In the Moment: Greens of summer
Welcome to a new weekly feature we’re calling In the Moment!
This all started in Slack, the messaging software we use for staff communication. Several weeks ago, Hagerty’s editor-at-large, Sam Smith, began kicking off our mornings by plopping a random archive photo into our chat room.
In addition to being a lifelong student of automotive history, Smith drinks a lot of coffee. Each photo he dropped into the conversation was accompanied by a bit of caffeine-fueled explanation.
We liked these drops a lot, so we’re sharing one here each Thursday. Enjoy, and let us know what you think in the comments! —Ed.
We’re going to change things up this week. Unlike our other images, that top shot isn’t from the Getty archive. It has never been published. This photo is quite personal, so this installment is a bit different.
Fair warning: This post is a long one.
I’m going to share a story. It will begin with cars but not stay there. Regardless, if reading sounds awful right now, I suggest this wonderful piece of mindless entertainment.
Want to stick around? Great! Let’s dive in.
Of Audis and Basins and Range(finders)
This is a scan of a 35-millimeter frame of slide film. It was taken with a 1970s Canon Canonet QL17 rangefinder.
The camera and photographer exposed this photograph in Northern California, near the town of Monterey, in a natural bowl in the mountains, in the pits of a track then known as Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca.
The image depicts a moment on the afternoon of Saturday, October 18, 2008. It shows a pit stop by the Audi factory team during an American Le Mans Series race. The car is one of just two Audi R10 TDIs—diesel Le Mans prototypes—campaigned in that race. This particular R10 finished first overall, but there was contact.
Those carbon panels are dirty. See the scrapes on the number board and the Michelin logo, the fraying vinyl wrap?
The team is doing a quick repair on the engine cover. A 29-year-old German driver named Lucas Luhr sits in the cockpit, waiting. His face is obscured by a mirror. His helmet livery contains multiple small Ls.
I happen to know a bit about this photographer. I know he wasn’t happy with this particular image. It’s a compromise, exposed for shadow and sun and spot on for neither.
I also know that, on the day of this photo, the shooter had a tri-tip sandwich for lunch.
Spoiler: The shooter was me.
This is Kodachrome. The Paul Simon song! The most famous film in history. Again, I took this in October of 2008. I was living in Michigan but visiting Monterey for work. The slide was, for various reasons, not developed or scanned until 2010. At which point I lived in Northern California.
Those details may seem irrelevant. At the core, however, racing resembles photography: a series of decisions compassed by time and your own previous choices.
I began writing about this image as if it were any other In the Moment. Then I realized it was different.
Let’s back up.
Fourteen years can feel longer than it is. Ten years and 48 months ago, in the fall of 2008, my girlfriend and I lived in Michigan, in the college town of Ann Arbor. We had met two years prior while working at a now-defunct car magazine called Automobile. Adrienne was a copy editor. On January 15th, 2006, my first day, I stuck my head into her office and introduced myself. She had a master’s in journalism and a penchant for skirts. I was the newly minted assistant editor, 25 years old, a former Jaguar parts guy and one-time contender for the mantle of world’s slowest professional mechanic. Ten months later, we were dating.
To this day, I have no idea what she saw in me. All I knew was that she was smart and funny and looked great in those skirts. Plus, she laughed at my stupid jokes when I swung by to drop off page proofs. (Her, years later: “They weren’t that stupid. Mostly.”)
Salad days are always on a clock. In late ’08, Adrienne and I loaded a moving truck and left Michigan for the Bay Area. Mostly for me, so I could take another job. I told friends it was simply time for a change, and it was. At the core of that was an older truth—I had wanted to live in Northern California since childhood.
Wanting can seem as a good a reason as any, when you’re young.
Not that the change wasn’t practical. Writing about and testing new cars for a living had me in California half the year anyway. The state is thick with carmakers and race shops and fabricators, not to mention killer roads. If I was purposely minimizing anything, it was how the combined salaries of two journalists without family money would only go so far in the long run. But the long run seemed a long way off, as it always does.
Maybe I just assumed we’d find a way to climb. The copy editor had just landed a remote job with a firm in Chicago; she could live anywhere. My writing was beginning to get noticed and had won a few small awards. We had minimal expenses and zero debt. Optimistic, I went job hunting. After a few months, I accepted an editorial position at a small publishing house half an hour north of the Golden Gate Bridge.
That operation produced a few car magazines, including a fairly prominent Porsche title called Excellence. I was so dead-set on the end result that I took a significant pay cut for all this, having caved immediately when the hiring manager balked at matching my old salary. (Not that stupid. Mostly.)
By Christmas, we were established. A tiny apartment, with an attached and 0.75-car garage, near the city of San Rafael. The copy editor had agreed to marry me. I was a few months from turning 28. I could ride my old Honda CB400F to work on deserted back roads all year, then hike in the redwoods on weekends. The burritos were incredible, the outdoors even better. On top of that, my work-life balance was noticeably improved, job travel basically absent.
I remember when I realized it was all falling apart.
The Canonet, that film camera from the Audi shot, had come from eBay a year before. It cost 60 bucks shipped but arrived cleaned and adjusted, a bargain. A photography blog I enjoyed called the QL17 “the poor man’s Leica,” which is nice but also like calling a Volkswagen Beetle a poor man’s Porsche 911.
Still, people like Beetles. The QL17 was a 1970s rangefinder, this fun little clock of parallax. Rangefinders were obsolete 50 years ago, but their unique focus mechanism allows for neat lens construction. As for film, I shot digital regularly for work but was drawn to chemical photography by the abundance of cheap, high-quality used hardware. (Then as now, everyone wanted digital.) I stayed for the dynamic range and creamy shadows, where silicon had yet to catch up.
You get to pick how you drop your blood pressure. If only we could choose what lifts it.
Stress is insidious. It’s also quiet and patient. My selfish choices for a life in California meant, of course, that our money was tight. But we signed up for that, knew it going in. I had never met anyone as kind and thoughtful as Adrienne, and she was, to her credit, game for anything. The greater hurdle, one I feel uncomfortable sharing even now, is how the copy editor and I were perpetual strangers in a strange land.
It sounds silly and small but was one piece of a puzzle. We had dated for two years before moving to California and moving in together. Neither of us had previously lived with a significant other. We were each stupid and territorial about our space, as kids can be. Our families were thousands of miles away. We had maybe two friends locally, fellow transplants from back east, but they tended to socialize in ways that took money we didn’t have.
Californians don’t like to admit it, but the state’s social language is too often a closed door. We tried and repeatedly failed to meet new people and break out of the box of that apartment. Seasons passed. The firmware of our life shifted. I began to loathe my work and couldn’t explain why. Paradoxically, I also began to worry I wasn’t doing enough at that desk. I started staying late to get more done, though it made other problems worse.
I worked in a small office with four supervisors as my only coworkers. My desk sat solo in a converted lobby. Each morning, I would leave the house, where I felt alone, and go to work, where I felt even more alone.
Wanting to fix things but not knowing how, I aimed for the closest target. I churned more and more, gave longer hours, felt the sanity behind that churn slipping away. When the fighting began at home, I tried for patience and failed. When the arguments grew more regular, I simply made sure the house had enough cheap tequila. And when those fights began arriving twice a day—before work, after work, sometimes a fight about a fight about a fight . . .
Well, I had to decide between giving myself a drinking problem and finding other ways to cope. So I shot more film.
Those fights were asinine and potent, powered by stress. I was an expert at picking molehills to die on. I insisted on wrestling every single issue down to the ground, as if things like who drank all the juice actually mattered. When our cumulative blood pressure reached a peak, fights seven days a week, we discussed axing the wedding.
We were still undecided when, in the early fall of 2009, I lost my job.
The reason is immaterial. I felt better, years later, when my former manager told me he was sorry, that they had been wrong to let me go. Regardless, we were adrift. As a child, my parents drilled into me the importance of looking difficult moments—to say nothing of your own missteps—in the eye. Adrienne and I each took a deep breath, and then we went triage. We hadn’t been in California long enough to save enough to move back east. If we axed health insurance and every discretionary spend over five bucks, we figured, her meager salary would buy us a few months of rent and cheap noodles. A ticking clock while I looked for work.
So that was what we did. I hustled. In the background, a remarkable thing happened. The arguments stopped. We somehow remembered that we liked each other. Stability had gone out the window, but something else had come back in.
It seemed frivolous, but I kept taking pictures.
We could afford it, barely, but that doesn’t mean we could afford it. The months that followed were a heavy squeeze, even as I found work writing. But we did have those two local friends from back east. One was a former coworker at Automobile, Jason Cammisa, who now works for this company. (You may know him from YouTube; he stood up in my wedding.) The other friend, my pal Michael Chaffee, lived across the Golden Gate, in San Francisco.
Each helped whenever they could. Chaf, in particular, was like a brother to me. We had met, years before, through track days and old-BMW ownership, back when things like E30 M3s were cheap. Just as important, he had in his apartment a scanner and the chemicals to develop black-and-white film.
“There’s Ilford HP5 in the freezer,” he said, one day. “Yours if you want.” Because he bought the film in bulk, he passed it to me at cost or free, three bucks a roll at most. After I’d run a few through the Canonet, I’d shove the canisters into my jacket pocket, fire up the Honda, and bop over the bridge to Chaf’s apartment.
I was making something. It helped.
No photographer who has made their living with film will romanticize the hours lost to the medium’s logistics. My friend Regis Lefebure has long shot motorsport professionally. “Sure, get romantic and artsy,” he once told me. “You didn’t have to fight the stuff on the road, praying you got the shot. Just take a RAW file, crank up the grain, you’re close enough.”
I’m not a professional photographer. Nor am I a professional mechanic or musician. And yet I take photographs, I rebuild cars, I play instruments. We all have reasons for doing what we do when we’re not getting paid.
That second year in California, I made a choice. I consciously changed how I looked at relationships, my wants, and, most important, other people. I built a freelance career that eventually saw me working regularly for places like Wired, the New York Times, Esquire, and Car and Driver. Adrienne and I got married. We acknowledged that we couldn’t afford to live and raise a family anywhere in California that made sense for my job, and we began to pave a road out.
That freelancing eventually led to a position as executive editor at Road & Track, where the team I helped lead was nominated for a National Magazine Award, a car-magazine first. That job led to this one, at Hagerty. I am now lucky enough to work with some of the smartest and kindest people I’ve known.
Which brings us to now. And Kodachrome.
That name fades in meaning with every passing year. It is a brand but also a patented chemical process and a delicate brickwork of saturated dye layers. It was first sold as a color slide film in 1936. Maybe you know that Simon song?
Nice bright colors, he sings.
Sometimes. It’s apparently easier if you’re Steve McCurry. What the film gave amateurs was in my eyes much better, a more subdued and old-world palette, almost cinematic. Plus the kind of crackly, projectable detail—3.5 centimeters of virtually unbelievable resolution—that was, with slide film, once the reason for the season.
Production lasted 74 years. The formula saw changes, but Kodachrome in 1936 was basically Kodachrome in 2009. By the time that last year rolled around, Kodak had narrowed its offerings to just one speed, ISO 64, and one size, 35-millimeter. There was also in all the world just one lab certified for processing—Dwayne’s Photo, in Parsons, Kansas.
Even by the wacky standards of color-positive film, Kodachrome development is odd. The process was designed to produce a perennially stable image of high clarity, and it succeeded. Most color film fades after a few decades, but evidence suggests Kodachrome can hold fast for at least a century. The tradeoff was a painfully narrow exposure window and a recipe so brutally unforgiving that Dwayne’s famously kept a degreed chemist on staff solely to analyze film solutions.
Get the light and cook right, though? Colors that hit like a warm blanket. Or a Monterey summer.
Kodak stopped making this stuff in 2009. Still, the people at Dwayne’s, those heroes, they knew it was still out there. They vowed to keep going as long as they could, as long as Kodak kept shipping the required chemicals. Over the next year, thousands of rolls arrived in Parsons, from all over the world.
My Laguna shot was in there.
In early 2010, a few months after our life in California changed, I found in my desk a few forgotten canisters of K64, exposed but undeveloped. They were unlabeled, no dates or subject notes on the cans.
Kodak had already killed the film. Dwayne’s would continue accepting exposures until the end of the year, but I didn’t know that then. I looked up the processing cost online. Three rolls was roughly equivalent to a nice dinner for two, even before shipping to Kansas.
We were still broke. I had no idea what was on that film and absolutely no business paying for expensive and tiny pictures round-tripped from some Midwest chemistry mecca. I grew determined anyway. A door was about to close, and once it did, whatever was in those film cans would be locked in there forever.
We scrimped further. From the cheap noodles to the nearly free noodles. Weeks later, when I had saved enough, I sent the chromes off. More weeks went by. When the film returned, I rode down to Chaf’s place.
In the end, the Laguna photo was the last to hit the scanner. A decent shot, but nothing special. With that old Kodachrome trick, though: Colors as I remember them, if not as they really were.
In late 2008, I had flown to Northern California for work. I took a weekend off to walk around that idyllic track, shooting the race for fun. A few days after I flew home, we loaded a moving truck and aimed west.
Adrienne and I now live in Tennessee. We have two fun and quirky little girls in elementary school and an old house where the stairs creak at night and I occasionally have to tell those girls to not draw ponies in toothpaste on the bathroom mirror. When we left San Rafael in 2011, it was the responsible choice, heading east to stay with relatives for a bit, to recover financially. In the nine years after, we lived in Detroit, Chicago, Ann Arbor again, Seattle, and, finally, Knoxville.
Each of those moves was driven by family and work and nothing like childish want. I could tell you I don’t miss the West Coast, but I’d be lying. Still, that was then and this is now, and we are, to my only occasional surprise, happy.
This image is then, too. It makes me think of the guy behind the camera and what he wanted. A life that was so close to, but also so very far from, the one he came to need.
Have a good day, guys. And thank you, as always, for reading.
If you have a minute, click on any of the above film photos to view them in our site’s “lightbox” zoom. The depth in the Kodachrome and Ilford shots in particular is fantastic —Ed.