A perfect day is spent driving and shooting,” claims photographer Paul Hadley, his voice crackling over a cell phone connection. “I drive and shoot. There’s always a picture within 10 feet of me if I just look for it.”
Appropriately enough, Hadley is speaking from the road, somewhere on the freeway between San Diego and Hollywood. Just as appropriately, his premiere Utah showing at Artspace Forum Gallery is titled Drive By. The photographer took most of the show’s 70-something shots from behind the wheel, on road trips, out the windows of airplanes and tour buses. He notes, however, that he has not yet been pulled over for the inevitable swerving.
“I spend a lot of time traveling. I love road trips and driving,” says the 36-year-old Californian. Although he does call a 1950s cabin near Joshua Tree National Park his home base, he insists, “I don’t spend a lot of time in one spot.” His tone turns melancholic as he describes the eerily beautiful high desert so often featured in his work.
As he speaks, he is returning from a day at the beach with his girlfriend, but Hadley generally travels and shoots alone. “I’m not really social when I’m shooting,” admits the soft-spoken photographer.
This is apparent in his choice of subjects. Long stretches of highways, desolate desert bungalows, taillights disappearing down the road, and flickering neon signs convey a sense of solitude and of the ephemeral. The only human figures in his photographs are distant, faceless, shot from behind and often walking away.
Hadley has developed an impressionistic soft-focus style he calls “ambervision,” a term he and a friend originally invented to jokingly refer to “Blue Blocker” sunglasses of late-night infomercial fame. He since has adopted it to describe what in his work he calls the “painting of lights.” He gets this whenever he purposely pulls an image out of focus, simplifying a scene to its most basic shapes and colors. His signature blurring has a heightening effect.
“Dropping all the details,” explains Hadley, “makes for an interesting story.” It also means that, as with Impressionist paintings, the closer you get to his photographs, the less you understand them—the central paradox of Hadley’s images.
Although this is Utah’s first glimpse of Hadley’s work, this isn’t Hadley’s first glimpse of Utah. Having spent the better part of his youth in Orem, he still visits several times a year, always with camera in tow. A handful of suburban shots—people standing on the side of the road—appear in his show.
In fact, the overwhelming majority of his photographs were taken in the American West. As he captures its spirit through deserted highways and car culture—two of his favorite subjects—the vastness and the isolation shows.
Intrinsic to Hadley’s Drive By shooting is motion. That his photographs are shot sometimes at 50 mph makes them feel even more elusive and fleeting. Images are only partially captured, like a dream vaguely remembered but deeply felt. Add to that an eye for catching super-saturated colors and high-contrast moments in time, and a surreal, otherworldly quality results.
For all the beauty in his work, Hadley doesn’t use a drop of digital manipulation, a popular tool among today’s art photographers. In fact, not one shot of Hadley’s work is set up, enhanced, retouched or even cropped. The finished piece uses the very image he saw through the viewfinder. “It gives a much greater feel of what the moment was like,” notes Hadley.
The immediacy is palpable. Hadley’s photographic world is so real that its blurry elusiveness tugs at your soul.