes.)

In the fall of 1991, I encountered The Pike (see top) while working on a different project in Pennsylvania. It was the end of the day, and I found an acceptable place to stay nearby on the south side of Williamsport (I have a starving artist's limit of fifty bucks that I'll pay for a room when I'm on the road). At sunrise the next morning The Pike was resplendent. I shot a lot of 8x10 negatives, several 7x17 negatives, and realized that I had "A Project" on my hands. The crazy, never the same twice, architecture of the drive-in theater set in the infinitely variable American landscape was a theme I'd have to pursue.

So, it's a new blog about old, or at least unfinished, work.

Feedback welcome.