The fall season. The clouds race in from the West, shading this small town nestled in the Allegheny hills of Pennsylvania. I'm here on holiday for four weeks and I'm pacing the streets looking for things to shoot; houses with character, broken kerb-stones, fallen leaves, vivid signs and... people. All it takes are a comfortable pair of shoes - keep walking and sooner or later you get lucky.
All images taken with the X100, X-Pro 1 and 18mm f/2, 35mm f/1.4 and 56mm f/1.2 lenses.
I'm walking the suburbs straddling West Washington Street. I hear a guitar strumming, a voice mumbling Elvis songs in a club singer's drawl. I ask for a picture and he sings to me, eyes shining with delight as the music in his headphones plays a soundtrack to his life. A smile and a thank you and he walks away. Strumming and singing he turns a corner and is out of sight.
And over the next week I hear him now and again, here and there - in the distance, threading the same grid of streets. What's his story?
It's small town America and I guess most folks in town know his ways. Only the out of town stranger remains in the dark. So you gather a picture book with your camera and try to guess the stories, or failing that make up your own. And sometimes between shots when face to face you chat a little and try to dig up some of that small town lore. But it's the outsider they really want to talk about. What's the deal with the accent? Where are you from? What are you doing in Bradford? Why not New York or Chicago or New Orleans?
Well, what can I say? Except that I have a strange love for small town America. Those odd roadside attractions, the old faded signs and the oil-jacks in back gardens. The small town newspaper, the local bar, abandoned cars... the whole visual iconography. I guess you could call it Americana, whatever that is.
I used to pore over the little small town landscapes Bill Watterson inked in the backgrounds of his Calvin & Hobbes newspaper strips. I'd try and map out the geography of Twin Peaks in my head as I watched the show. Dream up the locations for the characters in Raymond Carver and Willy Vlautin stories. I'm kind of nuts that way. It's all so familiar, yet alien. Walk with me a while...
My project, ladies and gentlemen. And I'm documenting it as best I can on my Fuji cameras. The X100 and X-Pro 1 may have been superceded by newer models, but I find something magical in the quality of their images. The colours, properly managed, are incredible. While not quite up to medium format standard, they do seem ideally suited for matching the sort of colour photography that the new wave of 'banal is beautiful' street photographers did back in the sixties and seventies. For months I've poured over books by Joel Sternfeld, William Eggleston and Stephen Shore - looking at their use of colour and determining a style for myself. And finally I feel I've found it. I've found something that feels true to how I see. Something that gives richness and character to the moments I capture.
Four weeks of walking the small town streets. Good job my Fuji cameras are so light. And yet reassuringly solid in my hands as I lose myself in the details. Milk bottle spooks on a garden lawn. An ornate gothic house straight out of The Addamms Family. That strange distant Elvis music again...
They say that money spent on experiences brings more satisfaction than that spent on items. I lust after beautiful new lenses - especially Fuji lenses such as the 14mm - as much as the next photographer. But the best buy I made was in the stack of photography books I purchased in preparation for this trip. Aside from immense enjoyment, they gave me a richer visual language to work with. You've got to shoot for something. Find the magic in light, texture, form and composition. Rejoice in incongruity. Create moments of instant nostalgia or curiosity. Learn to record what's worth recording.
Walk long enough and you'll see something. And there's still so much more to see. Back in the 1930's, Walker Evans wrote a list of the things he wanted to capture. I wrote a similar list before flying out to America. Churches and signs. Store fronts and monuments. Car-parks and rivers. Railways and bars. Diners and factories and people.
Yes, these small towns can be big places. Stick around for more sights...