In late October, the days are numbered before you have to put your motorcycle up for the winter. Taking advantage of an exceptional autumn Saturday, I suited up with my “point and shoot” camera and headed out in anticipation of capturing colorful foliage in the afternoon light. Instead I ended up in Cleveland’s “Flats” roaming around the steel mills. It’s still my favorite place to find great industrial rust-belt images – lift bridges, hissing steam pipes, and ore boats unloading taconite pellets from mines around Lake Superior.
This area was once an economic paradise churning out steel for the auto industry and the rest of the industrial world. Some of my earliest and best black and white Kodak Panatomic-X images were done here in the late 70’s with my friend Chuck Ashton.
These were the years before the Flats transformed into dance clubs and martini bars. The “Harbor Inn” was the only place to be – along with your friendly longshoreman and iron worker. Chuck was a railway aficionado who could identify the pitch of a Nathan P-3 five chime air-horn from an oncoming train.
What an amazing sound! We would scour the Flats well into the night photographing locomotives owned by railroad companies uncommon to this area. They were usually just passing through and would stop long enough during refueling to be captured by Chuck’s Nikkormat or my Minolta. After burning a dozen rolls of the slow speed, black and white film at Whiskey Island, Superior Viaduct or the Fourth Street yards, we’d convene to the makeshift darkroom in his basement developing our “works of art.”
We then would systematically archive the contact sheets for future 8×10 glossy’s. This was a great way to learn photography. A tripod, a hand held light meter, long exposures and evaluating your shots when they’re in the film dryer – not on an LCD screen.
Another recollection I have of these photo ventures was not once were we ever hassled or threatened by engineers, employees, police, security guards, etc. We were two lugs from Parma – most of the time sober – toting camera bags filled with lenses and gadgets shooting pictures as a hobby. Which brings me back to the splendid Saturday in October.
I headed west on Campbell Drive just off of Independence Road, and found a picturesque setting of a working mill with mounds of slag, gravel and rail cars in the foreground. It was about 4:30 p.m. and the light was fabulous. Since buying my 1150GS, I never took the time to photograph it for posterity so this was a great opportunity with the ambient lighting and surroundings. I parked the bike on the center-stand about two feet off the street. There was absolutely no traffic, no pedestrians, no obstacles and lots of late afternoon direct sun and shadows. Flipping up my face shield, (I didn’t bother to take my helmet off) I started shooting with the Leica D-Lux 3 composing various angles through the LCD on the camera back. True, I’m not the purist I was in my youth.
It couldn’t have been 3 minutes after the first shot my when I heard the muffled sound of tires braking hard on loose gravel. Wearing earplugs and a full face helmet tends to dampen your peripheral senses. After turning around, I was caught off guard to see how close the Ford F150 with a flashing yellow light bar was to me. The gentlemen exiting the truck with the hard hat, yellow safety vest, and hand-held radio wasted no time with idle chit-chat like, “Beautiful day, eh?” or, “Nice bike, used to own an R-80 myself…” Instead it went something like, ‘You realize you’re on private property, and I can make one call to my Captain and have your camera confiscated and your bike impounded and yadda – blah – blah – blah.’ I threw up my hands, shook my head and said, “I don’t see any signs to that effect and the last I heard, this is a public street.” Due to the earplugs, I must have stated my case louder than normal because his tone too became much louder as well reminding me that my camera will be confiscated, bike will be impounded, yadda – blah – blah.’
I didn’t say another word, put on my gloves, mounted the GS, and road home thinking how our world has changed in the last 30 years… terrorist threats, corporate espionage, hostile take-overs, digital cameras? If my helmet was off, would this chap have seen the “lug” photographing his motorcycle in front of urban industrial landscape, instead of the alternatives? Regardless, I did get off about 5 photos and hope you enjoy the final outcome. I certainly do – and the events that lead up to it.