Thursday, August 25, 2011

Interview with Troy Paiva

The fourth interview in this series is with Troy Paiva. Troy is well-known to many photographers through his monumental website Lost America, where he has been showing his night photography of abandoned buildings and junkyards for over ten years. Troy is also the author of Lost America: The Abandoned Roadside West and Night Vision: The Art of Urban Exploration. In this interview, he discusses his background in night photography, as well as the workshop series that he leads with Joe Reifer.

How’d you come up with the name Lost America?
That came about even before I started doing night photography.  I had read a two-book series at the library back in the late '70s called "Lost America," about interesting and important buildings in US history that had been lost, either by demolition, dereliction or fire.  They were cool books that fit right in with my nascent obsession with all things abandoned.  I loved the aesthetic that the name conjured and filed it away in the back of my mind.  When I started to photograph these subjects and needed to name the body of work something, it fit perfectly.

Wouldn't landscapes and cityscapes be easier for people to understand than junkyards and abandoned buildings?
I understood early on that shooting things that few people know exist, let alone think of photographing was a good way to get your work to stand apart from everyone else's. I don't really care about the masses, I'm not trying to be Thomas Kincaid here.  It was never my intention to create this work for anyone other than me.  I started out as a pure amateur in that regard.  Even with all the publications, shows books, lectures and teaching, I still consider myself an amateur in spirit, because this work has always been personal, It's never been done with commercial intent.

Cockpit Shell - Green by Troy Paiva

So, what’s the whole back story behind Lost America?

The progression goes like this: I've been attracted to, and explored, abandoned places since I was a child.  It started out on road-trip-based family vacations where we would just drive across the desert for days on end.  We visited Bodie in 1973. This was before it was a well-known tourist spot.  When we arrived you could just drive into the center of town and park.  No one else was there, we had the whole place to ourselves and I wandered around in that town alone all afternoon.  My impressionable thirteen year-old mind was blown that a whole city would just be discarded like that.  I was totally hooked.

All us Paiva's love the open road. My brother Tom and I have both had long-distance driving jobs and our father was a pilot.  We're descended from countless generations of fishermen, so helming vehicles across vast expanses, under huge skies is just built into our DNA.  As a teenager my friends and I would take three-day, 1,500 mile drives into the southwest.  I learned at a very early age that the journey was frequently more interesting than the destination.  This driving obsession led me to lots of little traveled places in the middle of nowhere.  Remember, this was the late '70s, when the last remote stretches of interstate were being opened, so there was lots of freshly abandoned stuff to see out there.  By the time I had reached my late teens I was a full-blown road-tripping ghost-towner and ruins nerd.

Did Tom’s photography career have any influence on your photography?
In 1989 Tom was finishing up his photo degree at the Academy of Art in San Francisco.  I was 29 and deep into a career as an illustrator and designer for Galoob Toys.  Painting and drawing for a living, I was searching for a way to create personal art as far removed from painting and drawing as I could.

One of Tom’s classes was Steve Harper’s semester-long night photography program.  When I saw some of the work being done by Steve, Tom and some of the students like Tim Baskerville (eventual founder of “The Nocturnes”) and Lance Keimig (eventual author of Night Photography: Finding Your Way in the Dark) I immediately saw night work’s potential for capturing the haunting souls of the ghost towns and junkyards of the West that I’d been drawn to since I was a child.  

Steve let me audit a classroom lecture by Michael Kenna and tag along on some class shoots in the industrial section of San Francisco.  I immediately jumped on the bandwagon, bought a junky old 35mm Canon FX, my first real camera, and started my photography career making 8-minute exposures of abandoned Route 66 buildings, under the full moon.  

It didn’t take long for me to come around to the idea of adding light during the time exposures. I began experimenting with strobe and flashlights to add details to the shadow areas.  For a long time I really did just sorta wing it, throwing light out there without a lot of thought. 

Right before the turn of the century, I began to work with some early 3D modeling and rendering software.  It was quickly apparent that effective lighting was the key to good 3D work and I concentrated on studying the nuances of artificial lighting and its effect on mood and emotion. It had an instant impact on my photographic lighting–it began to have intent and context.

"Trad'r Rix Tiki Island" by Troy Paiva

Who were the big influences on you at the beginning.
When I first started night photography and light painting back in early 90s, I was working at Galoob.  Tom and I would hang out for hours, over pizza and beer, talking photography and all kinds of art.  He was studying many photographers at the time and we talked about all of them.  But O. Winston Link, Chip Simons and William Lesch, with their finely developed lighting aesthetics, were the ones that really stuck with me.  They all had a strong impact on developing my own style.

O. Winston Link blew both our minds.  Even as a non-photographer, his subjects: trains, cars and a sped up modern world fueled by postwar technology, all hit me right in the sweet-spot.  Here was another layer of Lost America–a lost world of highballing locomotives, gravity feed gas pumps and drive-in theaters.  More proof of concept for me.  But then you dig into his process and that’s where his work really gets miraculous.  

Photo by O. Winston Link

He did some really complicated setups.
Man, I’ll say.  Working at night, with huge hardwired lighting arrays and several assistants, he'd freeze speeding trains in a massive burst of light, while including complexly lit foreground scenes. He'd use dozens of lights and miles of wire.  His total control over the light was amazing.  AND it was a one shot deal too, the next train was tomorrow night.  The guy must have had brass ones.

And Chip Simons.  Didn’t he photograph dogs?
Yeah.  He did tons of magazine work back in the day, and most of it was lit in very colorful and creative ways.  But I always come back to his goofy and lurid dog work.  Playful without overstating the fact that it's playful.  While the mechanics of how he lights, using traditional studio techniques brought outside, is totally different from my hand-held continuous-source light painting, I really keyed on the theatrical and surreal nature of his lighting.  I loved the way he embraced imperfection and his use of location too.  Chip's a funny guy, a pro's pro, with a career spanning decades.

Photo by Chip Simons

William Lesch’s photographs always appeared to be so simple, at first look. Then when I look at them more closely, I imagine tons of complex planning that must have gone into each shot.
Tom and I would sit there for hours deconstructing the light painted cacti in his book Expansions.  Was it flashlights or strobe?  Is it a double exposure with both dusk and night images?  It made me see that any of those techniques could be used to achieve these mysterious-looking results.  I just saw so much potential for putting these techniques in a totally different context.

Photo by William Lesch

What was your history at Galoob Toys?
I started in 1986 as a design department gopher.  By the time the company was liquidated in '99 I was a project manager on a $50 million toy car line called Micro Machines.

Was there a connection with toys and night photography for you?
The first ten years I photographed the ghosts of these places and things, I made toys that glorified them.  Closing the circle, I guess.

I was a good fit to work on Micro Machines because it was an area I was really knowledgeable about already.  Along with literally hundreds of cars, I also designed a whole pile of playsets of car washes, gas stations and restaurants too.  In many ways it fulfilled my childhood desire to be an architect, without requiring all that pesky engineering and math knowledge.  

Does drawing and painting influence your photography?
EVERYTHING influences me.  Painting, drawing, architecture, industrial design, movies, music.  All these things influence everything I do, probably more than photography does.  

Who are some of your favorites?
Storm Thorgerson, John Hench, Eero Saarinen, Raymond Loewy, Todd Schorr, Robert Williams, Roger Dean, I swear, I could list names all day long of influential artists I admire.  

Click to see larger

I know some musicians have shown an interest in your work.
Quite a few, yeah.  I have a friendly, symbiotic relationship with (Wall of Voodoo founder) Stan Ridgway.  I've given him some CD cover images and he wrote the intro in my first book (Lost America: The Abandoned Roadside West).  Most of the musicians that approach me are American-roots-based and country artists.  Not my bag (and they always seem disappointed when I tell them I'm really more of a Pink Floyd and Frank Zappa man), but I understand the perceived connection.

Sometimes I’m surprised that so many people find your photographs of junk so appealing.
I’m not surprised at all.  Humans have always been romanced by ruins, how else do you explain the attraction of Machu Pichu, Angkor Wat, Pompeii or the Pyramids throughout history?  The ruins I shoot are modern and less permanent than those classic locations, but the spirit behind why they are compelling to us is exactly the same.

You don’t see many people going out and photographing junk themselves. 
Not true.  There is a whole subculture of ruins photographers and urban exploration in America today that didn’t exist even 10 years ago.   It’s way more popular than you give it credit for. I think it’s a generational thing, most people that do this are under the age of 30, and most over the age of 40 don’t really get it.

Eon 66 by Troy Paiva

Why is that?
The love of ruins has been largely missing from the American zeitgeist because we're such a young country–we haven't had any real ruins to call our own.  But by the end of the 20th Century it changed, as technology and infrastructure evolved so quickly over the course of the last 50 years.  Today, American kids seem to be obsessed with the ruins and decay of the "American Century."  The whole UrbEx thing has become a pop-culture phenomenon.  My god man, The Onion recently did a piece lampooning Detroit UE art. You know it’s hit the mainstream now!

A lot people say they love looking at night photographs, but are intimidated by the complexities of the process.
It’s OK to just look.  Everyone doesn’t have to do night photography.  

Even though most of the things that made night shooting technically difficult have been simplified by the invention of the DSLR and digital darkroom, you still have to go out and brave the elements.  You still have to spend hours out there, just to get a couple of finished images.  You still have to deal with cops and property owners.  You still have to make the effort to find something interesting to shoot. 

In today's sped-up O.C.D. culture, there are very few people with the patience to sit back and relax, spending 30 or 45 minutes doing a series of 4-minute exposures to get one shot.  Everyone today wants to do everything with one click of the camera, one click of the mouse.  This is why almost no one paints, or plays a musical instrument anymore.  No one wants to put in the time to become really good at something.  It's tragic, really.

You’ve always been an obsessive woodshedder, haven’t you? 
Yeah, I've always been attracted to complex and difficult art projects and love disappearing into them.  When I did that 3D work, I would spend 80 hours creating enormous set-piece images that pushed far beyond anything the designers of the program had in mind.  In '04 and '05 I spent countless hours in my home studio, making music.  I wrote, performed and recorded hundreds of songs. I'd sit there all night long, adjusting the snare drum sound to get it just right.  Looking back at it, the amount of time I put into it was staggering.  If I had been born 100 years earlier, I would have been that nut-job who made a ten-foot-tall Eiffel Tower model out of toothpicks.  I just love getting so lost in the creative process that you lose all sense of time.  You sit down to get to work at 8PM and what seems like a few minutes pass, only to look at the clock and see that it's 3AM already.  Night shooting is another of those ways for me to get lost in the process.

A lot of people said you were their inspiration for getting interested in night photography. 
Well, that's deeply flattering and frankly, a little scary.  Sometimes it feels like I accidentally started a sort of peaceful and artistic form of "Project Mayhem" in Fight Club.  I started doing this because I didn't want to sit there night after night, watching TV, I wanted to do something that would make me feel alive and viscerally human.  I wanted to work outside the realm of commonality.  Now when I travel, there seems to be a cult of people doing this in every city I go to.  It's spread like wildfire and now there are people doing it once or twice removed.  They're doing it because they saw someone else doing it and have no idea that even exists.  Similar to the Ed Norton character at the end of the film, it's all out of my control now and it makes me feel a little squirrelly.

So what do you think the attraction to night photography is for all these people?
In this rigidly controlled society, where most people willingly march in lock-step with everyone else, from cradle to grave, they are constantly being told what to think and how to think it.  There are millions that long for something else.  Something that they can do that rebels against this corporate-controlled hive mentality, something outside the norm that makes them feel empowered.  Trespassing in the middle of the night to take pictures and make art depicting the fragility and failure of that corporate world, scratches that itch for them.

How important is the act of trespassing to you and your work?
For a lot of people, the thrill of trespassing is part of the pleasure of doing this kind of work.  Many of the locations where I work can only be accessed by trespassing, so it will always be a part of the process, but the older I get the less exciting trespassing becomes.  

Upstairs by Troy Paiva

Why’s that?
I would much rather have permission to shoot a site than not.  It's just easier to work if you don't have to always be hiding or worrying if someone is seeing your lighting.  Plus I want to publish the images and not worry about property owners coming after me, legally.  I have seen other photographers get in hot water by showing work from places they've snuck into.  I'm not interested in those kinds of "hire a lawyer" hassles.

When I first saw your website back in 1999, you said that almost everything was shot on the same type of film, usually at the same aperture and same exposure. Didn’t you find that process too limiting? 
No.  Steve Harper provided his students with detailed exposure and film syllabus for night shooting.  He did all the hard work for us already, figuring out the reciprocity failure formulas and exposure data.  I experimented with a lot of different films and exposures early on, but long before 1999, I’d figured out that Steve's "Moony 8" rule on tungsten film gave me the look and tone that I wanted. By working inside that simplified film/exposure framework I was able to expand its limitations in other ways: by lighting and subject.  

What’s the “Moony 8” rule?
Kinda like the “Sunny 16” rule, only for night.  For digital: Full moon, F/8, ISO 100, 4 minute exposure.  You may need to adjust for conditions, but if you start with that, you’ll get a workable exposure.

Wouldn’t black-and-white film give you more of a mysterious look?
I've always been a colorist–most of my other artwork is very colorful, too.  I knew early on that I wanted to work intensely with color, so I never went the B&W route.  Besides, most of the historic fine-art night shooters were B&W shooters and I wanted to be different from them.

I’ve seen some of the cameras you used before you switched to digital. Some of them were one step away from ending up in the junkyard themselves. 
I originally approached photography as a drawer and painter first.  As such, it's always been about creating mood and atmosphere, an emotional response, rather than taking technically perfect pictures.  That skronky, grainy, color shifted early work was all shot with junky old cameras, usually on out-dated film.  Yeah, it was appallingly crude by today's standards, but the methodology of shooting with broken down equipment suited the broken down subjects.  

The fact that all my early work looks so grainy, vignetted and color shifted, presaged today's iPhone "Hipstamatic" and toy camera craze, has amused me to no end.  Nowadays I see people putting Holga lenses on $2000 digital bodies, so it's come full circle and people have embraced and understood the aesthetic.  But yeah, back in the '90s and early '00s, I took a lot of flack from the rest of the night shooting community about my crappy gear.

Las Vegas Club by Troy Paiva

You never stuck me as someone who cared too much about taking flak from anyone.
Fair enough, but truthfully, by 2004 I was pretty frustrated by it myself.  I had gone as far as I was going to go within the limitations of that gear, so I was more than ready to make the switch to a fancy new DSLR and concentrate more on the technical aspects of night shooting.

Is there enough urban exploration material in the Southwest to keep you busy?
Absolutely. More than I can cover in a lifetime of full moons.

Ever think of exploring more beyond the Southwest?
Sure, I'd like to shoot some of the rustbelt locations and Kirkbrides on the east coast.  I'd love to shoot outside the US, in places like Buzludzha, Chernobyl or Gunkanjima.  The list is endless, really. Ultimately though, I love the desert.  The quality of light, the huge skies, the desolation.  I will happily shoot other locations as they present themselves to me, but I will always come back to the desert.

Are we ever going to run out abandoned locations to shoot?
I get this question a lot.  Locations inevitably come and go, but there will ALWAYS be other locations to shoot.  I remember when the Rock-A-Hoola water park was renovated in the early '00s.  I drove by it that first time thinking "Someday that place is gonna be abandoned and I'm gonna get to shoot it" and 8 years later, it came true.  Mankind has built and abandoned more in the last 100 years than in all the rest of history, combined.  We live in a golden age of ruins.  As long as the human race continues this insane quest to reinvent and replace everything it makes, as quickly and as often as possible, there will always be places and things for me to shoot. 

I know you’ve also worked at night in England and Singapore. How did you pull that off? 
Yeah, I just went back to Singapore again, in early August, to be a judge on season 2 of "The Big Shot" reality show.  In 2009 I was flown to London to give a lecture on my work for VIA-Verlag, a lighting design organization.  I’ll go anywhere and lecture or take pictures if someone pays me to.  In both cases I contacted local night photographers who took me shooting around their home turf on the one or two free nights I had there.

MS by Troy Paiva

Is shooting in the UK and Singapore anything like the U.S.?
My time in both places was very limited, so my comments are only generalizations, but both countries required a totally different style of shooting. It was summer in the UK, so there was only about five hours of darkness and it was always overcast and rainy.  It was virtually impossible to escape the glow of sodium vapor and other man made light.  Singapore too.  Everything in that tiny, densely packed country seems to have four spotlights on it.  In both countries I had a great time being treated to excellent hospitality by my guides, but the atmospheric conditions just didn’t lend themselves to moon-lit time exposure night shooting.  I think this kinda relates to why I love, and will always come back to, the moonlit emptiness of the southwest.

What’s your typical night shooting trip like?
Ideally, I like to head out by myself with 3 or 4 days blocked out, with a general area to shoot in mind.  I might do some research with Google Earth, or look up locations recommended to me, but I really like the freedom of going without any set plans or schedule.  

I will establish a base camp in a cheap motel, usually in a small town, out in the middle of nowhere.  I used to work out of a pick up with a camper shell.  I'd sleep for a few hours in it, a few miles down a dirt road, or behind an abandoned mine–someplace far from paved roads.  Over the years, I've found I do better work, and more of it, when I can get some sleep and a shower in an air-conditioned room.  Yeah, I've stayed in some terrible dives, but it beats sleeping in an oven with no running water.  

During the afternoon I'll drive out and start scouting locations.  I'll stop when I find something interesting, walk around, take a few pictures, see if anyone notices me.  I'll think about it in the context of night.  Will the location be bathed in ugly sodium vapor streetlight?  Will car headlights be a problem?  Neighbors?  If it's a business like a junkyard, I'll try to talk to the owner, show him some work and see if I can get in later that night.  I'll continue on, compiling a list of possible locations, in a 50 or 100 mile stretch, until dark.  Then I'll turn around and shoot my way back to the motel by 3 or 4 AM. Sleep 'til noon, grab a diner breakfast and repeat!

What’s the story behind Traveler’s Motel: 1957 Mercury
Travelers was shot about 1AM, the last shot on a cold winter night at the Big M Auto dismantlers in Williams California.  I was covered with mud and chilled to the bone and had one of those tubercular coughs that lasts all winter long. The conditions were miserable.

I used LED flashlight down the passenger side from the back of the car, just out of the frame.  Getting some light on the ground was important there too, giving the left edge of the frame some context instead of the car just floating in black space.  Then I crouched behind the car and used the LED on the motel sign, making sure to hit the further away top section a little more than the closer lower section, so the whole sign would look evenly lit.  Coming round to the front, I popped a red-gelled strobe where the engine used to be, through the grille.  There is also a snooted LED on the “M” logo and headlight from camera right.  Note that I also just touched the broken headlight with light too, only enough to catch a glimpse of the dead wires in the socket, but not so much that it looked lit.

Traveler's Motel: 1957 Mercury by Troy Paiva

And one more. How did you set up Monte Carlo Moonrise
Capturing the rising moon requires working quickly–it moves its own diameter about every ten minutes.  This was set up just as the moon was cresting enough to compose with, then I opened the lens and the moon rose into the shot.  I had one chance to get it right.  

This Chevy Monte Carlo was lit with lime- and green-gelled Stinger.  The intensity of that light meant backing about 50 feet away from the car, softening and spreading its area of luminosity to cover the entire car without moving it. This gives a smooth, even look to the light it casts. Note that I lit from a low, shallow angle and included the foreground, again, to give the car a sense of place and weight  I also used a tumbleweed as a gobo to cast a shadow on the rear fender.  The red interior was done with an LED pointed at the camera from the far side of the car, blocked by the roof’s rear sail-panel.  I rotated it around inside the car so the dirty glass would diffuse the light.  In post, I used the clone tool to tidy up some slight lens flare and get rid of a distracting point of light on the horizon.  There was a little dodging, to pull some details out of the moonlit background areas, too.

Monte Carlo Moonrise by Troy Paiva

There’s already a ton of night photography workshops out there, what made you and Joe Reifer decide to offer another one?
Yeah, you can't swing a dead cat these days without hitting someone that teaches a night photography workshop.  Many of these workshops are taught by people that have been doing night photography for only a few years, since the switch to digital, when the technology opened up night photography to the masses.  

See, it's easy to teach a night photography workshop because there's actually something to teach; equipment that people aren't familiar with, unusual exposure formulas and other hard factual data.  

But it's difficult to find a night photography workshop that goes beyond the technical and dives into why you take photographs.  Most of these other workshops just teach you how to take night photographs.  Our workshop teaches you how to take good night photographs.

But what’s so unique about your workshop?
In a workshop scene filled with the same old city scenery and nature locations, the idea of doing a workshop in a functioning junkyard is totally unique.  Especially one filled with movie prop vehicles, heavy equipment, aircraft parts and freeway signs.  The owner even crushed a couple of cars for us as an afternoon matinee!  Day or night, there is no other workshop like this on the market.

Isn’t three nights in a single location a bit restricting for some people?
No, three nights in Paul's Junkyard is less restricting than other workshops.  The fact that 50% of our workshop attendees are repeat customers is a testament to that.  Most workshop locations give you a handful of set ups, but with a huge junkyard filled with 100s of vehicles, structures and wildly varied debris, the subject-driven possibilities are literally endless.  

At Paul's there's no down time driving from location to location. You can become immersed deep in the work and can be highly productive in a place that's totally off the map where only a handful of people have ever taken pictures. We had one student come home from one of our three-nighters with 47 amazing time exposures (David Evan's photos from the Paul's Junkyard workshops). Granted, he's an experienced night shooter working with multiple cameras, but try making a body of work that big and cool at any other night photography workshop! 

Many workshop instructors are struggling to fill their workshops. Getting repeat customers is impressive.
Exactly.  While September still has spots open, I was able to fill a private, alumni only workshop at Paul's for October in a couple of days.  See, the alums already know.  When you come to one of our workshops, it's just such a surreal and weirdly inspiring great time, you just gotta come do it again.

To get more information about the workshop at Paul's Scrapyard, check out their website.


Anonymous Steve McIntyre said...

Awesome interview! I've known Troy for several years and he really is insanely funny, knowledgeable and weird. I have attended 3 workshops at Pearsonville and will be going to Paul's in October. Highly recommended!

8:37 AM  
Anonymous AnonymousFTP said...

Good interview, Andy (and Troy!)

6:53 PM  
Blogger Balaphoto said...

Magnific blog!! Excellent!!

Salut, Francesc

1:29 PM  

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