By Carl Weese
For years I’ve been working on a project dealing with The American Drive-in Theater. This is a pivotal picture in the series. I had made pictures of two drive-in theaters before I found this one, and they seemed to resonate with viewers. I was in Pennsylvania in late October of 2001 to photograph the odd juxtapositions of Halloween decorations and the enormous number of American flags displayed in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.
This time, I worked with the subject for a while, without getting what I wanted in late afternoon light. But I became so fascinated that I changed my travel plans and found a cheap room nearby, in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. First thing the next morning I drove back and made this picture, and quite a few others, with my 8x10 and 7x17 cameras. I knew exactly where I wanted the camera from studying the scene the evening before. I set up the 8x10 with my usual 240mm lens and used a considerable amount of front rise to get the framing I wanted. Then it was a matter of waiting for the sun rising behind the camera position to burn off just enough fog to give some dramatic light on the screens while the surrounding hills were still draped in mist.
By the time the fog burned off and the morning light turned harsh I was sure I had good pictures, and also that I wanted to turn the subject into a major project. At this point I’ve visited more than a hundred theaters in twenty-seven states, both operating theaters and derelicts, and made pictures of more than half of those.
The Pike Theater was mothballed for a while, but is now restored and operating through the season.
I was spending a week doing a series of pictures at two drive-in theaters, one in Ohio and the other in Indiana. I spotted this boarded up motel on a very dry, dusty late afternoon driving between the two theaters. My notes show I thought it would make a good subject to come back to the next day if, as forecast, there was rain overnight. There was, and when I got to the motel it was still drizzling a bit. At first I made a few pictures with a Leica, working with the "truckers welcome" sign and passing truck traffic on the state highway. But when I wandered around to the east side of the complex and found this view I immediately saw it as an 8x10. So back to the truck, drive around to this spot, and set up the Deardorff with 240mm lens. The framing needed a little bit of front rise, and since the subject moves quite steeply back from the right to the left of the picture field I used a little bit of front swing and a touch of forward tilt to help focus. The overcast light was quite bright and as I recall I used an exposure of one second at my usual ƒ/45 aperture setting, with Ilford HP5 Plus film. There was some gusty wind and I hoped it would put a bit of action into the frame. When I finally got to "chimp" the wet negative in my darkroom a couple weeks later, I was delighted to see just the bit of movement in the leaves that I'd hoped for.
This is a very simple picture that I like a lot. I tend most of the time to make much more complex pictures, but this one is a keeper. I first set up the Deardorff with a longer than normal 14-inch Kodak Commercial Ektar lens, but the picture space looked too flat. I switched to a 240mm Rodenstock Apo-Sironar S, which is by far my most frequently used lens for 8x10. I had to set the tripod very low and aim the camera steeply downward. Then I tilted the camera back strongly to the rear, which brought the focus plain parallel to the surface of the water and also enlarged the "drawing" of the foreground water patterns and submerged rocks. That meant I only needed to stop the lens down far enough keep the top of the rock, as well as the water, sharp. That, in turn, meant I could use a fairly fast shutter speed. I wanted to capture the patterns of the moving water with just a little bit of motion blur. I didn’t want a long exposure that would show the water fully blurred and foamy. I don’t usually record my exposures, but this was probably somewhere around 1/8th of a second at ƒ/22, on Tri-X.
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Original contents copyright 2010 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.