Thousands of miles and hundreds of Polaroids
U.S. Route 66 has many names – The Great Diagonal Way, The Mother Road, Main Street of America. From its beginnings in downtown Chicago to the tumbleweed swept high deserts of west Texas, the highway exhibits a slice of Americana like nowhere else.
For many who’ve never traveled the highway, there’s a vague perception of long, desolate stretches of worn pavement peppered with defunct motels and kitschy fiberglass statues. Milwaukee photographer Christopher Robleski doesn’t subscribe to this notion.
“People think Route 66 is some kind of ghost town,” he said. “There’s actually a ton of life on it, so much character. It’s literally like going to another country. I feel like this stuff is going away and nothing is coming to take its place.”
So strongly does he feel about the highway that he’s releasing a book of photographs documenting 66’s doggedly unusual culture titled Polaroid Photos from Route 66. The effort chronicles four separate trips, covering all 2,451 miles of the eclectic roadway.
“For me it was a perfect marriage,” he said. “Both things are going away and I’m gonna use one to capture the other.”
275 Polaroids in all were compiled from an arsenal of instant film cameras. The blending of differing technical characteristics over a constant medium is one reason Robleski chose to use Polaroids. Plus there’s the immediate gratification that comes with instant photographs.
“When you think of a road trip, you want to see it as your going,” he said.
Adding to the visual chronicle is a collection of 24 stories from the road. To describe the stories as compelling is an understatement. From the highlights of a conversation with the original owner of the Big Orange Stand to a tale of sharing fifty-cent taps with a Czech motorcycle gang, each anecdote adds depth to the accompanying Polaroid.
“The book isn’t random. The two pictures next to each other have a story either obvious or metaphorical,” said Robleski. “The picture might just be a sign but it’s going to have a story. It’s a memoir of what happened that day. It’s more of a humanistic approach.”
Robleski doesn’t expect to make his first million with the book. A deeper understanding Route 66 is what compelled Robleski and his girlfriend, Katie Nelson, to spend weeks locked in their Bay View apartment engrossed in the project. The couple are responsible for every facet of the book’s existence, except printing and binding. They plan to hit the highway again next spring to sell copies of the book to merchants along Route 66.
“We’re totally doing it old school,” said Robleski.
The forthcoming book isn’t the only new endeavor for Robleski and Nelson. Combining his evocative photographs and her digital design prowess, the couple launched a website this past summer called Fading Nostalgia. The website is described as a grassroots effort for people with a shared interest in the forgotten and isolated to connect and share. It will also provide personal chronicles from various road trips along with a constantly updating collection of film/digital prints.
“We’re certainly not reinventing the wheel, but I think we’re doing it with stronger images, our own personal images,” said Robleski.”My real end result for Fading Nostalgia is that people will see stuff that they’ve never seen before. We are presenting a real story because we went there and were inspired by something about the location.”
That end result actually came to fruition in one instance.
Earlier this year, one of Robleski’s photographs was voted on to be published nationally in Capture Wisconsin, a collection of photographs documenting the state.
A History of Exploration
Robleski’s need to photograph the forgotten is part explorative nature, part obsession. When asked if he had a favorite subject he swiftly fired back.
“Isolation. Where you feel you’re in the middle of nowhere. My subjects are definitely forlorn, on their last legs, but not totally ruined. Something you’re not going to see the same way again.”
The need to rediscover is something deeply engrained within Robleski.
“The true origin of my exploration started when I was a kid in Kenosha,” he said. “We’d go downtown to break into buildings and basically had a whole building as a clubhouse. If I only had a camera back then…there are some cool places I broke into as a kid.”
“People are like, how do you get into these places? Isn’t that illegal?” he said. “Either I break in and take some pictures to document it or its just going to be leveled and no one is ever going to know what was in there.”
Polaroid Photos from Route 66 is in it’s final production stage. Chris and Katie expect to have the book available for purchase ($34.99) on their Fading Nostalgia website before the end of the year. Chris’s work will also be on display for Art Bar‘s upcoming artist exhibition, Urban Perspectives.