B&W on the road

Following the 8x10 Polaroid road trips around California that began in 2006 (written about below), I started using more 35mm b&w films on the road - California, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Texas. Either with SLR, rangefinder, or point-and-shoot cameras, and with everything being reverse-processed by the dr5 lab 

I had done some of my own traditional b&w processing earlier on, but once I'd discovered that there was a lab that was processing b&w negative films as transparencies, I became hooked. Maybe it's because of having grown fond of the one-off factor with the Polaroid peel-apart print films I'd used prior, but I liked that with the slide film process, what you do in-camera creates the final photograph. Essentially, the camera becomes the darkroom - how you expose the film, and then the processing, determines the final photograph. Much as with shooting E6 film. Or peel-apart print film 

When I got my first 35mm b&w negative film rolls back from dr5 as mounted slides in 2007, I was pretty blown away - detailed, rich, unique, final 

Although I'd gone from large format Polaroids on the road to 35mm, the one-off factor remained  

Since 2007, I've exposed a lot of rolls of film for the dr5 process, 120 included, and everywhere from Disneyland with my kids to vacations overseas (I have quite a lot of b&w slides from Europe and Turkey that I'd like to do something with one of these days) 

But the slides that seem to carry the most weight for me are the ones that I've made on various road trips around the southwest and west coast (viewable under BLACK & WHITE). Similar backroad explorations as with A PLAIN VIEW, which consists of large format color film photographs made throughout Texas, and those early large format Polaroid trips around California that would become the seed for all future photo road trips, but more widespread. And over more time 

I've been sitting on a lot of these slides and am planning to publish some of them over the next few years 

And depsite having a unique fondness for these regions, I'm equally eager to explore other parts of the country in an effort to add new b&w chapters to this ongoing story of this America that I enjoy capturing

The South and the Midwest are on the list

But first, more trips around California, where it all began ...  

Jason LeeComment
The early days on the road

Highway 1, 2006, 8x10 Polaroid 809

I was using film cameras prior to this but this was the year that I'd set out to document from the road for the first time. I'd been using 8x10 Polaroid films in my downtown LA studio, experimenting with portraits and different types and styles of lighting, and while I'd made some exposures here and there on various travels with other, smaller cameras, I'd never really taken a dedicated 'photo road trip.' Nor had I seen an 8x10 Polaroid print outside. And because of how much I loved the big Polaroid films, especially the 804 b&w stock, and because I'd known that not many were using the big Polaroid films in the field, I was eager for this to be the medium of choice for what would become two separate road trips around California in 2006/7. I'd found a Calumet hand-crank field processor, loaded up the car with boxes of the big Polaroid films and hit the road. Polaroid's 8x10 films require a separate processor, unlike their pack and 4x5 films, and the smaller, lighter, cordless Calumet processor was much more ideal for making 8x10 Polaroid prints outside of a studio setting compared to the brand's own much bigger version

My good friends Aubree Watson and Gay Ribisi accompanied me to assist and document the experience. I was 36-years-old

I remember so vividly, and miss so much, walking to the check-out counter at Samy's Camera in Los Angeles with stacks of boxes of the big film like a kid in a candy store each time I'd need to replenish my stash. And how the employees would tell me that no one really bought the big stuff except for me, 'and maybe one other guy here and there.' I couldn't see why; I couldn't imagine how it wasn't more popular. Maybe it was just me who felt (and still feel) that the Polaroid peel-apart films were beyond unique, and beautiful, especially in such a big size, and weren't just a novelty, or 'a means to an end.' Even the smaller 664 pack film I'd used a lot of I'd considered a true film. In fact, liking it so much is what compelled me to see if Polaroid made a bigger version of it. And when I'd discovered they did, I was thrilled. I mean, one-off 8x10 prints, right there on the spot? Incredible. Polaroid 804 still stands as one of my favorite films, and I've gone through a lot of different mediums and film types and sizes over the years. Shame to see Polaroid not only no longer making it, but no longer making anything at all. I have quite a few boxes of the big films left, but of course it's all expired now. Hoping to get through the stash next year. A lot of the chemicals, mainly with the b&w films, have dried out, partially or completely, but I'm hoping for the best 

The first print I'd made roadside with one of the big Polaroids was a revelation. Knowing that I was out there making 8x10 Polaroid prints on the side of some road somewhere was thrilling. The whole process. I wondered why more people weren't doing the same. Perhaps it was because the film was expensive. Or that 'Polaroids' weren't to some considered 'real photography,' even in large format size. Or maybe it's just that no one had thought to do it. Regardless, it was incredibly exciting, and I'd felt I was on to something new. A good portion of these Polaroids can be seen in a digital copy of my 2016 special limited edition issue of Refueled magazine HERE

I wish now that I would have carried on using the big Polaroid films over the years that followed, but I suppose I just never imagined the company would go under 

But, no matter, those early photo road trips with the big Polaroid films and the old Century Universal view camera were instrumental by how they'd forced me to notice things, to pay attention, especially where the so-called 'mundane' or 'simple' are concerned. Regardless of what camera and what film. They validated an instinct in me. And a spontaneity that I would realize was vital for photography, even when using cumbersome equipment that requires more time. Those early days of exploring California solidified in me an undying love for the road, and the randomness, the abandoned, the forgotten, the odd things, the strange ins and outs of this America. I knew then what I loved documenting and why. And I've been driven by this ever since. And it would all lead to A PLAIN VIEW 11 years later and will undoubtedly continue 

American installments. From the road 

More to come ... 

Jason LeeComment