No photographic experiment is a failure

Cutting the grass

While this is certainly not a great photograph, it is important in my development as a photographer. Because it was an experiment.

I had paused in my mowing, and the scene looked interesting. So I got my iPhone out of my pocket and opened the camera app. I’ve left it set on square format lately, so I went with it for this shot. I moved around the scene for several seconds looking for good framing. When I thought I’d found it I touched the shutter button.

It’s not everything I thought it could be. I hoped the uncut portion of the grass would stand out more. I hoped for a greater foreshortening effect on the mower’s handlebar. I wish I had turned the phone slightly so the top edge of the uncut grass was parallel to the frame’s top edge. And in the original image the mower body would have been better placed on a rule-of-thirds intersection. I cropped slightly to achieve it.

I’ve made a lot of photographs over the last ten years or so. Early on each photo I made was tinged with the fear of a bad frame.

Now I know I was overthinking each shot. Because when I got my first phone with a passable camera I soon realized I could take photos anytime, anywhere, essentially for free. Suddenly I didn’t have to worry anymore about a bad frame. And so I began photographing anything that seemed remotely interesting.

Snow-covered Caddy

This snow-covered Caddy was an early (2010!) experiment with my old Palm Pre’s camera. It’s not a truly great image, and it reveals some of that camera’s limitations. Yet I liked it. Still do. It encouraged me to keep experimenting.

By remaining devoted to such free experimentation I’ve been able to relax when the photography isn’t free, and when I really want it to count: when I drop film into one of my vintage cameras. There are two reasons.

First, through phone camera experimentation I’ve learned a lot of things that don’t work. So my success rate is higher.

And second, I’ve learned to relax. A bad image is no big deal, not really, even when I’m shooting something expensive like Impossible Project instant film and each photo costs me $3.

Every experiment moves me forward. I examine each photo as critically as I can. I try to emulate what I admire in others’ work. I try to take away something I’ll do differently next time.

How have you gotten better as a photographer?


Snow-covered Caddy

Snow-covered Caddy
Palm Pre

We Meet by Accident

When I was married, one day I was driving my wife’s car down a narrow road near our home. Something distracted my attention and in the half second I looked away from the road the car drifted slightly to the right and a utility pole at pavement’s edge violently removed the passenger-side mirror. Her little sporty car’s bright red finish had dulled after more than a decade of service, so it didn’t make sense to buy a shiny new mirror. I called around to junkyards looking for a donor car, and only Wrecks, Inc., had one. When I got there, a gruff man behind a counter looked up the part in a book and grunted a price at me. When I accepted, a small, scruffy fellow appeared and led me to a beat-up little truck with no doors. “Get in,” he said, and we sped off. As the truck bounced its way through the yard, I clutched the dashboard just trying to stay inside the truck. Finally he found the car. He couldn’t figure out how to remove the mirror, but since I had just removed what was left of the one on my wife’s car I took his tools and did it myself. Then it was back to holding on for dear life as we drove back to the counter, where I paid for my prize.

Wrecks, Inc., went out of business several years ago, but its great sign still stands. It’s kind of a local landmark on old US 52 just northwest of Indianapolis. It used to light up at night in red and green neon, but today the tubes inside are broken and hanging loose. I’m sure it’s a matter of time before the sign is removed. With any luck it will find its way into a private sign collection or perhaps to the American Sign Museum.

Dig neon? Check out the great theater sign I found in Crossville, Tennessee, and the neon along the Michigan Road in Logansport, Indiana.


Captured: We Meet by Accident

Road Trips

Lunch at the White House (the one in Logansport, on the Michigan Road)

You don’t need an invitation from Barack Obama to eat at this White House.

Whitehouse No. 1

Longtime readers may remember this Logansport joint, as I shared the above photo here late last year. I pass by fairly frequently as it stands on the old Michigan Road, which I drive between my home in Indianapolis and my parents’ home in South Bend. Last time I drove by, my sons were along and we were hungry. So we stopped and had double cheeseburgers and fries.

Peace of Pie

This place is an anachronism, which is why I enjoyed it so much. It looks like they started operations in about 1960 and then never changed anything. The countertop supports this – all the forearms that have rested on it over the past 60 years have worn the laminate’s top layer away, leaving black blotches behind. They have a surprisingly large menu; it looks like they make everything possible out of the basic ingredients they keep on hand. Lunch here won’t hurt your pocketbook, but don’t hand them your debit card when you’re done eating. Cash only.

Out of Order

This place is tiny, with just eight seats at the counter and four cramped booths. These little juke boxes are in every booth, and there are two at the counter. None of them work; judging by the music loaded in them, they’ve been broken since the late 1990s. A couple of them have For Sale notices taped to them in case you collect such things!

The Michigan Road is Indiana’s first state-funded highway, built in the 1830s to connect the Ohio River to Lake Michigan through Indianapolis. I’m the co-chair of a committee working to have the Michigan Road named a State Historic Byway. We’re very close – we have submitted the application and present our case to the Indiana Department of Transportation next week! For more information, see our Web site,

I’ve documented Indiana’s historic Michigan Road extensively. To read all about it, click here.

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