What Did I Stumble Into?

· Reading Time: 23 minutes

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Generations“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer

{To be read in a dramatic radio announcer’s voice]  When we last left our adventuring photographer, he was about three hours from home, soaking wet from spending an hour and a half at Soco Falls.  He had hoped to be able to shoot two other waterfalls during the morning, but the weather wasn’t quite right in the direction of his next destination.  He was left with a decision to make.  He could drive aimlessly around in the mountains looking for subjects.  He could drive out to the Blue Ridge Parkway and take advantage of the interesting sky in certain directions to the East.  He could even go back into Maggie Valley where he saw some interesting old cars on the way to Soco Falls.  What did he do?  We are about to find out!

I was faced with a conundrum of sorts.  I had been geared up for doing landscape photography and that was what I had my sights set on for the day.  The problem was, the sky wasn’t right for waterfalls where I would be headed.  It was interesting with the clouds in certain directions which would lend itself to some time on the Blue Ridge Parkway.  The problem with that was the landscape was just not all that interesting since the trees were still completely bare from Winter.  The lighting was good for some rural exploration, but after driving for three hours in the rain, I was a little tired of being on the road.  I decided to go and take a better look at the cars that I had passed in Maggie Valley on the way in.

Before leaving Soco Falls, I got everything fairly well cleaned up from the misty morning and set back out for the other side of the mountain.  As I came back into Maggie Valley I started to see the cars that had caught my eyes earlier.  The lighting made all the difference in the world.  These were no longer really cool cars, they were vividly painted advertisements for the businesses they were in front of.  Those that still had a nice patina on them were situated very close to businesses which detracted from the image.  It was very apparent that these were yard art and there was just too much glitz and glam for me to get excited about shooting these cars.

I was actually starting to get a little discouraged and was thinking that I would just take the scenic route back home and hope for the best.  I probably had a few images in the bag from Soco Falls.  I mean with 55 frames captured, I should have something…right?  I was needing gas, so I figured I would make one last stop in the touristy Maggie Valley before trying to escape to the country.  I was about to roll up on the lot where I had seen the two Datsun Z’s on the way up and decided that I would pull in there to see what condition they were in.  As I pulled in, I saw a lot more to the collection than I had originally thought.  In fact, as I was parking, I was changing my intentions from just looking at the Z’s to actually wanting to do some photography on the lot.  I could see that everything was roped off, and it was very apparent that this was not something that was open to the public.  I happened to see a gentleman walking towards one of the buildings on the property so I decided that I would see if he was the owner.

Weeping” Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer

I got out of the truck and approached him.  He seemed friendly enough so I just went into my normal speech at times like this.  I told him that I was a photographer and enjoyed photographing old rusty cars.  His response confused me a little bit.  He said as he was turning around he gets a request for this about once a week.  My heart sank, I just knew he was going to turn me down.  He then added that he didn’t want anyone touching the vehicles, or manipulating them in any way.  I assured him that I liked to shoot them as I found them.  With that, he invited me in the shop.  I’ll be honest here, I was not really in the mood to spend time talking as I knew the weather was constantly changing and for the moment I had great light to work with.  However, I also knew that this was his place and his rules, so I followed him in the shop.  out of respect for his privacy, I am not going to go into what all was in the shop, but I will say this.  This gentleman was a collector like I had never seen before.  We went over to his desk and he started to tell me about some of the things that he had and how he had acquired them over the years.  The more he talked, the less I was concerned about capturing the cars outside.  I was really enjoying what he was telling me.  I started to ask questions that had nothing to do with me wanting to take pictures and he gladly entertained my quandaries.  He had given me permission to shoot outside, but I was having more fun learning about what he had in his collection so I put the photography on the back burner for a while.

He started to take me through the buildings to show me all of what he had in his collection.  I was beyond amazed at what he had.  More impressive was that he knew the history about every piece that was in there.  From bicycles, to cars, to wooden boxes, and even an honest to goodness historical, galvanized steel whore’s bath, I think he referred to it as a tub of ill repute.  It was like going to a living history class and I followed him wherever he would take me in those buildings just soaking in all that I saw.  I think I must have been in there for 45 minutes, but it could have easily been two hours as I lost track of all time while talking to him.  I wish I could have recorded it all so I could review it now that I’m not so overwhelmed at what I saw.  We both eventually needed to get back to our respective tasks, and he gave me his blessing to explore the property.

I really think that the discussion that we had was more of an interview so that he could get a feeling for my intentions.  I might be overly suspicious, but it is something that I would do in his place.  He had the opportunity to see if I truly loved what I was seeing in terms of appreciation or other motivations.  He also moved me around all of the different pieces and I’m sure he was watching to make sure I was being careful around his collection.  By the end of our discussion, I think he was confident that my intentions were honorable.  I exited the amazing building and went to the truck to get my gear.  I then had a couple of thoughts that would change my normal course of operation.

Gold Encrusted“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer

Not wanting to spark any concerns since we hadn’t really talked about how I go about my photography, I looked at my backpack and put myself in his shoes.  There would be room to conceal odds and ends in that bag and I didn’t want to give him any cause for concern.  Plus, as tight as things were on the property, I really didn’t want the bulk of the backpack potentially knocking something over or causing any damage.  I decided that my go to set up for this type of photography was my trusty 24-70mm lens and a Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer.  There was an off-chance I might need something like an ND Grad or maybe my 70-200mm lens, but if something like that were to happen I could come back to the truck and get those items.  For simplicity and his peace of mind, I grabbed the kit that I was counting on needing and left the rest in the truck.  I got started right there beside the truck shooting an old Chevy truck and getting in the right frame of mind for this type of photography.  Funny how my day had gone from landscape, to then a history lesson, and now I was trying to get my mind fully set on decay photography.  I was getting up to speed pretty quickly though.

Swedish Decay“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer

As with the tour on the inside, I found myself in overload in the yard.  There were paths to take, and stuff hidden throughout the property.  I was really happy that I had selected the 24-70mm lens as it gives me the best range of options from wide to tight.  It is limited at the extremes, but for the distances that I was working it was the perfect lens choice.  The clouds moved overhead and gave me a wide variety of lighting.  One moment, I would have a nice warm light bathing the subjects, and then the next, I would have cloudy and flat light to work with.  I don’t think I have ever had to change my color temperature so much.  I used cloudy, sunny, and even shade for all of the compositions that I shot.

I was like a kid in a candy store though.  Every step I took I found something different I wanted to photograph.  Instead of my normal work a subject for a long time, I tended to flit around like somebody with ADD on speed…oh look a shiny squirrel!!!  I’ve often spoken of the benefits to shooting decay at a salvage yard with so many subjects to shoot.  The downfall to a salvage yard is usually the cars have been picked over and what you are left with lacks so much of the car’s character.  That wasn’t the case here, not by a long shot.

Ready to Pounce“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer

The difference with this collection was that it was just that…a collection.  He is not interested in selling any of it, he just wants to keep it to be appreciated.  There are rare examples of just about everything under the sun and for the most part they are in tact.  Since I love working with emblems and hood ornaments this was particularly interesting to me.  Also, since he is a true collector, there is a wide range of makes represented.  He had the standard domestic makes, but also Jaguar, Saab, BMW, Volvo, Rolls Royce, MG, and even the slowest Lamborghini in the United States.  For those that don’t know, the raging bull made tractors in the early 20th century.  This part I knew, but I had no idea that they also made heavy equipment.  On this property was a Lamborghini bulldozer which was imported from the other side of the Atlantic.  It is apparently the only one on US soil.

British Squad“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer

The more and more I shot, the more I was seriously wondering if there was enough time in the day to capture all that I wanted to capture.  When you think about my history, I can spend an hour or more on a single car before I am sure I have what I want to get.  It would take all week to spend that kind of time on each piece in the yard.  I looked for things that really grabbed my attention and focused on those things.  In some cases it was lines of cars that all shared something in common, in other situations it was a vehicle that stood out from the crowd and demanded some attention.  Still other times, it was just an emblem or an artistic feature on a car that captured my eye.  I’m telling you, the designs of modern cars still fall short to the lines and curves on these classics.  Just something simple like a chrome molding on the side of a ’60’s Volvo Coupe stands out to me.

Swedish Swoosh“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer
Over Baked“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer

There were so many cars that I wanted to capture the whole thing, but with the tight confines of the yard, there were times I just had to settle on capturing the details instead.  With this being a situation unlike a salvage yard, I was so elated to see that there was so much of the trim work still in place.  I’ve gotten used to shooting cars missing significant parts of their character so that other cars may live a little longer.  Here, I had examples with very unique trim still attached.  That trim helped to tell the story of the vehicles which is what I am all about doing with my photography.  Their stories were all unique, but they are all sharing a common thread at this point that they are in this amazing collection.

56 Special“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer

Something that was pointed out to me during the “interview” stage of this trek I had to capture.  As we were walking around in the yard, he pointed to this Buick and said that this car had something that no other model had.  He wanted to see if I could pick it out.  Now I’m a self-proclaimed car guy and know quite a bit about cars, but I also know that compared to this guy, I know nothing at all.  I was going to give it my best shot at answering him, so I looked the car over pretty thoroughly trying to find a clue.  Since I do love emblems, I noticed that one of the emblems on the grill had the model year printed on it.  To my knowledge, I had not seen that on any other emblem ever before.  I took a shot and said that it was the 1956 emblem on the front.  I think he was a little impressed, I was just glad I had impressed myself that I got it right.  That was one that I filed in my head that I wanted to shoot later on.  It was going to be really impossible to shoot the entire car which was a real shame.  It was wedged between two other cars, one of which was a brightly colored NASCAR.  It was sitting in front of a metal building which was also not all that great for a background.  At least I was able to capture this intimate shot of the grill with the angles and patina showing through.  Even without the rest of the car, I think that the essence of the car was captured here.

Chrome Remains“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer

Capturing grills became a staple of this location.  I was able to get into the personality of the cars without getting all the distractions in the image if I were to have shot the entire car.  The aging process has really made these old cars amazing to look at and even better to photograph.  The stories that are behind each of these cars might not be fully known, but you can sure make some assumptions and piece together a timeline for them.  It might not be accurate, but you have to admit looking at these old cars and wondering about all that they had seen over time is pretty cool.  For me, one of the things that I really enjoy is seeing the patterns of the rusting.  I imagine all the years in the elements going back to when the car was new and washed every weekend by the proud owner.  I can imagine the first rock chip, or dent, and how that progressed into other damage or decay.  This is such a gradual process and one that is fascinating to me.

A Tattered Collection“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer, converted in Lightroom
50’s Chrome“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer

When working with old cars, you always have the choice to shoot in monochrome for that timeless feel.  Here we have an example of why I chose one over the other.  In the monochrome image, I was really trying to capture the tow truck in the background, but it had a very dark ruddy brown rust all over it.  It was parked next to a white Nissan Maxima which really didn’t fit the composition.  The sedan that was in the foreground was a brighter color and really stood out.  There was also a piece of machinery on the ground in front of the tow truck that distracted from the point of the picture.  By reducing the visual impact of the sedan by just capturing the front clip, I helped with the focal point being the tow truck.  However, looking at in color, the car still took too much visual weight.  By doing a conversion, I was able to balance the weights of all the elements much better and make the tow truck a bit more visible.  I hate that I had to crop in so close to the side with the Maxima right next door, but I think that this works well as it is.

In the second image, I obviously chose color because the balance of warm and cool tones was just perfect here.  Not only was there a great color balance, the overall impact was increased with the vibrant blue in the foreground with the rust coming through.  The background has an even rustier car that mimics many of the styling cues of the foreground car.  Limiting my depth of field allowed the visual weight to trail off in the background.  For any car guy…or gal, these grills are all you need to see in order to really see the whole car.  There were too many obstacles for me to be able to capture any more of the cars.  In fact, you can see the rope that was draped across the hoods which was part of the problem, but the other vehicles and buildings around would have provided much too much in the way of distraction.  This is simple, and really gets the point across.

Light the Way“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer
Broken Chevy“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer
Lichen the Z“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer
Elderly Curves“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer

When it comes to automotive photography, I have often said that the headlights are the windows into the soul of a car.  I treat them like the eyes of a model when I’m shooting a car.  The lenses are often my focal point and I compose the image around the headlight.  Something that I have just figured out while writing this really short blog entry (3240 words so far), is that another thing that draws me to headlights is that during this era, the headlights were all the same.  Think about it…no matter who made the car, the headlights were round. That is a universal connection between cars.  Compare that to today when headlights are made out of plastic lenses that are formed in an infinite number of shapes and sizes.  Each headlight is different within a manufacturer, and especially between individual models.  In the previous four images here, the cars are ranging in age from the 40’s to the 70’s, yet the headlights are all very similar with completely different bodies sculpted around those round lenses.  It really goes to show you just how creative the designers were since they had to have this element included in every car, yet they had to create something unique around that common thread.  For me, the headlight is so much more than just a headlight, it is a design element that leads to all other designs in these cars.  I love to see how the designers formed the cars around these lights to give them a face and a personality.

Blue Oval History“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer

Now that you have heard my arguably insane ponderings on headlights, lets move on to a car without headlights.  As a side note, had I continued working on this last night, it would be roughly 6am at this point so you can only imagine how little sense I would be making by this point.  Back to the story…you can kind of see in this picture what I was dealing with when it came to compositions.  Had it been anything other than this car, I would have done something completely different to avoid all of the clutter.  I might have even skipped the shot completely as there is a lot of stuff in this frame that is distracting from the car.  However, this is the first time I’ve had the chance to shoot one of these and I wasn’t about to pass it up.  I also like telling a story with my pictures, and this image has a lot of chapters to it.  Yes, there is a lot of clutter here, and only some of it is automotive.  However, the entirety of the scene gives this car meaning.  It has been left out here for quite a many years and is still pretty complete.  It is falling apart, and will eventually be a pile of parts rotting away.  I say that not to judge the owner, but to say that even this scene holds an inherent beauty as it celebrates decay, and the ongoing process.  This might be the quintessential wabi-sabi image as it focuses on a very different kind of beauty…the beauty of passing.

Well Kept“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer

At this point, I feel an obligation to provide a little balance to the story.  This collection is not all about cars and trucks falling apart and weathering the elements.  There are some examples which are in amazing shape which are kept inside.  Whether you agree or not, these cars are not set for restoration or anything like that.  They are here to be appreciated for what they are.  This MG was inside of the main building and the door happened to be up.  The sun was lighting up the red paint so well that it just glowed inside of the garage.  It seemed like the right thing to do to get a quick image of this car.  What I love about this shot is the story that begins to develop as you look into the image.  At first you see what appears to be flawless red paint.  You then see the chipped paint on the grill which doesn’t quite fit the rest of the car.  You see the mud on the tires which doesn’t look all that old.  In fact, it looks as if it was just rolled into the garage.  You then see the dust on the hood with the hand prints from closing it many times over. Is this a runner, or are there repairs going on with it?  How long has it been sitting in the garage, or does it normally sit somewhere else?  To add to the questions, you realize that you are looking at a British roadster with a USA plate on the front of it.  Even though there is no rust in this picture, I find myself fascinated with the story behind it.  That was why I chose to shoot the image, and decided that I liked it so much that I wanted to hold onto it for a while.

Silver, Blue, and Gold“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer

As I sit here writing about this adventure the utter mind-blowing nature of the location is really coming to me.  It is one thing to be there and see all of this in one place and hear stories behind bits and pieces but to remember the hours that I spent walking around is something else entirely.  Looking back on these images I am truly astounded at what I saw.  It was an experience that I am so fortunate to have had.  My mind still can’t wrap around what it took to put this collection together, and I only saw a portion of it.  He has other locations with even more tucked into buildings.  His reason is truly altruistic and he wants to keep bits of history to be appreciated.  He enjoys sharing his stories and having people enjoy seeing what he has been collecting since he was nine years old.  This is a passion of his, and it shows not only in the amount of the collection but the fact that he knows the story behind each piece.  I’ve been torn writing this as to how much detail to share since the last thing I would want is for somebody to take advantage of a situation and tamper with his collection in any way.  I also want to help him share the stories behind some of the pieces which I find so amazing.  It is a fine line and I have to trust that those reading this can respect it for the art, and not look at it as an opportunity.

Gaping“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer
Rocket 88“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer
Go With the Flow“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer

As the day started to move through the afternoon, I was starting to feel a little worn out.  I had shot 163 frames between the waterfall and this little gold mine.  I was excited about what I had captured but really wasn’t sure how things were going to come out.  I was cautiously hoping for 15-20 images from the day based on my historical hit rate.  I thought about swapping out to my 70-200mm lens as I was changing out the battery for the second time today (had started this session with a fresh one).  As I was at the truck, I realized that my creativity was shot.  I had nothing else in me, so I just put the camera away with a fresh battery and closed things up.  I went in one last time to thank the owner for opening up his property to me.  I gave him my card and hope that he will check this entry out and contact me to tell me what prints he wants.  I can’t thank him enough for this opportunity.  When it comes to decay photography to get the really good shots, you really have to have the cooperation from the owners of the subjects.  I’ve been on both sides of the fence, and I’m so glad that I found a guy who understands exactly how somebody can appreciate history for history’s sake.

Chevrolet Soul“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer
Jaguar“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer
That Blue Feeling“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer

I did take the long way home looking for anything else to shoot, even though I knew that I was probably not going to do any more shooting today.  I was tired and my creativity was worn out.  I was feeling pretty good about getting 15-20 images out of the day, but would have been fine with a half-dozen or so keepers.  As I was culling the images in Lightroom the scope of the day became apparent.  I was only able to reduce the 163 images down to 38 for developing.  I didn’t want this many images and as I was doing the processing, I was able to eliminate a few others.  By 1am, I was down to 26 images which had been processed that I wanted to keep.  Normally, I would have hunkered down and done the blog entry and associated things to finish it all up.  That is part of the cathartic release that I have from photography.  Part of the joy is the actual process of capturing the picture.  There is another part which I enjoy and that is the processing where the picture hopefully becomes art.  The last part is sharing what I have created.  Only after that last part is done can I breathe and say I’m finished.  There was just no way that was going to happen at 1am, so I took a break and got to sleep.  I was back at it by 9am this morning and found myself adding another three images for a total of TWENTY-NINE keepers from the day.  I set out to get the blogs written and the pictures uploaded to the website.  here we are, at nearly 3pm and I’m still typing.

I can’t wait until I can do this full-time and can spread out the work over more than just a weekend.  What a fantastic weekend it was too!  Thank you for joining me on this adventure.