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Tuesday, August 3, 2010

50 Years After Travels With Charley


Packing his camera and an open mind, Randy Wells takes us on a road trip to rediscover Steinbeck’s America

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“John Steinbeck described these mightiest of old-growth coastal trees in detail,” notes Wells about this image, taken in Redwood National Park, California. “Some have lived over 2,000 years and are the tallest trees in the world.”
Seasonal weather is another important factor. Will it be raining at that festival in New Orleans? If so, how might it add to the photographs, and how will you best record them in those conditions? Gaining access to events may require more planning and communication with organizers. Budgeting time and maintaining momentum when weather and other factors work against you can be a constant challenge. Then there are the logistics of securing lodging and food—the necessary foundations for the energy required when shooting early and late in the day.

Once research for a road trip is completed and the necessary transportation accomplished, the photographer must not only execute the planned photographs, but also remain available to chance encounters. For it’s in the moments in between where we most often make our best photographs. Being there is all-important, but being relaxed and open to serendipity can be just as crucial. In my case, I needed to become intimately familiar with Steinbeck’s book and his trail across America, and I needed to plan a way to capture his ideas in photographs that rang true with his words. Allowing enough time in the field to let the experience unfold naturally was vital to me. And at the last instant, something special or unexpected needed to transform the moment and make the photograph truly memorable. Too many times this last element was missing. Sometimes the answer was simply more.
Once research for a road trip is completed and the necessary transportation accomplished, the photographer must not only execute the planned photographs, but also remain available to chance encounters. For it’s in the moments in between where we most often make our best photographs.


While grazing at a mountainside pool in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming, a female moose raised her head at the sound of Wells’ camera, creating a momentary ripple in the water and a lasting impression on the photographer’s soul.
Inspired by Steinbeck’s narrative, I drove to his starting point. I left on a small ferry from Long Island and journeyed to Connecticut. From there, I traveled north to the Berkshires of Massachusetts and the small islands of Maine. Continuing to follow Steinbeck’s route, I drove to Niagara Falls, Chicago and then farther west to the Badlands, and eventually my home state of Washington. The landscapes and people I found were as varied as the light that swept before my lens. I forced myself to slow down or risk personifying Steinbeck’s cautionary tale from Travels: “When we get these thruways across the whole country, as we will and must, it will be possible to drive from New York to California without seeing a single thing.”

It was in the primordial oasis of Grand Teton National Park where I experienced one of the more compelling moments of my journey. I had awoken very early one chilly fall morning from the comfort of my camper to capture first light on the Teton Range. At a popular boat landing along the Snake River, a perennial beaver pond formed a silent pool, which provided a picture-perfect reflection for the jagged monuments that rose abruptly from a valley floor uninterrupted for hundreds of miles to the east. The parking lot was empty when I arrived in the dark after traveling along a bumpy washboard road. I fixed a medium-focal-length zoom lens to my Canon camera and fastened it to my sturdy Gitzo tripod. I checked the battery, grabbed my bag and slowly made my way to the viewpoint I had visited several times before. I heard a gentle tinkling behind me. As the mist slowly parted on the brightening, rose-tinted river, I spotted a female moose upwind munching contentedly on the tall grass that fringed the ancient, bending stream. A quiet inner voice assured me that if I were to continue to my chosen viewpoint, the moose would eventually follow and provide a counterpoint to the majestic setting.


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