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The Road Tripping Photographer (Part 3)

Updated: Feb 20, 2021

(A continuation of Part 2): Following three full days of shooting in central Utah and Salt Lake City, I was well behind on my journal entries for the trip to date, so I stayed the morning in Elko killing off the remainder of last night's pizza for breakfast and got caught up before leaving after 9am for Reno along I-80. My youngest child had a pre-graduation party at her Mom's planned in the mid-afternoon, so the drive was more about getting there, checking in at Harrah's downtown and prepping for a full shoot tomorrow on Monday prior to graduation day on Tuesday. After the party Allie and I took our cameras out and headed downtown to shoot the new Virginia Street bridge that had been constructed since my last visit to Reno.

Getting a good angle on the bridge was the most demanding challenge, trying to frame an interesting image while minimizing the noise of area buildings, pedestrians and cars. Overall, the gray scale tones of the concrete created a better image in high contrast black and white, though from another angle I was able to gain color reflections off the polished concrete arch along the East-side rim.

Allie took me up King's Row along North McCarren Blvd. to a park with a good vista across downtown. Though the time of day was right, the haze and cloudless sky rendered a dull and and muted image producing poor results. However, I noted the location for future opportunities.

On Monday i had no family commitments, so headed into the high desert with the intent of recapturing a number of previous images I shot over the past 30 years. I have no idea how soon again I will return here, and given that my photographic skills and equipment have improved, I felt I needed to revisit my old haunts and see what was possible. I headed up highway 447 at Wadsworth into the Paiute reservation towards Pyramid Lake, the same route most Burning Man participants travel up to the Black Rock Desert. Once past Winnemucca Lake (flats) there are some fascinating geode type tufa formations left over from when the region was under the surface of prehistoric Lake Lahontan. I initially photographed these formations back in the late 80s, and the clarity of my images today are far better, but regrettably without the clouds I had back then. I also suspect the images will improve with afternoon light next time.

The same appeared true for the Black Rock shooting in midday light with no clouds. Aside from its fame via Burning Man, the Black Rock also has the distinction of hosting the current land speed record set in the 90s, which for the first time broke the sound barrier in doing so. In my early days I once encountered a gray stallion alone on the playa searching for residual water in the sink. This is truly a magical place where on clear days you can actually see the curvature of the Earth roll away from you in the distance when you get in far enough. On other days, true distances are obscured by the heat wave that rises off the surface, dissipating all that lies ahead of you on the horizon. The freedom and immensity of this space is even more liberating as you drive in most any direction without restriction at 60 miles per hour -- or more. The vastness is hard to capture in images, but I never miss the chance to be out here.

I swung west back trough Gerlach, up north a bit and west again into the Smoke Creek Desert -- I thought I might try to find some old abandoned houses often found along the Union Pacific Railroad tracks that when constructed took advantage of the flat sink terrain across Black Rock and Smoke Creek that runs at least 150 miles from end to end. These houses were often used in service to the railway, but are of no use now, located literally out in the middle of nowhere. The one house in particular I was thinking of I could not find, but I passed another, soon to be on its last legs of grace from harsh weather, time and teenage abuse, propped up on the rise overlooking the playa.

Returning back to town I noticed that Reno, in some respects, is little different than it was before I left such a short time ago. However, now the surreal quality of its downtown gaming district is much more apparent now since I left. To its credit, Reno is trying to redefine itself as a more cosmopolitan community, recognized less as a gaming destination, which lost its way since Las Vegas and California's Indian gaming interests stole Reno's market a couple of decades ago. The downtown core is a shadow of its former self, appealing less to to high end rollers and more to a newer, seedier youth element, or still hanging on to remnants of an older generation, the core of which has long since left for more fertile environments in Las Vegas or Macau.

My last stop in Reno was actually west into California and up to Donner Pass to reshoot work I did earlier in the abandoned Union Pacific Railroad tunnels forged by Chinese workers in the original transcontinental railway of the 1800s. Much of the tunnel system is nearly pitch black, though light generally seeps in enough to produce a clear long exposure on a tripod. During my first trip here I shot without a tripod, pushing my ISO too high for sharp exposures. Oddly, it worked pretty well providing an eerie texture over the series, but this time, I felt I would engage the use of better lenses attached to a Canon Mark IV 5D mounted on a tripod. Much of the tunnel space has provided a canvas for street mural artists working with headlamps in the dark breathing in their aerosol fumes in the confined tunnels. Sadly, none were working today.

The rest of the trip was a mad dash back to Colorado for client commitments, but in conclusion, my first photography road trip worked out quite well. My advice to others would be as follows:

1. Every trip must have a purpose with goals well planned out and scheduled. Though changes and unexpected events will occur, I found that days spent free-form and “scouting” were less productive overall.

2. When possible, all trips must consider an overhead cost, PLUS your personal hourly rate added on to account for lost client time. Pictures taken should pay for the trip either immediately or over the life of their effective return on investment. Not all trips will be profitable, but the thought process will better direct planning, sponsorship, cost management, and project focus and intent.

3. Time management must include downtime, not just for editing and journal entries, but for social interaction with others NOT doing photography. The rest time is essential when traveling continuously, and the social interaction not only counters the isolation of working alone, the added company will add to the photo content and backstory.

4. Managing food is a big issue - having gained four pounds in one week, battling acid reflux and being generally more sedentary while in the car. The use of an ice box worked a bit, buying groceries and consuming as needed, but the logistics of ice, refreezing packs, and monitoring contents is cumbersome and monotonous. Fast food is generally accessible everywhere, “fresh” and predictable. Though most of it is bad, a better knowledge of the healthier menu items, may work just as well. This assumes that regardless of travel itineraries, that regular exercise and calorie accountability is observed.

5. Lodging is another manageable expense and logistic. Alternating motel stays with friend and family visits, plus camping every other day will allow cutting lodging costs in half. Lodging does provide for regular hygiene and computer power stops, but camping will allow for more immediate morning and night lighting access for locales not located that close to civilization.

6. Driving time is what it requires, but when possible, avoid 8-hr marathons without any real extended stops. Find places to rest, get out, photograph, visit. The marathons tend to suck the very marrow out of your bones.

In spite of all the planning, and the need to justify the trip financially, always remember to appraoch it as it should be -- an adventure.

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