From growing up in the Ann Arbor-area of Michigan to shooting exotic locations throughout the southwestern United States, Jim Shoemaker is no stranger to reinventing himself and his destiny. After obtaining a degree in Graphic Design from Siena Heights University, he worked as a designer, riding out several recessions. In 2000′s dot-com collapse and recession, he moved to California to reboot his career.
Known primarily as a landscape photographer, Shoemaker explains his preferred subject matter by what interested him as a child. “I’ve been an outdoor person since I was a kid growing up in Michigan,” he recalls. “It’s not like there was a lot to do. We were in a rural area, and I spent a lot of time roaming around the woods. I always enjoyed being outdoors.” Inspired by Ansel Adams and other iconic landscape shooters, he was drawn to that type of photography. “Even before I was really into photography,” he says, “I would look at Adams’ work and there was just something so powerful about it, something that moved me, and I responded to, even though at the time I wasn’t making any connections I should be doing this myself.”
Primarily self-taught, Shoemaker developed his technique by doing, observing and learning. “Trial and error” is how he describes he obtained his technical ability. “I read a lot. I have quite a library of photography books. I read everything I can get my hands on and spend a lot of time researching online. I shoot both thirty-five millimeter and medium format. The best thing to do is just pack up the gear and head out into the field, shoot, come back, look at the results, go back and just keep repeating the process until I find what I’m looking for.”
What he had been looking for subject-wise turned out to be the desert. “When I was growing up in Michigan, I would see photographs of places throughout the southwest,” he remembers. “It was always fascinating to me but at the time I never even imagined I would see them let alone live out in these areas. There’s something about the desert I connect with. Maybe it’s that I’m living forty miles outside of Los Angeles and I deal with the traffic and crowds all the time. When I can escape to Death Valley, or I get out into the Sonoran Desert or something, it’s just the solitude. Maybe that’s what I was always looking for when I was in Michigan. Maybe it’s why I would head out into the woods and spend my days out there. I enjoyed being away. I guess it’s cathartic for me.”
In Shoemaker’s viewfinder, solitude is reflected as being a peaceful antidote to the crowds of Los Angeles. Rhyolite, Nevada and other ghost towns have proven to be fertile settings for this photographer’s accomplished and moving portraits. “I’ve always been fascinated with remote places, which is probably where I get my love of being in the deserts and mountains,” he says. “I like abandoned places—places that used to be such centers of activity, and now there’s just nothing there. There’s nobody living there. They’re just empty and forgotten. I don’t know exactly how I got an attraction to that, but there is definitely an interest in watching the process of things breaking down, I suppose. Among the things I’ve discovered over the years of shooting ghost towns are things breaking down gain more character to me than the things that are new and intact.”
Remote locations of former mining towns and camps are Shoemaker’s main focus in recent years. He points to Swansea, California off Interstate 395 in the Lone Pine area, with it’s one stagecoach stop building as a perfect example of a structure with heightened character. Shooting the remains since 2008, he’s documented a dramatic degradation of its condition. The small town of Garlock, California in the Red Rock Canyon area has also fallen before Shoemaker’s lens. With just a handful of buildings left, he’s charted the decay of Garlock, and is not aware of anyone restoring or even maintaining this small ghost town. Cerro Gordo had an owner/caretaker who passed away about a year ago, and the future of its remaining structures is in doubt. Bodie, California is faring better. Protected as a California State Park, Bodie remains frozen in time by two caregivers who keep it in a state of “arrested decay.” They maintain and repair what is currently there, but do no improvements. Rhyolite, Nevada, mentioned earlier, is perhaps the most photographed of these ghost towns, with its iconic crumbling John S. Cook and Company Bank used in major Hollywood films since at least 1964, most recently in 2005′s The Island.
Rhyolite, although probably the most visited ghostown in the southwest, still holds a significant amount of allure for Shoemaker. “There’s something to the fact that at one point there was 8,000 people living there and within two or three years that population has decreased by a third, and then within ten years the place is empty. I can go back through archival photos online and see what this place looked like in its heyday and it’s really hard to make a connection to what I see now. There’s so little left, and it’s just amazing something that was so prominent and built to last…” he trails off. “It really draws me in that most of the towns following gold mines and gold fields were made out of wood. People built a simple wooden structure or simple stone structure or canvas structure, and when the gold ran out, they pulled up the stakes and were gone and the town went with it. But Rhyolite they built basically out of stone. They intended it to last but it didn’t.”
If Rhyolite holds the crown of ghost towns, the Cook Bank sits as its centerpiece jewel. “I’m fearful of the day when I drive into town and it’s not there,” Shoemaker says. “There’s a corner of that building that just has such great character, it gives character to the building, and I know it’s been slowly collapsing over the years. One day I am going to drive in and that corner is going to be gone. It’s going to have lost all of that great character that it had. I think, maybe, that’s why I photograph it every chance I get.” Shoemaker shoots Rhyolite at all times of the day and night. Daylight shots are challenging because of tourists milling about, which he doesn’t want to photograph.
When pressed for more about what draws him to photograph ghost towns of the southwest, Shoemaker is candid about the pull he feels. “It was this underlying feeling of needing to see this place for myself. I think that’s probably the thing I want to transmit through my own work: that I want people to look at it and say, ‘This is a place that I never really thought about before—maybe I didn’t even know about before—but I think I want to see this for myself.’”
In 2004 Shoemaker bought a Canon 10D and began shooting. Two years later he bought his first Mamiya, a 645AFD. He now shoots two of the same model. For backup, he uses a Leaf Aptus 17 digital back. A user of Photoshop since version 2.0, Shoemaker is no stranger to digital technology, and shoots no film.
Conversely, Shoemaker is careful about how much digital manipulation he executes in post-production. “When it comes to Photoshop, I try to limit it to the things that I would be doing in a wet darkroom if I was shooting film. Any education I have in photography came from reading books,” he says. Most of the books he’s read are by Ansel Adams. “If you’ve ever read any of his work, he is maniacal when it comes to getting it right in the camera. In his time, it was on film, but with a negative he wanted all the information he needed. That would give him the print he wanted, based on the vision he had when he looked at the scene. You get it in camera as close as you can to matching your vision.”
Shoemaker uses a Sekonic L-558 Dual Master spot meter to pick and choose the points in the subject he wants to read and meter for important tonal values. “That’s what I meter off of, and that’s how I judge the exposure,” he explains. “It’s both an incidental light meter and a spot meter, so it does a lot of work for me. And, of course, we’ve got the LCDs we can look at to check the histograms and see whether it’s in line with what I have in mind, exposure-wise. It’s like shooting with a Polaroid basically if I was doing film. I don’t want to spend so much time having to go back and readjust everything. I will shoot raw images in both formats. But, it’s just not that much fun to sit there and go through dozens and dozens of images and have to lower the values or raise the values or just make all kinds of global adjustments all over the thing when I could have done it in the camera in the first place.”
Heading out on photography excursions for three weeks at a time, Shoemaker knows what to bring and what not to bring. “I generally have my Canon 5D Mark II with me, and I’ll take my Mamiya 645, a spare Mamiya body, and sometimes I take a 20D backup body for my Canon. As far as lenses, I take a pretty limited selection for both formats. For my Mamiya I have a 35mm lens that I would probably consider my primary landscape lens, especially when I shoot with the least back because it has a crop factor. When I shoot film through it, it gives me a little more flexibility but I’ve got my 35mm. I’ve got a 55 to 110mm which is probably my next most used lens for the medium format. I’ve got a 105 to a 210mm which I don’t use a whole lot, but every now and then it comes in handy.”
Like his use of digital technology, Shoemaker is not stuck in ghost towns for his photographic subjects. The Bradbury Building and Chrysler Building are among the still-functional structures he’s photographed, not to mention meadows, natural rock arches and other settings which have fallen under the gaze of his cameras. “I have an interest in architecture,” he says. “That’s my problem: I have an interest in too many things. If I had to label myself, it would definitely be a landscape photographer, but there’s so many things that are interesting visually. There’s a lot of interesting things, and whatever catches my eye because of form, because of the texture, because of lighting, I think I’ll photograph it.”
The critical element for Shoemaker is feeling and instinct. “I don’t know that there’s a big difference in my mindset when I’m looking at a canyon, a landscape, a skyline, or architectural features, or rock formations,” he says. “I know what I have in mind. When I look at a subject, I kind of get a vision of what I’m looking for. And sometimes, whether it’s a landscape or a building, I can’t realize it on a camera. I just don’t find it on that particular day. It’s really frustrating, but that’s the way things go. Other times I know what I’m looking for. I find it, I frame it, I shoot it. It seems to be instinctual for me. It’s just a reaction to what I’m seeing.”