Airplanes are all blurring together in my head. I remember as a child taking a 747 to visit my great grandparents in Illinois and it being a Big Deal – a huge production for which we got dressed up in suits and ties and my mother in a long purple dress and her mother’s gold locket on a chain around her neck, looking like we were going to lunch at the White House. I remember flying TWA and the flight attendants giving my sister and I Colorforms books with flat plastic airplanes, people, luggage and three panels of adventure – we also got wings – real wings like the pilots wore with pin backings. The whole experience was wonderful. I remember later as a teenager flying to California with my grandmother to visit my aunt Joanne and thinking the experience on the airplane was so wonderful that I didn’t want it to end. I wished that I could save away some of the time and come back to it later – not to use up something so precious all at once. The idea … that we were flying – Icarus real – and the land square and green and brown beneath us – that idea was remarkable. Over the heartland were dotted perfectly circular patches of green in a brown landscape. I asked the flight attendant what they were. She didn’t know but went to ask the pilot. He told her they were donut farms. Years later I learned they were the result of circular crop irrigation.
A lot of this adventure is gone. I still sit by the window and look out – I still marvel that I can fly – but all the trips have blurred together and the hassles of security now mean that not only don’t I get dressed up, but likely as not I’ll go in my pajamas and slippers if it’s still early in the morning and try and curl up in the window nook and sleep a little. This time, 9:00 a.m. Is not early enough for the PJ’s, but I am wearing my slippers.
I’ve packed really heavy for this five day trip photographing rollergirls in the central US. I’ve got light stands, background stands, a backdrop, flashes, camera bodies, a five foot reflector and a huge assortment of lenses. Normally I try and bring one bag with my cameras and clothes and stay light. This time there’s so much going on, and so many plans that aren’t fully formed I brought everything, preparing for anything.
I hit the ground running – my assistant, Jenn, picks me up at the airport and we start out right away for the first shoot, which is 20 minutes away at a place called “the armory”. Aurora Whoralis, the North Star Rollergirl that I’d been dealing with to set things up told me it was a parking garage. I’d thought a parking garage would be great for one or two shots but I’m apprehensive about photographing ten portraits in one location like that.
We find the armory, a giant, beautiful yellow building from the early 20th century and haul our gear inside. It’s a giant one floor indoor parking garage with arena seating above it. Someone later tells me that this is where the L.A. Lakers got their start. At one end of the building is a wall of glass letting in beautiful light but – it’s strewn with cars. Apart from the window, it’s not really that interesting. Jenn and I set our gear down and start walking around looking for either rollergirls or some place interesting to shoot. Along the way we pass the lot attendant climbing out of a Volvo.
“You must be the dude photographing the rollergirls,” he says. His name is Mike and he used to own a smoothie shop a few blocks away. “It just wasn’t in the cards,” he says.
I ask him if I can get up to the stairs and use them for photos.
“Sure,” he says, “but it’s kind of hard to get to, you have to go through a door way over there and climb around in the dark. You should check out the basement,” he adds.
“Yeah, it goes under this whole place. There are classrooms down there with the effects of mustard gas still written on the blackboards. This place really did used to be an armory. If you go down deep enough, there’s a shooting range.”
“Really?” I’d thought the parking garage took up all of the space in the building.
Mike leads us across the parking lot and down a dark corridor. He opens a door and inside is an expansive ruin of pillars and windows that looks like an abandoned Egyptian city.
“Sweet barking cheese,” I gasp, “can we shoot in here?”
Mike turns to me, slowly, like a Scooby Doo villain, and says “At your own peril … man. Here’s the key.”
For the next four hours Jenn and I explore the building, smashed rooms, abandoned closets, scary staircases, pools of standing water, giant machines, bird skeletons, crazed toilets, demolished light fixtures, peeling walls…. We photograph half a dozen women crawling about the wreckage and only leave when it’s time for our next shoot.
We unpack lights and Aurora comes over and introduces herself. She makes an announcement and throughout the evening women stop by when they have a few minutes and we do portraits. As cool as the armory was, I was happy to get away from that look. A few weeks before I’d gotten an email that balanced somewhere on the cusp of “fan mail” and “hate mail” – saying, in part, that I was doing roller derby no favors by photographing tattooed women in abandoned buildings. The letter asked, rhetorically, if I’d photographed any rich women or business executives and I honestly couldn’t say one way or the other – the only question I’d asked everybody is “what’s your favorite book?”
While I wasn’t concerned about tattoos I was concerned about a homogenous look – that all the portraits would start to blend together and that I’d fall into a rut looking for a quick and easy portrait solution. I’m really happy with the way the portraits in the giant practice space turn out. When it’s over they invite us out but I’m really tired after a twelve hour day.
Jenn drops me off at the house of novelists Emma Bull & Will Shetterly and we sit up for a while, talking about friends and the projects we’re working on, their recent move back to Minneapolis from Tucson, and they pour over each of my portraits with the close attention to detail that a castaway on a desert island would give to a lone book that washed ashore after a decade of isolation. I go to bed grateful and inspired, and covered in a giant black cat named Toby.