Not too long ago, outdoor, adventure and editorial photographer Tom Bol realized he'd have a one-week gap in his schedule of workshops, assignments, stock shooting and the travel time it takes to get to all of the above. He decided to...wait for it...do some traveling and take some photographs.
In an e-mail, Tom told us what he had in mind: "Shooting the Df now. Have the idea of traveling parts of historic Route 66 with the camera—both classics, right?—and shooting travel images. Any thoughts on that?"
Well, yes, one in particular: "Want to take notes as well as photographs?"
He did, and when he returned, he sent us his road report.
From my home in Colorado I head southeast into Texas to pick up Route 66. I know the song says "more than two thousand miles all the way," but with only a week, I'll settle for portions of the road in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona.
I drive the southwest a lot on jobs, and I've always wanted to spend time in some of the places I pass by; to have no schedule, no itinerary, no assignment...just me, the camera and time to meet people and explore the territory with creative freedom; and maybe just a bit of a storyline...like Route 66.
I'd heard a little about the road's history. I knew of the classic song, of course, and a little about the TV show. I'd even driven parts of the highway. Then, shortly after the Nikon Df came out, I thought about exploring along the route and photographing with the camera. I was already shooting with the Df, but here was a chance for prolonged use in all kinds of conditions and situations.
Established in 1926 and running for 2,448 miles between Chicago and Santa Monica, Route 66 was the major road if you were traveling west in its early years. Many people migrated to the west on the route during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. There are still lots of people traveling the historic route to explore what it is today, to satisfy their curiosity, even to fulfill long-time dreams.
I'm driving I-80 in Texas along the frontage road to old Route 66 when I see this dude walking down the middle of the highway with his flag and cart. I get off and race back to meet him, talk and take some pictures. He's Michael Stafford, he's walking across America and you can read all about him and his journey at www.mike-hikes.com.
I meet a man in Shamrock, Texas, who's with the town's Chamber of Commerce. He tells me they get busloads of people on Route 66 tours. It's more than an American thing, he says. They get lots of European tourists. If you grew up in Europe in Soviet Union times, Route 66 represented freedom: get in the car, drive across America; no borders, no passports. Many people in Europe grew up seeing the road in magazines, even on TV, and now they want to come and see it first hand. For them, Route 66 is the freedom highway.
In some ways this adventure is a metaphor for my photography career. I shoot a lot of commercial jobs now, always well-produced, many on fancy sets, but I love going back to my journalism roots to shoot a reality picture-story with one camera and a few lenses.
I love the contrast between old and new Route 66. Some parts of the old highway and the buildings along it are in ruins; other areas are glossy with fresh paint.
I’ve always been an adventurer. I’ve spent countless months in tents on distant mountains and in remote wilderness areas, exploring, climbing, photographing. Route 66 is similar on a lot of levels. Maybe not rigorous weather and demanding terrain, but definitely exploration and discovery. I love meeting people and hearing their stories. Photography—visual communication—results in a lot of verbal communication; shared moments with interesting people you would never meet otherwise. Maybe you also learn more about yourself and the world in the process.
The traveling photographer's challenge: Shoot the cliché or walk on by? I tell my workshop students to start with the standard shot, even the cliché, because you've got to start somewhere. Then keep going to get to the essence. Exclude, isolate and express what's graphic and vital. Push through the cliché barrier. When I stop to photograph a rusted wreck of a truck, I practice what I preach.
While Route 66 may be an old highway, it constantly has new life through all the visitors from around the world who come to drive it and experience this piece of Americana.
What I find most interesting is the cross section of people on the route: Texas cowboys, Navajo Indians, field laborers, shop owners, tourists and other travelers. Everyone was incredibly friendly. Only problem: dogs. I’d be in some deserted gas station and out of nowhere some nasty-looking barking dog would come after me. Good to wear running shoes!
In Pecos National Historical Park, just off the highway a couple of miles, I photograph in a kiva, a place of mystical significance, a subterranean ceremonial and social place of the pueblo people. It was almost pitch black down there, no light but the light from above.
Can't believe the results the Df delivers. Probably the best ISO low-light performance I've ever seen. And not just in such severe conditions. It's also a huge advantage to be able to walk into a dark interior and dial up ISO 3200 and higher with complete confidence. And its size and nearly silent shutter make it a most unobtrusive camera. I'm able to easily shoot in stores and shops and on the street with hardly anyone giving me a second glance.
Research or wing it? Your personality will decide the answer to that. I did a bit of research, but I let the rest of the trip be as close to adventure as I could. If you're thinking of a ride along the highway, even just sections of it, I can tell you that there's something very liberating about turning your car west on an old highway, with no schedules or agenda in mind and using your camera to tell your story as you go.
I travel for seven days, cover 2,456 miles, shoot 3,594 images and have multiple close encounters with scary dogs. I come home reminded of why I got into photography in the first place: to explore new territory; to photograph warm evening light on a serene scene; to share my experiences with others.
Tom Bol is an adventurous and inventive photographer with over 25 years experience shooting editorial, commercial, lifestyle and advertising assignments. He is the author of Adventure Sports Photography: Creating Dramatic Images in Wild Places. Examples of his work and information about his workshops can be found at tombolphoto.com.