"It's Just a Crushed Coke Can"

Coca Cola.jpg

Most of you that follow me know that my posts are humorous and light-hearted in nature. This is not one of those posts. I seldom talk about the darker times, yet this is a time where the story conveys the meaning of the image.

Many years ago I was living in the southeast. I was young and not so smart. My life had taken a very nasty turn. The universe around me had suddenly spiraled out of control. The bad decisions that I made to get me to this point were coming back to haunt me. There was a line that I had crossed and I could not cross back. My finances were bad, morale was in the gutter and I had hit rock bottom. The details as to what exactly transpired are not important at this time. What matters is how I handled the situation. To say that I was drowning in my own pitty pool would be an understatement. Life was so miserable that I had taken to walking the night away until the early hours of the morning. A deep depression had set in and walking was the best therapy that I could find. The time I spent walking was actually starting to pay off. The clarity and overall understanding of how to overcome my problems was becoming clear. The turning point came when I visited a local corner convenience store in the wee hours of the morning. In typical fashion my head was in a downward direction toward the ground. My confidence was still on the mend. Looking downward forced me to face the realization that I didn't deserve to look at the world head on. I know this sounds really messed up, yet it was how I rationalized my situation. The view of the ground in front of that convenience store is where the story takes a turn for the better.

There in plain site in the front parking lot of the convince store was a crushed Coke can. The details of the can seemed so unique. I had finally found common ground with of all things, a flattened soda can. The similarities between my situation and that Coke can were striking. I felt crushed, flattened and otherwise useless. Just like that can, I had once been full of purpose and was now tossed to the side. That can was keeping me company on the same pier. I was so entranced by that flattened Coke can that it took the sound of an obnoxious horn to bring me back to reality. The horn was firmly affixed to a beat up and rusted out pickup truck. Inside the truck were a few rowdy and otherwise inebriated locals. I do recall that words were exchanged and some form of ultimatum was shouted in anger toward my direction as the two locals walked into the store for more beer. On most occasions I would have stuck around for the outcome of that alcohol inspired temper tantrum. Tonight was not that night. That crushed soda can had given me a mission.

I headed home and managed to sleep for about 6 hours. I awoke and immediately began to study that crushed Coke can. There were details that I had missed the previous night in the dimly lit parking lot. My mission now was to record the can on film. My camera at time was a 4x5 studio camera. This would be a perfect format, yet I was craving the slightly larger 8x10 view camera. There was little chance of actually owning an 8x10 at this point in my life as I barely had two nickles to rub together. I set up a makeshift studio and framed up the Coke can. The can seemed to come to life in the ground-glass of my view camera. The negative was developed immediately. At that point in time I was doing contact prints in my bathroom. The largest print that I could make was a measly 4”x5”. Disappointment set in as I examined the contact print. There were glaring problems with the lighting. A properly set of lights was financially out of the question. Despite the dismal outcome, I was motivated to shoot the can with an 8x10 view camera and a good lighting setup. Now I had both a direction and purpose. That silly can was single handily responsible for pulling me out of the gutter.

Over the next few months my situation improved. I headed back home and found a job in a major photography studio in Indianapolis. The experience in that studio taught me the skills necessary for lighting the Coke can. My next mission was to find an 8x10 view camera. That problem was solved one fall weekend while looking for antiques. I stumbled across a garage sale in the middle of two corn fields. My only thought at the time was that this was one hell of a place to sell corn seeds, not junk. Curiosity took hold and I decided to check out the offerings. I caught sight of a dusty old box in the far corner of the garage. Inside that dusty old box was an old wooden view camera. Or rather, many pieces of wood that were once a fully assembled 8x10 view camera. I could see the classic circular metal plate embossed with the Deardorff logo. The Deardorff camera company made wooden view cameras from 1923 to 1988. The company was family owned and operated out of Chicago. The Deardorff name was synonymous with both quality and durability. Everyone who was anyone owned an 8x10 Deardorff. This particular Deardorff in the box was a relic that dated back to the early 50's. I had a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach as there was no price marked on the box. About that time an old man in overhauls approached me with an inquisitive look on his face. The negotiations started as we both hem hawed around. He was the first to speak.

“You know quality there sunny.”

The way that he said that made me ponder the price even more. The old man continued.

“Must have been a few dozen people interested in that antique camera.”

That statement solidified my feeling that if I had to ask the price, I could not afford it. I shook my head and did a few rounds of “hmmm...interesting.” The stage was now set. Truth be told, I was not that experienced at dickering. I sensed the old man knew that. He smiled and told me that since I knew quality so well that he would let me have the entire box for the unheard of price of one hundred dollars. I was not expecting that. We shook hands as I exchanged one crisp Benjamin Franklin for the old box of camera parts. In all the excitement I had forgotten to ask if all of the parts were there to make a working Deardorff. When I did ask (after paying of course), the old man just smiled and told me not to worry. I departed and headed home to dig into that box.

The entire contents of the box were then scattered about the floor of my living room. I could tell within a few minutes that all of the major parts were there. Over the next six months I carefully restored the camera back to a reasonable original factory condition. My next mission was to find a lens and some film holders. Within a year I had a complete 8x10 setup. I could now deal with that crushed Coke can. The lighting set up I had put together turned out to perfect. The Coke can was taped to a sheet of glass in front of a white piece of foam-core. The exposed negative was developed and I pulled a contact print only to be disappointed by the results. The can has irregular areas that reflect excessive light. This results in areas of the logo that were blown out and contained no detail. I tried all of the lighting tricks that I had learned over the years. Nothing could fix the problems. This was around the time that I was first introduced to Photoshop. I knew that someday in the very distant future I would have the ability to digitally fix the Coke can and print a digital negative. I put the Coke negative aside and waited for the day technology would catch up. That day came sooner than expected. Of course there was a catch. The digital negatives could not be used on traditional silver gelatin paper. Back to the drawing board.

It seems I was back where I started. Disappointment set in. That feeling of disappointment was replaced by curiosity. I researched the digital negative process and found the answer. Digital negatives could be used when printing with the platinum palladium process. I had actually seen a few platinum palladium prints and was impressed with the quality. The time had come to learn the platinum palladium process. That journey is well beyond this discussion. I'll fast forward and say that I was now able to print the coke can in a manner that satisfied my overly picky requirements. In that spirit, I ended up re-shooting the can. I could now use much better film and finer grain developer. The excessive reflections were still there, yet I retouched them out. The digital negative was printed out and I made a platinum palladium print. The first print was made on traditional watercolor paper coated with the platinum palladium emulsion. The results were exactly what I wanted. Over time I started to print on Japanese gampi tissue. Surprise, surprise. Time to try this little exercise on gampi. In my mind I can see how a 20”x25” gampi print of the coke can will look.

Now for some observations. That Coke can changed my life in many unexpected ways. Finding the can pulled me out of a seriously bad time in my life. That might sound over-dramatic and difficult to understand, yet that is the simple truth. At the time that I shot the can I was obsessed with the silver gelatin printing process. Silver gelatin is the traditional black and white printing process. The name is derived from light sensitive silver floating in a layer of gelatin. The silver gelatin process is amazing, yet it cannot compare to the range of tones and longevity of the platinum palladium process. My frustration with printing the Coke can in silver gelatin allowed me to find and embrace the platinum palladium process. The journey to platinum palladium printing could not have been achieved without the digital negative process. Printing digital negatives required learning Photoshop techniques as well. All of these little details came together very early on to shape how I make a print. There is absolutely no way that I could print my palladium prints on gampi had my path deviated.

The restoration of the Deardorff allowed me to learn some very necessary skills to maintain wooden view cameras. Sadly I was forced to sell the Deardorff to fund my 8x20 panoramic view camera. Selling the Deardroff was the second most knuckle-headed decision that I made. My chance to own a new Deardorff came in the spring of 2012. The Deardorff company was once again back in business. That turned out to be nothing more than a facade as the company folded after building a few cameras. I have no complaints with my new Arca-Swiss 8x10, but the memories of using the Deardorff will never fade away.

The palladium print of the Coke can was shown to a few select art lovers. Most of the comments were positive. I decided not to tell the full story behind the image as the time was not right. Many of the comments were not what I expected. In particular I kept hearing about “it's just a crushed can.” Yes it is, but slow down and take a closer look. You will see some rather interesting details. No one seemed to notice the similarities of the right portion of the can to a profile of an old man. The “it's just a crushed can” comment got me to thinking. If that is the case, then Ansel Adams images were composed of “just rocks, trees and water.” The famous pepper that Edward Weston (a good friend of Ansel Adams) shot was “just a pepper.” That pepper print is currently residing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Ironically Edward Weston gave one of the pepper prints to a friend and wrote on the back of the print, "As you like it ‒ but this is just a pepper ‒ nothing else ‒to the impure all things ‒ are impure.” Perhaps the simple things that we hold dear are just that, simple things. I still like this crushed coke can shot as much as the first day that I shot it. I will also continue to look for more crushed coke cans to create perhaps five more simple shots. The pursuit of those five cans will no doubt keep me focused on the truly simple things in life. And yes, this is still just a crushed Coke can.