Thursday, January 30, 2014

Alley walking

   I had a camera back in highschool, but it was stolen from my car one day and that soured me on it for a while. Growing up in the suburbs, the city was a far off movie star that we visited once in  a while but never spent much time down there. Even in my partying days, the only times I was in the city I was on so many drugs it was all a blur. Once I ended up at Pacific Garden mission, the skyline became the mountain range I wanted to get to know better. I would go on-line and look up the names and facts about the taller peaks, read about the history of the L train tracks and how the city had grown. At first, with only a one hour walk, I could just get to the south west corner of the Loop itself before I had to turn back. Soon even that got to where I had seen most of the cool stuff in that area, so I started exploring in other directions. There is a red brick wall south of the mission on Canal street that was one of the first things I took photos of. It stands less than 5 feet from the road where all the salts from winter can be splashed up on it. Over the years they have been eating away at the bricks till it began to look like a canyon wall, smooth erosion and interesting shapes. Down that way on Lumber street is an area that had a huge influence on how I look at buildings. Most of the tallest ones are very crisp, perfectly straight, like guys in corporate suits. The stuff I found myself seeking was more ruffled, more lived in... almost organic in how it grew. I like buildings with character, strange curves and sections that where added at odd angles over the years. Soon I was seeking the alleys where the stuff not seen every day was just waiting to be found. I can deal with being around people, but I seek solitude more if possible, so the places where no one was felt welcoming. It was also back there I found the old sentries, beat up by the years and weather, but still standing strong. Things like old steel fire doors, L train supports with their rusty rivets bricked over windows. Who used to look through them and at what? How many times was the glass broken before they substituted them with bricks? Where I came from out in the burbs you never saw that, a sad cometary on the level of life in these areas. As a mechanic I am fascinated by the pipes and vents that stick out at random places, the old hoists above doors and stubby loading docks angled so that the trucks could make the turn in tight spaces.
   I now have a collection of over 500 doors, each with it's own personality, chosen by the owner to reflect theirs. People take old bits of artwork and instead of throwing them out they will stick them on the walls in alleys. I have seen strange objects that make you shake your head as they come into view. I may not take photos of people, but I capture what they wanted you to see. I've said hi to the occasional homeless guy digging through the trash looking for treasures, and it occurs to me I'm doing pretty much the same thing.
   As I walk up to an alley I glance around nonchalantly to see if anyone is watching where I am going. Many of the best things to take pictures of are in the first 20 feet of the street, but first I look down the length of the alley to see if there are any groups hanging out. I go early in the mornings when most of the trouble is still in bed passed out from the night before or are just getting high and watching cartoons. There are times when I am taking pictures that I am barely looking at the subject. Instead I have my ears wide open and am looking at my peripheral vision to catch any movement around me. If I was going to rob someone, that is when I would do it. Same thing for when walking under the L trains, be careful when they go over as any sounds of someone approaching will be masked. Between scanning for interesting things to take pictures of, scanning for lurkers and all the walking, you burn a lot of energy.
   Some of the stuff I take pictures of is mainly to document what probably won't be there in 20 years. Some stuff is due to a collectors gene, I have to snap it even if it is just filler. I love the colors of rust, the shades of patina and awesome variety of colors you can find in the patterns of peeling paint. I've heard old wood described as distressed, but I see where man will cut down a tree, shape it, paint it and think it's done. God comes along and says, no... let me show you the real beauty.
   I don't do any post processing, no photoshopping, no cropping or any HDR clown makeup for me. I keep the image honest to how I find it. The only 'tricks' I might I might say I use is to take at least 3 to 5 shots of the same thing and pick out the one that is best framed and not shaky. I have a pinched nerve in my neck that causes trembles in my hands. I've had that problem since I was a kid, so the other trick I use is a piece of plastic coat hanger that I grasp in my hand at the same time as my phone, placing the other end against my chest to stabilize it. Yes, I said phone. I use the same phone I got after I graduated the program at the Mission, a Galaxy s2. It works fine, I always have it on me, and it slips into my pocket easily. Part of me doesn't want a big bulky camera in an alley to make me a target for theft. It also seems that it takes too much thought to get ready for a picture meaning people miss many shots instead of going through it all. Many of the best old Blues singers had beat up guitars they knew very well that simply did the job fine, so why change?
   I head into alleys looking for the old, the rusty, the beat up junk and the odd to commiserate with them. I know the feeling.
Zac Lowing

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