After the Storm

We passed by the Queen City Diner this morning. It was packed to the gills with customers. “I’ve always wanted to get a shot of this place,” I said to Laura. “But not like this. At night. After it rains. I think that would be perfect.”

“Well, you should,” she said.

Again, it was just another one of those things that I haven’t done and I don’t understand why. I just haven’t. Well, I should.

And then I looked at the weather report for the day. Thunderstorms, in the afternoon. In February. The weather in eastern Pennsylvania this year has been strange to say the least. But no matter, and opportunity was presenting itself.

At 4:30, the storm raged through, sending garbage cans and cats and dogs flying, but in twenty minutes it was mostly over. We scrambled together all my camera gear and shot out the door.

It was still raining when we got to the Queen City, but not so much to be a bother. I took my tripod because the light was low and I wanted a shot as still as I could get.

Queen City DinerI’m happy with the result, but I’m happier that we got out and did it.

A Test at Nick’s Diner

Now that I’ve got my new Pentax Limited lens, I’ve been going around to signs and places nearby that I’ve taken shots of before, just to compare. Part of me is saying to myself, is this really going to make a difference? and the other part is saying, Well, I’m going to have fun trying. The most obvious choice for a test was Nick’s Diner in Allentown, since I’ve taken so many pictures there before. I stopped by there yesterday and snapped off a bunch with the new lens.

Nick's Diner, Allentown, PA

Yep, that’ll do.

What Gets You Through the Winter

 

It was cold today, which officially makes the winter redundant. The Northeast has been brutal this year, with wind chills in to the negative degrees. I haven’t been as active as I would have liked in the last two months, due to one thing or another, but somehow when I do manage to find a good sign to shoot, I manage to choose the absolute coldest of cold days. Earlier on in January, I got shots of the Kwik Shoppe in Shoemakersville. Beautiful sunshine, wind chills below freezing. The needle didn’t hit double digits (that’s Farenheit, metric system fans) until I got back home. It was so cold during this shoot, I was trying, with varying success, to hit the shutter button on my K-5 with my heavy winter gloves.

Kwik Shoppe, Shoemakersville, PAOh, was this a cold, cold day…

But I couldn’t argue with the results. There’s something about the winter sun that is noticeable in photographs. A harshness, hyper-contrast. Yesterday was such a day. Not a cloud in the sky, brutal sun, and the freezing point of the extremity of a female occultist’s mammary gland.

Check the picture below. I was just starting to take shots of signs in the summer of 2010 when I came across Schmoyer’s Dry Cleaners in the Mountainville area of Allentown. The building, I could tell, was closed, and in my mind I had to get a shot of it before the sign came down for good.

Schmoyer's Dry Cleaners, Allentown, PA

Nearly four years later and the sign still stands, despite the fact that the Dry Cleaners is all boarded up. I passed by a few days ago and noticed the tree that is in the above picture was no longer there. I figured it would be a good opportunity to get the other side of the sign, which is just as rusty and full of lovely neon bullet holes. And I also wanted to see what difference the winter sun made.

Of course, no one wants to go out into the cold, but I love taking shots that you don’t normally get. Different weather conditions, lighting scenarios, you name it. And I wanted to see if I could get the other side of Schmoyer’s, with the sun on it.

I headed down the hill on PA 145 and from a distance I could see it was going to be a challenge. There was still part of a tree obscuring that side, and the early afternoon sun was projecting shadows of that tree on to the sign. I parked and took a few shots, but I could tell this wasn’t going to be the result I wanted.

Schmoyer's Dry Cleaning, Allentown, PA front side

So, not wanting to admit defeat, I stepped through the snow to the other side. The winter sun was blasting away in vain against the cold, right behind the tree, imposing itself into my shot. I made the best of it and worked with it and not against it. I popped the flash on to augment the light on the face of the sign, and the results here were much better:

Schmoyer's Dry Cleaners, Allentown, PA back side

And for good measure, I tried it out in black and white, getting the bloom of the sun:

Schmoyer's in black and white

There’s a part of me that wants to hole up in the winter, but I see these things and I think, why? There’s so much that can be done out there, even though it’s difficult, even though the winds blow, even though the roads are still unplowed (you feeling me, Allentown?). And although the nasty bite of winter does its worst, it can’t stop the summer from coming. In the midst of all this, we press on. The longer we press on, the greater the chance that we capture something beautiful.

The Learning

A friend of mine once said that he liked the fall because it reminded him of going back to high school. I thought about that for days after, and even now I still remember it. It serves as a reminder to me that I don’t ever want to be so caught up in the past that I wander through my present and future.

I understand the feeling he felt, though. Change is difficult, even when we want it. As human beings, we are so geared toward holding on to what we have that it is hard to let go of something, even when it’s already gone. Some have worse trouble than others and are selfish in all things; some have the ability to let go in certain areas and free themselves.

One of the things I love about photography is that it is always the present. But the irony, of course, is that once this moment of the present is captured, immediately it melts into the past. This is why I like to take pictures of the same thing several times: the present changes, making the subject darker, lighter, unbelievably cheerful or dreary without hope. And some things are just varying degrees of one or the other.

One location seems to be just the dark and the dreary. Three times I’ve gotten shots at the Lehigh Structural Steel in Allentown; the first, on the hottest day of the year in 2009:

Lehigh Structural Steel, Allentown, PA

The second shot was taken on a bright, clear day last year; and the third, taken today, in the deep cold of the winter. The sign faces north, so the sun is almost always behind it. It sits parallel to the Union Street bridge over the Lehigh River, which was where I took the second shot:

Lehigh Steel, from the BridgeIt turned out almost cheery and somewhat interesting, but I was never terrifically happy with it. The first set I always kind of liked, too, but I was just learning my camera and quite frankly the pictures were very grainy. Today, since I was in the area, and since it was cloudy, I decided to try again.

First problem: the angles are odd. Lehigh Structural Steel is located in an odd sub-basement below the bridge, jam-packed with houses and one-way streets that pass for two-way streets. The first shot I took from an odd angle, from the lot next to the old plant. The bridge is the most direct shot, but in the best of days it’s not a great walk.

Under the bridge is an extension of Tilghman Street, and an odd collection of houses sit there, directly underneath the Union Street bridge. I saw a spot to park at the end of the street, near the railroad tracks, and fit my car in it. From here, it was a short walk along the tracks to the shot I wanted. I decided to get the tracks involved, as well:

Wide shot of Lehigh Structural Steel, Allentown, PALehigh Structural Steel, Allentown, PA

And this seems to have captured its present. The way it should look, warts and all. The other shots have their merit, and they certainly captured the present as of that moment, but these shots seem to capture the spirit of the area more than anything.

This is what I’m learning, and what I’m continuing to learn: the past never gets better and never gets worse. Only the present and the future change, and they always do, so the best thing I can to do is try to change these things rather than something that might have happened in my past. It’s a hard lesson, and one that I continue to learn.

Ugly/Beautiful

What is it that draws us to abandoned and broken places? Is it simply just because they are different from the everyday, or do they cause interesting questions in the mind of the viewer, or is there something within us that feels a kinship with its lonely and broken appearance. Perhaps all three.

Izzy's, Allentown, PAIzzy’s Allentown, PA (post-fire, now torn down)

The Orange Car, Allentown, PAThe Orange Car, Allentown, PA

It wasn’t a good weekend last weekend. My computer of six years took a sudden and irrepairable nosedive on Saturday. On Sunday, my car started hesitating while shifting gears and my check engine light came on. The fun continued yesterday, which started with me in the dealership, went on to work, where everyone else was also having a bad day, and finished off with me dropping my B&H catalog in the toilet (don’t ask). My brother-in-law posted something on Facebook about having a horrible day as well.

You never wish a bad day on anyone, but it was nice to know that I wasn’t alone.

11 and 15 Fuel Stop11-15 Fuel Stop, Liverpool, PA

A few months ago, I stopped by an old gas station along US 11 and 15. It’s been closed for as long as I’ve been driving along that stretch of road, but its hand-painted sign along the top has always intrigued me. I finally had the time this trip through so I pulled off, and for the first time, I took a good long look at it. Pretty desolate outside, but inside was a scene from one of those abandoned places urban spelunkers all flock to:

Inside 11-15 Fuel Stop, Liverpool, PA Inside 11-15 Fuel Stop, Liverpool, PAI began to think of this place yesterday, when I was going through my set of circumstantial turmoil. I thought of every dark, depressing place a person can come up with. And it just didn’t ring true. Turmoil hits us all, sooner or later, as does depression. But they’re not the same thing. Turmoil happens, conflicts happen, but if you handle them the right way, you learn and grow. Depression is its own thing, and turmoil just prolongs it.

Depression is the above picture, a spreading disease. Turmoil can look rough, but it’s alive, active, still hopeful for a chance. And turmoil, once conquered, becomes one of your greatest allies.

I look at these pictures of the 11-15 Fuel Stop and think about how unusual it is. I think about what must have happened here to make it look like this. But mostly, I think of what has been overcome. I have been here and I have moved on. May we all have turmoil and work through it. And as the great philosopher Kelly Clarkson says, “What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.”

Neon Dreams and Neon Missions

Zandy's Allentown

Closing Up at Zandy’s in Allentown, PA, 2009.

A few days ago I had a dream. Don’t laugh, but it was about a sign. I was driving down a familiar road, or at least, a road that was familiar in my dream. I passed by a large and impressive sign, one that I must have passed by a thousand times and somehow never noticed. It was lit up in the middle of the day and had all sorts of neon and bulbs and all the bells and whistles. I pulled the car over and realized I was still far away, so I turned around and parked in the lot. By the time I got to the sign, the lights had gone out, and I could see that there was this odd LCD sign bisecting the great old neon one, stuck in the middle of it as if it had been thrown there with great force. The people who worked at that business, which was beauty salon, were leaving to go to lunch. Two women and a man. They walked up the street and I followed them, figuring when they would get back they would turn the lights back on.

The people stopped to eat at someplace that I knew was not a restaurant. It resembled a college dorm. They sat down at a table and blabbed to each other and paid no notice of me telling them they weren’t in a restaurant.

I woke up the next morning and told Laura about this dream. And all sorts of memories crept up.

I’ve learned from experience that no one wants to hear anyone’s problems, least of all read about them, so I’ll keep this part of the story brief: I was working in television, and was laid off in 2009 due to fiscal problems at the station. Following that, partially unemployed for a little over two years. A week before the layoff, I bought my first D-SLR, a Pentax k20d. It was a struggle not to think Oh, great, just made this major purchase, and now what? But I looked at my new camera a different way. I don’t believe in coincidence. I was supposed to use this.

News Agency, Quakertown, PANews Agency, Quakertown, PA. Taken in May of 2009.

I had always wanted to take pictures of signs, but my life in television had been harried and hurried and I never felt like I could take the time. After a tough day of job search, I’d try out the Pentax. I cut my teeth on a few locals, the News Agency sign in Quakertown, which I felt was not long for this world in 2009 and lo and behold it still stands. The neon of Zandy’s, which sits across Double Decker Records, one of my favorite haunts. And the majestic neon of the Allentown Rescue Mission, which had just recently been restored.God Is Love, Allentown Rescue Mission, Allentown, PA

Allentown Rescue Mission, Allentown, PA. Also from 2009.

Somehow drawn to these old friends after I had my dream, I went back out for another visit. I hit up the Allentown Rescue Mission first. I had never gotten a shot of the neon cross out front, though why I can’t say other than to bring up how drawn I was to the massive “God Is Love” on top. It was just after sundown, my favorite “neon magic hour.” I found a difference this time out: the “S” was out from “Is.” So know the sign reads “God I Love.”

Allentown Rescue Mission, Allentown, PAAllentown Rescue Mission, September 2013

That works, too.

And while I was at it, the neon cross:

Cross at the Allentown Rescue Mission, Allentown, PA

For days after, I really saw my dream as something negative, of being ignored, of finding what I was looking for but once I had it, it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. Maybe that was true, but lost in that is something truly positive: we all have our missions in life, and in the end it doesn’t matter that a few people—or many—aren’t listening. We should continue to live, to seek and strive, and if we don’t find what we’re looking for, we move on. Whatever pain we have endured, we use to help others who have struggled with the same thing. We do what we were put on Earth to do with the tools God has given us, whether it be a camera or a pen or even just an idea.

God I Love, Allentown Rescue Mission, Allentown, PA

This is our mission. This is our life. And in the end, no amount of disappointment and struggle matters in the light of that.

Cruisin’

ritz-ice-creamThe Ritz Barbecue, Allentown, PA

Lately, I’ve been reading a book a friend of mine recommended. It’s by the author of The Legend of Bagger Vance, Steven Pressfield, entitled The War of Art, and it’s been coloring everything I see. The main focus of the book is crashing though the barriers to creative achievement, which he personifies as “Resistance.” Far too often we give in to Resistance and don’t do the things we need to do start and complete creative projects, whether it be a book, a painting, or a business.

It’s Sunday night. Usually, we do nothing on Sunday nights, because I’m going to have to get up in the morning to take the long journey in to work. In case I haven’t mentioned it before, this requires a two-hour one-way trip in the car. But a small voice in my head whispered the words “Ice Cream,” and it wouldn’t stop. The closest place to procure such delicacies is The Ritz Barbecue, just to the side of the Allentown Fairgrounds. And The Ritz has neon signs. And it was getting close to neon magic hour.

Laura was all on board for the ice cream, so we got ready. On the way out the door, she says, “Aren’t you going to take the camera?”

Some part of my brain, no doubt the part that doesn’t work properly, said that I shouldn’t. I’m not sure why. Some weird form of guilt that has no basis in fact or logic. Resistance. I shook it off and scooped up the camera bag.

We pull into the parking lot of the Fairgrounds, and what I saw blew my mind. Unbeknownst to either of us, the Blue Mountain Classics Car Club was having a Cruise Night in the parking lot of the Ritz. There were about thirty or forty classics lined up, shining in the waning sun.

“And this is why I should take the camera,” I said.

Super Deluxe 8

Galaxie

Lesson learned. If I’d stuck to the normal pattern, I would have missed out on this whole thing. If I had listened to my own foolish notions, I would have been flailing around trying to capture this on my iPhone. But I cast all those things aside and got this great shots, got to see some great cars, and oh, by the way, got some Peanut Butter Cookie Dough ice cream.

Which sort of brings me to dreams and aspirations, and how they are available when you make the effort to announce your intentions. We get so beaten down in life that we naturally suspect that we can’t get what we want. I think we get upset at those that are successful because they act as if they can get anything that they want and then do just that. Donald Trump, for instance, annoys the crap out of me. But you know, the man has made his money because he believes he can. And secretly, I admire those convictions.

Bel Air at the Ritz Barbecueritz

The Apostle Paul says in the book of Romans that God “calls into being things that were not,” and honestly I don’t mean to sound like I just stepped behind a pulpit, but I believe this. I also believe that we, as mere mortals, can do the same thing, to call into being things that are not.

So I say this, just to release this dream into the air:  I want to drive the length of US 1 from Maine to Key West. Driving in one of these classics. Taking shots of all the great signs I see along the way. In my head, this seems impossible. But once I say it, it not only sounds possible, but likely.

What’s your dream?

Urban Renewal

Signs and buildings are always a casualty of urban renewal, and whereas some need/have to go for safety concerns or plain darn ugliness, there’s always one or two gems that caught in the friendly fire. Allentown has been preparing for a brand new hockey stadium downtown which hopes to bring some revitalization to the downtown area, and in the process a good chunk of the area has been flattened. Fortunately, I caught some images in this area before these were removed:

Linden-Bar

The Linden Bar and Restaurant was on the corner of 7th and Linden. It was a tricky sign to get to, and quite honestly the only shot I got of it I managed to get with my K20d while stopped at a stop light.

7thSt

The 7th Street Delicatessen was just up the road. This was decidedly one of those where I’m glad I got a shot of it, but I wasn’t surprised or dismayed in the least when it came down. Love the raised lettering. This type of sign is a very rare sight these days, although this type of lettering on tile was very common at one point.

Bonus, though: in the process of knocking down some buildings on Hamilton Street, they uncovered a ghost sign that’s already become one of my favorites.

farr-2

Nick’s Diner

IMG_0847One of the most interesting aspects of what I do here is the reactions I get. I’ll be covering this in greater detail in some future posts, but I just wanted to say how happy I was to receive word from the owner of one local business who appreciated a contribution I made to Instagram. One of my favorite signs belongs to Nick’s Diner on Tilghman Street in Allentown, so much my favorite that I think I’ve posted four shots of this sign alone. Giannis Nikoladis, whose family owns Nick’s, recently commented on a ghostly black and white I took: “Very nice picture…You did a beautiful job and thanks again for the picture”.

It’s the first time I’ve gotten a thank you from a business owner. When I got that a couple weeks ago, I was just over the moon. Thanks so much, Giannis, and here’s one of the first pictures I took at Nick’s in the summer of 2009, at “neon magic hour.”

Nicks_corrected

I’ve also gotten together some diner shots and explain my love-hate relationship with diners in general on my newly-created diner page. And if you know of any good ones I’m leaving out, please let me know!