Archive for Jan 2012

It was a beautiful day, and I was headed home … or so I thought … from a fruitful shoot on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in northern California.

(Here are two of the many photographs I took there, one overlooking Mono Lake, the other peering into an old, vacant barn near the village of Lee Vining – yes, that’s the actual name.)

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No matter which route I took, unless I was content to go via Cape Horn, it would send me through Yosemite National Park. Although I can think of far less scenic passages, at the time I was not interested in taking any Ansel Adamsesque photos of Half Dome or anywhere else in this awe-inspiring park. Rather, I was desirous of getting home as expeditiously as possible.

Because traffic was more brutal than I had expected, I was able to emerge on the western side in about an hour and forty-five minutes. Had I not found myself behind a pokey motor-home that couldn’t get out of its own way, it would have been even quicker.

Zigging instead of zagging, I somehow managed to get myself shunted off course, finding myself on Route 59 (huh?) instead of Route 120, as was intended. By the time I realized the navigational oops, I was deep in the bowels of Merced County, driving past farm after farm, ranch after ranch. I was reminded of counting telephone poles as a backseat-relegated kid on family motor trips. The countryside is pretty enough, but a serious, unforced detour was not exactly what the doctor ordered.

When I saw a sign reading “Snelling, Pop. 231,” I knew I was in trouble. I stopped at a gas station – the only one in Snelling (15 miles due north of Merced, if you must know) – and asked for directions to Highway 99, which I knew would take me north instead of deeper into what for me was uncharted – and undesired — territory.

“Remain on Hwy. 59,” the convenience store cashier said, “and you’ll hit 99. Can’t miss it.”

“Thanks,” I replied, handing over my Visa card to pay for the $52.55 fill-up, doing my part to boost Chevron’s over-the-top bottom line .

On my way out of town, out of the corner of my eye, I espied what appeared to be an attempt at a grassroots, amateur car show. Vehicles of all manner, including a totally transmogrified 1959 Edsel – worst makeover in the history of sheet metal and Bondo – were neatly sprinkled about the verdant town common.

I stopped, of course – “Hey, is the Pope Catholic?” – and sauntered about. Of the 50 or so vehicles displayed, the greatest percentage were Corvettes, a couple of them prized Stingrays, which were produced from 1963 through 1967 and which many Vette aficionados consider the crème de la crème.

Then there was the customized 1959 Edsel (I was certain of the year; I once owned one … don’t ask), which looked as if the person who did the bodywork had lost a bet. I should have taken a picture to show the world how ugly it was, but my camera was in the car, and, to be frank, I was too lazy to go fetch it. The Edsel might have cracked the lens anyway.

Back in my own car, focused mentally on the Hwy. 99 interchange I was told I was certain not to miss when, out of the corner of my eye I espied, off in the distance and behind a forbidding concertina-wire fence, an old truck, nestled alongside a lovely water-lily pond. I stopped and peered longingly over the fence. The scene was so idyllic it could have been a movie set.

The truck fairly spoke to me. I swear I heard it say, “Come take pictures of me, come take pictures.”

I looked up and down the steer-clear fence, and nowhere did I find a break where I might be able to get a closer look, so I got back in the car and inched forward. A short distance away there was a very elegant gate, which read “Ashley Acres.” Sticking my nose through the wrought iron, I could see a very nice barn-red ranch house, horses and a “vintage”
tractor.  Certainly looked as if someone was there.

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Cupping my hands to my mouth, I yelled as loud as I could, “Hello. Is anyone there?” After a few no-reply minutes had passed, I realized I was talking to myself.

Not content to leave this impossibly inviting venue, I walked over to the gate-control keypad nearby. Surely there is an intercom button. Ah, surely not. Rats.

My only hope, I concluded, was to leave a business card somewhere. But where? Having no Scotch tape with me … good Lord, not even duct tape, if you can imagine … after scribbling on the backside “I would love to take pictures. Please call me,” I wedged it into the crack between the faceplate and the housing.

As I drove off, I said a prayer requesting three things: 1) that it wouldn’t fall out; 2) that someone would find it; and 3) that said someone would actually contact me. Nothing more I could possibly do.

One week passes, two weeks, no response from anyone at coveted Ashley Acres. Finally, I get an e-mail, not from the property owner but rather from a real estate agent representing same. Although no For Sale sign was up, she said, the 40-acre estate was on the market, listed at $1.7 million. Per acre, a bargain, no doubt, if you don’t mind the oppressive summer heat of California’s Central Valley.

The agent, very cordial, said she’d been contacted by the property caretaker, who had contacted her after seeing my card at the gate. (It worked!)

She said she would forward my request to the owner, whom, understandably, she declined to identify. “I will ask that the owner get back to you directly.” “Fine,” I replied, “that’s all I can ask. Thank you.”

Another week passes, then still another. I had pretty much given up hope when one day, while I was vacationing in Maine, I got an e-mail from the private secretary of a Mr. Lawrence Wong, the owner.

(Here are a pair of Maine photos — a locally famous pedestrian bridge in Somesville and a wall of retired lobster buoys in Stonington, an historic and very picturesque fishing village.)

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It read: “Mr. Black, I am Angel Andronico, Mr. Wong’s assistant. Mr. Wong says he is happy to grant you access for any pictures you may wish to take. Contact the caretaker, Kurt McFadden, and make visitation arrangements directly with him.” Shazam! Must be Irish.

I immediately got on the phone, calling the number she provided. To the person answering, whom I correctly presumed to be Mr. McFadden, I said, “Hi. This is Tom Black, the photographer Mr. Wong is allowing to take photographs. Can we set up a time?”

“Yes, this is Kurt. I’m the caretaker. What time is good for you to visit?”

I proposed a date and time, to which he replied, “Fine. I’ll be here. Just call from the road when you are within a half hour or so to give me a heads-up.”

“Sure will,” I answered. “Thank you very much. I look forward to the visit.”

Two weeks to the day later, as instructed, I phoned Kurt from the road when I sensed that I was within the gravitational pull of Ashley Acres.

“Kurt? I’m on Highway 59, near the 99 interchange. Be there in 20 minutes.”

“I’ll meet you at the gate.”


Meet me he did. He tripped the mechanism that opened the swing-in gate. I drove just inside, got out of the car, and, beaming, extended my hand.

Gripping it was a hand so huge it fairly enveloped my own. It was attached to a huge arm that was attached to a huge body. Kurt looked like a Hollywood character actor who would have been perfectly cast in an episode of the old TV series “Bonanza.” Coveralls, stocky, tall, and, of course, sporting the requisite full beard, in this case, a pure white one.

“Pull ahead and park anywhere under the trees. You’ll be glad you parked in the shade. Toasty today, even by local standards.”

My cellphone read “Merced 95 degrees,” and it wasn’t even noon. I was glad I had had the presence of mind to bring a wide-brim sombrero and insect repellent, the latter because I am a veritable mosquito magnet.

As I exited the car – windows advisedly rolled down a couple of inches – I heard a strange noise, one that I could not readily identify.

Walking forward, I saw off in the distance several ostriches, from which the sounds were emanating.


“Yup,” said Kurt, “got them and a whole lot of other animals – ducks, horses, zebras, llamas, and, of course, cattle. Menagerie. Sometimes I feel like I’m the zookeeper, not the caretaker.”

“How long you been here?”

“Thirteen years and counting. Don’t know how much longer, though, because, as you may have learned, the property is up for sale. If I had the money, I’d buy it. I love it here. I hope that whoever buys it will keep me on. Don’t know what else I would do, especially in this economy. Jobs are scarce.”

Changing the subject, he said, “What kind of camera you got there? Not that I would know the difference, mind you.”

“Nikon. I also have Canon cameras, but my serious cameras are all Nikon.”

“Nikon. That Japanese?”

“Indeed it is, as is Canon. To me, the quality is unsurpassed. Some people still say German-made Leicas are best, and perhaps they are, but the prices are astronomical. I’m perfectly content with Japanese goods.”

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“So be it. I don’t know one brand from another, or one camera from another. All the same to me. I don’t want to interfere. Just curious. Go take whatever pictures you want to take. I’ll be here if you need me. Today I’m cleaning the pond. Loaded with algae. Not good.”

“Is the water clean enough to drink?”

“Not by humans. It’s OK for the animals, though.”

I shook Kurt’s hand and walked off toward what would be the day’s photographic subjects. Through the trees I saw one truck, then a second, then a third. Insert in order presented and link each of following four pix, two each side by side. Each pair extends to align with outer margins of text:

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“Wow,” I said to myself. “I think this definitely will prove worth the return trip.”

Indeed it was. For the ensuing three-and-a-half hours, nonstop, I shot frame after frame of half a dozen trucks and a pair of tractors, all of them decades old, decrepit, and therefore eminently photogenic. As I had surmised when I first poked my head over the fence from the road, it could easily have been a Hollywood set. Literally picture perfect. Of the 150 or so images I shot, shown here are a couple of what I rank as among the best of the keepers.

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As I was putting away my gear, I glanced at my watch. 3:30. Then I glanced at my cellphone. 98 degrees. Whew! I don’t do well in heat. When the thermometer hits 80, I head for the shade, but in this instance there was none.

As I approached the car – hotter than blazes inside even though the windows had been lowered – Kurt came over.

“How’d it go?”

“Terrific,” I replied, smiling broadly. “No sunburn, no insect bites.”

“Good. Glad you’re satisfied. Hope you’ll come back and see us.”

“Well, frankly, don’t know if that’s in the cards, particularly since the property is up for sale.”

“I know for sure that Mr. Wong would enjoy meeting you.”


“Don’t hesitate to call me if you have any questions. You have the phone number.”

“Sure will, Kurt. Thanks for being so accommodating. I hope things work out for you.”

A couple of months hence, the property was still for sale, although the asking price had dropped by $200,000, to $1,500,000. Were the economy better – Central Valley real estate took a terrible beating in the collapse of the real-estate market – it probably would have sold quickly.

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I remain grateful I was afforded the opportunity to shoot it when I did. Were the property in new hands, who knows, I might have forever remained on the outside looking in … through the wrought-iron gates.

As it was, this proved to be one of the most fruitful Rural Americana shoots I have made to date. I didn’t have to travel to the ends of the earth, it was a one-off exercise, and the results speak for themselves.

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