Saturday, June 4, 2011

“Of-ness” vs. Meaning: A Rural Adventure

An artist is somebody who produces things that people don't need to have.
Andy Warhol

I often drive the byways of rural New York looking for photographic inspiration. Late one summer afternoon I came upon yet another old barn. There are thousands of barns in the rustic countryside of upstate New York. Some are quaint and well kept. Some are rugged and well-worn but still in use. It seems like many more are damaged and dilapidated; caved in or about ready to topple into a pile of broken beams and pastoral wreckage. But this one stopped me cold in my quest. I pulled the car to the narrow shoulder to get a better look. Though it was old and no longer a “working” barn it seemed different. The farm it was on had long ceased operations. I couldn’t see a farm house but there were a couple of mobile homes parked nearby. No tractors or farm equipment around, not even rusted hulks. No bucolic fields or benevolent bovines on the hoof; just overgrown weeds and a rusty, older, but still-used, car near one of the trailers. The place looked deserted but apparently people still lived here and were keeping up the barn. It still had a roof in good condition and power lines going to it.

The late afternoon light was sharp and clear and perfect. The barn sat up the hill from the road a little way. The clouds behind it and the wild weeds in front set the big building off like it had been plopped down on some bizarre Monopoly board. I got out of the car and set up my tripod, screwed my 35mm Canon to it and prepared to shoot. I had parked a little way up from the barn so the shadow of the vehicle wouldn’t be anywhere in my frame. I walked down the road a few hundred feet to get a better position in front of the barn with the trailers on the left. I was using a wide angle lens to get as much of the sky as I could while keeping all the buildings in view but I still needed to get closer. I walked a few feet off the shoulder into the weeds to get a better angle and shorten up the foreground. Wow! What a perfect day, a perfect scene!

I was blithely shooting away when I heard someone yell and saw a woman standing in the driveway near one of the mobile homes. She was stout and serious, wearing a housecoat of some kind, with long, wild gray hair drifting in the breeze.

“Hey!” she yelled. I turned in her direction.

“Hey you there!” she yelled again but with more screech. She had her hands on her hips and seemed really upset, with the ruddy complexion of someone about ready to blow a gasket. 

“What you takin’ pitchers of?”

Sometimes you run into people on shoots. Most are curious but amiable. They ask a few questions, there’s a little chit chat back and forth. They eventually go along their way, often bemused by the crazy photographer "takin' pitchers" of rusty mailboxes or derelict buildings. I usually keep shooting until I get what I’m after. This woman was different. She seemed really angry but I knew if I was polite and chatted with her for a few minutes all would be well.

“Why this beautiful barn and the spectacular rural scene of course. The light is just perfect.” I yelled back.

“Don’t you take no pitchers 'round here!”  She was shaking her finger at me now and stomped a few steps closer.

Perhaps I needed to explain more clearly. “But I’m trying to capture the zeitgeist of the decline of post-modern rural America…”

“What?!! Zeitgeist my ass!” She took a few more steps closer.

“I’m trying to craft a metaphorical representation of the effects of globalization on the waning culture of contemporary rural America as it’s represented in the state of this iconic structure and …”

“Are you from the tax assessor?!”

“No, of course not!“ I know everyone hates the tax assessor. I thought I should change the subject and get on to something less weighty. Perhaps I could tone down the conversation.

“On another level, the rectilinear form of the barn is the perfect counterpoint when juxtaposed with the amorphous sky and the tangle...”

She cut me off with a wave of her arm. "Don’t you talk like that to me! Rectilinear counterpoint!? Jeeze! Where do you people come from? You just get on your way!”


“Don’t make me get my boys!” She turned and started hustling back up the driveway to the nearby trailer, pumping her arms and shouting unintelligible expletives back over her shoulder every few steps.

I wasn’t prepared to defend against reinforcements. It was time for a strategic retreat. There are lots of other barns and I wanted to live to shoot another day.

1 comment:

matthew liptak said...

thanks for the late-night laugh!