Within the past two years, I’ve tumbled down the rabbit hole of an absolute obsession with photography. Any time I’ve ended up with weekend plans other than wearing my pajamas, I’ve taken the opportunity to load my Pentax K1000 with a different film stock. It is this camera, in fact, that inspired my photography deep dive over three years ago, on a once-in-a-lifetime adventure.
In the Spring of 2015, my wife and I had decided it was time to leave our previous home in Boston, MA, but we weren’t certain which city we wanted to call home next. To figure this out, we set out on a 12,999 mile trek around the United States in an overhauled, forest green, Ford E350 affectionately named Vincent Van-Goes-Places. With a bed, living space, and solar power, we lived in campgrounds and BLM land for three straight months, checking out cities of interest like Chicago, Seattle, San Fransisco, and Austin.
In between cities we made a point to spend time in a number of national parks, and having just unearthed my grandfather’s Pentax, I decided to try out a few rolls of film (Fujifilm Superia 400). I had never used an SLR before — the only film cameras I was familiar with were point-and-shoots — so when I was taking photos, there was a lot of knob turning, head scratching, and shrugging involved. The results, though developed about a year after our trip ended, surprised and delighted me. For all the mystique that sometimes surrounds analogue cameras in the age of smartphones, film is wonderfully forgiving.
I love these photos, as much today as I did when I first opened the package of developed prints in late 2016. I’ve learned a lot about photography since making these and will always have quite a lot more to learn, but I’ll never forget the impact of viewing these photos for the first time.
My wife and I sat side-by-side, sifting through the package print by print, talking about our time on the road and where/when the photos were taken. I was surprised at how vividly I was able to remember the circumstances surrounding each photo. Even after a year had passed, there were images that I remembered capturing and looked forward to seeing. For those that were more of a surprise, seeing them brought unrelated details of forgotten days to the surface of my memory. I remembered surroundings that didn’t make it into the frame, conversations with people nearby, and even moments from long drives before and after each photo.
There is something in the act of choosing a scene, adjusting exposure, and focusing an image that helps me commit a moment to memory. I snapped hundreds if not thousands of photos on my iPhone as well, and though my Instagram is filled with them, few are truly memorable to me. These, physical images feel much more like moments from my life, rather than a visual checklist of trophies. Shooting film helps me observe where I am, and even when film fails the visuals usually stay in my head long after the disappointment fades.
This is not unique praise for film. Droves of enthusiasts tout film’s limitations, imperfections, delayed gratification, and unpredictability as sources of its almost universal charm. I love the selective focus imposed by only 24 or 36 frames and I like to keep that thought in the back of my mind whenever a camera is in my hand, digital or no. That being said, there are already many blog posts and articles on the topics of film photography, digital photography, and film vs. digital and I don’t intend to add to the noise. Instead, I’d like to simply share my photos, memories, and the inspiration I found in my slapdash introduction to the craft of photography.
California and Yosemite National Park
The first roll of the trip begins with blurry photos in the low-light conditions of California’s Redwood forests and continues into sweeping views of Yosemite’s towering granite cliffs. Due to mechanical set backs early on in the trip, travel across the northern portion of the United States was rushed and I didn’t end up shooting film until we landed in northern California. I remember sitting at the base of Yosemite’s Bridalveil Fall and quizzically chatting about camera settings. A friendly hiker nearby overheard and kindly talked me through the basics of how aperture affected a final image. This was my first lesson in controlling depth of field, though I’d be lying if I said I fully understood it then.
The Grand Canyon
The South Rim of the Grand Canyon turned our boots red. With clear skies, we baked under the bright hot sun on a short hike down Bright Angel Trail. That night, we learned about the Zodiac constellations and astronomical history from a park ranger leading a star talk. We enjoyed a damp, foggy hike along the rim with rocky cliffs peeking out behind swiftly moving clouds, and on top of Desert Watch Tower I spoke with a stranger about 35mm film and thanked him for his Pentax tips and tricks. I remember watching my wife’s face when she first set eyes on the canyon and I remember accidentally breaking a film spool while trying to rewind the first roll of the trip.
Photographically speaking, this stop was an exercise in restraint. It’s all too easy to keep snapping photos of the canyon’s beautiful views, but the truth is, the scale of the landscape means you can hike for miles before the view actually changes. With my Pentax in hand, I tried to limit myself to two or three photos from distinct vantage points. I enjoyed spending more time taking in my surroundings than I did fumbling with a camera. The pace for our hikes felt relaxed and we were able to spot bighorn sheep perched on the canyon walls, something I would easily have missed if I wasn’t taking my time.
Utah — Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Arches, and Canyonlands
Utah is an invigorating outdoor playground. Though we originally planned to spend about a week in the state, three weeks flew by while we explored its parks, BLM lands, and National Forests. Throughout Utah, white and pink sandstone is draped over older, iron-rich rock in a landscape that changes wildly mile-by-mile.
Zion was our first stop. Soaking our feet in the depths of the park’s famous “narrows”, we craned our necks upward, squinting into the bright sun lighting the steep canyon walls on fire. Throughout the park, bighorn sheep regularly stop traffic and creatures wander the canyon floor often ignoring human onlookers. We tested the limits of Vincent’s suspension on back country roads and made a mental note to someday return with a Jeep. These photos remind me of cool shade, hot sun, wet feet, and sunsets reflecting off of exposed rock.
Bryce Canyon’s endless maze of “hoodoos” excited our imaginations. We found ourselves calling out shapes in the stone formations as if they were clouds overhead. Extremes of light and shadow made this a difficult park to photograph and the photos I did take came out punchy with high contrast. I’d love to return with a little more know how and take advantage of softer morning or evening light. I remember the camp hosts in the park’s campground. They had Scrabble and other boardgames for campers to borrow and were more than happy to offer suggestions of places to drive or hike.
After Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef looked like another world, a strange hybrid between Zion and Bryce. The geological history is absurdly visible and the land looks torn and twisted. There’s human history there too. Petroglyphs can be found on rock walls and ancient granaries and building foundations pepper the landscape (often unmarked for preservation purposes). We lucked out with a campsite in the heart of the park and enjoyed mouth watering cinnamon rolls from the historic Gifford Homestead.
Our last stop in Utah after visiting Salt Lake City was Moab. Arches and Canyonlands are very popular parks and we were left scrambling for campsites in peak season, leading us to isolated BLM sites in the foothills of the La Sal Mountains. I remember lying down in the van after a late dinner and noticing strange noises outside. We let our imaginations run a little wild before finding another set of campers with their dog only a few feet away.
These photos bring me right back to scrambling over the cracked landscape of Arches National Park following other hikers out to far-flung, stone formations. The hikes were dry, hot, and sweaty but we were always excited to see what lay around the next corner. Viewing Canyonlands from a higher elevation, however, gave us the first hints of colder weather, foreshadowing wintery conditions we would soon encounter on route 70 through the Colorado Rockies. Though beautiful, we found it hard to appreciate Canyonlands after spending so much time in Utah’s endlessly stimulating landscapes. The photos of Mesa Arch below feel cold and tired to me and make me want to go back with new energy.
Colorado and All Points East
Our adventures in Utah had come with a price. We had pushed our trip into Colorado back until late October, slimming our chances for a snowless drive through the Rocky Mountains. While driving past Vail, blizzard conditions set in and we had a dicey drive out of the mountain pass. Vincent’s undercarriage was caked with ice by the time we made it down but we breathed a sigh of relief. We were safely in Denver and the East Coast felt suddenly reachable. This photo brings to mind late night board games and laughs with our wonderful hosts, culture shock in metropolitan Denver, and the first pangs of homesickness.
The final film photos from the trip were taken in Austin, Texas and at a chance meet up with other traveling friends near Chattanooga, Tennessee. The South was good to us, but we were eager to make it back to family for Thanksgiving.
Life on the road was exciting and fun but also taxing and stressful. These photos are frozen happy moments, but they carry with them many of the memories made between exposures. This is what inspires me to carry a camera; not only to record what I find beautiful or interesting, but also to remind me to observe moments intently, whether making a photo or not. Photography continues to shape how I see the world around me and what I learned from this trip, was an appreciation for the difference between focused, attentive discovery, and distracted, obsessive documentation. I prefer the former but it’s definitely a practice and I hope to continue improving.
Originally published at zachbaldwinway.com on November 26, 2018.