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January 2nd, 2010

The Things I Do For A Damn Photo…

The great photographer Margaret Bourke-White once averred she became positively irrational if she couldn’t get a shot she wanted. I know the feeling, but I guess part of the reason I never became a professional photojournalist is I am too polite about it.

Case in point: I’m driving home from Orlando, up I-95, in the lost, lonely mood I usually am after vacationing in a spot where I’m likely to run into a lot of happy couples. It’s the morning after New Year’s Eve and it’s gray and cloudy and looking very, very somber, and I am driving back north away from the sunshine and warmth of Orlando and Disney World and back into the Baltimore Maryland cold. So I’m not feeling exactly cheerful.

As I drive through North Carolina, I see an abandoned motel to my right, that oddly has its front walls entirely removed. What you see is just the shells of the rooms behind the wall, like a lot of post office boxes with their doors torn off. The effect is of a stark hollowness.

No… I think to myself. It’s too obvious… But I can’t get the image out of my mind. I’m driving north and the miles are piling up and I just want to get back home and back to my nest and sulk for the last few remaining days of my vacation and maybe do a little housework. But I can’t get the damn thing out of my head. I even know Exactly the shot I want to get. I can picture it in my head clearly…picture exactly where I need to stand and what angle to shoot at and what my camera settings are.

No…no…it’s too obvious. And…I don’t want to go there. I’m feeling down enough as it is right now. Do I need to make myself feel worse? I think not. Damn…the sky is just right for that shot though. I’ve never seen a place with just its front wall torn off. Why the hell did they do that? It’s so damn odd… Be nice to just wander around it a bit. No…it’s probably fenced off. I’ll bet they have No Trespassing signs plastered everywhere. Do I want to get arrested in North Carolina? Seriously. Just let it go. Damn the sky is just right… Those gray clouds…just the right amount of sunlight up there. That scene really wants to be low contrast. I should just keep going. I don’t need to go there. I’m feeling miserable. Damn that sky is just right. If I stop some other trip it won’t be right. They might have the rest of it torn down by then. I should just keep going. There will be other shots like that one. I’ve never seen a place with just the front wall torn off like that. Do I really want to be wandering around a derelict building all by myself? It might be dangerous. Some thug might see me pull up in my Mercedes-Benz and decide to shoot me for my car and my camera and nobody would ever know what happened to me. Too dangerous. Why the hell did they just take down the front and leave the rest of it up? It’s so damn perfect. It’s like its bearing its empty heart to the sky. All those people who stayed inside, found warmth, shelter for the night, maybe a moment or two of love, and eventually they all left without a second thought and now it has nothing. The front wall was its face…and then the people left and its face fell away and all that’s left are the empty rooms open now to the sky. I should keep going. I don’t need this. I should turn around. Do I really want to go there? Darn it…I can’t let that one go… How far to the next exit…

Which by then was about 3 miles ahead of me and the motel in question about 12 miles behind. I did a loop back and on the way looked for some other possible shots in the landscape. And I found a few, which made me feel better about loosing travel time. There were two service roads paralleling the main Interstate where some lonely restaurants and strip shopping seemed to be barely holding on. I figured after I took a few shots at the abandoned motel I could drive up one of the service roads and get a few more of other stuff by the highway.

I actually had to drive past it again and loop back to find the correct exit. What apparently happened was a new highway was built nearby, cutting off the old exit by the motel, which killed its drive-by business. I had to go back to an exit a few miles in the other direction, and find the place where I could access the service road that led to it. There were few other surviving businesses along that road. A collection of self storage bins. Some odd pumping station whose purpose I had no idea. There were some empty highway billboards and a junk yard/auto body shop that looked like it had been picked over until nothing of value was left. Yet it seemed to still be in business. I wondered who got their work done there. Close by the motel was a trailer/RV park that actually seemed to still be doing a reasonably good business. It was called Sleepy Bear.

I have no idea what the abandoned motel next to it was called, but it was clear that its current owners wanted nobody getting near it. There was a huge, and I mean huge NO TRESPASSING sign right in front. The building itself was only partly fenced in however. Anyone could just walk onto the property from the street.

The service road dead-ended just past the motel, where the old highway interchange had been closed off. I wasn’t about to park in the lot. But there were some pull-offs just down the street that were off the property and I stopped Traveler there and popped the trunk. I took out the new camera, popped off the lens cap, adjusted the hood, switched on and checked my settings. I took a quick light reading. Then I wandered over.

Damn…that sign is big…

Okay…fine. They didn’t want me trespassing. I looked the site over to see if I could get the shot that had been so fixed in my mind the moment I laid eyes on the motel, without setting foot on the property.

Yes…I can do this…

But I was beginning to get the creeps. It was deathly silent all around me…gray and overcast and a tad chilly. Even the Interstate just a few dozen yards away was quiet, due to it being early New Years Day. All the revelers were sleeping it off. Only us lonely travelers on it now…just the occasional sound of a car going by was all there was.

I walked up to the fence along one side of the motel. I couldn’t take my eyes off the building. In a creepy sort of way it felt like it was looking back at me, through empty eyes…

Damn…they really did just yank the front walls off of everything here. WTF…???

I began to wonder if trespassing meant don’t go beyond the fence or if I was trespassing by simply walking up to it. I decided to just get my shots and skedaddle. This is why I am not a professional photojournalist. I am way too timid. The spirit of Weegee laughs at my timidity.

I couldn’t shoot through the fence…the chain link was too much in the way. So I raised my camera above my head and started shooting. The nice thing about a digital camera is you can see your shots instantly and know if your getting it. Every time I clicked the shutter the LCD display on the back of the camera showed what I had just taken. So I could adjust the camera angle a tad and take another…and so on until I had it. At one point, I knew I had the one I wanted…the one that said it. Whenever that happens, it’s like a little electric current goes through me from the camera. I swear.

I backed off and looked around some more. I felt something tempting me in. But I wasn’t going to risk getting arrested. I’d seen a little house down a private driveway next to the motel, and there were certainly people over at Sleepy Bear. As I walked back to Traveler I saw a truck towing a nice vacation trailer behind it drive away. I wondered if the driver noticed me. I walked briefly to the front of the motel again, near the sign but well on what I thought was its good side.

Damn…that sign is Big…

I fired off one more shot of the front of the motel and tarried with the idea of wandering around the front some more to see if there were any other good shots I could get from outside the fence. But something about that sign kept creeping me out.

They really mean it…

So I got back into Traveler, started up and headed back toward the Interstate. There were a couple other shots I’d seen as I made my way to the motel and as I approached one of them, a sign that said simply “Units Available” in front of a long lonely row of cookie-cutter identical self storage bins, I wondered if I could just stop my car in the middle of the road and take it from out the window, because it didn’t look like there was any usable shoulder to the road there. I didn’t want to get stuck. I was about a quarter mile away from the motel.

Suddenly I saw a police car coming at me from the opposite direction. It blew right past me and if it wasn’t doing at least 90 I am no judge of speed. There was nothing in the direction it was going, except Sleepy Bear, the little house behind the motel, and the motel, and the end of the road.

Damn! Damn! Did someone see me taking pictures and call the cops??? I wasn’t about to hang around and find out. Good thing I didn’t stick around… I decided to forgo getting my other shots and politely asked Traveler for triple digit velocity. Traveler happily obliged. I don’t think Das Auto likes being confined to American highway speeds. I had a couple tight curves to navigate but Traveler hunkered down over them and didn’t even flash the Electronic Stability Program light at me, and there wasn’t anyone else out on the roads just then except me and Mr. Policeman.

Good thing I didn’t have the camera hanging out the window… I figured the cop, if he was called out for a trespasser at the motel, would first check the area and only then would the thought cross their mind that perhaps the perp was in the car that they’d shot past like a bat out of hell. By then I’d be well down the Interstate and it would be a fifty-fifty shot at guessing whether I was going north or south, if I was even on the Interstate to begin with. I didn’t think anyone could have gotten my license plate, and at a distance all I would have seemed to be driving was a white compact car of some kind.

I slowed to legal speed when I got on the Interstate. I wasn’t about to get caught in a radar trap either and I had noticed a lot of them already that morning.

Probably they’d have let it go when they discovered the trespasser had left the scene. Why bother, right? Except…do you blast down the road like a bat out of hell just to nail a trespasser at an abandoned motel?

I wasn’t trespassing dammit. I stayed behind the damn fence. What is it with that place…?

I stressed about it all the way to the Virginia boarder. I took the memory card out of the camera and hid it so I could plausibly say, What…Who…Where…Huh if cornered. Except that people who wear their hearts on their sleeves like I do don’t make excellent liars.

The spirit of Weegee mocks my timidity. Did I take some pictures? You talkin to me? Yeah I took some fucking pictures…

Oh well. I got my shot and it was worth it…


Abandoned Motel – Lumberton, NC.

Dang…I wish I could wander around that site and get a few more shots. But I don’t think they want to let me…

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