DOWN THE ROAD A PIECE in Lost America : Interview with Troy Pavia

DOWN THE ROAD A PIECE in Lost America : Interview with Troy Pavia

Interview By Brett Stillo |

It’s been a long road trip for Troy Paiva. For over twenty years, he’s traveled down old roads and highways, capturing the ruins of America: abandoned motels and restaurants, failed amusement parks, obsolete military bases. The roads Paiva takes on these photographic journeys are often in the desert, in the vast emptiness of Southeastern California. This is the purgatorial edge of the American Dream, a land of the discarded dotted with scrap heaps of Detroit chrome and Cold War wings. Once symbols of progress and innovation in Post-War America, this dust-buried debris has become the featured artifacts of Paiva’s Lost America.

Paiva has created a unique and dynamic vision by masterfully combining the complex techniques of both night photography and light painting in his photographs of decaying landscapes. The fusion of these seemingly separate elements creates a stunning format for his surreal images, which seem almost out of place and out of time in the world of today. His photos are about journeys and his journeys are about photos. For him, it’s a post-modern safari of re-discovery – a last look amid the gathering darkness, an elegy for part of America that has reached the end of the line. Paiva catches it one last time before its gone forever.

Paiva’s body of work is impressive to say the least. He’s published two books of his photos, and his work has appeared in numerous books and magazines, and around the web. His popular Flickr stream continues to expand with new photos and fans every day.

On a wet and grey afternoon,

Troy Paiva and I talked about his journeys into Lost America.

Brett: There’s a dynamic contrast in your photos. You capture landscapes of decay and destruction, yet the centerpiece is often a car, bathed in light. You know how to shoot a car and make it look good.

I’ve always been a motorhead. I grew up around cars and lived in California my whole life. I’ve always been a car culture guy. I worked on cars as a teenager, but I’ve never been the kind of guy who has to own 300 cars. I love that people keep old cars running, but I’m more interested in the aesthetic aspect of it: the way things look and feel, and the way light plays on the surfaces. So my photography is just an off-shoot of all the machines I’ve always been around. In fact, when I first discovered night photography, that was my reaction: “What a great way to photograph these things!”

Troy Paiva: A Piece in Lost America

Troy Paiva: A Piece in Lost America

Brett: Airplanes are also one of your favorite subjects.

I grew up as an Airline Brat. I was always around airplanes. My dad was a flight engineer (third seat) for cargo airlines in the ‘60s. He started out on Lockheed Constellations. His library had thousands of airplane books…every kind you can think of. Tons of stuff and as a kid, I read it all.

Brett: The Aircraft Boneyards are fascinating places. Acres and acres of dead jets. Which ones have you shot at?

Lots of them. Mojave Airport, El Mirage, Kingman Arizona, Tuscon. England too.

Have you had a favorite aircraft to shoot?

Probably the partially recycled airliners at Mojave and Kingman. The bigger, the better!

Brett: And yet, while you’re showcasing these vehicles, they’re still on the junk pile. It’s the end of the line for them. They’re doomed.

It’s like you’re thumbing your nose at death. Sometimes my work takes on a festive “Day of the Dead” quality, like I’m saying, “I’m not scared of you.” I’m laughing in the face of it, givin’ them a big send off. All this stuff is about to die. It’s like taking pictures of people in their deathbeds. That sounds fucked up, doesn’t it? “Oh, there’s somebody dying; lemme take their picture.” But that’s basically what it is. That part of the story needs to be shown too. It’s part of the life experience…whether it’s an ocean liner or a car or a building or whatever. It’s part of the process.

Troy Paiva: A Piece in Lost America

Troy Paiva: A Piece in Lost America

Brett: I get a sense that there’s a sort of transcendence taking place in your photos. Are you bringing these vehicles back to life? Are they being given one last moment of glory?

Troy: It’s all those things! It’s whatever you want it to be. I don’t think it’s right for me to say, “It’s this! It’s that!” I leave it up to the viewer to decide what it means to them personally because it’s designed to be interpreted in many different ways. When I go to the MOMA, I don’t want to read the little plaque next to the piece. I shouldn’t have to do that. If you’ve got to read the explanation about an art piece to understand it, it’s a failure. It needs to affect you just by laying eyes on it. It’s gotta have that instant visceral emotional connection for me. No thinking required.

Troy Paiva: A Piece in Lost America

Troy Paiva: A Piece in Lost America

Brett: There’s also a surreal quality in the scenes you shoot. They remind me of the model kits I built as a kid. Revell, Aurora, Monogram. Vivid colors, glow-in-the-dark plastic. Did you build models as a kid?

Troy: Oh yeah! Tons! Mostly cars and planes, but I also had a thing for the Aurora “Monster Scenes” and the other monster-type kits they made. I used to make crash scene dioramas with my Hot Wheels cars too. Hit ‘em with hammers, put red paint on the windows and glue them to cardboard roadways. Weird kid…but looking forward 40 years to all the junkyard artwork I’ve done, it kind of starts to make sense.

Troy: I was always drawing stuff too. I was that kid sitting in the back of the class drawing tanks and airplanes and war scenes. I did really poorly in school. I would just sit there and draw and SCREW OFF, you know? Every classroom had a kid like that, right? That was me. I just didn’t care about school work.

“I don’t really like to go into that whole “ghost thing” too deeply because I don’t really believe in that kind of stuff. I don’t discount the supernatural completely, but I won’t just automatically give in to believing that creaking sound in the ceiling is a ghost, either.”

Brett: All of these artifacts – the cars, the planes, even the model kits we were talking about – seem be from a specific time and place: mid-century America.

Troy: I was born in 1960. I’m a product of my times. I was part of that Jetsons’ generation that figured we’d have robot servants and vacations on Mars by 2010. There’s definitely a sense that I’m depicting the failure of this future that never happened with my work.

Brett: Are you influenced by the artists and designers from this era?

Troy: Big time. I’m a sucker for the Eero Saarinen’s, Raymond Loewy’s, and John Lautner’s of that era. And Norman Bel Geddes. His work had a huge affect on me.

Troy Paiva: A Piece in Lost America

Troy Paiva: A Piece in Lost America

Brett: How about Syd Mead or Ralph McQuarrie? Industrial/aerospace design guys who also did pre-production on films?

Troy: Oh yeah, them too for sure. And the first generation of Imagineers who worked for Disney, inventing the whole idea of the theme park of the ‘50s and ‘60s. They were real visionaries too. And car customizes like Big Daddy Roth and George Barris. All those guys. My influences are really varied and wide-ranging. I have a great admiration for any artist that masters their techniques, regardless of the medium. The more ornate and complex, the better. It’s all about artistry creating emotion for me.

Brett: You’ve shot at a variety of places, but you keep going back to the desert. That seems to be your Mecca.

Troy: I love the desert. I love the wide open spaces…being able to see 50 miles in every direction! I’m an agoramaniac!

“The whole idea of time is a construct of our minds, anyway. Most people don’t think that way; they’re on a very linear track, but life is happening all around us at different levels and speeds.”

Brett: Yeah, that feeling of vast emptiness is overpowering. Epic, even, that feeling of being small in the Universe.

Troy: I get the same feeling in abandoned buildings…this sense of grandeur…the finiteness of everything. I love that! I love that feeling, experiencing that sensation. It’s like…it’s not ghosts—guys in sheets with eyeholes cut out, but it’s still…there’s a haunted vibe to these places.

Brett: I get that sense, too. Ghosts reside in these places, but not the traditional supernatural sense of ghosts.

Troy: I don’t really like to go into that whole “ghost thing” too deeply because I don’t really believe in that kind of stuff. I don’t discount the supernatural completely, but I won’t just automatically give in to believing that creaking sound in the ceiling is a ghost, either. Everything like that I experience has a logical explanation. But there’s no question – there’s a haunting vibe to these places and I like to capture that feeling in my work.

Brett: There’s also a strong feeling of isolation in your photos, as if the scene has been taken out of time and space.

Troy: I love messing with time and the work reflects that on several levels. It’s a manipulation of time in the context of it being abandoned now at the end of its life, but at one time it was this thriving place. I’m also taking this block of time and everything that happens – airplanes flying by, people walking through – all of it ends up in a single frame. Then there’s the time distortion effect of driving three days to get to this place, and the distortion that goes on inside your mind as the photographer, the person experiencing the journey to shoot this thing. So there’s all this distortion of time that’s involved in doing this. I love that about it! What is time anyway? The whole idea of time is a construct of our minds, anyway. Most people don’t think that way; they’re on a very linear track, but life is happening all around us at different levels and speeds. A fly only lives a week. Does that week feel like 80 years to the fly? But there is some sort of context to all this stuff. I’m trying to make people see beyond the path that they’re on, to show them that there are other ways to look at all these things.

Troy Paiva: A Piece in Lost America

Troy Paiva: A Piece in Lost America

Brett: Your photo shoots involve long drives to get to these abandoned sites. Can you break down your process of finding and shooting these places?

Troy: I scout during the day, doing all these sort of back and forth, zigzag routes. I’ll drive down a road in the afternoon and find a spot worth shooting. Then I move along, find another, until I find enough for that night’s shooting. Then when it gets dark, I begin shooting and working my way back.

Brett: You have an amazing collection of old road maps that you use to locating some of these abandoned places. When did you start using these maps?

Troy: In the early ‘90s when I started doing this, I came to realize that I needed to find locations to shoot. I bought all these [antique maps] for pennies on the dollar at garage sales, flea markets, thrift stores.

Brett: Did you have an “aha moment” when you realized maps showed the location of forgotten towns and places?

Troy: Oh, absolutely! You look at these maps and see names of places that don’t exist anymore. Reward, California. Blair Junction, Nevada. Frenchman, Nevada. Blitzen, Oregon. They’re gone. The old maps are loaded with this kind of stuff. They’re mostly from the 1940’s through the 1960’s. The oldest one I have is a California road map from 1925. That one’s all handwritten.

“The whole idea of time is a construct of our minds, anyway. Most people don’t think that way; they’re on a very linear track, but life is happening all around us at different levels and speeds.”

Brett: In a sense, they’re like reverse treasure maps locating places that aren’t there anymore.

Troy: If you take one of these old maps and compare it to a modern map of the same area, it doesn’t even look the same. There are no freeways. No interstates. They hadn’t been built yet. It’s just a maze of state and county roads. It’s a question of finding all these little places. Most of the time, there’s almost nothing left: an abandoned diner, a gas station. I’m always scouting new stuff. And if I don’t shoot it this trip, I’ll come back and do it next trip. But I’ve learned over the years that if you find something that’s really cool, you’ve got to shoot it now because it’s probably not going to be there the next time. I go back to places and they’re just gone. A vacant lot. I’ve seen whole towns just disappear. That’s the way it has always been in the West. It’s the same story. A pattern in the lives of these places. Open it. It lives for ten to twenty years. Then it closes. It exists for another ten to twenty years as an abandonment, and then it’s gone.

Brett: What do you think might be abandoned places of the future? Shopping Malls? Big box stores?

Troy: The big thing over the past ten years to fifteen years has been military: the closure of hundreds of military bases and installations all over the U.S. But it would seem that today there’s also a lot of mining operations going on in the desert – the reopening of old mines that were played out and using new technologies that have been developed to the work the mine a little bit more. Eventually, those places will play out again and they’ll be abandoned.

Troy Paiva: A Piece in Lost America

Troy Paiva: A Piece in Lost America

Troy: It’s hard to say where things are headed. But one thing to consider is the automobile itself. If in the next ten to twenty years, we have a future where we don’t have gasoline-powered cars and where there’s no roadside infrastructure required anymore, what’s going to happen to all the gas stations that keep the cars running? In the past – back when these old road maps were fresh – you could only go about one-hundred miles before you had to stop for gas. You could only go maybe 5,000 miles or so on a set of tires. Now you have tires that go for almost 100,000 miles. Twenty years from now, you might have cars that are even more durable and can go further. What I’ve found is the limitation now is people’s bladders. You have to stop every couple hundred miles to pee, or get something to eat, or to just get out of the car and stretch.

I go back to places and they’re just gone. A vacant lot. I’ve seen whole towns just disappear. That’s the way it has always been in the West. It’s the same story. A pattern in the lives of these places. Open it. It lives for ten to twenty years. Then it closes. It exists for another ten to twenty years as an abandonment, and then it’s gone.

Troy: I also wonder about a lot of amusement parks and these other places built out in the desert to service travelers. People are still building stuff out there and you have to wonder why they’re doing it in the first place.

Brett: I definitely get an emotional reaction when I look at your work. I get excited. I want to go there! There’s passion in your work.

Troy: I love these things and I love these places. That’s really what shows in the work. I have to do it because I love it.

Bio Art statement

Troy Paiva, (AKA: Lost America), has been shooting full moon and light painted time-exposure night work in abandoned locations and junkyards since 1989.  His surrealist and whimsical work has appeared in print in over a dozen countries, including two award-winning monographs. Troy’s work has appeared in museums and galleries in New York, Los Angeles, Sweden and San Francisco.

Brett Stillo

Brett Stillo enjoys turning over stones that have heretofore been left unturned.When he's not doing that, he makes movies and plays guitar in Rock & Roll bands.This is his first appearance in Moholy Ground, and the first time he's used "Heretofore" in a complete sentence.

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Brett Stillo enjoys turning over stones that have heretofore been left unturned. When he's not doing that, he makes movies and plays guitar in Rock & Roll bands. This is his first appearance in Moholy Ground, and the first time he's used "Heretofore" in a complete sentence.

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