• Michael Phillips

No Way Home

Updated: Mar 8, 2021

I hit the space bar as another tourist rides the mechanical bull. Snap! Lights and camera fire. I shuffle in my dress shoes. I’ve been standing in place for hours. Giant florescent lights hum above the big Kubota Excavators exhibit. People loudly mill about the Las Vegas convention center in this massive place carrying their corporate swag. It’s a stream of tourists and one after another they take turns riding the bull. On slow speed. They usually last 3 seconds when their asses slide off the plastic saddle. Either way I get that shot of them on the bull before that moment, posed, their rear arm reared up in a cowboy pose. I click the space bar, click a couple more keys and out spits a 5x7 print that I slide into a folio and hand it to them as they put their shoes back on. I am 41 years old. I’ve been a ‘professional’ photographer for 15 years. What happened?? This was not why I dreamed of being a ‘real’ photographer one day.

My partner walks up to me. He’s wearing the same black shirt I am with ‘Christie’s Photographic Solutions’ stitched in yellow. Stitched above it is the name ‘Amit.’ “Hey bro,” he says, “this COVID shit might be for real.” That was the last day I worked as a freelance photographer.

I can’t recognize that guy as me today.

After a year of avoiding documenting my travels in anything other than landscapes I decide it’s time to put it all down. Because COVID changed everything. I had settled for a life that was so much less than the adventure I fantasized of. 20 years in Las Vegas. As a city Las Vegas holds no interest to me. The Mojave desert landscape does not inspire me and the summers were killing me! I felt that the culture was just as much a materialistic wasteland.

I have tried to leave Vegas multiple times. Once in my early twenties to New York to work my way into the film industry (yes, I know how stupid that sounds now). I crashed on my buddy’s couch in Queens for 5 months until I gave up my bi-coastal Hollywood fantasy. When I turned thirty to Thailand. I said I was never coming back. After a magical year I came back, hat in hand. Broke. I had to borrow money to purchase the flight home. Another time to the North Bay area of California. I shared an apartment with my service industry era friend who was always high on cocaine with his ‘celebrity hairstylist’ roommate who frequently had the DTs from quitting alcohol. That too ended in failure. The real crazy one {TEXT REDACTED}...

The last few years I have worked hard to get on my feet. To pay down credit. To save money. To buy lots of new gear. To invest in myself as a real pro.

I had a busy freelance schedule. I had acquired the new NFL home team Las Vegas Raiders as my new client as a freelancer. My client list was building too. I worked every chance I got. Mostly corporate gigs shooting corporate type events in some casino convention center. Mostly I felt like a working class stiff. Which is fine, don’t get me wrong. I appreciated always the hard work of it. But this wasn’t what I set out to do. My old boss and beer drinking buddy Derek and I used to drink till we slurred speech, dreaming of growing our wedding and portrait studio. Into what, I’m not quite sure. We never got that far into the conversation I suppose.

I felt that I had sold out to the man in return for a lackluster career. Just enough to get by. I have no wife, no kids, not even a dog. What’s then to live for but the passion/craft I was once so enamored with?? And then COVID. The work phone stopped ringing and would not for beyond the foreseeable future. I immediately thought, “I’m free.”

That was 9 months ago. Just after my big breakup. Just before the house lease ended. With no ties left to Vegas I bought a 19’ trailer (the RPod - an American classic. Which has to be true, it says it right there on the side). And with no experience pulling an RV, I hit the road. It was a road fraught with bumps and bruises. Figuratively and literally.

I have dropped stuff on the road I am absolutely ashamed happened. I have been helpless on a roadside while folk I might have judged in my past life saved the day and rewired my mobile heap. Or got the tongue jack out of the ground. Or pulled the trailer hitch out of my jeep’s bumper. So many mistakes made with this piece of wood and fiberglass junk on wheels. After years on the road as a traveler I was questioning whether or not I was cut out for the road.

Since then I’ve gotten good. Good enough to not embarrass myself I suppose. And I’ve learned to love my weekend warrior mobile that’s become my house. Some renovations were made to make it a little more comfortable. And some personal touches. I live with less and that seems to make me happier than when I was acquiring more and more stuff.

More importantly I rekindled my love of the photograph. Digital photography has changed. The sensor on my Sony mirrorless is amazing. It’s more accessible both in affordable gear and a billion YouTube videos that elevate the game and produce mind blowing imagery. I’m shaking my fist to the heavens like a grumpy old man shouting, ‘back in my day I had to take a picture and then look down to see if it was exposed properly.” Photography got good, really good. What do I have to contribute to make my mark as an artist in photography?? Especially after years of proving that I could easily be bought for an hourly rate?

In the face of these questions I hit the road. I eat junk food and listen to Pearl Jam on satellite radio. I listen to podcasts and audio books. Using apps on the iPhone I find places I can park for a night or two without being disturbed by the local cops. I wake before sunrise and setup for sunrise photos. Before evening I setup for a sunset shot. Sometimes these places call to you to pull over and hike a bit. Mid-days are good for post processing and obsessing over what’s okay, what’s great and what’s garbage.

Mountains are climbed first thing in the morning. The sunrises are glorious as I hurriedly attach lens filters and make HDR panos… click click click after click click click after click click click click. Maybe I making magic, maybe just another boring Instagram landscape. But here I am at the top of a mountain before sunrise, breathing in the crisp free air, overlooking creation. Gratitude sets in. Who’s got it better than me??

Making a cup of coffee in the RPod is a messy endeavor. As is showering, brushing my teeth or clearing out a sewer tank that is just 1 gallon away from disaster. Making oatmeal for breakfast in the Instant Pot is a process. All these things slow life down. The usual buzz of chronic anxiety I felt in my previous life loses its intensity. I wear hiking pants every day and I don’t think much about the appearance of the hair on my head or face. I practice the ukulele. It’s peace I haven’t known in a long time.

The pictures eased my troubled mind. Hours of culling, HDR-ing, panoramic processing. Gradient filters and many many dust spot clonings. I was making many images, some pretty good. And in my new state of digital zen I remembered an important lesson: it’s not about the perfection, it’s not about the detailed post production. Not the L-series lens, not the camera’s native ISO. It’s about story. Story is what connects a person to that big, expensive face-mounted acrylic print on the wall. It’s the story of getting to that destination. It’s the waking up before dawn in the freezing cold. It’s the hard climb up the mountain side and finding that perfect spot while you wipe your wet house with the side of your gloved hand. Patience demands, and when the light is just so, snap! It’s a joy I haven’t felt in a long time.

I’m amused to look at this gallery of travel photos. Not one person in them. Sure it’s COVID times and I keep myself away from other people as we should. But I don’t think that’s the reason. After years of weddings and family portraits and board of directors group shots. There are no eyes looking back at me.

Photography isn’t a gig for me anymore. It’s a mission. The hours of staring at Google Maps planning it all out, the hike with the tripod over my shoulder and the patient hoping that when the sun hits that point on the horizon that it will be magic. I rediscovered how to play with my camera again.

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