GARY GLADSTONE’S AMERICAN HIGHWAY ODDYSEY
A long time ago, 1956, to be exact, two young newspaper photographers were driving the police in northern Westchester County, NY, wild. As they were trying to bring order out of car wrecks, fires, and pet rescues, suddenly what looked like two police cars would whip onto the scene, climb the curb, and screech to a halt as the photographers dashed across police lines to document the event.
The two identical black Ford customline interceptors belonged to Gary Gladstone (radio call number 146), and Dark Halstead (145). We busted every speed limit, crossed every fire hose in pursuit of the news of the day.
As time went on, Gladstone and Halstead went their own ways- Dirck to Dallas to work for UPI, and then on to the far-flung parts of the world for Time Magazine, and Gary to become one of the most successful corporate annual report photographers in the United States. But both continued to love the American Highway and the stories along it.
Partially to keep his sense of balance as he went from boardroom to distant outposts of corporate life, Gary started a whimsical tour of the United States by road, traveling to small towns with ridiculous names. He wanted to see who lives in them, and made portraits of the residents who might say something like “I live in Stinking Point.”
“The people I met were welcoming, proud, and generally seemed delighted to share the joke with others,” Gladstone recalls, “Some were rugged, while others were sad. A few were just plain scary. These small town Americans were all eager to see how they fit in the final essay. They all asked when they could see themselves.”
Gary has assembled these portraits in a wonderful new book, called “Passing Gas, and Other Towns On The American Highway” We offer a collection of these images to you as special 4th of July present.
Passing Gas And Other Towns Along
The American Highway
I'm in a small strange apartment filled with caged Parakeets. I'm 18 years old and my assignment is to make a photograph of a woman, who my Editor refers to as the "Bird Lady" because she collects birds. The photo is for a local weekly newspaper feature.
I haven't a clue how to operate this professional
camera or what to do with the lights. I have never made a photo with
anything but my Brownie Hawkeye. I'm very uneasy with my total lack
of technical photo knowledge.
The "Bird Lady" is opening cages and talking to her birds and I'm mumbling the litany of the written instructions to myself. "Move the focus lever to the right, wind the film lever to cock the shutter, make the little arrow things move to the numbers f.5.6 (whatever that is) and then put the lamp eight shoe lengths away from her face (mumble, mumble")
I am totally immersed in this technical morass as she starts kissing the bird and cooing to it. "Is Oooo mommy's sweetie tweety bird?" I press the trigger button more as a test of the system than anything else.
A week later, I'm astonished to see the photo six columns wide in the newspaper. The woman, with her big nose profile looks exactly like her bird. Everyone pats me on the back saying "Wonderful such a funny picture. Congratulations." I'm worried because I had nothing to do with this picture. I am just the mechanic following instructions. It is pure luck. I hasten to tell Walter that it's only luck and please, not to send me out on any regular basis again. I will surely fail.
Walter is silent for a long time. Finally he says, "A picture doesn't make itself. Before you trip the shutter, there is something inside you that tells you when to make that photo. Moments fly by all the time. Some people can sense and capture them. When you capture a moment, you're the creator what results in that photo. And if you don't believe that, it probably won't happen again. But if you do, it will happen frequently.
What Walter is saying is that a good picture comes as much from instinct as it does from instructions.
Fast forward forty years. I am smack in the middle of a very successful commercial photography career. I am enjoying some small amount of fame. I've discovered the formula. I can make good pictures on demand for large bucks, Now the pressure is really on. I am shooting from a formula I developed. I lecture and write about for other photographers. It's down to a science. I'm cranking out stunning industrial photos on demand. As they say in aviation, I'm flying "fat, dumb and happy." The problem is that I am no longer happy. I'm bored. I am starting to repeat myself. I even refer, jokingly, to one of my executive portrait setups as "number 22-A." I'm on creative autopilot and the passion is gone. No mentor or teacher ever warned me about this.
The sense of creative urgency and passion that drives so many of us to make pictures for a living is gone. It has slipped away as the business side of my photo business grows.
To refresh and recapture this passion, I embark on a week-long trip in the summer of 1996 to shoot only for shooting's sake. During that time my assistant and I visited every major outdoor flea market in Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio. At the time I write, "My theme is actually nothing more than a scheme to make me drive from place to place in the hope that a lot of spontaneous roadside shooting will occur."
The idea works so well that I decide to spend most of July of '97 on a similar quest. I need another mission, and it doesn't take long to realize what it should be.
For years, while on the road doing jobs, I have collected names of funny towns. These are little places I zoom past in rental cars while dashing to and from remote shooting locations. I think, can you keep a straight face if you live in Nuttsville? Would you buy a house in Stinking Point or park your family in Suck Egg Hollow? The idea this time is to visit tiny, obscure places with strange names and make a single, telling portrait in each town. It's a transparent premise to get me to go somewhere and make pictures that are only for fun. Once again, I travel with my long-time assistant, Matt Proulx.
I write a daily journal to a community
of photographer friends and send them nightly by e-mail from the road.
I am having fun again.
I have learned well from Walter because I went back to shoot the Bird Lady.
© 2003 Gary Gladstone