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…
I do not always have a theme for these columns. It’s often better to let the photos speak for themselves, maybe with the help of a few pithy facts. My theme for this column, though, is “The 20th Century.” I don’t remember how it popped into my head, but pop it did, about a week ago, and I can’t shake the idea. Whether it’s dumb nostalgia for the past or some deep, inner devil that’s trying to make itself heard, I wanted to think about the 20th Century, the Bloody Twenty, the century that gave us so much and took so much away from us. Sometimes, a theme can help to guide and give form. Sometimes it fails. Sometimes, *I* fail. In this case, it helped me to make the first photo cut: photos from before the year 2000.
That means that all these photos were shot on film. I used to love that magic moment when, after sending the photos off to the lab and then waiting for them to return, the package would arrive and I would open it. Many of the photos would be mediocre but, every once in a while, one would make me smile. It was similar once I began to develop my own film and print my own photos – you had to take the photos, then wait to see the results.This was photography for my first 40 years. I still have photos I took as a kid, in the 60s and 70s, along with a few from my lost decade – the 80s – but these five photos are from when I picked up my camera again, in the 90s.
1. This is from Lassen Volcanic National Park. I took it in 1994. How did I end up there? I had too much time on my hands and a rental convertible. I had gone out west to lose myself after a relationship went south. I didn’t know that the real exercise of getting lost would involve the driving, not the stopping. In 7 days, I covered the ground I had initially planned to cover in two weeks. I ended up with a whole week on my hands, so I drove up and down every road in California. I did not know what I was doing or where I was going. I had a small film camera with a fixed 28mm lens. At some point, I saw signs for Lassen. I hiked around. I remember wooden walkways that took me over hissing, boiling ground. I shot a few forgettable photos of mountainsides. This little sign was at a trailhead. I have always liked the grouping – “weapons, pets and vehicles. I know it’s standard Park Service boilerplate, but it makes me smile to ponder it. A year later, when I put up a rudimentary web site in the early days of the World Wide Web, I used this image as a splash page. That first web page was probably the beginning of my spiritual decline. By the way, since it was 1994, I had a calling card and used payphones. Cellphones were like unicorns, and there was no service, even if you did have one. That convertible had a cassette deck. You can bet I had a few cassettes stashed in my bag. Smoking was not allowed on planes by then, but most airports still had glass rooms, where the smokers could sit and suck down another cigarette before the next flight.
2. Carlsbad, New Mexico – 1995. This photo is from a strange trip I took with somebody. I got paid for driving around the country, but pretending that I was NOT driving around the country. I did not sign a non-disclosure agreement, but I feel duty-bound to say no more about it, even today. Maybe one day I will break the silence. We were quartered in a sleazy motel that seemed pretty nice to my more impoverished younger self. We were eating garbage food every day and we did not eat with Chef Pete. I’m not even sure how I got this shot, but I think I stood on the roof of yet another nondescript Ford rental car. Lucky for me, the sun was in a good spot, except for that spatula-shaped shadow on Pete’s hat. As I age, I have learned to embrace the shadows as much as the sunlight.
3. In 1998, I was driving to Philadelphia with my friend Peggy. We were going to a PJ Harvey concert. At some point, we took an exit – this was before the days of handheld GPS-equipped phones, so Peggy must have been studying a map in the glow of the visor light. She was probably issuing terse directions to me as I drove. We arrived early and would end up walking around Philly and taking photos. I had a better camera at this point – a used Olympus OM2n, with a cheap telephoto lens – along with some 400 speed film. I had learned enough technique to take fairly long exposures without a tripod. We stopped for this sign, which probably dates from the early ‘60s. If anyone knows the actual date when this business first opened, please feel free to contact me. Then again, maybe it’s better not to know. I’m basing the date on the general look of the sign, along with the space-age, abstract atom sticking out of it. My favorite time to shoot is when it’s dark enough to see artificial light, but light enough to notice surrounding details. In some places, I think they call it “dusk.”
4. The High Line, as U.S. Route 2 is known across the top of Montana. This is from 1997. I have wandered up there a few times since the ‘90s, but only for short hops. I need to return soon for an extended trip on the northern route. The past two years, I had been planning to do it, but fate intervened in the form of wildfires, extreme weather or life exigencies. Here is a freight train with cars that you can see right through, from one end of the horizon to the other. I’m sure long freights still run up there and I’m sure you can go and capture this scene pretty much unchanged. It’s not unique to the 20th Century, but that’s when I took it, back in the days when a phone call meant a landline, when bandaids came in a tin box, and when cars didn’t talk back to you.
5. Gallup, New Mexico – 1997. Another atomic sculptural element on this sign, but the lettering makes me think it’s from the 1950s and, since the atomic age came to New Mexico earlier than the rest of the country – I know. we can debate that one – I’m going with the 50s over the 60s. I could be wrong. I could be very wrong, but I don’t care and it doesn’t matter. How could I care when I look at that neon against the blue dusk? This was a little strip mall in Gallup. It may still be there, and the sign may still be there, but I keep forgetting to look when I go through. I’m usually intent on getting to Earl’s for a bite. Earl’s Family Restaurant is a portal back to the 20th Century – unless, of course, you make the entirely forgivable mistake of talking to a human while you’re eating.