Monday, June 12, 2017

An Odyssey Back in Time

Exploring the Past and Places of Solitude

This past weekend, June 10, 2017, I undertook a photographic odyssey to explore some places I was very familiar with, yet had not truly explored. Looking places and things through the lens of a camera, with the idea that you are looking for a story to tell, it changes how you think about, and view, a place you might be familiar with. A location can overflow with history, and it may not even be obvious to the casual viewer, because it is hiding in plain sight.

I took my long time friend, Brian, with me to explore these places as I was seeking to photograph places that seemed abandoned and sitting in solitude. Brian and I go way back, and he grew up in the same areas that  I did, so he was more or less familiar with the places I was going to explore. He also gave me an extra set of eyes, and a different perspective to consider as I was working through these locations. It was an excellent day to go out and do photography. The sun was up high in the sky and it was not too hot, yet the light was amazing for shooting the type of photos I wanted. I wanted a light that flooded that landscape and kept it well lit. It was just after lunch when we started, which was perfect timing for the lighting I was looking for.

Our first stop was Vina. What makes Vina interesting in general is this monastery that has its own winery and does wine tasting. I have gone to mass there several times as well. There is a solitude about the monastery, however I was looking for something a little more than just solitude. I needed to feel a sense of history and abandonment within the setting. Not far from the monastery entrance is the town park that has rapidly fell into a state of decline over the last 10 years or so. It does not take much time for something to fall into disrepair. It was falling into disrepair 10 years ago, but it seems the last 10 years has definitely left its mark on the city park. What accented it so well to further expand the feeling of history being so present there was this cement block stamped with the year 1915 on it. The uses of these blocks, sitting at the far end of a dilapidated basketball court, completely escapes me. However, they stood there lined up in neat rows, like they were keeping a ground-level vigil on the progress over the overgrowth that was expanding every-which-way around the court, through the picnic benches, and through the fence that was defining the edge of the park and separating it from the railroad tracks.

There is a building beyond the cement blocks, and flanked by two beautiful trees, that seemed to be feeling the effects of time and neglect. It housed some kind of use inside of it, but it can only be left to the imagination. Its disrepair seemingly trying to call out to someone to pay attention and save the building from falling apart.

I think what kind of gives this place, as well as the other places that I photographed, meaning to me is that these are places that I have spent years around and seen them when they were in use and functioning in good order. The benched behind the above building is a place where I sat and drank a soda after visiting the monastery some years ago. While it had a solitary feeling back then, there was not this sense of desolation and abandonment that there is now. One just has to look at the basketball hoop and understand that nobody in the area really cares about fixing anything there because the park and court have fallen so much out of use it is nothing but a crumbling piece of community history now.

Overgrown picnic benches in the town of Vina, CA.

Crumbling basketball hoop.

I think one of the things that puts the final touch on this community for me, even through clearly there are people that live in Vina because it has a store and a post office, is that I do not see people walking around. I see some cars that are new parked around and once in awhile I see a person walk out of the local store, but so much of the town looks like it has been left up to the power of time and history to overtake it and redefine it as some part of the past that barely stands up for the little use it does have.

However, Vina was only the start to the odyssey that day. We still had many more miles and at least 2 more places to go to photograph before we finished what we had started. 

Highway 32 between Chico and Hamilton City

Between Chico and Hamilton City, there is an abandoned almost processing facility that used to load Almonds onto trucks that would transport the agricultural commodity from one place to another. Agriculture is big in rural northern California. When I was a child we would drive by this facility on the way to Chico and I would see the trucks lined up to be filled with the products. Again, I had a personal history of seeing this place when it was a vital and functioning point of operation. Now, it was overgrown with dried weeds and was locked behind a chain link fence and off limits to the world.

The colors and overgrown dried plants gave it an extremely abandoned feeling. It seemed like it should have had some type of vehicle driving through and paying it attention. The fencing around the facility seemed to give it more of a feeling of desolation, as if it were being punished for failing in its task to operate and stay open all those years ago.

Clearly time had started to catch up with the facility and that is part of what gives places like this that abandoned feeling. However, the elements of overgrowth and dilapidation paled in comparison to our next stop, which was in Hamilton City itself.

Hamilton City and Holly Sugar

It is hard to quantify how much time had overtaken some of the sites in Hamilton City. Holly Sugar is probably the biggest and most obvious point of dilapidation, but by no means is it the only one in this small town. This is a town where I grew up for 17 years. It has more people than when I was there years ago, but it seems more abandoned than when I lived there, even though there are more people and newer housing developments on the outside part of town.

Holly Sugar was the point around which the town developed for years. My father had worked there for a long time, as well as many of my friends' fathers. I used to go visit my father when I was in high school and he would be at the weigh stations for the big trucks that would come through and get weighed before heading out with a load of sugar beets. There was a strong personal connection there for me. We would often drive into town during the processing season, and we could smell the sugar beets being processed. It was part of the character of the town, even if the smell was not great, it was a lot of community and economics associated with that plant.

So, when Brian and I drove up and got out of the car, we found this factory that looked like it could have been the setting for some type of scary movie. It seemed like everyone just ran out of there so fast that they did not even take the Christmas decorations down. It was as if there had been some cataclysmic event that drove everyone out and nobody even tried to look back.

Even though I grew up around the town, I do not remember the story about the factory closing, only that it did. The fact that there were disintegrating Christmas decorations hanging everywhere around a deteriorating fence that surrounded the abandoned place just added to the mystery of the site. To top it all off, as we were shooting photos, there was a loose door just swinging in the wind, creaking eerily and just giving the whole place a rather odd atmosphere that I would expect to find in a horror movie or something. Had it been night, I think we would have not stayed, but it was the middle of the day, so it took the edge off the creaking door.

I plan to have this up in our online gallery here, the entire series on display, and to have an in person opening at a new gallery at the Chico Mall in August. The dates are not yet established, but I will post them once I know. I will talk about the journey to these places and trying to capture the story of what they were and what they are now. There will be a sale of the prints soon, both online and at the gallery. Please check out the entire show. It will be a wonderful series to share locations of desertion and solitude. Thanks for reading and stay tuned for more in this series.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

The Art of Loneliness and Deserted Places


I think one of the things that makes art so wonderful is that each person is able to explore ideas, concepts, and issues that connect with each artist. Through these connections we can explore our interpretations of what life looks like when addressing issues that are near and dear to us. For me personally, I have been struggling to keep a lot of ideas at bay while I have been addressing other issues that have been keeping me busy. Recently, I came across a source of inspiration to explore the idea of lonely and deserted places. Part of this is due to the fact that I grew up in places that had many places that are deserted and lonely. In rural northern California, there is no shortage of places to explore if you know where to look. However, even in urban areas there are places that emanate loneliness through the abandoned and neglected state of affairs that many buildings and city blocks are left in from better times.

I think what fascinates me with abandoned and desolate places is a sense of history that can be found with each one. There is a history waiting to be discovered with each place. A story can be told and retold and reinterpreted in many ways and so many times. Perhaps a places is waiting to be revitalized, or maybe a beauty is just laying undiscovered and needing to be appreciated.

Black and White and Color

Loneliness and desolation have a visual language all their own. Black and white is very effective in translating the ideas of loneliness when applied correctly to other elements of composition and design. Color can be helpful, but the right colors must be used. If the wrong colors are used there is a risk of conveying another type of emotional content that does not fit the theme of a deserted and lonely location. There is a unique type of pathos that speaks to the human mind and soul when visually discussing loneliness.

Currently, I am trying to think of places that will fit this ideal so I can convey this story of desolation and isolation in a way that reflects my vision. This weekend, I have a trip planned up further north to where I am from in rural northern California. I will share my results on here when I get some progress, but suffice it to say that there are a lot of deserted places around where I grew up. Small town America is growing smaller, if you will. The big cities are growing bigger. For my purposes and vision of photographing rural California, I can't help but think of try to use black and white for this photo journey. I think some black and white with highly controlled accented tints in painting and drawing could work as well, but that is a separate issue for other media.

The Psychology of Solitude

Growing up in a small town, I came to appreciate the solitude that could be found in unpopulated spaces and in wide, open spaces. It really does us benefit to withdraw into ourselves and find that space of solitude. That is what I am looking for when I search out these photos. I want to find a place that convey peacefulness even in its abandonment. There is a monastery close to my home town, and there is this small park with a solitary basketball court and picnic benches skirting a railroad track that looks to be completely out of use. There is a post office across the street that looks like it is barely open anymore. There is also a small town where I grew up and while the number of people in the town looks like it has grown since I was there in my youth, there is this increased feeling of abandonment because of the sugar factory that went out of business years ago, and all that is left of this thriving factory that gave people their livelihood is a shadow of its former self, standing silent vigil over this town struggling to grow despite the loss there.

There is a wistfulness in visiting these places for me. One has a bit sadness, while the other has strength-boosting peacefulness. There is a story in every place, around every corner, and within every structure, whether it is inhabited or abandoned. I think the mistake that many people make is that abandoned is always sad, but there can be so much beauty and calm in these places. That is what I am looking for as I begin this odyssey in search of a story about solitude in deserted places.