Bobby Troup and his wife Cynthia Hare sang the feeling of crossing one of America’s longest roads, way-way back in 1946 with the line, “Get your kicks, on Route 66.” Later that year Nat King Cole would record the song and contribute to making this dusty road — running more than 2000 miles all the way from Chicago to LA — what it is today: iconic.
Only much later would I get in touch with the song and that open road feeling, specifically while watching Pixar’s Cars with my sons (a 2006 animated movie about the decline and forgetfulness of the once magic and packed road), listening to an incredible long version of Bobby Troup’s tune by Stratocaster virtuoso John Mayer, which I absolutely recommend you listen to. In fact, listen to the complete soundtrack, you can thank me later!
I was terrorized by memories of old roads from endless car trips my family used to go on to my grandparents’ house during the Christmas and Summer holidays. Cruising for hours on end through a winding road that would make us carsick every single time. And then we had to come back, which meant doing it all over again…
Anyway, and despite all these carsick memories, ever since I started driving (especially riding motorcycles), the winding roads changed from dreadful nightmares into these exciting and desirable sources of pleasure, filled with adrenaline rush and amazing vistas.
Portugal is not nearly immense as the USA or beautifully landscaped as Switzerland or Italy, but it has its fair share of great places to visit. And it has a lot of beautiful, empty, and twisting roads, which takes me to this story’s subject.
I wanted to photograph the longest Portuguese road, this mini-Route 66 called Estrada Nacional 2 (EN2) was created in 1945 to unite all the small roads already existing between our country’s north and south borders. All the way from the city of Chaves (where KM marker #0 was set) down to the Atlantic coast in the city of Faro, 738.5 kilometers were defined as the country’s main interior road and the best way to connect and stimulate commercial and social contact between the population (something we now avoid like the plague, but that’s another story).
It was obviously a great idea except for the people’s ultimate desire to abandon their country’s interior and go live in the big cities by the sea. The cities and villages along the road, once inevitable passing points for all travelers, were now mostly empty and void of traffic, leaving businesses and roadside points of interest gathering dust and, eventually, closing down entirely.
Moreover, and as one last consequence of progress and Man’s need for speed, the building of new and straight(er) highways (most of them hanging way up in the skies making traffic hover above leaving only concrete piers deeply spiked on the ground) only contributed to the country’s interior being ignored by the always so “in a hurry” traveler. Of course, people from these places kept going and the roads are still there for anyone willing to exchange speed for pleasure and adventure. That’s what you’ll get if (you’re driving), when you leave the highway and step into the country roads. John Denver would love the pun, I guess.
After crossing the country along the EN2 with a couple of friends on an earlier epic motorcycle road trip, I decided I had to do it all over again. But now I would be riding solo with a 6×6 camera, shooting only black and white film. I dusted off my old Rolleicord from the shelf, bought a couple of rolls of ILFORD HP5 PLUS, and started planning. I couldn’t do this in one single trip, so I decided to do it in smaller back and forth trips, starting from the nearest passing point from my city going up and down, always further until I had reached both of the roads’ ends.
At the time I was also getting back the ability of “seeing” things in black and white, specifically landscape and light, which is a completely different thing from what I have been doing professionally for the last 15 years or so (shooting sports, portraits and general news on digital cameras). Eventually, it all started making sense again, developing and printing slowly coming back and becoming full parts of the process.
Having learned film photography (as if there was another way) some 20 years ago and doing all parts of the process, it was only a matter of days until my trusty Durst M601 was back to life and the whole B/W process was going full speed. I started by having developing issues (sometimes finding weird spots on one side of the film due to a bad old tank), my prints were lacking contrast (the trusty Durst had a melted condenser and an overkilling powered lightbulb), and the overall results, far from my expectations, were driving me crazy.
I started changing elements while shooting daily stuff before going back on the road and decided my Rolleicord wasn’t going to be the camera arriving at the end of my quest. She is a beauty and works ok, but the poor Schneider 75/1:3f/5 lens was too unreliable to focus and very prone to flaring. I tried another TLR: a beautiful Yashica Mat 124G I borrowed from my old local photography shop friends and off I went on another mini-roadtrip. The results were somewhat better but the experience just wasn’t doing it for me. I had to try something else or give up entirely.
The solution was pretty obvious and I called my good old friend Paulo Cunha, renowned photojournalist with some 30 years on the job who happens to have the most coveted 6×6 camera in the history of photography, a Hasselblad 500C. It’s in amazing shape, with a chrome body and a shiny Carl Zeiss Planar C 80 f/2.8 and a black Carl Zeiss Distsgon 50 f/4. He was big and bold to hand her to me and say: take it. And so, I did.
I know, I know, gear doesn’t matter and you should be able to make great pictures with a box with a hole. Go for it, but I really had to take this unique opportunity. They used to take this camera to the moon, remember? In October 1962, a Frankenstein version of the 500C with no leather covering, no auxiliary shutter or even viewfinder, roughly painted black and coupled with a modified magazine capable of shooting a whopping 70 (!) exposures went on the Mercury 8 and through the hands and eyes of Mr. Walter Schirra, came back with some incredible pictures taken along NASA’s mission of six orbits of the Earth.
The rest is history and I’m sure the 17 or so cameras astronauts left on the Moon surface on the next years will still make the classic clunk if you fire them. Only film magazines were brought back during the Moon landing missions, talk about space-camera-trash… Anyway, I was up to a treat and there would be no more excuses for bad pictures.
Things really got on track after this decision. More than the camera, an amazing piece of engineering and design, it was the chance of changing lenses that I found so convenient. The joy of having a wide-angle lens that lets you come closer to things without spreading too much to the sides is truly something special. Apart from some minor light leaks and developing mistakes, my tech problems were gone and I could return to the road and focus on photographing this beautiful old road.
I’m writing this draft on my Smith-Corona Skyriter, a splendid ultraportable typewriter built in 1958, that without effort and minor care and treatment, works just the same as the day it came out of the factory. Just like that 500C, which I believe was produced until the end of the 60s, these machines were made to last and perform.
The other major things are, and that’s why I’m bringing the typewriter issue, focus, and time. With no bells and whistles (ok, the Skyriter does have a bell), these tools do ONE single thing and they do it incredibly well. That’s it, no Wi-Fi connection, no word-correction, no auto-focus, no light meter, no auto-wind: no distractions. They print letters on paper. They let light into this box where your film sits. The rest is up to you.
It’s so rewarding, in these multi-everything times, being able to focus and concentrate on a single task, oblivious to everything else. Just like driving the country road instead of the highway, these machines were made to be used with patience, calmness and, above all (if you really want to do it right), with thoughtfulness. If you hurry, you might skip a key and type a mistake. If you don’t give it a thought, that picture just might turn not that special. And guess what: there are only 11 more left on that magazine and the closest shop selling film is probably 100kms away.
That’s the reason why I chose 120 film and why the process was so challenging and fulfilling. It really made me slow down and THINK before pressing that shutter. I didn’t use a tripod, although I brought one with me on the first half of the trip, never using it too much as it slowed me a bit too much. Also, shooting during the day on 400 ASA gives you plenty shutter speed and depth of field so no need for one. It also took a lot of space on my bike, and after struggling to make it fit after buying an old typewriter I found on an antique shop in Peso da Régua, I opted for leaving it at home. Cameras and typewriters, never too many… But I digress, and time is running out.
The 500C is a gem and my country was a joy to cross and photograph. Coming from the 80s skateboard culture, where pictures in (mostly american) magazines were the only way to actually see new tricks and make some progress, I am constantly looking for skateable spots wherever I go. The same goes for pictures. It’s something that never turns off, and when you’re riding a chopper at 80kms an hour down the Rio Douro Valley (because sometimes riding is so intense you don’t want to stop), you really have to pay attention and be ready to make a quick break to make a picture.
Light is always changing and sometimes it will only last for a couple of minutes, at best. Sometimes you spot something nice, but the time of day isn’t right. But waiting for better light would make the process impossible so you have to make a choice: shoot it as is or let it go. Sometimes I opted for the first, sometimes for the second. It’s hard to leave a picture behind, but you can always expect another on the next corner, where even the light is right. Ultimately, a picture you don’t make is an exposure you keep for something else down the road.
My pictures don’t have people in them, as most of the times the places were actually desert, but also because in these modern times I find it’s harder to convince strangers you’re doing something legal, let alone interesting. So, I choose to look at things in a more lifeless way, although most of the things I shoot were actually made by people.I look for nice light, humour, good composition, surprise, depth, straight perspectives, if possible, all in the same shot and try very hard not to repeat the same subject. Shoot once, pack things up and move on.
Most of the resulting films are very diverse from top to bottom and it’s a joy to find 12 straight good pictures. I never made it, but got pretty close on some, very far away on other(s). Doing all this on a motorcycle really seemed the right way because it’s a smaller vehicle and very easy to stop when you spot something good. But you also get some limitations in terms of gear and comfort, so I might do the next one by car. Less agility (and style) but more possibilities. I’ll probably take that tripod, my 4×5, my Horizon 202 AND a typewriter for captions, just because they fit the trunk.
One piece of advice: if you see something that could make a good picture, just stop and go for it. If you don’t, it will haunt you for the rest of the day and probably, if you’re like me, will just make you turn around further down the road and come back again, driving longer and stressing more than you had to.
I slept in nice and not-so-nice hotels, camped in parks smelling of sheep manure but where I saw some of the clearest starry skies in my life, always waking up with that Easy Rider feeling of dusting clothes off and starting my bike to get on the road. I ate sandwiches sitting on the side of the road in front of amazing places and superb meals in small local restaurants where you know food is going to taste just like your grandma’s (well, almost). Always with a grin on my face and the sun shining high, cruising this beautiful road absorbing the scenery and capturing photographs on a 60 year old top of the line camera. That’s a very hard to beat feeling. I discovered things about my country I only suspected and really came back richer and fulfilled. I wish you get inspired and get on the road with your camera, I bet you’ll have a great time.
I’d like to thank EMULSIVE for publishing my story and hope to get it out to more people in the future, possibly with a photography exhibition and a photo-book. For the time being, this is the right place to show some of the kicks I got along Portugal’s EN2.
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