Working Class Heroes

September 19, 2008 | By Amy Lehfeldt | Creative

The presidential election is just around the corner and with working class America cast as the wild card vote in determining the outcome, I thought a recent shoot I long-arm art directed would be appropriate to share.  Simon Willms an editorial and fine art photographer from Toronto took off on a road trip through the Eastern US photographing his idea of Iconic America.  Being Canadian, I thought Simon would have an interesting point of view on Americana and find nuances that we as Americans have taken for granted. I asked him to keep a travel log of his adventures so here are a few excerpts to show you how he stumbles upon his subjects and creates images that are regionally valuable and authentic.
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Journal Entry #1

This is the first photo I took on my road trip through the East Coast.  I had been mulling over possible ideas for the road trip-things I may search out and themes I might explore.  I was driving through West Virginia on a rainy day when I saw a man wearing a yellow slicker and confederate bandana on his head.  I pulled over to talk to the guy and decided to take a few pictures.  He and his boss were trimming the surrounding property and when his boss took notice that he wasn’t working, he began to get annoyed that the job wasn’t getting done and started hurling abuse at me. I laughed it off and kept taking the photos.  Sometimes looking through the camera is a way to remain sort of neutral about what is happening around you.  Eventually his boss said that he had a chalk line for me (Perry Mason style) if I didn’t get out of there.  However, I still needed a signed release so I had to ask.  We went over to the bar and both men had a beer.  The first photo was taken and no gloves were dropped.
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Journal Entry #2

This is my favorite photo from the trip. To me, it represents what is really magical and exciting about America… people on a Saturday night doing what they really want to do, being proud of their country, their soldiers, of who they are, and not giving a damn otherwise.  I had found this dirt racetrack outside of Elkins WV by looking in a local paper to see what was happening over the weekend. It is often how I take pictures…looking through a paper or local calendar to find an event, and just go to see what happens.  Often times I’ll find myself wishing to be in the event rather than photographing it.  This night was an example.  The energy of the place was electric.  The drivers seemed like superstars to me…they could have been driving in the Indy 500.  I took to standing on the inside of the track as they went around.  This photo was taken as the crowd sang the national anthem after the announcer had said a prayer for the troops over seas and for the safety of the drivers in the evening’s race.  One driver is typically chosen to drive around the track with the flag during the anthem singing.  I like that the flag also makes the driver look like he has won the race.  I also like that there is nothing behind the car…that it really is in the middle of nowhere and that people drive from miles around with cars on their trailers to race one another.   I spent the evening taking photos on the racetrack and in the pits breathing exhaust, getting covered in dust and wishing that these things happened every night of the year.
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Journal Entry #3

The man in front of the barn with the American flag painted on it was probably the nicest person I ran into on my trip.  His name was Ray Miller.  He was picking lettuce in his garden that was right across the street from the barn when I passed by.  I slammed on the brakes when I saw the flag on the barn.  He agreed to be photographed immediately.  Ray actually reminded me of my grandfather and had the same weathered hands, like giant mitts.  He had been living in the area working the land his entire life. It was either his daughter or daughter-in-law who had originally painted the barn years ago, and it had been kept up ever since.

When you talk with someone like Ray, and they tell you a little about their life, you realize quickly that you will never be half the man that they are.  He showed me his collection of farm tractors that he had refurbished over the years.  There were about seven tractors in the barn all refurbished by Ray.  They looked pristine, like the day they came out of the factory.  He uses them for all the farm work in the summer, clearing snow in the winter, and pulling a float with his grandkids in the Santa Claus parade.  Once a year he drives all the tractors with other farmers that he knows from Hooversville PA to Stoneycreek Township in memory of Flight 93 that crashed there on Sept 11th 2001.
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Journal Entry #4

I had a pretty nice moment at the end a long day photographing people on the beach in NC.  I had been dragging my really heavy lighting generator up and down the beach taking photos of surfers and people hanging out on the beach.  It was really hot and humid all day and I was tired. It suddenly got dark and started pouring rain.  Everybody left the beach except the surfers.  I took refuge in the lifeguard tower.  I had a great, elevated view of the surfers in the rain with no one else around.  It felt good to be there.

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