10.17.2016

Fascinated by tourist icons.



I marvel at how intact and untagged so many things are in the northeast. I think I am drawn to photograph images like the one above because things like this really don't survive long in our locale. Outside of the wealthy and secure neighborhoods people need to chain their stuff up in order to keep it and anything that is quaint or curious or just generally available is stolen, vandalized, smashed or covered with painted gang signs.  The two towns I visited on this trip, Lake George and Saratoga Springs, were largely devoid of a kind of human driven entropy that seems more or less rampant in bigger cities.

It's interesting to think about why people photograph certain objects. I can't recall seeing one of these coin operated, binocular telescopes anywhere in my travels across Texas, although I have to assume they exist in some nook or cranny. So they are, to me, an oddity. I remember in my youth seeing these near most big natural attractions but they seem only to have been preserved in unique spots and in unique slots of time.

The implicit intent of our visit to Prospect Mountain, near Lake George in New York, was to see the scenery. The glorious, technicolor trees and the blue waters of the lake. But when I got there I was most interested in the telescopes. I shot lots of angles and lots of different magnifications of the units as I found them. To me, they represent a time in our national past --- the 1950's and 1960's --- when car travel for vacations swelled and families became captive to a national movement: "To see the USA in a Chevrolet." 

While getting anywhere in Texas is a feat of travel endurance and rewards speed and persistence, travel in the middle of New York state seems to have been a different sort of experience. One combining frequent scenic overlooks followed by Howard Johnson's restaurants and Holiday Inns. Until recently Texas had always been a poor state and travel meant one rest stop with chancy toilets every 250 miles or so (with a view of flat, hot land and blowing tumbleweeds) bookmarked by a dusty, independent version of a Motel 6, with a tired and shopworn Denny's diner next door. The Texas Whataburger chain was a sign that a town located off I-10 had made it.

But I am assuming that to a person who grew up in the northeastern part of the United States the experiences might be flipped. The desolation of Texas' open spaces might seem fantastic and unreal while the rawness of the food and accommodations might seem adventurous.

When I think of travel I think of the book, On The Road, by Jack Kerouac. The descriptions of various regions always served to remind the reader that wealth and middle class opportunity in the 1950's flowed from New York City and trickled into the south diminished by an evaporation that left the furthest points south in the deepest poverty.

When I see a coin operated telescope I am reminded of the saying among cultural anthropologists who say that there are only two places that have no trash and litter. At one end of the spectrum are areas of extreme poverty where every paper scrap or piece of trash is collected and used for something. Even if it is just gum wrappers to keep open fires going for boiling water. At the other end of the spectrum there is no trash or litter because people are wealthy enough to pay others to perform constant and strict maintenance. It is only the places in the middle that deal with litter. And the area around Saratoga Springs and Lake George was more or less pristine...

A poor family from a different region might see the unattended, coin operated telescope as something that could be wrenched from its moors and sold as scrap metal while a family from a wealthier cohort ignores the object completely because it is part of a constant landscape in which public objects are immune from a certain cultural entropy, one driven by the idea of deprivation.

As a Texan for most of my life I can only say that I love it that objects like this continue to exist, undamaged, as a marker of a time and space that is removed for most of us now. It's a reminder of an age of innocence. It is visual time travel. Like the old American sedans in Cuba.

It's so different to travel on a family vacation to a wealthy, established town in a community with history. I become like every other proud father visiting his kid's college town. Carrying a camera to record all the things that are novel and different with little regard for making art or presenting the visual material in some personal style. Just recording the things that stick out and make this newly discovered locale unique in my catalog of places. And in a year and a half I'll have finished paying for an undergraduate adventure at a private college and we'll collectively move on to the next stage.

I'm back home and trying hard to settle back into this different culture. Everything here is both new and worn at the same time. Pre-fab, tilt wall America. Young people in a hurry. Pretensions of hipness mired in a culture of discount ethos. I guess that's the thing I photograph when I'm seriously working on my own photographs. Every place is still as different as it is the same.








5 comments:

  1. Funky (as in groovy) and beautifully written. Love the disappearing act triptych at the end. Faces to fit your face. I visit New York often and assumed these telescopes were completely ubiquitous to the US in general. Must explore more.....

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  2. Interesting observations. I'm old enough to remember the '50s. They weren't as idyllic as they are often depicted. FWIW those coin operated binoculars can also be found on top of Whiteface Mt. in the Adirondacks and you can drive up that mountain too, all but the last quarter mile. If you not feeling up to climbing that last bit, you can take the elevator that goes up through the center of the mountain to the summit. It's a bit of a drive from Saratoga but you might enjoy the change of scenery from Texas. I know Austin, My son lives there. NNY and Texas are very different.

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  3. Wish I could "Turn to clear vision" for only 25 cents.

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  4. Oh wow, Kerouac. Another sign that we're almost the same age...

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  5. Your writing here very much reflects my reaction when I saw the first photo you posted of the viewer. We didn't travel much when I was a kid, but somehow my mind links these viewers with the feeling of arriving at someplace special.

    I grew up in the Texas Panhandle but spent the last 12 years of my working life in upstate New York. While there were days I admired the hills and trees and foliage there were many more days I felt cramped and closed in. On visits home it was always a great thing to step out onto the plains and be able to see to the horizon. It was as if all the possibilities of the universe opened up before me.

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