Sullivan Road

Sullivan Road, California (early 1990's).

I’ve told this story before, in more detail, but here it is again…

TL;DR: I drive to Yosemite to take nice Ansel Adams-ish photos of beautiful landscapes with my medium format camera, and the only thing I return with that I actually like is this … a dead car in a big Central Valley rain puddle. Story of my photographic life, really (and the start of an unintended series of “dead car” photos).

The longer version: Sometime in the early 1990’s I took my new(ish) camera — a large Pentax 6×7 medium format film camera perfect for landscapes — up to Yosemite, mostly because I wanted to see if I could do something like those omnipresent Ansel Adams images you see everywhere in California, and because I also wanted to see if I could get that beautiful stretch of the Merced River that runs through the valley beside Highway 140 from to El Portal to Mariposa. It’s one of those great California river canyon drives that I love so much — like the Walker and the American rivers, you drive right next to rushing water, something almost unknown in the parts of Australia I grew up in, and you’re surrounded by subtly-dramatic high sloping canyon walls, here usually mostly grass- or scrub-covered, with granite outbreaks here and there. Beautiful, hypnotic.

And there it was: just off I-5 on Sullivan Road (SR 140) in the Central Valley, an abandoned car in a large puddle under an Exxon sign in the lee of an abandoned gas station. The clouds had this perfect complex texture (fairly unusual for the Valley) and everything reflected from the puddle. It was beautiful. I couldn’t keep my eyes off it, and I could see what sort of print it would make in black and white. It was all greyscale, blacks, whites, greys, complex textures and shapes, abstraction, and — astonishingly — not just good landscape, but social commentary as well (in a gentle sort of way). The killer shot.

But I got cold feet. I’m really self-conscious when I’m taking photos, and although the final image makes it look like it’s in the middle of nowhere, it’s not. It’s actually just across 140 from another (busy) gas station, and (at that time) next to one of those Valley convenience stores with a bunch of pickups and vans parked outside. Plus the puddle and the car were actually behind a new barbed wire fence, which meant (as always…) I’d be trespassing when I took a shot, in full public view. And the camera was still new to me, I wasn’t sure I could use it hand-held like this, and I have this streak inside me that often prefers just to watch something like that and remember it rather than photograph it. I can usually savour these images later in my mind…

So instead of stopping I kept on driving along the straight stretch of 140 this side of Gustine, through the orchards, cursing my cowardice. I got to Gustine and stopped. I had to do it. I turned around, shot straight back down 140 towards I-5, parked next to the road, loaded the 6×7 up with a fast(ish) black and white film (Ilford XP-1, rated at 200 ASA), put on my bad-weather boots, and just did it.

Something comes over me sometimes in these situations, and in this case I just concentrated solely on getting through the fence (not too hard) and finding the best shots, and taking them. Handholding a 6×7 is difficult, and I didn’t really know what I was doing then, but I managed to do it pretty well in retrospect. I estimated the exposure, and gave it 250 at about f11 — the 250 because it’s handheld and needs a fast shutter speed, the f11 because I needed a decent depth of field. I used a wide angle lens (the 55mm). I have no idea whether anyone saw me or watched, or (as has happened elsewhere) called the police. All I know is that it was a rush, a high, but that while doing it I was in that state where I can’t always articulate anything about what I’m doing, where I can’t say I’m fully conscious of everything around me.

I took three or four shots of the car. The one that worked best and that everyone sees now was the one I thought least likely to work. I’d seen the shot as having the car more diagonal, further away visually from the Exxon sign, and the other shots in the series reflect that. It wasn’t until I printed them that I saw that the odd angle really worked, and that being bunched up together just off-centre made this shot.

I drove off up 140, and although I took a bunch of shots around the Merced, Wawona, and Yosemite, I don’t think I’ve ever seriously printed any other image from this trip. My notes don’t note anything at all about this shot or how it was done. At the time I don’t think I realised what I’d done with this image….