3.20.2010

Marfa and the great beyond.

Mr. Rob Hogan.  Singer and songwriter.  Shot just outside the Marfa Table Restaurant on Marfa's main drag.


After my time in the Davis mountains I stopped back through Ft. Davis. spending just enough time to get stopped by a state trooper for speeding.  For some reason,  probably my honest and like-able face,  he let me off with a warning.  A short while later I passed the world's most productive hydroponic tomato farm and then slid into the sleepy, west Texas town of Marfa.

I had lunch at the Marfa Table, and it was good.  My friend, Bridget, made me a BLT on ciabatta bread with a spicy chipoltle mayo and a great bowl of Porcini mushroom soup.  Wonderful.  Maybe the best reason to head out to Marfa!  Anyway, I struck up a conversation with the table next to me and it was delightful.  One of the pleasures of being out on the road.  Two men and a women were nursing coffee and chatting away.  One was a doctor who also keeps the NPR station  on the air for the entire area.  He'd just interviewed the other two people at the table, Marie and Rob, who are traveling musicians.  They'd done a performance the night before in Terlingua, would be performing in the evening at the Gage Hotel in Marathon and Sunday would bring them back to Marfa to play on the patio at the El Paisano Hotel.

I shot Hogan as he was talking to the good doctor.  For the technically inclined, this was an available light shot using the afternoon sun from the subject's back, right side.  The glorious fill light was provided by the bounce off the wall just behind the photographer (that's me).  I was delighted with the dynamic range of the EP2 sensor which did a good job including the direct sunlight on the right of his face while providing good exposure on his face overall.  Not to mention nice detail in the dark tones of his jacket.

As usual  on this trip, the camera was used with its humble kit lens.

I spent a while talking to these guys and getting a dose of what it's like to spend weeks and weeks on the road.  Little things become big questions.  Like,  "Do you think the hotel will have a laundry service?   If not, do you think there's a laundromat close by?

"If there's no vacancy when we get to the Gage do we sleep in our cars......again?"

I thought photography was a dicey way to earn a living until I hung out for a while with musicians.  Yikes.







Bridget and I made plans to meet up around five and share a bottle of wine at the big hotel and then head out for a nice dinner at a place called, "The Blue Javalina".  I did what I love most and spent time wandering around Marfa looking for buried treasure.  The kind that's right in front of you.  You just have to be in the right mindset to get it.  What started to appeal to me are what I call the Marfa Ruins.  For some reason these rail side pillars from a structure long ago rendered unnecessary seemed to evoke visual memories of the columns at the Forum in Rome.


Once I got the vibe with these I spent some time looking for images that incorporated that feeling of disuse and decay into some sort of feeling of the desolate southwest. I had fun photographing this old stock pen that sits beside the railroad.  The historical marker indicates that in prime days 70,000 head of cattle a year were processed through the pens and onto railcars here.




I love the look of the sky with the thin, diaphanous clouds high over head.  This is near the edge of town but still in town.  I spent and hour nosing around here without seeing a single person.  Without answering the old, "Can I help you?" from a law enforcement officer.  That may be because Marfa doesn't have its own police force.  They call a county sheriff if there's a problem.

Here's what I see when I drive through places like Marfa: There's a continual process of discovery and abandonment.  People come to Marfa on the way to somewhere else and they stop for gas and a sandwich.  While there the quiet and solitude work on them.  Maybe they're running from a big city and a crappy, stressful career.  As a counterpoint the west seems tranquil and manageable.

After they've been here for a while, fixed up a business or renovated a house the sameness starts to get to them.  Once bitten by the convenience of getting good phone service and coffee, good coffee, within five minutes of wherever you are, you get spoiled.

You go to one of the two tiny markets and look for fresh fruits and vegetables and you get misty eyed for the giant Whole Foods with its almost infinite choice of stuff.  And you might miss your doctor and you dentist because there are no full time ones in the area, etc. etc.  But the heck with all that.  I'm not a socialogist, I'm just a photographer.

For some reason, and it may be because I'm so resolutely anchored in a frenetic urban space,  I really love all these old farm and ranch supply buildings.  I love the corrugated siding and the tanks and pipes against a pure blue sky.  When I walk around small, Texas towns I spend a lot of time trying to make this stuff into some kind of art.  Might be nice as a contrasty monochrome image.

My friend's house is right across the street from an obvious artist's house.  I say obvious because everything in the yards, front and back, have an artful look to them.  This is a detail shot of the side fence which is made up of layers of rock and huge nuggets of colored glass.  It lives better than it photographs.
Marfa sneaks up on you.  At first you think, "desolate desert town, move on."  But given time the quality of the light and the obvious depth of the people give you pause.  They you get stuck and think, more.  Give me more.  Somewhere there's a balance.

So, what have a I learned so far?  I've learned that I adore shooting in the square.  Seems so natural and easy.  I've learned that there are very few things that in body image stabilization can't handle.  I've learned that the EP2, either by processing or by the nature of its sensor chips, nails exposure 95% of the time and greats images with great details in the shadows and the highlights.

While I'm pretty certain that I'm instantly pegged as a tourist with my jeans, black Target ($7) tennis shoes and my black t-shirt, I'm equally sure that my photographic profile is as slim as I can make it with my little black camera kept tucked in one hand with no strap intersecting my haberdashery or waving like a flash.  I watched people from the "big city" who'd come to do photo tourism (like me) but they wore their big cameras like badges, challenging people.  One fella I saw had on his photo vest and wide brimmed safari hat.  On one shoulder was the latest fat Canon with a 70-200. Around his neck, promotional strap wide and flaglike, was a second fat body with a plump wide angle zoom.  The exotically scalloped lens hood looking vaguely evil in a "Star Wars Storm Troopers Darth Vadar" way.  He marched through the street daring images to show themselves......

I learned on the trip to come first as an interested person and secondly as a photographer. Rather than barging in blazing, shutter clacking like an automatic weapon, perhaps it's more effective to smile, talk, share coffee and then lift the camera almost as an afterthought.  An easy and extemporaneous afterthought.  For years this was the province of Leica M cameras. Small and unobtrusive.  Now it's the province of a new generation of small and capable cameras.  If only we can get the shutter noise down a bit.............

I packed extra camera gear, but not much.  I hedged my EP2 and kit lens with an e30, a 14-35mm and a couple of Canon G cameras (the 10 and the 10) .  Pretty much everything but the EP2 stayed in the bag.

Wish list:  A direct, inexpensive flight from Austin to Marfa with a good car or motorcycle rental shop close by.  A noiseless Olympus EP2.  An Olympus 25mm f2 lens.  Not a 20!  (Too short.)  A nice public swimming pool in Marfa for lap swimming.  Time to enjoy it all.  Next up.  Adventures in Marathon.