Valerie Chiang’s American West Photo Series
What do you spend your days doing?
It depends on where I am, whether I’m on the road taking photographs or back at my apartment in Los Angeles. If I’m not on the road, you will find me sitting at my desk answering emails, running miscellaneous errands, or planning a portrait session or fashion test. Sometimes I drive to the photo lab to print my work, and evenings are spent with friends. Things don’t get interesting until I’m on a road trip. All bets are off then!
How did the idea for this series come about?
I’d always wanted to do a series set in the American West, but since I’d never done a long-term project before, I knew this was going to be a sort of test run. This series started as just an exploration of Barstow, California. Most people only know of Barstow as a pit stop on the way to Las Vegas from Los Angeles and vice versa, but something about this little town always fascinated me. I expanded this project to other towns in the Southwest after realising it needed something more to be an engaging series for viewers.
What is the 35th parallel?
The name refers to the circle of latitude that cuts across the southern part of the United States, 35 degrees above the Earth’s equator. It has historical significance in American history as the transcontinental railroad, the famous Route 66, and now Interstate Highway 40 all closely follow its path.
What was the eeriest moment on the trip?
Nothing out of the ordinary has happened, though I wonder why the light is always on at the Interstate Batteries shop when it has clearly been closed for a long time.
How does the idea of absence or abandonment come into your photos?
I try very hard to make the places in my photographs look empty, whether it’s by composition or waiting for a time of day with less human activity. In reality however, almost all the buildings are always occupied, and the businesses are doing very well. It all comes down to that fraction of a second where everything appears to be still.
What’s your favourite shot from the series?
I like the La Mesa Motel photograph I took in Santa Rosa, New Mexico. An ice storm passed through the region a couple of days before, and I was debating whether or not to just head back to Los Angeles or wait for it to pass. I’m glad I ended up staying. You can’t even tell that the whole thing was covered in snow and ice less than 72 hours ago.
Why do empty spaces intrigue you?
I’ve always been interested in impermanence. I find the emptiness in buildings and landscapes, especially in the American West, both calming and unsettling. For decades, people would settle down, make homes, and for some reason or another, pack up and leave. And whatever is left behind just sits there until someone tears it down or nature takes its course.
Which photo has the best story attached to it?
The photograph entitled “Y2K Auto Yard” of the car on top of the train cargo was the first instance where I had to ask for permission to take a photo for this series. I saw the yard from the road, and I asked the owner if I could roam around the property and find something to photograph. We ended up talking for a while, and I went back a couple months later to take a photo of him and his family for their family Christmas card.
What do you hope your images stir in people?
I want to make photographs that are honest, and that reflect the world as I see it – quiet, calm, and bathed in good light.
Good photography should…
Always elicit an emotional response from a viewer.
What was the last good idea you had?
I guess this doesn’t really count but the last good decision I made was to join my friend for a few days in South Dakota. He was doing a magazine assignment in the Black Hills and Badlands National Park. The landscapes there are just unreal.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m starting another long-form project in the town where I grew up, but it’s still in its very early stages so I don’t want to say too much. I’m also producing a film based in Texas and we are about to start the second half of our filming schedule in a couple months. I also hope to pick up a lot more editorial and commercial assignments in the coming year.