Rock #1

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Of 154, but don’t worry, I won’t be posting all the rest. The rocks are near Holden Village, an ex-copper-mining town turned Lutheran retreat on the edge of Washington’s Glacier Peak Wilderness, where we recently spent a week working on what is claimed to be the most remote ADA-compliant trail in the country. To get to Holden, you must take a passenger ferry up long, fiord-like Lake Chelan to a small landing, then a school bus up a 10-mile gravel road into the deep, narrow, and railroad-free valley of Railroad Creek (once surveyed as a possible route across the North Cascades). It is a dramatically beautiful place, though somewhat marred by huge orange tailings piles at the base of the peaks across the creek from the village.

The ADA trail goes a mile from the edge of the village to a waterfall, and along its downhill side is a line of rocks intended to prevent a wheelchair from going over the edge. Unfortunately, the original rocks are too small, and our task was to replace a 200-foot section of them with larger, more deeply embedded rocks. Like all the others we placed, this first rock is mostly buried, and you could stand on it and wiggle and it wouldn’t come loose. It and its brethren were very heavy and were slowly moved from the trailhead in wheelbarrows by pairs of people taking turns. We each spent time finding rocks, moving rocks, digging holes for rocks (of just the right depth – only about four inches of each rock was to be exposed), hulking rocks into their holes, and tamping dirt into the holes around each rock.

In other words, we developed a personal relationship with these rocks, and that inspired me to try to represent this notion in a photographic project. The morning we left, I got up before dawn (for the even, un-shadowed light) and photographed each rock from across the trail using a little tripod. (This meant doing 154 squats, as I had to stand up to move to the next rock and then squat down to take the picture. This took about half an hour, and I was definitely ready to be done by the last rock.) My original plan was to stitch all the photos together into a long panorama, but it was immediately clear that that wasn’t going to work. Because I was photographing from such a short distance, the rocks changed appearance greatly as I moved from one to the next.

So, it would have to be separate photos of each rock, which put me in mind of the classic photo book Every Building on the Sunset Strip. I didn’t want to make a full-on book, however. I’d seen an adorable little fan-fold artist’s book at a workshop and decided to do something similar, but there was no way all 154 rocks would fit into a manageable book: at just one inch per rock, that’s a folded strip over twelve feet long. If I made multiple smaller books, however, I could give one to each of the eleven participants.

Conveniently, eleven divides neatly into 154 to give fourteen, and making eleven little fan-fold books of fourteen photos each seemed doable. Inconveniently, I hadn’t actually made 154 photos. Several of the rocks were so close together that I’d shot them as pairs rather than making a separate image of each. After some thought I realized that even with fewer than 154 photos I could still make eleven books of fourteen provided I reused some of the photos between books. If I used the same photo as both the last in one book and the first in the following book, then I needed only thirteen new photos for that following book, not fourteen. If I did this for all pairs of adjacent books, then I needed only 144 photos total (14 + 10*13).

The more I thought about this, the more I liked it. I particularly liked how one could view the shared rocks between books as symbolizing our unity as a team wrangling all these rocks together. But, one last wrinkle: I actually had 145 photos, one too many. One pair of books could not share a rock. This really bugged me. Break the chain? Split up the team into two sub-teams? It just didn’t seem right. But there turned out to be a solution. I found a pair of adjacent photos whose adjacent rocks were so close that both rocks appeared in both photos. I dropped one of the photos (conveniently, that one was slightly out of focus) and re-cropped the other so that it became a photo of the pair of rocks. Bingo, 144 photos of 154 rocks, and all eleven books were linked to their neighbors by their shared end rocks.

I printed the books as a grid on the biggest piece of paper my printer can handle: 17×37.4 inches. I scored the folds with a bone folder and then cut off each strip with a roller cutter guided by a long metal ruler. For the covers I used a heavier paper, with a background image on each cover made from a washed-out version of the rock beneath that cover. Last, I attached the covers using a fancy 3M double-sided tape dispenser and included a piece of thin linen yarn and a button (both from my wife’s craft supplies) to tie up each book. This all required several generations of prototypes to get right, but it was very rewarding to see them finally done, the concept made real. Everyone who has seen them has said they’re wonderful.

Fun, but a lot of work. I probably won’t make another “edition”; I like the idea of them being one-of-a-kind. I’ve now given away all but the ones for my wife and me. Perhaps if I ever become a famous dead guy (as Brooks Jensen likes to say), some wealthy collector will try to reassemble the whole set.

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3 responses

  1. Sweet! I love this type of photo project. Sort of the photography equivalent of Phillip Glass. Please bring them next time we get together!

    I hope that the recipients appreciate them. Not quite as much work as moving the rocks in the first place, but quite an effort.

    I assume that you’ve seen the “Sunset Strip” pictures at the Getty sometime when you were in LA.

    Reminds me of this guys abandoned house pictures: http://www.flickr.com/photos/kbauman/sets/

    November 23, 2013 at 12:26 am

    • Sure, though the only ones left are mine and Dorothy’s. Those abandoned house photos are great. Almost makes me wish I lived in Detroit.

      November 23, 2013 at 12:51 am

  2. Pingback: ART 2013 Port Townsend | Artist Round Table

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