This blog is just as much about my love photography as about my interest in the people who create images. But to be honest, I am more interested in people than in photography. Lightbites is a hi-tech excuse for me to meet people. Dear Elaine, thank you for meeting me and letting me to get to know you a little bit in this strange, 21st century manner. And for those of you who do not know her yet, well, meet Elaine Mayes.
GL: Simple, elegant, lonely – these are the words that came to my mind when I first saw your picture of this coach.
EM: Well, this is the old bus image… I like it a lot. It is part of a series I did called, Autolandscapes. The series is from my moving car while driving from San Francisco to Massachusetts in 1971. It was 6 AM, I was driving my car East at about 65 mph in Utah. I really got lucky.
GL: How did this picture happen to you?
EM: Most all my photos are spontaneous reactions to what I see. In the case of the Autolandscapes I intended making an image each time the landscape changed. I love the idea of skill combined with serendipity. I also was interested in formal issues and the way when one shoots out the side of a car the near landscape is blurry. I further wanted to make images that felt still and like there was not movement at all. I wanted to see what normally goes by too fast to be seen the way a camera can stop motion.
GL: What camera did you use?
EM: A Leica rangefinder camera, and the shutter speed was 1/500th of a second at either f/16 or f/11. I always try to have my camera ready. I judge my exposure by knowing how the film will respond to particular light circumstances. I used a 50mm Leitz lens and Tri-X film that I processed myself using Rodinol or a similar developer. There was no digital system then, but now I use digital, and my newer Autolandscapes have even better stop-motion because the system can employ much higher shutter speeds than a 35mm film camera.
I used a Leica because it makes high quality pictures, and I like the rangefinder system because it allows me to see the image without seeing any distortion caused by a lens. I prefer normal or wide angle lenses because I like maximum depth-of-field.
GL: Why did you decide in 2010 to embark on a new (photographic) journey that in many ways is a reflection on the 1971 trip?
EM: I photographed across the country West to East only twice. My two trips called Autolandscapes (1971) and Across America (2010) were my way of recording my moving from one coast to the other with the car full of my belongings, nothing more. The journeys came first. The decision to photograph them came second. All my work in some manner reflects my life, as my subject matter comes from photographing my life experiences. I am not trying to document my life, but my photography always accompanies my life, and in this sense I see my images as creating a diary of my life experiences.
GL: What has changed for you in those four decades?
EM: Now the world is more crowded than it was in 1971. What has changed for me is that I have gotten older and have had many more life experiences. In 1971 I was 34 years old. Now I am 76 years old and have experienced more dimensions to life than when I was younger. I no longer teach photography. In 1971 I had been teaching photography for only three years. I have moved to many places since that time, and I have lived nearly a lifetime.
GL: To my mind both Autolandscapes and Across America are about time. First, about time in the sense that you also mention, in the form of more or less motion blur, i.e. a side-effect of shutter speed. Second, it is about your perception of how time passes while on the road. Personal time. And finally, it is about time as a reflection, time measured in decades when you look at your American landscape and you realize not only how much it has changed but also how much you have changed.
EM: For me both trips are about the same, except I have had a lot of practise and have done many other projects in between. None of my interest is beyond the way I see and the way a camera can work except for my formal horizontal idea the first time, and my long-standing idea that I am interested in things in the world. I am primarily an observer and feel that what I have to express is part of what I make, not something extra or added.
None of this work had for me anything to do with time passing except that being in a car for hours can be boring, and I wanted to distract myself from being bored. Of course when I photographed during driving I was taking the idea I began with and went one step further. The photographing had turned into an idea. The blur to me is not a side-effect of shutter speed, but in a physical sense is about what happens with relative motion seen up close and then photographed. Then with the digital camera one can stop the blur except for up close because a faster shutter speed is possible. I believe we don’t look at the blur because it is distressing to the eye, until of course one decides to focus on it. I always choose my “good photos” after the fact, when I see them either on contact sheets or in digital files.
GL: Technology plays a major part in both journeys. First, your beautiful Leica. And now a digital camera. Why did you choose digital the second time?
EM: I changed to digital for economic and personal reasons. I lost most of my income in 2008 when this country had its downturn. I lost my major source of income (the bank I had invested in all my life went broke) and have been trying to learn to operate with less. This has meant much confusion and living-style changes. It has meant moving around and renting my houses for income. Along with several times staying with friends because I rented my houses, I moved back to New York from Oregon, renting my Oregon house, and in the moving back I decided to repeat my focus on taking pictures while traveling.
I chose digital for practical reasons. The world changed, and I needed to change with it. I did not decide to minimise blur, but I found that my digital camera when set on automatic can render a sharper image because it uses faster shutter speeds. I learn with every effort, and I try always to keep learning. I wish the world had stayed the same, but life in fact is about change, and the cultural changes that I don’t much like are the way it is. I feel it is important to go with the flow, to embrace what is necessary in our changing culture.
Also, in 2010 my eyesight was very bad, and I broke my glasses the first night out, so my partner, Randy had to do all the driving. All the photos on the second trip are from the passenger seat. I needed cataract surgery, and I could see well enough to shoot pictures with my practised method but not well enough to drive a car. I bought drugstore close-up glasses so I could see the image later. I used autofocus and auto settings, primarily with my new 5D Canon camera with its zoom used mostly on its most telephoto setting which was about 60mm. This meant I was free to take pictures without much technical consideration.
By the way, I always set my digital cameras 1/3 stop under so as to not overexpose the whites. On the second trip I decided to look in any direction not just out the side, and I was thrilled to discover that the shutter speed was making the background very sharp indeed, and also the foreground was less blurry. I also used a G10 point and shoot Canon when I left my battery charger in a motel room. The Canon 5D with its zoom was the cheapest good way for me to continue working. Its limitation is its inaccurate finder.
Reflection v. translation
GL: How much do you usually work with in ‘post’ with your stills?
EM: I like digital printing. I like digital photography less than analog otherwise. I prefer digital printing because it means more corrections can be accomplished than when using a darkroom. (I had given up working in the darkroom because it was impossible to maintain one while living in a number of places.) But I almost never crop my pictures because I believe the entire frame is the photo, and I like the 35mm film shape.
I remain interested in light and how to render light with both technologies. I fear that digital-only trained photographers will never know the wonder of light and light senstive materials. I bring this kind of knowledge to my digital photography. I never manipulate except to correct color and contrast. I have never been interested in “creating” photographs but always interested is seeing them and then making prints that are true to what I see and what the camera can do. For me the difference between analog and digital is reflection v. translation. I remain attached to the idea of reflection, and I bring this idea to my digital efforts.
Seeing what there is to see
GL: There are obvious visual parallels between the two series. Were you looking out for these? Or does this come from the nature of the project, as there are only so many types of views you can have from your car?
EM: I was not trying to be parallel. I was just trying to photograph in the best way possible with the materials at hand. I did realize that I was revisiting an old project, but I never thought about the changes except when they occurred. I am not much interested in technique but want to see the world. I try to live in the present and see what I see, and my entire life I have been trying to see what I see only.
The main difference between the two groups is letting go of the horizontal idea some of the time during the second round. Both trips were for me journeys that I photographed quite deliberately with the equipment I already was using at the time. Both trips involved primarily seeing what was there to see. I found more culture near the road on the second trip. The first trip was only a few years after the interstates were built, and the roadside culture then was primarily truck stops. Now there is more traffic and more business next to the road.
GL: Why did you choose color for the second series? To avoid nostalgia?
EM: I have been using color since 1978 and also before for commercial work. It was not possible to make for me good color images in 1971. But as technology changes, I do my best to use the best of the new methods. My work primarily has been in color since 1978, so choosing color was natural. In 1971 color was not as good as it can be now. I originally was worried about permanence, and black-and-white was the only way to get images with a long life. With digital the images when properly stored and printed using archival materials can last. I love black and white, but color is what the world is about. Black and white offers greater abstraction; color shows us more or less the colors we see without cameras. I appreciate showing the colors of things in the world. I say more or less because the materials used always affect the results. Photography is always an abstraction because with black and white or color the world becomes flat.
GL: How does digital photography ‘feel’ to you compared to your Leica? Did your DSLR change your approach during the second trip?
EM: I do not change my approach except for the limitations of the technique availalble to me. I do take a lot more photos with digital because I can, and digital does not cost as much as did film, so I can expose more exposures without spending a fortune.
I like and prefer fixed lenses, so that seeing is part of my collaboration with the equipment I use. I would love an M9 Leica camera, and maybe one day I will be able to afford one. I have lost a lot of potential photos using point and shoot cameras, and I find it difficult to take the pictures I want to take. Maybe someone will award me a Leica soon, or maybe I will sell some prints so I can afford to purchase one.
If I could afford a good quality rangefinder Leica I would get three lenses and not look back. I would get a 35mm, a 50mm and just possibly a 105mm. But I would most likely use only a 50mm and a 35mm. Maybe I would get a 28mm, too. I like to use one simple approach without changing my vantage point by using a zoom. I like to work with my eyes, my emotions and the materials I have. I believe that the technical part should be best for what I want to do. I am not the least interested in technique except for making the best seen photos I can.
(To see more of Elaine Mayes’s pictures visit her website at www.elainemayesphoto.com. All images © Elaine Mayes and are reproduced with the permission of the author. This interview was first published on l1ghtb1tes.com on July 15, 2013.)