Traffic Patterns
(A brief introduction)

We load up the car for a family trip, and when it isn’t my turn to drive, I sit in the passenger seat and take a picture of every car we pass. I'm indiscriminate because at 70 mph there's not much time for making decisions, not even the most basic one, namely: Is this an interesting picture? So I shoot everyone, relying on the kindness of strangers and the occasional benevolence of accidental capture. Later, I sort and edit and crop and run a few pictures through a Photoshop routine I hope will obscure the distracting technical flaws (like glare, dirt, bad lighting, bad focus . . . ) that are an inevitable part of working this way. But the routine introduces unintended consequences. Blur can isolate people, and they sometimes seem to float in a hazy, soft, half-conscious place.

At first I was skeptical of this approach, but after I thought about the nature of driving, the pictures made more sense to me. Drivers sit in steel and glass enclosures, insulated from the outside world while barreling through it. They are thrown together with their fellow travelers, but are also cut off from them. On the road, people see you, but not well or for long, and the odd sort of vigilant half-attention driving requires makes it easy to stare straight ahead without consciously putting on a face or feigning interest.

I want to be careful not to push this too far, but I do think these pictures delineate a set of relationships-- on the one hand, among individuals and, on the other, between people and the physical environment they inhabit. Furthermore, I think these relationships are typical of many others that occur throughout contemporary society. Their existence on the road provides me with an opportunity to give them form and examine their particulars. It is, therefore, my hope that these photographs will be read not only as documents of a specific moment but also as something indicative of larger cultural currents.
How to Pass the Time with Nothing but Your Fellow Travelers for Entertainment

(The extended version)

As a photographer, I tend to pay attention to what's close by, so I'm often in the position of just watching and noticing. Sometimes I'll be actively looking for pictures, but frequently I'm just open to their possibility when I'm doing something else; and often enough, something about something makes me think that might work as an image. Like a lot of people, I spend more time riding in cars than I want to. At best it's hypnotic and at worst deathly dull, but no matter what, things just keep rolling by. So if you are the sort of person who is inclined to look out the window and think, oh, that would make a good picture, there are plenty of opportunities to do just that.

Shooting out the window of a moving car is fun and exciting, and if you still shoot film like I do, you can go through a lot of it quickly and feel like you're getting things done. But it's also very hard to do well. For most of my career, I have used medium- to large-format cameras on tripods and spent much time fussing over composition and framing and using a whole set of skills that are basically irrelevant when I'm trying to take a picture of something that is zooming by me at 70 mph. That hasn't stopped me from trying, however.

On and off since college, I have shot out the window, and most of the pictures have ranged from unreadably bad to just boring. For a talk I gave recently I went back through my old stuff looking for the earliest batch I could find. There were Kodachrome slides from 1993 and some 35mm B&W negatives from 1989, and it was interesting to notice that my concerns and to some degree my methods were pretty well in place even then. This early work seems to show the range of what I'm drawn to and also why it is so hard to do.

There are primarily two things going on in these pictures that seem to hold my interest. One is that when I shoot like this, I end up with some material that by accident seems to make sense in a particular way. Because I have so little time to edit things out, I often find in the pictures a fairly nonaffected sense of what an almost random and somewhat ordinary place is like.

The second thing that keeps me coming back for more is almost the exact opposite of the first. The very act of shooting from a moving car introduces the possibility of a number of technical or formal results, mostly based around some kind of blurring. For a long time my idea about what was interesting from the car window consisted mostly of landscape, be it built, altered, or pristine. I had on occasion tried to take pictures of people in their cars but gave this up quickly once I saw the results, so for a long time most of the pictures I took of people in cars were of people in my car, which is clearly a whole different thing.

But then something happened. I got a digital camera, not an especially good one but not quite a toy either. I didn't get it for this project, but when I went back and looked, I found that I had started using it to shoot people in their cars before I had taken even 200 pictures. There were two big advantages to using this camera, even though it was clearly a less good camera than the ones I had been using. These are probably obvious to anyone who has ever taken a digital picture but to me they were key. First, I could look at what I had right after I shot it, which meant I didn't have to buy and shoot four rolls of film and then develop and contact-print them to find out my technique was flawed. If the subject wasn't in the frame or was out of focus, I knew right away and could adjust on the next shot. Second, compared to film, memory cards are cheap. I could all of a sudden shoot every single car we passed and sort out the results later.

For a while this is exactly what I did. On long car trips when I wasn't driving I would sit with the camera in my lap and take a picture of every driver we passed. Partly I did this because I felt enabled by the digital technology but also there was the fact when you're passing a car the window of opportunity for the shot to happen is very small. It's now or never, and at that speed it's very hard to find that window and evaluate the subject for interesting possibilities. Too often in the beginning I would not take the shot and would immediately regret it. So I adopted the policy of, when shooting, shoot everyone.

At this stage I am starting to amass a fairly large collection of pictures. When I look at them on my computer, I can pick out interesting things that are happening, but they are still pretty abysmal technically. Much of the problem revolves around the fact that, even on nice sunny days, almost no one drives with her window open anymore. Generally, taking a shot through glass will reduce photographic quality, but on the road windows are often dirty and have significant reflections or glare that obscure subject matter. In a situation like this, the regular printing technique is to boost contrast, which does give you a better view of the person but also accentuates the dirt on the window as well as people's skin imperfections. This often results in an ugly picture. I don't necessarily have anything against ugly, and it's never really been my intention to make just pretty pictures, but there was something interesting in these pictures, and the ugliness was getting in the way of that. For a while I was stumped.

I am the sort of person enjoys browsing reference materials, and am a firm believer in the idea that if you want to know how to do something, you get a book and look it up. So when I finally gave up my chemical darkroom and decided to make digital prints, I acquired a number of books to help me. They run the gamut from the what-every-button-in-Photoshop-does book to so-and-so's-fine-print-workshop. All have some useful information, but much of it is stuff I don't need to know. Almost the least useful are the recipes for achieving specific effects: Follow these steps to get that picture. But while I was flipping through one of these books looking for who-knows-what, I came across a recipe for high-contrast, high-saturation, high-fashion photos. To this day I have no idea what possessed me to try it on one of my car pics, but I did and immediately it made sense as a way to deal with the distracting technical problems. After lot of fiddling I found that I could raise the contrast to a workable level without increasing noise and dirt by blurring major portions of the image. Holding back the blur around key features would not just make them visible but actually accentuate them. The technique can also have the effect of making the people seem as if they are floating or suspended in a dreamy, half-conscious world. In part it's a photographic trick, but in the end it seemed like the only good option, the only way to present the fleeting looks and gestures. And if you think about what driving is like, it starts to make sense.

I want to quickly say a little about driving itself. When you drive you put yourself into a state that is between public and private. Other people can see you but not for very long, and any possibilities for communication are limited (usually to glances and gestures). You can stare straight ahead without consciously putting on a face or feigning interest; you are on display but insulated from the outside world. Driving itself is also an odd activity in that it requires extremely vigilant half-attention. It's boring, but you need to pay attention all the time. Yet it's not full attention so a driver can easily slip into a semi-trance. Frequently, an observer finds people on the road who are alone with their thoughts but still in public, a fact that has fairly obvious implications for a portraiture project.

Here is the situation with driving: A bunch of different people are insulated from one another and from the outside physical world by their own steel and glass enclosure. They are barreling down the road in close proximity, often in a bit of a daze, and they are unable to communicate with each other except in the most rudimentary manner. I want to be careful not to push this too far, but I do think these pictures delineate a set of relationships-- on the one hand, among individuals and, on the other, between people and the physical environment they inhabit. Furthermore, I think these relationships are typical of many others that occur throughout contemporary society. Their existence on the road provides me with an opportunity to give them form and to examine their particulars. It is, therefore, my hope that the photographs may be read not only as documents of a specific moment but also as something indicative of larger cultural patterns.

Putting aside, for the moment, these metaphorical implications, we can look at another aspect of the work that is far more literal: the way in which the group of pictures can be seen as a random survey. As I mentioned before, this work exists because, for certain periods of time, I took a picture of every car we passed. Although this began as a practical response to a situation, it ended up having the somewhat interesting side effect of making the group of subjects into a random sample: Here is a picture of everyone on a certain road at this time who was driving slower than we were. There is a lot of information here about what people look like and do in the car.

By now I have done this for a while and have thousands of exposures so in sorting them I can start to see patterns. For instance, it appears that at any given moment about 20 percent of people are talking on the phone. Truck drivers almost always look over when I pass. People not only frequently look like their dogs but also like their wives or buddies or co-workers. People with older cars are more likely to drive with their windows open and to have air fresheners hanging from the rear view mirror.

All this is all fun and amusing and helpful with arranging but is also beside the point. To me it is not the specific results of the survey which are most interesting but the ground rules by which it is conducted that clarify both the work and the relationships between the involved parties. The fact is there is a very specific structural construct to the work. In each frame there is one or more persons in a semi-public space. I with my camera am quite close to them and taking their picture. Sometimes there is a recognition of this on their part, and sometimes not, but in either case the picture is a document or record of a very brief and fleeting interaction, frequently almost a noninteraction and one that is so common as to usually go unnoticed yet (bringing us back to the idea of metaphor) is typical of a larger class of relations among people. Perhaps it is not really the specific look of the work that serves as its defining character but the way that it is both grounded in the specific particulars of a situation and can be seen as emblematic of a larger, more widespread condition that ultimately allows it hold my own interest.
Vanishing Point

(And finally, just a little bit more, mostly for music fans of a certain age.)

I like titles; I linger over good ones, repeat bad ones for laughs, and pick new ones out of the air from phrases that cross my path. Unfortunately, though, I’ve never been much good at using them. My individual pictures often have captions, but they are usually just descriptive or at most provide a bit of useful background information. They tend towards the insubstantial and dull, falling far short of the grand summing-up titles that books and movies and especially albums are so fortunate to have.

As I was thinking about calling this series "On the Road," I continued look to around for other names to use and was amazed to find so many good records with names that fit. Of course, there is at least something wrong with all of them but there is also something just right.

The Rolling Stones' "Exile on Main Street" is an obvious first choice since it mentions both the street and the isolation of driving alone. Bob Dylan’s "Highway 61 Revisited" is also a street reference and especially nice in that it would be a revisiting of a revisiting. Another double is David Byrne and Brian Eno’s "My Life in the Bush of Ghosts" (borrowed from a novel by Amos Tutuloa). I like this one for the way it meshes with my pictures’ formal qualities and gives a sense of a peculiar distanced contact with the world. There is its almost twin the Talking Heads' "Remain in Light" and in the same vein Aretha Franklin's "Spirit in the Dark," which leads to both Jimi Hendrix’s "A Band of Gypsies" and Neil Young’s "Everybody knows this is Nowhere." Clearly, and sadly, I can’t actually use any of these myself. They all either overreach or are too bleak or too romantic or are just too far from the spirit of my own work, but it’s fun to think about.

Other titles refer to the self-contained nature of the vehicle and the detachment it engenders: Neutral Milk Hotel’s "In the Aeroplane over the Sea," Sonic Youth’s "Daydream Nation," Husker Du’s "Zen Arcade," and the Stooges’ "Fun House." There are titles about the radio as driving companion: A "Date with Elvis" (there is, I think, a Cramps record called this but I mean the original recorded by Elvis Presley himself). "Radio City" by Big Star also fits here and has the added benefit of containing the song 'In the Back of a Car.' This might seem less relevant as radios give way to cell phones but it will have to do unless we count Bob Dylan's 'Stuck inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again.'

Many are overly specific, meaning right in the details but wrong in tone: Bruce Springsteen’s "Born to Run," Simon and Garfunkle’s "Bridge over Troubled Water," the Beatles' "Magical Mystery Tour," the Minute Men’s "Double Nickels on the Dime," or Big Black’s "Racer X"-- which I prefer to the previous four because I enjoy thinking about the X in its algebraic sense. Some are just jokey like Lou Reed’s "Metal Machine Music," the Ramones' "Leave Home," and Neil Young’s "Rust Never Sleeps." (Here I have broken a cardinal rule of mix-tape makers-- namely, don’t use the same artist more than once, but maybe you already know that if you’ve read this far.) And some work because they are less specific and more elliptical, this can set up new possibilities but it can also color the pictures in distracting ways: Pavement’s "Slanted and Enchanted," the Smiths' "The Queen Is Dead," or pretty much anything by REM. Here are their first six records in chronological order: "Chronic Town," "Murmur," "Reckoning," "Fables of the Reconstruction," "Life’s Rich Pageant," and "Document." Perhaps I should just call my series Berry/Buck/Mills/Stipe. (This is how their songs were credited.)

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