As I looked back at the assignments I completed this semester, I could see a few overarching themes. The biggest one, I thought, was that of creating a sense time and space. In my window project, I felt that I captured the essence of a long car ride, and in my home project, I sought to document my family through scenes of our sometimes cluttered house. I wanted to continue this theme with my final, but with a place I didn’t know as well as my own home or a friend’s car. To discover a new place and record this process photographically would allow me to explore the ways in which one can create a setting through pictures. I wanted the project to have a sense of discovery as I myself discovered this new place, and discovered a whole new way to take photos. I used a 6x12 Noblex medium format film camera, lugging it over my shoulder as I rode my bike from RIT’s campus to a neighborhood right over the Henrietta-Chili border. I think the panorama aids in giving the final images a cinematic and story-like quality, while also bringing to mind the idea of capturing a landscape, even though most of the photos are not traditional landscapes. The “grand” format of 6x12 also serves to illustrate the celebration of the suburbs that I wanted this project to convey. The place I chose to document, a small suburban neighborhood, interested me as a subject because I know how interesting suburbs can be. It sometimes confuses me how many people my age only ever dream of leaving the suburbs. I love the suburbs, especially neighborhoods that were not developed all at once. These communities grew as the nation grew, and a surprising amount of history exists behind their weathered picket fences and fading lawn ornaments. Yards, backyards, open garages, driveways, and front porches all reveal something about who lives in a house, and that in turn reveals something more about the community as a whole.
The inspiration I took while making this body of work includes a few well known photographers, and some that have yet to become widely popular. I think I keep William Eggleston in the back of mind whenever I shoot, but for this project specifically I would like to capture the mundane details as he did - things that speak about the place in such a subtle matter that it’s sometimes hard to notice. A lesser known photographer I drew inspiration from is Patrick McCormack, who I found through Instagram. I think he is master of light at night, shooting wide scenes, city streets, and suburban towns devoid of people but still capturing the feel of the place. I wanted to borrow McCormack’s use of form and simple composition in my photos. Another photographer I found through Instagram is Neil Ta, who for many projects works in panorama. His panoramas work better than most because he fills the whole frame and everything in the frame has a compositional purpose. This, I feel, is the hardest thing to do when shooting in such a wide format.
The process of making these images was the highlight of my second semester as a freshman at RIT. I love to ride bikes, not for sport or to work out, but just to explore the place where I currently reside. It is the best way to see what a community is like and who lives there. I was not trapped behind a car window, nor was I walking for hours a day to cover the ground I needed to. Pedaling slowly down the streets of my chosen neighborhood, I took in as much information as I could, hoping always to spot something interesting. When I did, I would hop off my bike and setup my tripod, mount my camera, check my exposure, and finally frame my subject. This procedure admittedly took some time at the beginning but eventually became second nature. Because of the wide format, one roll of medium format film only allowed me 6 exposures, so I only ever made one frame from each subject. I took my time and made sure everything was how I wanted it before I hit the shutter. I would take anywhere from five to fifteen minutes to setup and take one shot, sometimes drawing a quizzical look from a neighbor or a bashful wave from a kid walking home from the bus stop. Only one person ever stopped to talk to me and ask about what I was doing.
I was kneeling on the ground, setting up my tripod and camera to take a photo of a large patch of dandelions and a John Deere tractor in someone’s lawn. As I looked up to make sure the sun would not hit the lens and create glare, I saw the owner of the yard looking at me from his porch. I looked from him to the sign reading “NO TRESPASSING – Violators will be shot, survivors will be shot again” hanging on his gate. I picked up my camera and moved it to the side of the street before looking at the man again, now noticing he was older, perhaps in his late sixties. From across his front yard I made a motion asking him if I could proceed with my photo, and he assented with a nod. I made my picture, packed up my camera, and walked up to the man’s porch to thank him and hopefully smooth anything out if he had hard feelings. I told him I liked the how the colors of the dandelions in the grass matched the paint on the tractor (this was before I ditched the idea of using color film). As he shook my hand, he said in a smoker’s voice, “Well, you might like it, but the county has been trying to get me to move that thing for years.”
I laughed and asked his name. Gary, he said, without adding a last name. He asked if I was from RIT, and I said I was indeed, a photojournalism student. He said he used to see photo kids taking pictures on his dead-end street all the time years ago, but not so much anymore. I shrugged and said I like to photograph neighborhoods. He asked if I wanted a “cup of joe” or some “pop,” and I said I could go for a coffee.
Gary walked down from his porch and into his garage. I hesitantly followed. His garage looked a lot like my dad’s; tools scattered around oil stained counters and flea-market memorabilia hung up on the walls. He made me a cup of instant coffee using the hot water from an old Keurig. He sat and talked as he smoked cigarettes and I drank coffee. He said he had lived in that neighborhood since he was born, only moving once, just across the street. He didn’t go to high school, but enlisted and served as a radio operator in Vietnam. He worked in a mechanic’s shop after the war. We talked about antiquing and America’s current political situation. We had been talking for about half an hour when I asked Gary if I could take his portrait. He said, “No, I don’t have pictures taken of me. Even my family knows not to put me in any pictures, not even at Christmas or when we go to the beach.” I said that was fine, I understood. I thanked Gary for the coffee and said I had to get back to campus, I was already late for a class. I left my name and phone number so he could call me about some old cameras he had laying around, he wished me luck with my pictures, and I rode home.
Talking with Gary made me think about my project a little deeper than I had originally expected to. Here was a man who no one would ever photograph, at least without his permission, and here I am, a photographer, trying to make a story. If I could have, I would have made my final project about Gary – he is an extremely intelligent man who only finished 8th grade, enlisted in the Army, and now collected old tractors. But I could tell it would be a fool’s errand to sell him on the idea of me photographing him for an extended amount of time. So my photos of the neighborhood where Gary lived took on a new meaning, if only just to me. I think they represent Gary and many of the people who live in that neighborhood, those who didn’t have the opportunities that others take for granted. They are people that work with their hands, people I hope appreciate the physical, methodical process with which I made this project. The photos show a place where people live with no pretensions, because that’s the only way they know how to live. Gary wasn’t ashamed to say he didn’t go to high school 50 years ago, just as he isn’t ashamed to have a tractor in his front yard now. People in the suburbs live their lives without trying to meet anyone’s standards or fulfill any expectations. They live how they want to and how it suits them, and are usually quite kind and respectful on top of it all. I hope my photos here do Gary’s neighborhood justice, and that his tractor hasn’t moved an inch when I see him again.