Paul Vlachos is a New Yorker who understands The West. And he is a New Yorker who understands New York. Wherever Paul goes, he finds signs of life…
Santa Rosa, New Mexico – 2012, from the overgrown parking lot of a defunct diner. Sometimes, part of a sign is better than the whole sign. Sometimes, that’s all you can grab. That was the case here. I had passed this place before, but the sign was either in the shade or it was overcast. This time, though, the sun was hitting it just right. I love over-painted signs, as well, signs that have had more than one life, or more than one personality in life. Plywood is another favorite of mine mainly because, no matter what you paint on it, the grain of the wood will soon enough come back to haunt you. And let’s not forget, breakfast is served at 6:00 A.M.
Wells, Nevada, the town that just won’t die, no matter how hard they try to kill it. The first time I passed through Wells, I stopped to take pictures of an old motel sign, “The Victory” motel. Some old guy came out and introduced himself. He told me the nutshell story on the Victory, how it was built after WWII by a returning veteran, how it was constructed completely out of old railroad ties, and the strange lives of everybody who was now inhabiting it permanently. Even though he may have been stretching the truth a bit – and he may not have been – it was a good story and it made me realize that Wells was one of those rugged Nevada towns, like Austin, that may survive, partly, due to a highway going through it, but also because it was filled with rugged individualists. With people who had no place else to go. I’d periodically stop by Wells in the following years while looking to find one particular hot spring, the directions to which always began at an intersection in Wells and contained about 31 intricate maneuvers, all based on what your odometer said from a certain intersection. My buddy, Paul S, and I have still not gotten to that hot spring, but we came pretty close the last time and we have picked up some good stories along the way. It will be that much sweeter a soak when we finally make it one day. Anyway, there was a terrible earthquake in Wells a few years ago, so bad that it made the national news, and this casino was among the buildings hit. I took this photo after the earthquake and, for a minute, I was wondering if the sagging wall behind the word “BAR” was the result of the quake. I have since concluded that the sign painter was just being either creative or lazy, depending on how you look at it. I also like the painted-on glinting object. On most old casino signs in Nevada, you’ll see the words “Loose Slots,” so that’s another reason we should study this sign even more closely, commit it to memory, and ponder what went into it. I’d suggest that it was the work of a thoughtful person who forgot the adage “Measure twice, cut once.”
Wyoming – 2012. This is how I would put up a sign, just like this. First, some big-ass poles, as big as you can find. Plant them in some concrete footings. THEN, extend them. Make sure those suckers on the Interstate can see them. Then get those letters up there, all 200 feet in the air or however high you can make the sign. Then, step back and check it out. SO WHAT if those letters lean a bit? So what? Just look at how HIGH that sign is. What’s a little tilt? Now, sit back and wait for business, those lines of gas guzzling pickups are now guaranteed to be lining up with their gas hatch doors open.
Jordan Valley, OR – 2012. One of those little Basque Oregon desert towns. I have tried to get a decent shot of this for years and am unable, so I think they should add “Electric Power Substation” to their list of amenities and just let me off the hook. The thing about Jordan Valley – it’s gone about three minutes after you enter it. It’s also far from anything, but I never arrive at the end of my day on any road trip, so I have never stayed there. Sometimes, you pass through a town for years. You might build up some bias against staying there, simply because you have never needed to before. For whatever reason, you don’t *want* to ever stay there. Then, the day comes when it’s late, your eyes won’t stay open five more minutes, and you realized that you’re coming up on THAT town again, the one you don’t like and are actually scared of deep down. Suddenly, you see it in a whole new light and the motel that might have seemed old and off-putting once is now a welcoming, nurturing place, your port in a storm of madness. Well, that has not happened yet with me and Jordan Valley and, in fact, I think it may not happen, as I can sleep in my van now. On top of that, the Sahara looked to be closed the last time I pulled in. But you never know what may happen, and that’s what keeps life mysterious.
This shot is not that compelling from a photographic angle, but I like the scale. It’s a double outdoor movie theater in Montana, taken in 2003. You can see, among the sage and mountains, the two screens facing in opposite directions. I like the idea of people gathering out here and watching movies. I like the idea of them heading back to their ranches and small towns afterwards, having watched movies in the kind of landscape that I’ll routinely travel across the country for, simply to watch the sagebrush. I wonder if they’d think I was crazy. Deep down, I think they’d understand. They’d forgive my love of the land that they are so familiar with. I wonder if they feel the same awe I do whenever I’m out west. I suspect they do if, as is the case with me, they have a tiny moment away from the business of daily living to let the moment intrude. I’d love to know what some of the movies were that played here.
I have always loved this photo and may need to go back to see if the sign exists. It’s not far from Baker, Nevada, which is the “Gateway to Great Basin National Park,” which is not from from Ely, Nevada, which is not that close to much else. I could go on about my experiences with Ely, and I probably should, but not here and not now. Anyway, someone just said “whoa” in a post on Facebook and I thought “it’s time to go looking for that photo,” so here it is. This sign obviously exists for a reason. One fairly fast, two-lane road dead-ends into another one and this sign is across from the “T” where it deadends. I think it’s more effective than a simple “Stop” sign, but what do I know? Clearly, a lot of love went into the making of this sign. Let’s hope there is not a tragic story behind it.
Santa Rosa, NM – 2012. This was at an abandoned Chinese restaurant which had been converted from a gas station. Now, they are both gone, as well as the buffet, apparently, although you can still eat all you like and get it delivered. I have sometimes stopped and just stood under the giant canopy where they used to pump gas and wondered what it was like when it was a restaurant.
Pocatello, Idaho – 1999. Kodak Royal Gold 100, that’s what this photo was taken on. A strip of plastic, coated with some cleverly-designed emulsion, wound into a camera, advanced a frame at a time across a lightbox with a lens hooked to the front, then exposed for a very short, very calculated amount of time. The light would burn itself onto that chemical-covered strip, then move onward to the take-up reel. Eventually, you’d send it to a lab somewhere and a technician would crack open its protective metal casing like a nut – all in the dark, of course – then run it through various chemical soups until the emulsion had magically changed into an exact reproduction of the photos that had hit it in that split second, only in reverse, in negative. Hell, then you had to print it. That’s my seat-pocket, one-off, unedited attempt at how I might one day explain to a kid what “film” was. I might vary the description, depending on the kid, how much I could hone it over the years, and my mood at the time, but that’s basically it. Anyway, I ran through Pocatello one fine day with my friend Peggy and my Nikon F3 and shot a lot of stuff. That town was like a time capsule. You could have shot a movie about the 20s or 30s without doing much but moving the cars in the streets. I went by again recently, 15 years later, and it was much the same, but there was a deep pocket of gentrification and, it would appear, money, which had hit the town. There were fancy bakeries serving cappuccino, not to be confused with your basic low-rent, but beloved Western cappuccino shack that you’ll find in many parking lots. Anyway, it’s still a fine place and a mecca for ancient bits of architecture. Plus, it’s in prime soaking country, Pocatello, so I’m hoping to be back there again soon.
Lower East Side, NYC – 1999. Some kind of old film emulsion that seemed fast at the end of the last century. So fast that I could do a handheld shot at night, something that’s become routine in the digital age. A cool old Caddy, owned and parked without a hint of irony, retro-chic, or hipsterism. Probably some old dude who was proud as hell of his Caddy every time he slid himself behind the wheel, even if it was getting a bit long in the tooth. I’ll bet that, had I shown up on the Sunday following whatever day I took this photo, I’d have caught him out there with a bucket and a rag, carefully rubbing down his baby.
New York City, 8th Avenue, looking north into Chelsea from about 15th Street. I love shooting the food carts, especially at night. I don’t pick my “subjects,” a word that always strikes me as derogatory, but I’m tired at this moment and too jet-lagged to think of a better, more clever term. I don’t pick the things that I find myself returning to shoot over and over again. Perhaps “obsessions” is a better word because it implies a little more reverence for the thing, and it has a hint of fanaticism, which may be better to describe something that you like to shoot. Anyway, I don’t pick them. They pick me. They just draw you in, that’s my opinion. The obsessions have life cycles of their own, too. For a long time, I was obsessed with roadside memorials, the little crosses that people erect on highways to mark where a loved one has died. I still might shoot them, but there was a period of about 5 years where I’d seek them out, when I would make elaborate detours to return to that stretch of road and shoot them. You must remember that they were often located on sections of road that were dangerous, to begin with. In fact, I was so crazy about shooting these crosses that, for a while, I thought they were actually marking the roads for me. I’d find a few, then think, I’m on the right path today. Anyway, a little bit of delusion and madness in the pursuit of art and pleasure is not such a bad thing.
Roadside stand in Arizona – 2009. I was doing a rare – for me – winter cross country trip. I had to. I was picking my van up in Portland, Oregon and trading my Toyota Tacoma, the beloved Taco, in to the same Ford dealer. I’ll give you all the details some other time, but it was a mission that had to be made and, since light and good weather were both at a premium, my scientific route was planned as follows: Head south till you hit Florida, make a right and hug the border until you get to the Pacific, then make another right and head North to Portland. This is actually what I did and it worked. The only crappy weather was at the very end, negotiating the Siskiyou Pass, where there was a surreal scene – an ice storm and multiple cars, on their sides, off the road. I crawled, but the Taco delivered me. Anyway, back in Arizona, I had stopped for gas a few days earlier and found a stand that had an unplanned outdoor garden of fired clay statuary, hand painted, probably in Mexico, but you can’t discount China these days for this kind of high quality merchandise. Anyway, I was so smitten with the stuff that I stopped by this very same place on the way back, after I had spent New Year’s in Portland and gotten the van, all of which is another story for another day.
The snout that launched a thousand ships. The nose that senses rivers of scents that we humans are completely unaware of, to paraphrase some author that I dimly remember. The face of Elko, whose story most definitely must wait for another time to tell. Let me say this, though: I took this recently, a few months ago, in 2012. I was lying on the couch. He loves little more than jumping up on the couch and making me move about 6 inches away from the back of it, creating a crevice he can wedge himself into. He’ll always go find his rawhide donut first, then jump up with it, drop it, then settle in and put his chin on top of it, grunt once and then happily fall asleep. The catch is, he always falls asleep with his butt facing me. THIS time, for one of those rare events, and perhaps because I did not move for him and make the crevice, he faced me, lying with his chin on my thigh, the black denim you might see here. Since I had my cellphone handy and he was obliging me by sleeping soundly, I snapped some photos, trying to see how close I could get and still stay in focus, all the time wishing I had my big camera and a macro lens on it. Then again, a loud, clicking SLR camera probably would have woken him up. Elko’s story some other day, dear friends.
The incomparable Great Basin. Nevada, of course. 2005. Taken on one of those days that may or may not have happened, the only “evidence” being this photo, which clearly seems to capture another reality. I only find myself in such tableaux when I’m out looking for hot water to soak my naked butt in. I need to get out there soon. I must say that to myself at least once a day. That, combined with “Why do I live in New York,” should really tell me something. I am a very dense individual sometimes.
Meghan in her wig phase. As with Bob Dylan in his gospel phase, I’m not sure if the wig phase was a symptom of something greater or just another psychic meandering. I do know that I was one of those rare guys who would say “please stop with the wigs.” I may be wrong, but it’s always been my contention that a guy will want a girl to wear a wig, but will shy away from asking so as not to offend. “WHAT? You don’t like the way I look?” or “You want me to WHAT?” Anyway, I liked the wigs at first, but then they got out of hand, as so many things in life do. Meg was simply being her usual creative self and I cannot begrudge anybody for their freedom of expression and artistic inclination. She would not let it stop there, though. Meg, in her wig phase, would immediately start to fashion, tease, color, cut and shape the wig as though it were her own hair. I put this all in the past tense because she is not currently in a wig phase, but you never know when they will come roaring back. For what it’s worth, I love this shot, this expression, those piercing Newie Irish eyes and, yes, I love that wig.
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