Back in the 60s and 70s, my family would drive endlessly around the desert Southwest, sometimes enroute to Southern California to visit relatives. Though I probably didn’t realize it at the time, those trips were likely the gateway drug to my insatiable craving for road trips today. The white sands in New Mexico, Saguaro cactus and ghost towns in Arizona, cafes along Route 66, the beaches of Southern California…my youthful eyes and mind eagerly devoured these types of things.
Today, there are of course a few differences. For instance, now I’m in the driver’s seat instead of the backseat and instead of packing a shoebox full of 8-tracks or cassette tapes, I’ll freshen up my Spotify library and podcast playlists. Those minor differences aside, the essence remains the same…a blank slate of possibilities, endless stories and potential adventures.
Recently, needing to get out of the snow and cold for a few days, we took a little mini road trip to Santa Fe to visit friends. Santa Fe, and New Mexico in general, has always been our “go-to” when we need a mini reset and a little art inspiration. While there, our friends unexpectedly gifted me a set of film cameras, all of which were once used by his father. The camera that immediately caught my attention was a Kodak Retina IIIC Rangefinder.
According to the serial numbers, it was manufactured circa 1957 by Kodak AG in Berlin, Germany. I love old cameras and to me that camera, working or not, was a piece of art. The Retina series of cameras was the vision of George Eastman and German camera designer, Dr. August Nagel (also co-founder of Zeiss). This collaboratively built camera was envisioned to be a competitor to the photographic icons of Leica, Voigtlander and Hasselblad and though it never attained the longstanding gravitas of those legacy names, the Retina was still considered a viable contender for the time.
Upon returning to Colorado, I immediately began trying to figure out if the camera worked and if so, how to operate it. Not surprisingly, before I ever loaded the first roll of film, I knew I’d have to take it on a road trip, partly to pay homage to its history, but also to introduce it to a new life and make it a part of my perpetual longing for simple, analog ways. It seemed only natural we should go back to New Mexico to take the first photos with the camera, or at least try.
I’ve been around photography my entire life, early on from my father’s Agfa cameras and mysterious garage darkroom, to my first real camera, a 1980s Canon AE-1, and all the iterations thereafter up to my current Nikon Z digital systems. However, drifting back into film has planted a creative seed I haven’t had in quite some time. To that end, I ordered the necessary equipment to develop my own film at home as well as a 35mm film scanner. I know the full commitment would have been to set up my own darkroom and that idea certainly hasn’t been dismissed.
Our trip back down to Taos had all the elements of a classic road trip. What should have taken us four hours easily took us double that. We stopped at unassuming places along the way to take a photo, to explore, to dine at a local cafe and to learn a little history of places we’ve typically cruised through at highway speeds — slow and steady, taking in every detail.
We also experienced some dreadful weather in the form of ferocious winds and snow squalls which made travel challenging and unpredictable, the exact weather we were hoping to escape. Additionally, places we had hoped to visit were closed for cultural ceremonies or simply lack of employees. But in classic road trip fashion, closed doors and unanticipated roadblocks led to unexpected adventures and extraordinary discoveries. It was of course, “imperfectly perfect”.
As for the film photography efforts, I’ll offer that it was as challenging as it was rewarding. Shifting back to the totally analog process from my familiar digital work flow took measured thought and deliberate patience, sometimes practiced in driving snow. Loading film or threading a cable release with frozen fingers was sometimes an ambitious effort. Interpreting an analog light meter, calculating exposure values, making aperture and shutter speed decisions without the convenience of chimping all forced me to slow down and think, rethink, then just cross my fingers before activating the shutter. Daunting and exhilarating.
The photos themselves certainly can’t or won’t be considered earth-shattering or avant-garde in photography circles, but the amount of work I put into them gave me an appreciation for the process I rarely get from my digital work. No instant gratification, just learning something new, practicing patience, embracing the unexpected and anticipating the promise of what might be — the exact same elements I pursue when setting off on a classic American road trip.
Climb high, ski fast, pedal hard, live simply.