It seems that whenever I go into a coffee shop, almost anywhere in America, there’s a small group of old guys (as in my age) sitting around a table for their morning chitchat. In La Jolla California, I have heard the old guys talk about their financial investments. In Ashland, Oregon, I’ve heard some discussing who they were in their past lives. In New Mexico, I’ve listened to a long conversation about the price of dirt. In Oklahoma, the old guys I sat near were talking about the weather and the price of cattle. Here in Bourbon, Missouri, this morning’s group was made up of friends who’d lived in this small town for nearly 70 years. One worked In lead mine. Another salvaged scrap metal. A couple of the guys were mechanics. All were talking about their buddy Daryl, who’s claim to fame was that he drove his lawn mower 4 hours to a neighboring town – and back.
Erick, Oklahoma seems to be another Route 66 town fallen on hard times. It’s been a dot on the map since 1906. King Of The Road singer Roger Miller, grew up in Erick. Roger Miller is gone but there’s another musician there. He is not as record-sales-famous, but he’s well know around the planet in the Route 66 guide books. If anyone can bring folks back to Erick, Oklahoma – it’s Harley Russell.
We slowly ride our bicycles, zig-zagging the empty main street. It’s already getting hot and we need some shade and some breakfast. A boy on a bike coasts down the sidewalk, eyeballing the new strangers in town. I steer over to him and ask, “Where’s a good place to get some breakfast?”
He shrugs and replies, “In this town? I don’t think there is any.”
I look across the street and notice a cafe. “How about that place?” I ask.
He looks over at it and remembers, “Oh yeah.”
Inside, a waitress repairs a broken chair with a tube of Superglue laid out on top of a cafe table. Quincy and I choose a spot nearby and order a couple of stacks of pancakes with eggs. The only other folks in the restaurant – a rancher and his wife – sit at a table over 2 cups of coffee. I walk over and ask him about a guy in town named Harley. He looks me over from under the brim of his tan cowboy hat. He’s already spotted our bicycles outside and asks where we’re coming from. When I tell him our story, he puts down his coffee and slides his chair back, as if needing more space to comprehend it all. Then he turns to point out the window to where Harley lives. “Right there on that corner – the old red brick building with all dem signs all over it. He’s different,” he tells me. “I’ve known him my entire life. When we was kids, he was just a regular guy. Then he got a little wild. Now that his wife has passed, he’s gotten a little – well I’ll just say – he’s not do’n so well.”
When the pancakes are gone and our plates are toast-mopped clean, Quincy and I wheel our bikes across the street to the porch of the Sand Hills Curiosity Shop. At first, I’m not sure if it is a grocery store or an antique store or maybe even a museum. I notice an old sign, “We open when we wake up, and close when we pass out!” The old door squeaks as we walk inside. It takes me a moment to take it all in. Road signs, antique furniture, guitars, books, and photographs of some of the thousands of roadies who’ve stopped in over the years, nearly fill the room before spilling out onto the front porch. Also filling the room is the sound of guitar music. I feel as though we are crashing a party. Harley is standing tall, strum’n loud. He’s grizzly looking with long gray hair and a shaggy beard, shirtless, wearing red and white striped overalls. A few teeth are missing. He is surrounded by a circle of black leather motorcycle bikers from Sweden, who sit spellbound on folding chairs – foreigners in a very foreign land.
“I want to welcome you here to Erick, Oklahoma, the redneck capital of the world, where you can see rednecks work and play in their own environment. You’re in the world-famous Sand Hills Curiosity Shop. My name’s Harley.” Then Harley pauses, widens his eyes and asks, “Who the hell are you?!”
Harley launches into his version of the song, Route 66 A few of the bikers try to keep a beat with the tambourines Harley has handed out. I watch his left hand slide through the frets, up and down the worn neck of his guitar. The bikers clap and smile, lost in Harley’s world.
His next song is so different, it nearly lowers the temperature of the room. Smiles fade. Harley sings a sad, deliberate version of the Beatles song, Yesterday. It takes just a moment to realize that he’s singing about his wife, Annabelle. Although no one else in the crowded room knew her, it doesn’t matter. Harley’s sorrow comes through with every lyric.
Yesterday all my troubles seemed so far away.
Now it looks as though they’re here to stay.
Oh, I believe in yesterday.
In 1987 Annabelle came to town to visit here grandparents. She was a slender woman with long, silky hair. Annabelle walked into Harley’s shop, hoping he would tune her guitar. She never left. Through the years she sang every song, standing next to him, greeting every tourist who walked through the doors, with a smile and a free cold drink.
A couple of years ago Harley posted this on his Face Book page:
“Dear friends, my Precious Annabelle just passed away 1:10p.m. this afternoon Sept.30, 2014. Thank all of you for everything you have done.”
Soon the group from Sweden is outside on their motorcycles, revving up to leave. Harley rushes outside and stands in the street, waving a huge Swedish flag, as I if he’s starting the Indy 500. The bikers roar past, waving, and head out of town toward Route 66. When the last one is gone, Harley stands alone in the middle of the hot street in his near-empty town.
Harley, still carrying his flag, slowly walks back to the front porch of the Sand Hills Curiosity Shop. He needs to get ready for the next group of tourists that may roll in.
In 1980, Rick Smolan, a photojournalist, wanted to compile A Day in the Life of Australia, a book of images shot by 100 photographers in just 24 hours. That amazing project lead to many books, documenting a single day in countries around the world.
One of the by-products was an Oregon book project in 1983 called One Average Day. About 90 photographers from around the state documented a day in the life of Oregon. I was chosen to be one of them.
Fast-forward 30 years when a University of Oregon grad student, Brian Burk, stumbled upon the book in a used book store. His brain exploded with ideas then contacted the Oregon Historical Society for the backing and got the ball rolling.
Burk assembled about 170 photographers from around the state to participate in Dayshoot30. I was grateful when I was invited to be one of the original photographers for this project. KOBI in Medford asked me talk about the project.
It was the last day of my two weeks in New Orleans. My feet ached with blisters from all of the endless walking through neighborhoods. Sal was on my list of interesting characters to photograph. Last year, Adrienne, a street musician known as The Bob Dylan Girl told me, “One night I was on my bike headed home. My light was out. I got hit. I was okay, but my mandolin broke in half. Sal fixed it for a really good price.”
I’d been wanting to meet Sal for a long time.
I dialed his number, half expecting to be put off and told to call back another time. Instead, Sal listened carefully, as I told him about the book I was writing. He jumped in and said, “Come by any time. I go to lunch between noon and one o’clock.”
Twenty minutes later, after a long trip up Canal Street, I found his tiny shop and parked in front. As soon as I stepped through the door, I thought I might be on the set of Storage Wars, looking into a room filled with piles of decaying wooden instruments. I stood in wonder, trying to make sense of it all, scanning the walls where violins, guitars, mandolins, tools, bottles of glues, stains, and violin bows: all in various condition, all covered in a thin blanket of sawdust, and all waiting to be restored by Sal.
Sal greeted me with the warm, sandpapered hand of a craftsman. He smiled, standing behind a cluttered counter, working on the bridge of a splintering bass, with the focus of a man who loves his work. To his back was a workbench littered with a hodgepodge of tools, parts, and scraps of wood. A boiled-over can of blackened glue sat on top of a rusting hotplate. Sal’s weathered face and long hair reminded me a little of Neil Young, his skin a bit sepia-toned, aging like the rest of the orchestra lining the walls.
“You can shoot as many photos as you like, but I gotta just keep working. I get so far behind with getting this stuff out. Customers come in and say, ‘You know how long you’ve had my instrument?! When is it going to be finished?!’ I just tell ’em, ‘It will be done when it’s done.’ I never know. I don’t own this shop. I don’t run it. It runs me.”
Taken for a newspaper story I did in the 1980’s about a class reunion at the Pinehurst School. Pinehurst, in the area known as Lincoln, was one of the small sawmill towns along an early stagecoach and wagon freight route between the Rogue Valley and the Klamath Basin. This road, also known as the Green Springs Highway, was the original route of the Applegate Trail.
When was the last time you danced in the soaking rain…during a funeral?
Everyone in New Orleans has a story. That’s why I authored Bathtub Blues. Bathtub Blues is a photographic journey through the back streets of New Orleans. It is also an exploration of the creative process. Through insightful conversations and revealing portraits, Bathtub Blues explores how post-Katrina artists and musicians who survived the hurricane – and chose to stay – turned their inspiration into art … New Orleans Style.
“Briscoe’s humanity, sensitivity and involvement play out in every shot … This whole book is a major artistic accomplishment.” John Davis … Davis/Cline Gallery
In a recent commentary for The Ashland Daily Tidings, Lance Pugh wrote about a long-time studio photographer in town. In his talk with Christopher Briscoe, Pugh captured a few gems of wisdom that I think are well worth the time to consider. Pugh paraphrases Briscoe’s ideas about what it takes to be a successful photographer:
It takes three qualities to be a success as a photographer:
The first is vision: The ability to see the quintessential elements in any circumstance and react by framing the shot accordingly as well as being able to peer into the future and plan accordingly.
The second essential quality is passion: A fierce, unbridled desire to keep at the task until the perfect image is captured.
The third quality is courage: The ability to walk the plank and jump into a sea of possibilities that are infinite, yet without any guarantee of success.
Briscoe is right about these basic qualities, especially as it relates to photojournalism. As photojournalists we must have vision, passion, and courage to endure in an increasingly creative world.