Four Twenty-One

I foolishly convinced myself a few years ago that there was nothing of interest to photograph within city limits unless I was exploring architecture downtown. I like images that are timeless and there are just too many things (cars, businesses, signs, etc.) to date a photograph when shooting in a modern city. Don’t even get me started on the suburbs; rows and rows of boring, uninspiring stucco architecture and cinder block. Everything screams “1990’s real estate boom.” I had no inspiration for the Arizona landscape, either, because I didn’t know what to do with it to distinguish my photographs from almost a century of Arizona Highway magazine covers. I had resigned myself to shooting only when I was traveling or exploring remote areas outside city limits.

Thankfully, I’ve since changed my tune. As my experience as a photographer grew, and as I exhausted some of the more obvious subject matter, I began to be more observant. Clichés faded away and nuanced relationships began revealing themselves to me. I suddenly found myself full of inspiration without even leaving my zip code.

When my family moved in the summer of 2016 I couldn’t wait for the weather to cool down so I could go explore the photographic possibilities in the surrounding areas of my new hometown. No, really, I couldn’t wait. In mid-June, armed with my iPhone, I began driving around the Avondale, Tolleson, and Goodyear areas despite the awful heat.

When I’m close to home I almost never bring my camera with me the first time I check out new areas. There’s no pressure to photograph something today because it’s close to home and I can return whenever I want. I tend to take more risks than I would with my SLR in hand. I can use my iPhone as a sketchbook to capture ideas and let them simmer for awhile. I can sketch an idea and then watch as my subject matter changes with different light or weather conditions, considering the possibilities and taking my time in planning the final image.

Here is one of the first sketches I made that day in June:

Four Twenty-One (iPhone Concept Sketch)
Four Twenty-One (iPhone Concept Sketch)

I originally visualized this scene in black and white. I shot it accordingly and posted my phone snapshot to Instagram, where it was favorably received. The 16:9 aspect ratio seemed obvious, given the width of the building and all of the long, horizontal lines reinforced by the street and telephone wires. I liked the tension created by having the telephone pole centered in the frame. I liked that it leaned ever so slightly to the left. There is an implied symmetry with the composition but there’s nothing symmetrical about the architecture. The train cars on the left help to balance the visual weight of the image since the right side of the building breaks the frame.

After driving by and observing this building over a period of several months I began to imagine it in color. I really liked the subtle turquoise, yellow and salmon colors on the top of the building. I figured I needed to shoot on an overcast day for them to really pop; a deep blue sky would overwhelm the colors and they’d lose their impact. I also needed to increase my distance and focal length in order compress the scene and make the high structures in the rear more prominent. The wide angle iPhone lens pushed them too far away.

I really didn’t like the bush on the right. It threw the whole scene out of balance to my eye because it made the middle-right part of the composition too busy with the telephone pole, guy-wire and bush all contacting the ground in that area and overlapping the trucks behind. I wasn’t sure what to do about that. Maybe if I caught it on a day that a truck wasn’t behind it then it wouldn’t be too bad? Or, maybe I could sneak over in the middle of the night and cut it out (just kidding).

In November it was beginning to cool down and we had a few cloudy days. I watched and waited for the right kind of clouds; the kind that don’t have a lot of detail or presence to fight with the intricate details of my industrial scene. The weekend after Thanksgiving I went for it. I still didn’t like the bush on the right, but I set up my tripod and began composing my scene. While waiting for a break in traffic to take a shot, I suddenly had the idea to obscure the bush with a car. This could also potentially reinforce the central tension by intersecting a car with the telephone pole in the middle. I slowed my shutter speed down to 1/15th of a second, thinking that I didn’t want to see a lot of detail on the car; I just wanted it to cover the bush and provide some movement in the scene. I also wanted a low profile car, one that wouldn’t blend in too much or call too much attention to itself. I watched and shot about a dozen frames of different vehicles passing through, trying to get the timing right.

Here is my final solution, and my first image of 2017:

Industrial Landscape by Johnny Kerr
Four Twenty-One / Arizona, 2017

I have to give credit to photographer Josef Hoflehner for inspiring me to get out and explore my hometown. When browsing his portfolio I came across an all too familiar scene. Recognizing it as an intersection in Sun City, literally a couple miles away from my home at the time, I decided it was time to abandon my previous stubborn notions and get out and really look at my surroundings.