A PLAIN VIEW, the book


I made the photographs over the course of four road trips around Texas (south, north, west) between January and April of 2017 with expired Kodak 4x5 color films and a Graflex Speed Graphic view camera.

While rural America as a general landscape and concept is where I find myself most inspired, I’m drawn in particular to California, the southwest, and the plains. I’ve made a lot of photographs in California and the southwest over the years but fewer in Texas. And mostly with black-and-white films. Now living here, I had a strong desire to explore the state more extensively. And in color. 

I covered about 5000 miles and exposed close to 300 sheets of film, 111 of which I used for the book.

I’d seen the early color photographs of Joel Sternfeld and was inspired especially by those of William Christenberry before I started making my own American photographs, first in 2006 from the highways and backroads of California with black-and-white and color 8x10 Polaroid films, but if there’s anything I owe credit to visually for this particular series, it’s color cinematography, and from the likes of Robby Müller, with Paris, Texas, Vilmos Zsigmond, with The Deer Hunter, and Néstor Almendros, with Days of Heaven, to name a few. The photography for Terrence Malick’s Badlands has equally been a big draw for me.

My aim with this series wasn’t to present “color photography” in the categorical sense as much as it was to create photographs that perhaps feel like pieces of films, from that particular brand and era of cinema.

In general, I’m not interested in photographic categories and labels as I am in making photographs, for the joy of it, and the fulfillment of curiosity. 

I’d seen Wim Wender’s Paris, Texas in the early 1990s, and even back then, before I’d ever picked up a camera, it felt like a moving collection of photographs of a landscape that had me riveted from the film’s opening sequences. That stuck with me. As did its color palette. Visually, it’s a stunning film. Emotionally, perhaps even more so. And David Byrne’s brilliant Texas-based True Stories, while a much lighter film, has had its own impact on me. Another visually inspiring piece, photographed by Ed Lachman.

When I thought about doing a color series in Texas, these are the things that came to mind.

And much of the landscape lent itself very naturally to this. An extraordinary number of scenes I encountered that appeared to be on pause from some bygone era or another. And more often than not, no one around. A kind of surreal stillness I’d never witnessed in quite this way. And many of its small-town centers appearing as movie sets; like stretches of street scene facades on the backlot of some movie studio. But real, and rich, and full of history. And locations and moments and colors throughout my journey that paralleled the worlds of those wonderful films and their collective palette. And that I perhaps paid a new kind of attention to because of these visual and tonal and emotional references. And because of now working in color and conscious of the film’s translation of the various environmental tones and shades.

And scenes like the old white Dodge truck in the alley; the truck appearing to have been placed there at just the right angle, and in just the right setting, and with just the right lighting, as if from a film. Or for a film. I see scenes like these and can’t help but feel transplanted, and as though they’ve been created for me, or someone else with a camera. It’s a unique feeling of exhilaration to happen upon scenes like these. And with that beautiful dusk lighting.

All things very fitting to these cinematic references, in both theory and reality. But it was the use of the expired films and my 1941 uncoated Kodak Ektar 127mm lens that would complete the vision.

In color, and for the purpose of inhabiting a different space with this series, and of favorably documenting these subjects, which, in many cases, are as faded and color-shifted as the old films themselves, this landscape demands being photographed a certain way; anything too accurate, too clean, would draw many of these subjects unnaturally away from the contexts in which they seem to so comfortably exist. There is a timelessness and fragility to much of this landscape, and so film too new would be asking too much of it. As would a high-end, coated modern lens.

With color photographs in general, I’m not interested in vibrant colors and sharp contrast, but rather in a more temperate palette. And the combination of the expired films and the old lens allowed for that, and for something more unique to anything I’ve ever made in color.

But tonal and visual references aside, the landscape remains my primary focus.

The strangeness and beauty of this inconsistent America, full of variety and color and character, prosperity and degradation. Conflicts between man and nature, old and new, past and future. Things are ticking along, doing what they do, and to be an observer to it all, and to give notice to it, this is what motivates me.

The emptiness and the quiet of these scenes, this landscape. The desolation. The openness. The random, odd portions. Environmental contrasts and contradictions. Things left behind, neglected, forgotten. And these shards of a past culture that somehow continue to hold firm. And how they reflect the environments around them. And their similarities and differences, one town to the next. And one state to the next. 

I often wonder if those living in these towns, at the center of these places, view these scenes with a similar sentiment, or as anything other than just an ordinary slice of life, seen only in neglectful periphery. And what they mean to them, if anything at all.

They mean something to me. And they intrigue and inspire me. And act not only as reminders of how things once were, but how things still are, on the other side of everywhere else. They are the necessary balancers in this plastic, homogenized modern world of ours.

Photography allows us to view things differently, and to place value in these ordinary, everyday scenes. 

And documenting them gives them notice, and validity. And I enjoy documenting them, very much.

Not for the sake of being a photographer in the artistic sense, or trying to capture things in a certain way so as to adhere to or fit into some photographic category or another; I just simply enjoy making photographs. And being on the road, exploring.

Long hauls for this book. Some days having exposed only a few sheets, other days a couple dozen. Rolling into some town or another after midnight, tired, hungry. And despite needing a motel room, and food (mostly gas station scraps at that time of night), you can’t help but keep looking. It’s hard to shut it off; sleep and hunger wait as you get that second wind when you land somewhere new, having seen the town lights in the distance from the highway - “What will I find here?” You make your way up and down the streets, searching. Dead quiet, car creeping along at 5 mph, hoping for a last good exposure to end the day with. You make one, maybe two, find a motel, bring all the gear into the room, make journal notes of the day’s events, count how many sheets of film you have left, all while eating the chips you bought at the gas station down the street. Wake, find a proper meal, plan the new route, keep moving.

It's a wonderful feeling being out there, a part of it, and open to the environments around us. In the words of photographer Henry Wessel: “The process of photographing is a pleasure, eyes open, receptive, sensing, and at some point, connecting. It's thrilling to be outside your mind, your eyes far ahead of your thoughts.”

Jason LeeComment