Sunday, September 14, 2014

Some Spots Do

I stopped briefly in Tonopah, Nevada on a family road trip in March. It struck me immediately with a strange vibe. There was no time to really explore — three kids waiting in the car and we had to make Vegas by evening— so we gassed up and left. But it seemed inviting. It felt like the sort of place that might be pregnant with photo ops if one poked around: desolate and tucked in a mountain armpit and speckled with old buildings. Can I use the word godforsaken? Is that too strong? There was a deserted mining museum and an old hotel with scaffolded marquee. Tonopah was one of the few places on the road between Reno and Vegas to force an actual turn in the highway. So that was something. 

When I saw Bryan Schutmaat's photo hanging in Newspace a few months ago, I recognized the place immediately. Why, I know that town, I thought. I've been there. And his photo pretty much sums it up. 

Anyone who is reading this now in Tonopah is about to have a shit fit. I know what you're thinking: this picture does not sum it up. No more than Migrant Mother sums up The Depression. OK, point taken.

Hey, relax. I know there's more to your town than derelict cars and tarpaper shacks. I know people grow begonias there too and discuss Foucalt over espresso. Maybe. But the view above makes for a better photo. It captures the spirit not only of Tonopah, but central Nevada and the whole Great Basin, at least as seen through the eyes of a hip urban photographer-on-the-road passing through. 

Turns out Schutmaat isn't the only person to photograph Tonopah. He's not even the first to see it from that particular perspective. Here's a shot by Bruce Haley made near the same place in 2005, several years before Schutmaat's:

According to Bruce his vantage shows "an overview of the town, perhaps three-quarters of it, and in the lower right you can see the area where Bryan Schutmaat made his image seven years later (obviously much of the detritus hasn't moved in those seven years).  I photographed just about the entire town plus its outskirts, and spent quite a bit of time working in the same area of Bryan's  image  -  and I would have to say that that particular neighborhood is the oldest and most run down/impoverished, and certainly the most 'photogenic' if you're looking for the houses with the greatest amount of junk piled around them, the most abandoned cars in the yard, etc. etc.  However, the entire town certainly does not look that bad, though admittedly it has seen better days  -   being historically mining-centered and thus prone to boom-and-bust cycles, it is unfortunately more in the 'bust' portion of the cycle these days."    

I think it's interesting that Bruce and Bryan were drawn to almost the same spot. Maybe it was the distant mountains, or the high vantage. Or the tendency for photographers to mistake entropy for significance. Or, or...something. I'm not sure what. Looking at these photos I feel that I too might have been pulled to that place if the kids hadn't been so impatient. There's just something about it. 

Some spots work. Most don't. Finding the ones that do is the bread-and-butter of photography. That's pretty obvious for landscape shooters. But I think it's just as true for all other types. You've got to have a nose for geomorphology and angles. Drop 10 strong photographers of all styles in Tonopah and I bet they all wind up eventually at the place above.

By the way, Bruce has a new blog. It's just a few weeks old but it's been interesting to read so far. Check it out when you get a chance.

1 comment:

Jin said...

Did you see the clown motel? heh