May 28, 2004
  Sullivan Road

(Taken March 1991 (I think); image Copyright Hamish Reid).

Lots going on here: my house had been broken into and trashed at gunpoint a week or two earlier by an OPD tactical squad because my (then) landlord's son -- a minor felon -- had deliberately given them my address when he was arrested for stealing a car, and they hadn't bothered checking it; J. had dumped me in a brazen display of self-absorption and total lack of self-knowledge; and I was losing my nerve about staying in this country (I still only had a temporary visa, everything I'd come out here for had disappeared, the economy was going bad again, etc.). The soft apocalypse. Just The Usual...

I'd decided a few months earlier to take a vacation in the Yosemite area -- Wawona, to be exact, a little south of Yosemite Valley on Highway 140. I knew the area quite well already, and I loved staying in the cabins at Wawona off-season -- all the snow, the pines, the redwoods, the mountains, the solitude. J. had arranged to come on vacation with me, but of course she'd dumped me and I went alone, full of ghosts of what-should-have-been.

I took my new camera -- a large Pentax 6x7 medium format camera perfect for landscapes -- mostly because I wanted to see if I could do something like those omnipresent Ansel Adams images you see everywhere in California, and because I also wanted to see if I could get the beautiful stretch of the Merced that runs through the valley beside 140 from to El Portal to Mariposa. It's one of those astonishing California river canyon drives that I love so much -- like the Walker and the American rivers, you drive right next to rushing water, something almost unknown in Australia, and you're surrounded by subtly-dramatic high sloping canyon walls, here usually mostly grass- or scrub-covered, with granite outbreaks here and there. Beautiful, hypnotic.

So I escaped out along 580 and then I-5. It had been raining that morning, and was still snowing up in the Sierra, so I took 140 rather than 120 because it stays lower than 120 until past El Portal, meaning you may not need snow chains to get there on 140. So at the 140 turn off I took 140 -- called Sullivan Road at that point -- east towards Gustine...

And there it was: just off I-5, an abandoned car in a puddle under an Exxon sign in the lee of an abandoned gas station. The clouds had this perfect complex texture (really unusual for the Central Valley) and everything reflected from the puddle. It was beautiful. I couldn't keep my eyes off it, and I could see what sort of print it would make in black and white. It was all greyscale, blacks, whites, greys, complex textures and shapes, abstraction, and -- astonishingly -- not just good landscape, but social commentary as well (in a gentle sort of way). The killer shot.

But I got cold feet. I'm really self-conscious when I'm taking photos, and although the final image makes it look like it's in the middle of nowhere, it's not. It's actually just across 140 from another (busy) gas station, and (at that time) next to one of those Valley convenience stores with a bunch of pickups and vans parked outside. Plus the puddle and the car were actually behind a new barbed wire fence, which meant (as bloody always...) I'd be trespassing when I took a shot, in full public view. And the camera was new, I wasn't sure I could use it hand-held like this, and I have this streak inside me that often prefers just to watch something like that and remember it rather than photograph it. I can usually savour these images later in my mind...

So instead of stopping I fled on along the long straight stretch of 140 this side of Gustine, through the orchards, feeling really stupid, and a total failure. There it was -- this great shot, the decisive moment, it'll be gone in a few minutes due to the clouds and the wind, etc. -- and I'd failed. I felt like shit. I got to Gustine (another story in itself -- what a classic Valley town, poor, rundown, scrappy...) and stopped. I had to do it. I turned around, shot straight back down 140 to I-5, parked next to the road, loaded the 6x7 up with a fast(ish) black and white film (Ilford XP-1, rated at 200 ASA), put on my bad-weather boots, and just did it.

Something comes over me sometimes in these situations, and in this case I just concentrated solely on getting over the fence (not too hard) and finding the best shots, and taking them. Handholding a 6x7 is difficult, and I didn't really know what I was doing then, but I managed to do it pretty well in retrospect. I estimated the exposure, and gave it 250 at about f11 -- the 250 because it's handheld and needs a fast shutter speed, the f11 because I needed a decent depth of field. I used a wide angle lens (the 55mm). I have no idea whether anyone saw me or watched, or (as has happened elsewhere) called the police. All I know is that it was a rush, a high, but that while doing it I was in that state where I can't always articulate anything about what I'm doing, where I can't say I'm fully conscious of everything around me.

I took three or four shots of the car. The one that worked best and that everyone sees now was the one I thought least likely to work. I'd seen the shot as having the car more diagonal, further away visually from the Exxon sign, and the other shots in the series reflect that. It wasn't until I printed them that I saw that the odd angle really worked, and that being bunched up together just off-centre made this shot.

I drove off up 140, and although I took a bunch of shots around the Merced, Wawona, and Yosemite, I don't think I've ever seriously printed any other image from this trip. My notes don't note anything at all about this shot or how it was done, just the loneliness at the cabin, the beauty around me, and the cross-country ski trip I made. At the time I don't think I realised what I'd done with this image...

Printing it wasn't too hard, even in the darkroom era -- all it really needed was a bit of circular dodging round the Exxon sign, and a medium / high contrast paper, and it worked. Digitally, it's even easier. I've never really cropped it while printing, either -- it's one of the few hand-held shots I've done where I accidentally got the framing right first time.

You can still see the Exxon sign there now at the 140 / I-5 junction, without the Exxon bit. No one who's ever seen the print ever recognises the sight when they see it in real life. Few people know what or where the "Sullivan Road" refers to, for that matter, unless they live in the Valley... (plus I usually label landscapes according to where I was when taking the shot (e.g. Sullivan Road), rather than what it is you're seeing in the image -- "Dead Car In Puddle Under An Exxon Sign" or something more pretentious like "Entropy State 4" :-), etc.).

What do I make of the image itself, without all the context? It's probably still my favourite landscape print (it hangs on my studio wall), and in some flukish sense it's got it all: geometry, texture, tonal range, atmosphere, and a vague sense of social commentary or entropy that suited the bleakness I felt at the time. It's something of a Central Valley icon for me, strongly associated with the bits of the Valley that most people don't see (e.g. Kettleman City -- not the shiny "Kettleman City" up by I-5 with all the gas stations and hotels, but the dirt-poor collection of trailers and migrant shacks a few miles down 41 that's the original. Or Avenal, or Coalinga, or all those other little towns people just pass through in a hurry. Or Bakersfield, king of them all...).

When given a choice, most people go instinctively for my Mt Shasta print ("Slough Road") over "Sullivan Road"; yeah, the Shasta shot's beautiful, but it's not as strong and strange and evocative for me, and which image someone prefers ends up being a bit of a Rorschach test....


what a wonderful shot, I bet you are delighted to have gone back. I am the opposite to you, I would have been in there like a shot - but then us irishmen are like that, however, our Catholic Guilt would prevent me from even asking a girl to pose as in the rest of the ylaylia site- and thats what I reallly want to do. - Ilove the title page shot,I assume its a projected image on the girl?

keep the pictures coming, they are great.
Ah, Catholic Guilt -- it's a wonderful thing, but use it creatively, dammit! Anyway, I'll be doing an article later next month on the Ylayali image -- it's probably not what it seems.... And thanks for the comment -- Photolalia's first, so far.
I love everything about this - the image, the title, the story. . .
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Hamish Reid is a photographer, designer, and software engineer living and working in the Jingletown district of Oakland, California. This is his full profile.

You can get hold of Hamish at xyzphotolalia at ylayalixyz dot com without the xyx's.

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