Tuesday, September 15, 2009

At the Star Gazer

Star Gazer 35, 2009

"I had to photograph old things because I knew they wouldn't be there long."

Art Sinsabaugh

One of the compelling capabilities of photography is its ability to portray texture. This is a good fit for those of us who like to explore old places because old places usually have a jump on new places when it comes to texture. Old places are tired. They’re worn. They’ve seen a lot of use. They’re full of texture.

Earlier this year I was up in Harrisonburg, Virginia, on a research assignment. I had a morning free, so I grabbed the camera and headed out early in search of something interesting to photograph. (You can see what I found here.)

Those of us who search for old places to photograph know they’re not found along interstate highways. You have to get back on the old two-lane roads and back streets. You have to figure out where the parts of town are that have been bypassed by progress, where structures are empty and decaying, where streets have weeds growing in them. You look for the places of such little commercial value that no one has cared to knock them down yet. Railroads were once the connective tissue between towns and defined their commercial terrain, so you know to follow rail lines because they’ll almost always lead you to forgotten places.

I didn’t have to drive far on the old state road north out of Harrrisonburg before I found an old tourist court motel. It didn’t have individual cabins. But each guest room in its one remaining wing had its own garage or carport.

Sometimes old places are creepy just because they’re old. Floorboards and stair treads have a way of giving out. Ceilings fall. But this old place was creepy because it showed so many signs of the desperate lives of some of its more recent squatter residents. The floors were littered with whiskey bottles, beer cans, old clothing, animal droppings and drug paraphernalia. I didn’t expect to run into anyone. The rooms offered little privacy or protection from the elements. The windows and doors were all gone. There were huge holes in the roof. But given the drug paraphernalia, I was a little more wary than usual. (I made a lot of noise before I entered any enclosed space.)

Every room was a texture lover’s dream. Paint was peeling. Wood timbers were sagging. Hunks of insulation, bottles, shingles, syringes, spoons and all manner of other debris covered the floors of what had once been a respectable business.

When I got home I sent a few shots of this place to my friend, architect and photographer Dave Chance, who wrote back immediately to say that he’d also photographed this place several years ago while visiting some relatives in that part of the state. When Dave was there, though, the place hadn’t deteriorated quite as much and still had a proud sign out on the highway that announced it as The Star Gazer.

I don’t think it would take much more than a stiff wind or heavy snow to finish off this place. But as I thought back to its location on the side of a hill overlooking the upper Shenandoah Valley, I imagined tired 1950s travelers, perhaps salesmen like my father, who after a long day on the road could think of nothing finer than to pull a chair from their room out onto the driveway, share a bottle and look up at the night sky.

1 comment:

  1. I know where that place is. You painted a rich picture of its history here. This photo says it all.