On his second week on the road, Richard extends the rules of composition and talks about fulfilling your dreams whilst travelling through mountains and rock formations. Follow this series of his 3,000-mile-long road trip across the USA where he will be making kallitypes in his portable lab in his car.
Links to all the chapters in the Kallitype Roadtrip:
- Kallitypes roadtrip #1 – Preparation for the 4 week trip ahead can be found here.
- Kallitypes roadtrip #2 – “I am off for Indian country” can be read here.
- Kallitypes roadtrip #3 – In the Land of Rocks
- Kallitypes roadtrip #4 – Leaving the land of cactus and stickers
In the beginning I had little interest in photography. Photography was a useful tool and made selling articles easier. Anyone can learn a few suggestions and take better pictures. There was an artist named Bob Ross with a television series who painted every picture using compositional rules like simplicity, balance, rule of thirds, lines, and framing. Aristotle first documented the rules of composition in association with all art. His rules were more encompassing and general than most: Organize and bring about unity; use complexity and diversity; use theme and thematic variation; continue to develop and evolve the ideas; and do not forget to balance everything in the art.
When teaching composition in photography I had students put down their cameras and had them draw or paint pictures using the rules of composition. Even if they had never drawn or painted before, they always produced a pleasing picture. This is a good exercise for anyone trying to improve compositional skills.
I practised the rules of composition until they became second nature. I see the world through these rules: lines, balance, etc. They seemed a simple trick that anyone could learn. Years and years followed before I learned that photography can be so much more. I started to see and to feel, to notice the little nuances, how to make a decent print, how to use light and shadow, how to ignore light meter suggestions and to break the rules to get the kind of photographs I wanted and not what people thought should be the picture, to sometimes put the subject in the center of the composition or to put the subject near the edge of the frame looking out, to add tension, not looking into the frame where there is more space. I realized I had a vision and I did not have to conform to others’ visions.
All this came about over years of being objective and understanding that not every picture is great. Most are mediocre and a large number are just bad. I went through the stage of gimmicks: split images, star filters, unique cameras and lenses, toning, Vaseline-coated lenses, many other fads, and all that flotsam to find myself. I drifted in and out of myself, in and out of confusion.
My writing can be even more confusing when I’m on the road. I seldom have time to rewrite and get things in order so it is best to view my thoughts as a slice of a scattered dream, mystical, drifting in and out of reality. The past and the present often come together as random thoughts. As old as I am I can never relinquish the war I faced at the age of nineteen and I view the world through those young eyes and let the writing and photography attempt to pull me from the dream and plant my feet on this earth and create something worthwhile. I can still feel the red clay of Vietnam and the sweating heat from the sun so I often photograph the patterns of peacetime earth and the sun against a new cactus flower.
I left Las Vegas early in the morning. I can never sleep after a big fight. All fired up with excitement, yet exhausted, thoughts in my mind whirl about like a monkey on a motorcycle. Several days of recovery are needed. A big television fight is longer than the two hours seen on the screen. The fights on this night started at two in the afternoon and did not finish until ten that evening. Most reporters and photographers show up for the semi-main and main events. I start from the beginning. That is a very long time to hold a heavy Nikon D4 and 500mm lens. As the fights continue my reactions diminish but if I do not watch all the fights I will not know the potential of new boxers.
After the fight, I drove East toward St. George, Utah. There is a desire in many people to want to be someplace else. The grass is greener on the other side may be the saying. Few people act on these feelings and the feelings remain as an annoying yearning so when people reach old age they have regrets and are filled with “I wish I had…” Life flies by. All one needs to do is flag down the train and hop aboard. That seems much better than saying, “I spent my entire life working for a company, playing it safe so I could have a decent retirement so I can sit home and watch television during my remaining years.” To exist is not the same as to live.
As you age there are more and more obstacles put in your way not to do things, advice from well-meaning people littering your path with fear. I am 77 years old. Doctors advise me to slow down. My wife says, “You are not as young as you used to be.” Who is? People constantly fall into this trap and succumb to wearing wool bathrobes and never take an adventure outside the yard. “You are an old man and should not be sleeping in a tent, or the back of your truck”, she says.
I prefer sleeping in a tent, or the back of my truck, to sleeping in a motel. I have no need to lay on a motel bed and watch old television movies when I can have nature’s entire vista before and above me. I feel no joy in climbing into a bed formerly occupied by thousands of others.
My wife is only attempting to look after me. Without her, I would not be alive today.
I feel no different than I ever have. True, the stamina of old is lacking and my balance is shaky, and I am littered with aches and pains. These are minor inconveniences. Once you start dwelling on them you are sunk. You might as well just give up. I never mention any physical problems to others. My family has always been like this. My father lived to be 90 and still rode his motorcycle and my uncle, at the age of 87, returned from an afternoon of dancing, dismounted his motorcycle, and dropped dead from a heart attack. That’s the way to live. If it hurts to walk, walk anyway. Pay no attention to your ailments and you will live much longer. There is so much more to think about. On the other hand, I am more than happy to have people stay at home. I do not need them cluttering up the natural world. Take up an interesting hobby – like photography.
Nevada is mostly desert, with miles and miles of nothing. On one road a sign said Last gas for 157 miles. Not even cacti break the landscape, just sagebrush. The United States is immense. I read that only 30% is populated. Vegas offered a nice respite and the fights were extremely enjoyable. On the Las Vegas strip people constantly asked about my view camera.
I must have been an interesting sight walking around with an old wooden camera. They would have been even more surprised to discover I was developing prints from processes in the 1840s. An unusual camera is a great way to meet people. Several times people asked to take a picture of me taking pictures.
A woman asked to take my picture at a cliff dwelling. I agreed and said that her phone camera took better pictures than my view camera. “Maybe,” she said, “but you are where it all started.” I was not sure if she meant me personally.
Once you turn East from Las Vegas, the landscape starts to change. Mountains come into view, rock mountains with bold faces and interesting shapes. These are not the mountains of the Northwest covered with trees; these are mountains with sheer cliffs and no obstructions and twisted shapes sculpted by the wind, and drilled with arches, and occasional muddy streams and rivers in an otherwise hot and barren land. Signs of ancient peoples start to emerge: petroglyphs and rock dwellings, some tucked high into the rock faces. Questions emerge. What happened? Why did the people leave? Where did they go? Some dwellings emit fear. You can feel the fear emanating from the rocks, sometimes so strongly you start to shiver.
At the border between Utah and Arizona, I pull onto a dirt road for a shot. One reason I started using a view camera was to keep my memory sharp. The camera requires many steps and an operator must remain alert to use one. Because I am still prone to make mistakes my wife suggested I tape all the required steps onto the side of the camera, otherwise I may not remove the slide when taking a picture or leave the slide out with the shutter open. The mind is a strange thing. Writing a historical novel Siege at Dien Bien Phu took me over three years and the book is over 800 pages long. I never used a single note. If I go to the grocery store for eggs, milk, and cheese without a list I am likely to return home with apples, pizza, and underwear.
I now start getting serious about the photographs. On a technical point, putting depth into a photograph can be challenging, but is especially important in landscape photography. The most common way of using rules of composition and getting depth is to put something in the foreground: a rock, a tree, etc. Few things are more boring than a string of mountains. Are they near? Are they far? A rock in the foreground may appear larger than the mountains, yet they give us an idea of how far and how large the mountains are. This part of the country is very accommodating regarding composition. There are generally large rocks, brush, cactus, or spindly trees for the foreground composition. If not, look to the sky. Fluffy clouds abound.
Another way to get depth is by overlapping objects. Two balls side-by-side provides no clues as to depth. One may be closer or one may be farther away or they may be equal distance. Slightly overlapping a ball gives us depth and often makes a shot more interesting. Putting one mountain in front of another does the same thing. A painter has the benefit of adding or subtracting anything he likes. He can move a tree or rock as he pleases. A photographer is limited and does not have that advantage. A photographer can only move himself. By moving his perspective he moves the objects in the photograph. As he moves he rearranges the tree or rock. Move one way and the tree overlaps the mountain; move another way and the tree clears the mountain. Shoot from a low perspective and the tree grows taller. Shoot from a higher perspective and the tree gets shorter. Most of this has become second nature to me but I always attempt to refresh my memory before, and during, a trip.
I pulled out my chair, sliced off some cheese, and enjoyed looking at the scenery. I eat healthier on a trip because I shop at small farms for fresh fruits and vegetables rather than eat junk from chain stores. I also tend to find locally owned restaurants if I decide to enjoy a meal cooked by someone else. Chain restaurants drive me nuts. Regardless of my size, I tend to eat very little. The last time I ate at a corporate restaurant I wanted a two-egg omelette. The waitress said they had only three-egg omelettes. I said I would pay for the three-egg omelette, just make it with two eggs. It was not allowed. All the eggs were inventoried. She suggested I order the three-egg omelette and only eat two of the eggs and throw the other one away. I did not want to be wasteful, something she did not comprehend. I ordered toast and coffee. It was a scene straight from the movie Five Easy Pieces.
People are funny when it comes to food. My friend, Jerry, who weighed over 300 pounds, constantly gave me a bad time for ordering the small Coke at MacDonald’s. All the drinks cost the same regardless of size. He thought I should buy the large one, even if I did not want it. Just because one gets more does not mean you need to take more.
One does not need a menu at a small restaurant. Tell the waitress what you want and the cook will put the food together. I try not to fall into the trap of many old people who think things were always better in the past. Still, many things feel that way.
I had bought all the chemicals to make kallitype images but, I must say, the complete processing packages from Bostic & Sullivan, or Photographer’s Formulary, are much more convenient. Mixing your own chemicals can be taxing and messy. Everything in the Bostic & Sullivan kit is already mixed and in its own bottles complete with eye droppers for measuring. Photographer’s Formulary sends the chemicals as powders that you mix. Their convince is that you don’t have to hunt the internet looking for all the separate chemicals. If you want to get into kallitype printing I strongly recommend either kit. The cost for either package is about the same.
Since my original route had changed due to the fight, I now had to make a decision. I could continue across Utah toward Zion where some beautiful rock formations stand tall, or drive to the Grand Canyon. The Grand Canyon cannot be photographed simply because it is so grand. The first time I viewed the canyon it did just what people said it did – took my breath away. The gash is magnificent and for a moment you cannot breathe. That kind of grandeur cannot be put on film. The immensity of the place does not fit onto a 4×5 negative. All you can do is take pictures of small things, a cactus near the rim perhaps, or a windblown tree with an out-of-focus canyon in the background. Also, things that go below the earth’s surface are not as interesting or as photographic as things that stand above the earth’s surface.
I decided on Zion, although obstacles abound. One cannot drive into Zion National Park. You must park your vehicle and take a bus. That presents a problem when packing a view camera, film, and tripod rather than a cell phone camera. Fortunately, there are many spectacular rocks around the edges that no one visits. Find a little dirt road and totally different views abound and you do not have to contend with tourists crowding your shots. From Zion, I could drive to Monument Valley.
Monument Valley met me with a temperature of 28 degrees. I had never felt that part of the country so cold this time of the year. I generally travel this time of year because it is just right: not too hot nor too cold. During the winter it is freezing and the temperatures during the summer reach above 100. The cashier at a small convince store said she had never seen such weather. Her words revealed a slight bit of fear.
They charged $8 to enter the valley. The internet said the entrance fee was $20. I asked the ranger at the gate about the difference in the discrepancy. “You can’t believe anything the internet says.” was the ranger’s reply.
Monument Valley appears in many of the western movies filmed in the US. Director John Form so loved the place that, I think, most of his westerns were placed there. The classic Stagecoach was shot there and many of his cavalry versus the Indians movies featuring John Wayne riding at the head of the army while chasing hot-blooded Indians attempting to preserve their cultures and ways of living from the encroachment of disease-ridden, dirty, and mostly uneducated immigrants and silly white people needing a job or wanting something for nothing. To his credit, John Ford was one of the first directors to use Indians in his films and not white guys in Halloween costumes although he did stick with fair-skinned blonds with hair dyed black and, keeping with our theme, skin painted Van Dyke Brown.
The Valley is on the Navajo reservation. The reservation is 27,000 square miles, the largest Indian reservation in the U.S. and larger than three of our eastern states combined. 173,000 Indians live on the reservation and I read that most homes have no electricity, running water, or telephones. Not much has changed over the years. Except for scenery, the land has little to offer, which is why the government gave them so much of it. The tribe charges $8 to drive 17 miles through the valley along rough dirt roads, a small price to pay for such beauty and to help support the natives of this country who continue to struggle. The reservation contains no towns. Indian goods are sold at a gift shop near the entrance and other Indians have small stands in the area. The View Hotel overlooks the Vally and their rates vary from $139 to $350.
I struck up a conversation with an old Indian selling silver jewellery. His hands were the color of agate with vines pushing up and lifting the skin.
“Have you ever thought of moving?” I said.
He looked around.
“To where?” he said. “I have all this and my business.”
“I understand life can be hard.”
“Life is hard everywhere,” he said. “Better hard here than in a city. Hard is looking around and seeing only buildings and other people and no fresh air and no sky. That is not my way. I prefer to be hard here than hard someplace else.”
With photography, you live in the present even as it becomes the past. Photography is sort of a time machine with you at the controls. Our normal lives are cramped and frantic. We are trapped by what should be normal – do things this way and not that way. Most advancements in any discipline are made by people who step out of line, especially in the arts. An occasional oddball exists in any group of people, people who try and cure diseases differently or try and show that simply washing your hands can save lives, or in science when someone attempts to show how the earth revolves around the sun, or when someone tries to paste pictures together or scratch the negatives, or re-expose a half-developed negative, or prefer 100-year-old developing techniques to digital ones where someone else has decided how a picture looks. Anything that limits our thoughts cramps our ability to see, and yet, even thoughts can cramp our vision. Do not think of yourself as something apart from everything else, apart from nature. We are all the same thing, we are all one with nature. When you think this way you are not taking pictures of something apart from yourself, you are part of the something of which you are taking pictures.
This is a part of my photographic philosophy and should not be taken as any kind of suggestion. People have their own views on such things and my thoughts are only ideas concerning certain types of pictures.
Ansel Adams worked out many of his pictures beforehand. He had what soldiers call a single-minded focus. He knew what he wanted and was not distracted by anything else, like a soldier who finds a target and ignores any other dangers. He pre-visualized his pictures and knew how the final prints would look before he snapped the shutter. His photographs are unique works of art, more William Turner than Jackson Pollack.
Simplifying a photograph is a good start to decent composition. That means including only what is essential. Monument Valley works well with group simplification. The landscape is simplified by unification, with many of the rock formations gathered in one shot. In no way does the picture look cluttered. For a different kind of simplification, one might photograph just a single mesa, rock, or tree.
The landscape reeks of freedom, harsh freedom. Only the most specialized creatures live here, creepy crawley cold-blooded creatures not interested in company. I continued to talk with the old Indian selling silver belt buckles and trinkets. He spoke of the land with reverence and when I left he said, “Be careful of the wrigglers.” Many older people call rattlesnakes wrigglers. I have occasionally stumbled upon rattlesnakes. They are grumpy, solitary creatures but have enough sophistication to warn people of their presence. They do not enjoy company and ask to be left alone. The only danger they cause is if you accidentally step on one. Many high desert creatures lead solitary lives and come together only for mating. That includes people.
I always wanted to take a picture of the ruins at Mesa Verde. I have seldom visited a place so remote. A number of ruins sit high on a mesa. At the bottom of the mesa are endless miles of flatland and desert. The weather was warm and dry down below. The mesa suddenly juts up from nowhere. The weather cooled as I drove and my water bottles started to pop with the change in air pressure. Signs of snow started to appear. Soon there were snowbanks about six feet tall and the road became icy. Travelling to a popular site is always risky because of the number of tourists. At the moment the place was almost empty. It must be miserable during the summer. Huge parking lots and tour bus slots are everywhere. Now I almost had the place to myself.
Although you need a ticket to explore the ruins, they can still be photographed from the outside. Exploring the site requires a ranger and the trail is steep and dangerous. A sign cautions people like me (old) not to take the tour for fear they might not make it out. That was fine. I am not quite right but I am usually not stupid. The last thing I needed was to be evacuated again in a helicopter.
Various dwellings cling to the cliff sides and overhangs. These people were afraid of something, very afraid. The fear seeps into your bones.
The government was again at work. One does not have to know where to take a picture. The government has done all the work. Posts with camera icons tell you exactly where to look and get your shot. Many times I watched people standing at their posts when there was a much more interesting picture directly behind them. Why bother to look and make your own decisions? All through the trip I encountered the infamous drive-by shooters. These are the people who take their pictures through the windows of a moving vehicle. Too much time is needed to actually stop the car, look around, and find the shot you imagine.
At the petrified forest herd mentality was in full effect. Lines of people followed the people in front of them. The petrified trees are photographically unimpressive, small chunks of stone trees scattered about in random order. Trunks of any size are seldom present. They are usually broken into two- or three-foot bits. I don’t know why. The only compositional pleasing group I found was a gathering beside the road. I ate lunch and waited to see if anyone would look anyplace other than the crowd of people around them. No one did, even though there was a lovely hill opposite the road. Before finishing lunch I spilt a can of sardines down my chest. I smelled like some large sea creature.
Later that afternoon I hiked down a remote trail and passed several tourists. The sun had become quite strong. I had forgotten my hat. I did not fancy heat stroke. I thought I might throw the focusing cloth over my head but thought it might be offensive to nuns of some religious order. One never knows who he is offending these days. In my film bag were a pair of socks and a pair of underwear. I like to be prepared. I strapped the underwear on my head with gaffer’s tape and went about my business. Passing pedestrians started to shy away from me, sometimes holding their noses. No one said hi. They had never seen a large sea creature in a turban. A young man with his hat turned sideways and with green hair looked at me. There certainly are a lot of strange people in this country.
Continuing South the land becomes desert with cacti surrounding mountainous boulders. Some of the cacti were starting to sprout. The sun is out every day and the weather is pleasant like I had planned in the beginning.
The brightness of the sun caused me some difficulty with exposure. My prints were coming out almost black. I thought the chemicals might have gone bad or perhaps the paper. No, the sun was so intense the exposures were only about 5 seconds. I had not imagined such short exposures. I started exposing the prints in the shade. I then had to keep them completely covered until they were put in the developer.
It was time for a break. My grandsons live in Phoenix so I dropped in for a shower, a few nights’ sleep in a real bed, and a few Mexican meals.
Links to all the chapters in the Kallitype Roadtrip: