The Ultimate?

I had just taken my first bite, and my face must have telegraphed my feelings about what I was eating.  My 9 yr  old daughter asked, “Why do they call it ‘Ultimate Grilled Chicken Sandwich’ when everyone knows it’s so bad?”
So this was my moment of truth? The Ultimate Grilled Chicken Sandwich? The lens through which I would try gently to show my daughter the ways of the world? She wanted an answer, but I could tell by how she phrased her question that she already knew. I had pointed out to her in the past that, basically, people may lie to you if they’re trying to sell you something.
We were at Wendy’s and I was actually hopeful that the Ultimate Grilled Chicken Sandwich would be better than the burgers, which experience had taught me to avoid.

Silly me! I should have known better. Ultimate Chicken Sandwich came, and God help us if this is the Ultimate.  It better not be.
Dried out piece of meat, a too-large slab of that tasteless though presumably easy to manufacture tomato preferred by the industry, a flaccid sprig of lettuce, all on a fresh from the microwave bun.
It was disappointing, I admit it. And annoying. And an example of why I generally avoid fast food.  As the colors are bright, the plastic shiny, the signs huge, and the hype relentless, so is the food just plain bad (ok, maybe except Egg McMuffins).

But then I started to think this should be bothering me more. My daughter’s question had me looking at the experience through her eyes, and wanting to deconstruct it further.  Of course, we all know that it’s not the Ultimate. They know it too, so yes, they’re misleading us. Hard to get too upset about this.  It’s as old as capitalism, right?
Well, yes, but the problem is that there are so many of these little zingers flying around all over the place that the smart person may have no choice but to shut them all down, and start from the assumption that every pitch cloaks a lie of some kind. As never before, ours is a Gotcha! Economy, wherein we’re deceived, coerced, and eluded.
Well, buyer beware, right? That’s as old as capitalism too.
Perhaps, but am I the only one who feels an occasional weariness from all the wariness required to navigate the capitalist landscape?

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Kitsch Mashup at Grant & Post

A sad clown. A surrealist gunfighter. A saxophone-playing frog.  Queens, Kings, Knights, and Horsemen. Flying Angels. Leaping dolphins.  2 majestic eagles pitched in an epic struggle. A smiling shoeshine boy. Galloping horses. A gilded piano that would make Liberace proud. Gigantic, put-the-kid-on-top sized metal turtles. Gobs of brightly colored Miro-inspired glasswork.
Where can you go to find all this stuff in one place? At Michael, which along with its cousin Farinelli down the street, are 2 of the most bizarre and perplexing stores you’ll find anywhere. Each the kind of place that would make the perfect personal hell for someone, the staff at Dwell, perhaps.

I was determined to capture the insanity of these places in photos, but was challenged by finding decent sightlines amongst the chaos. Also, the guys working there always get uptight after 10 or 15 minutes. “No pictures, no pictures,” one of them says as I try to single out a Raggedy Ann & Andy on a tiny swingset from among the seahorses, fairies, and Egyptian dancers surrounding them on a marble tabletop.   I tell one of the guys I’m a prop scout for an advertising photographer, and this seems to hold them off. Using a small camera helps too.
My aim is to keep the focus on the interiors experience here while still describing some of the details, which are so cliche, so saccharine, that they’re a little sickening to dwell on too much.

I did find myself dwelling on the questions “Who’s buying this stuff?”  and “Is this place for real?”  That is, how can they be paying their rent by selling this stuff?  Are there that many tourists willing to pick up a massive ornamental stone lion or Dale Chiluly knockoff chandelier during their visit to SF?  I’ve spent a couple of hours in these places altogether, and I’ve never seen anyone buying anything, not even the $10 bejeweled giraffe figurines by the front door. Just browsers.  Gawkers, actually.

Together, these stores take up 5 floors of prime retail space in the Union Square area. They’ve been there for years. If they’re not ‘for real’, then what exactly is the deal? I’m not sure what’s less likely: This being a viable business or it being a ‘front’ or tax dodge of some kind. Who knows, maybe you can get pillows lined with heroin and cocaine!  So I bounce back and forth between these two implausible theories, and a mystery endures…
“Enough pictures, enough pictures,” the guy says, and this time I sense my time is up.  I think I got what I need though, so I go quietly, almost tripping on a lifesize fake bronze sad little butterfly-holding cherub on my way out.
If you have any knowledge or experience with these places, please leave a comment or contact me!
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A Floating Ruin (The Ferryboat)


Coronado has lost an old friend. The ferryboat San Diego has been abandoned along the shores of the Sacramento River, in a little known slough leading to Decker Island. The San Diego was most recently used as a liveaboard vessel in the rivers of Northern California with graffiti painted along her sides. Efforts to bring her back to San Diego to be used as a dinner theatre or museum failed repeatedly.
(from “History Matters”, the newsletter of The Coronado Historical Society, Spring 2008)
And she is still there, not far from the northern approach to the Antioch Bridge. She is a shock when you first spot her, looking like the perfect location for a cheap horror film.  The effects of time have given her a haunted look, but she is eminently useful as just an exquisite ruin. I wanted desperately to get closer, perhaps try to board her, but she is moored next to private property.
This site made me think of an old photographic series of mine depicting architectural ruins, mostly from the mid 20th Century.  Cliche or not, ruins are irresistible to me.  Their persistent depiction through Art History, the framing of them as parks and attractions, their status as public assets, all show that the ruin ‘fetish’ has always been common.  →

To experience a ruin is to experience a sublime wherein what dwarfs us is not space, distance, darkness or weather, but rather, time and all its attendant cosmic mysteries. We go to these places to remember and pay respect to the past, yes, but also for the exhilarating feeling of omniscience that comes from being reminded of our proper context, globally and cosmically.  We confront death, but this omniscience seems to include acceptance.
Hero ruins like the San Diego (or the abandoned Salton Sea resorts shown above) are great, but the same exhilarating feeling can for me be derived from a modest overgrown foundation or an anonymous slab in the desert. →

Are they a cliche? Perhaps, but for me, it’s their depiction that can get cliche. With all that omniscience, confronting of death, exhilaration, etc., photography’s  mediation can’t help but have a trivializing effect compared with a primary experience.  A ruin is not just a view, but something best walked through, listened to, and examined foot by foot. ♦
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What It Looks Like When Doves Cry?

I came across this very curious scene recently in a Walnut Creek parking lot: a dead dove, flat on its back,
being watched over by 2 others. Yes, watched over.  I observed for at least 10 minutes, and they just didn’t want to leave. Were they expecting the dead one to get up and join them any second, or were they mourning a loss, showing respect?
I of course immediately thought of the great Robert Frank image of the car crash aftermath:  →
Is there any dignity left in death with all these photographers around? ◊

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Dry Lake Bed Sprouts Travelers’ Oasis


clark mountain, ca
Now this is what I moved West for- the chance to get to know places like the Ivanpah Valley, where the settlement of Primm stands as a punch line counterpoint to the surrounding Mojave desert landscape, forming a perfect theater of the absurd and the sublime. →

whiskey pete’s-looking south
‘Settlement’ seems as good a term as any to describe Primm.  It’s first and foremost a rest stop, but because it sits on I-15 just over the NV state line, it has 3 distinct resort/casinos, 2400 hotel rooms, an outlet mall, and various gas stations and fast food joints.  There’s also housing for the workers and a natural gas fired power plant nestled in the hills to the west.  The accident here is the intersection of the state line and the 15 right at the north end of the Ivanpah dry lake bed, one of those bright hot places where the road goes straight for miles. →

buffalo bill’s
My favorite jewel in the Primm crown is Buffalo Bill’s: a 15 story, multi-tower 1200 room hotel done in the traditional red barn board and batten style, all encircled by one of the world’s highest roller coasters (couldn’t forget that part).  This thing should have a giant Foghorn Leghorn affixed to it. →

buffalo bill’s, looking west
Sharing the stage with the architecture, doing their best to steal the show in fact, are the barren Clark Mountains, great mounds of stacked fans, random outcroppings, and cascading buttresses, all with that
vaguely gothic aspect typical of Mojave mountains.  Next trip I think I’ll actually stay in Primm and take
a day to walk into them. →

whiskey pete’s
Whiskey Pete’s, on the other side of the freeway but served by a nifty monorail, employs the more typical toy castle design strategy. The Primm Valley Resort?  I guess it’s supposed to be in the Southern plantation style.
A little piece of Kentucky brought to the desert. I can almost smell the fresh cut grass and minty ice tea! ◊

primm valley resort


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Landscape As Narcotic


I couldn’t possibly stay in Vegas for 7 straight days, so I used 2 of them to take a trip to Death Valley.
Desert places have always had a magnetic pull on me, my desire for them seemingly unconscious, a basic need.
The question I ask myself is: Why do I love the desert so much?  Why not the beach, or the mountains, etc.?

I suppose it’s tied to some misanthropic tendency of mine.  I find it reassuring and comforting to be in a landscape so inhospitable and indifferent to humanity. Try as we might to overlay a human presence here
in our minds, no matter where we look we find a relentless barrenness that offers not even the slightest
possibility of comfort.  It’s great!

Unpeopled space of a certain scale has an almost narcotic effect on me.  This effect is in direct proportion to the amount of that space I can make myself aware of, and there is no better place to experience this than Death Valley. It starts with the long drive over hundreds of miles of similar landscape required just to reach the place. The topography in the Park affords excellent long views from various heights, and the close presence of 11000 ft mountains adds a vertical aspect to the vastness. The vastness is temporal as well, as the utter lack of vegetation and resultant exposed geology transform our measurement of time here from the seasonal or yearly to the millennial. ◊
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I Have Seen the Kingdom


Driving  from Death Valley to Las Vegas, I pass through the strange town of Pahrump, NV.  As I approach one of the town’s main intersections, I spot a structure that appears to be made out of spare parts from the toy castle hotel where I’m staying in Vegas (The Excalibur). As I pass by I look over and see the sign:
“The Kingdom Men’s Club” (!).  I quickly decide to make a stop in Pahrump.  →

I park across the street in the lot for the podiatrist and Remax Realty. The Kingdom appears to be open
for business, but just a few cars around.  I’m shooting it, but cautious.  It looks like the kind of place
Tony Soprano would hang out if he was in town. I’m trying to avoid detection by the video cameras
outside, so I don’t go as close as I might like.  One can only imagine what goes on inside the place. →
As I continue shooting, my feeling of amusement gives way to one of uneasiness.  The Kingdom is creeping me out, I admit it.  Perhaps it’s the site, Pahrump’s relative isolation in the Nevada landscape, etc.  I wonder if the Kingdom thing goes beyond just the architecture.  I can’t help conflating the cheap architectural fantasy with the actual place and what I imagine to be the very dismal proceedings within. In the end I am left with a vague feeling of shame for everyone involved.  Should this ‘everyone’ include me too?  ◊

Images & Text © 2010, 2011 Mark Luthringer
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