Monday, October 20, 2008

Making Junk Into Beautiful "Junque"

We were driving down a back road in Spruce Grove on an impromptu "photo safari" when my wife spun around and made an undignified squawking sound. This usually signals the fact that we have just driven by something that will make an awesome picture.

I was looking the other way, as is my custom.

“Did you see that?” she exclaimed.

“Ummm…” I began.

“There was a metal castle over there!”

“Were there flying monkeys circling the turrets?” I asked.

She didn’t respond to this extremely witty comment, but flipped the car around and drove back down the road. Sure enough, just inside a junk yard was this huge metal castle. I stifled my own squawking sound and grabbed my camera. The sun was just setting and there were ribbons of color in the sky, but the light was fading.

I started taking pictures: an abandoned bus out front of the junk yard, the weather-beaten signage and, of course, the metal castle. A big machine started rolling my way. In the cab was a little old guy who looked like he just might be the elf that lived in the castle.

I was half-right.

“Do you like my castle?” he asked, swinging down from the seat. He’s a genial guy who introduces himself as “Frank. Just Frank.”

I nod, taking a few more photographs just in case he's getting ready to kick me off his land.

“I made it,” he said. “I made that castle from scrap metal.”

His voice has a heavy Slavic accent but he regards the metal structure with a fondness I recognize as coming from someone who has built something that is seriously cool.

My eyes scan the area behind him. Cars in various stages of getting ripped up, junk metal, appliances and even a coffin are arranged in relatively neat piles on the grounds behind me.

"I found that coffin along the highway," he says.

"Was it...empty?" I ask.

He nods. "Yeah. Yeah. Found another one too. Empty. Very good quality."

I am speculating as to how empty coffins wind up littering Alberta highways when Frank nods his head in the direction of a “pick me up” truck and I follow. He shows me a picture of a much bigger castle. “I used to live in this,” he says. “But I gave it to my wife and when she divorced me, she sold it.”

I nod in sympathy as though I hear a story about "castle selling ex-wives" every other day. He shrugs and we both gaze silently at the picture again. This is an interesting castle-building-coffin-finding-artist kinda guy, I think.

“I got twenty Cadillacs too,” he volunteers suddenly. “From 1959 and on up. I rebuild ‘em. I don’t sell ‘em. I just keep them.”

I ask him a couple of times in a couple of different ways why he has twenty Caddys. He explains back a couple of different times, that he just likes to rebuild them and keep them.


Frank makes a jerking movement with his head and I follow him into a lean-to where a large white cloth covers a car.

He lifts the corner of the cloth and shows me a white caddy. Reluctantly, he poses for a picture with his latest project…and I ask him finally if it’s okay for Sheree and me take a few photos.

He looks at me for a long moment and then shrugs and says it’s okay with him if we’re careful.

We are kids in a candy store, trying to shoot as much as humanly possible as the light fades.

Everywhere we look are images begging to be captured. Old cars, for example, really interest me. It’s not because I am a “car guy.” I’m not. But I look at these crushed piles of metal and twisted struts and invariably think: “Yeah. Someone somewhere drove each one of these off the lot when they were brand new. Someone was proud to own them. Someone made a pile of payments on them. And now they’re here. Scrap metal.”

I am still experimenting with HDR (see the previous blog) and other than the single shot of Frank by the car, these are HDR images – all the more challenging to take because my ISO was cranked to 800 to combat the creeping darkness…and I was handholding the camera.

Everywhere we looked was an amazing photo.

Is there a junkyard near you? Here are my Five Top Tips For Photographing Junk:

1) Spend a little time with the owner. You’ll meet someone interesting…and you’ll make them inclined to let you make some photographs of their stuff. (This means also going back there to drop off some of the pictures you took…these guys can be fabulous contacts.)

2) You need dramatic light to make it work. Sunrise is good. So is sunset.

3) Take TONS of images. Don’t be afraid to bracket or try wild varieties of settings. While it is true that most of it will suck, some of it won’t. And some of it will be wonderful! Delete what doesn’t work. Relax: it’s digital. (If your camera has a SUNSET setting, this will accent all those wonderful rich colors. Try using it and see what happens.)

4) Walk around your subject and think about the angles you might want to shoot. Remember that in a junk yard there are TONS of distractions that will show up in your image as clutter. Keep a very tight mental focus on the subject of your image – and ensure that whatever else you add to the graphic has a reason for being there.

5) Rust is beautiful. When you’re doing post-production in Photoshop, you will find that the Brightness/Contrast slider in Image> Adjustments can be your best friend. You will get some fabulous contrasts and colors.