Bourbon, Missouri.

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. 

Daryl

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Texas Wind

Recently, the roads that Quincy and I pedal are long, flat and straight. There’s very little traffic – one or two pickups pass us every hour. As the Texas sun heats up the land, the steam rises from the fields around us. The humidity builds. Stop for a moment, and we are dripping wet. Wheat is a favorite crop here. Huge wind turbines tower over the wheat fields and turn with the wind, slowly, deliberately, churning the thick air. Their blades are about 200 feet long, gracefully angled resembling giant propellers on an airplane, mounted on a pole 400 feet high. Texas produces the most wind power of any U.S. state. Wind power accounted for about 12% of the electricity generated in Texas during 2015. I wish they would turn toward us and spin faster like giant house fans, to cool us

“Should We Do This?”

Quincy and I were fried – way overcooked from a long day pedaling through the desert. We wheeled into a gas station connivence store for a dinner of donuts and chocolate milk. The owner told us that a few miles up the road was a place that had a few trailers. “He charges 10 bucks. Just look for the A-A-Frame building on the left.”

We pushed on. The wind blew. The sun was setting. We rolled over more miles of desert, knowing that a 10 buck trailer was a lot better than a night in a wind-rattled tent, surrounded by grit and snakes.

Six miles later we thought we found home. The A-Frame building was closed and locked. We knocked on the door, hoping someone would let us in. Behind the A-Frame was a meandering row of trailers, rocking in the dust. A freight train rattled across the dessert in the distance, blowing its horn. I wandered among the trailers, looking for signs of life, keeping an eye ahead of my shoes, scanning the dirt for rattlers.

A door popped open. A grey bearded man stood in the doorway and gave me a long look-over. He carefully held on to a railing and hobbled down a few trailer steps to shake hands. 

Fast forward a few minutes and a string of questions, in a mist of beer breath, Charles told me the owners were gone for the day. We chatted a bit longer. 

Charles had a handsome, chiseled face, trim, gray beard and a tight, rubber banded pony tail. He smiled and revealed several missing front teeth. My first thought was that they were lost in a barroom brawl or during a face-plant fall in the middle of a blackout. 

I could tell he was weighing options, considering a plan to help us out. “The only place for you to stay would be in my trailer. In fact, I’ll give you two my bed and I’ll sleep in my recliner.”

Quincy and I glanced at each other with a look of, “should we do this?”

We lifted our bikes up into the trailer and maneuvered them into a cramped kitchen space that separated the bedroom from his sitting room. On the counter was a pile of tobacco and a hand-rolled cigarette. 

“Look at this view I’ve got,” pointing through the side window. “I told my brother to come visit. I told him all about the animals I see out my window. It’s the best view in the world! I told him I’d even give him my bed. He never came.” 

Charles showed us the tiny bathroom. “Use the shower but be sure to put the plug back into the drain when you’re finished. It empties out onto the sand and the critters like to crawl in.” 

Then he showed us the bedroom. A double mattress took up most of the room. He reached down next to the bed to retrieve his 12 gauge shotgun and several shells. “I’ll take this with me.”

A lot of folks who live out here – some call them desert rats – want to be forgotten. They are getting old. Social Security gives them just enough to manage. They like to be alone. Charles was no exception. Three marriages, 2 adult daughters who don’t talk to him, and a mountain of bills offered little to look forward to. A few years ago he broke his right ankle. It didn’t heal correctly. Walking on it is painful. After the accident, finding work was difficult. Looking down, he offered, “Do you think my daughters stepped up to help? Nope. Nothing. Not a damn thing.” 

Finally his brother handed him a 4-grand wad of cash and said, “go start over.” Charles sifted through a lifetime of possessions and loaded the remnants into his small car. He left Indiana and headed west. 

Quincy and I were awake a 6 am, our sunburned legs still stiff and not quite ready to get back on our bikes and start pedaling. Charles was sitting in the recliner, wrapped in a blue bathrobe, smoking a cig and sipping coffee. He took a drag and looked up, smiling, revealing the gap of missing teeth. “I’d offer you some coffee, but I only have one cup.”

My son and I thanked him for his kind hospitality. We’d grown to like Charles. This was always the best part of cycling through America – being befriended by strangers. Charles asked if we couldn’t hang out for a while longer. It was clear by his tone that he didn’t want us to go.

We carefully backed our bikes out the door and down the steps onto the dessert floor. Charles stood in the doorway to watch us leave. Then he closed the door and returned to his recliner and his favorite pastime: looking out through the trailer window, into the dessert. He watched for animals and birds that might search the parched land for nourishment. He scanned the horizon for the occasional storm that may roll in. His metal box – his home – warmed by the sun, still rocking in the wind. A hawk in the distant blue sky circled. With his shotgun waiting on the floor, Charles took a sip from his only cup, wishing his daughters, or even his brother, would give him a call.

Photojournalism 

Brand New Baby and a Brand New Daddy.
Brand New Baby and a Brand New Daddy.
  

A Day In The Life Of Oregon

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.

Check out this story by KOBI-TV: Mike Porter & Chris Briscoe – Dayshoot30.org.

Salvador Giardina, The Restoration Man

SalIt 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.”

Transitions

Hands greensprings elementary reunion

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.

This image is a part of my book titled HANDS.

Bathtub Blues

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

Christopher Briscoe's new book, Bathtub Blues.
Christopher Briscoe’s new book, Bathtub Blues.

A (Very) Distant Relative of Senator John McCain?

Recently, I had the opportunity to photograph Ashland’s Goatman in my studio. When I processed the images, I was shocked to realize that I had just photographed someone who could be related to Arizona Senator John McCain. I sent the photo to him and he wrote back, “Christopher Briscoe, this picture is really baaaaaad!”

Senate Armed Services Committee
Senate Armed Services Committee

The Importance of Printing Our Photographs 

We snap so many pictures nowadays that it sometimes seems as if we’ve forgotten to savor any. I love gifting my prints to people I’ve photographed. In Cambodia, I took a little battery operated photo printer into city dumps and made families their first portraits. Just showing them the image on the back of my camera isn’t enough for me. Yesterday I stopped my Dennis deBey’s blacksmith forge in Ashland, Oregon and handed him this print. His smile was ample payment. It’s time we get our photos off of our devices and onto the walls where they can be enjoyed by everyone. 

Christopher Briscoe