The Pearsonville Experience
After all that sneaking in in 2008, I knew I needed to come clean in ’09 because I wanted to go public with my quickly growing body of Pearsonville work. With a little basic detective work I was able to track down the Pearson family. I carefully composed a sincere letter, apologizing for sneaking in, that eliminated any suspicion that I was performing “midnight auto-supply.” I made it clear that I was a harmless artist obsessed with shooting and light painting junkyards by the light of the moon and that this collection was one for the ages.
The 3rd generation owner, David Pearson, ran through a whole range of emotions when he saw the stack of 8×10 prints I sent with that letter: Anger first, then amusement, then a sense of head scratching bewilderment at the thought of some nut with a camera roaming the desolate expanses of his family yard by moonlight. I was lucky and honored to have earned the family’s trust enough to be able to hold photography workshops in the yard starting in 2009.
With all those nights spent in the yard piling up, Pearsonville had a chance to throw a wide variety of harsh, high-desert weather conditions at me. One sweltering summer afternoon saw temperatures well over 100º, with monsoon thunderheads building in the afternoon. Eventually the skies opened up, soaking the desert a few miles to the south, tantalizingly close, but there was no relief in Pearsonville. After spending four breathtakingly hot hours exploring the yard, I drank a half-gallon of water in 15 minutes when I got back to my car. Later that night was little better, with temperatures still in the 90s, so hot, my camera was overheating during time exposures. On the other hand, through much of the year, the nights are cloudless and bitterly cold. Coming off the steep, eastern down-slope of the Sierras, the wind can really rip, too. I’ve seen more than one tripod get blown over by a 50-mph gust. The weather is almost always an adventure out there, but those nights when it’s mild and the lenticular clouds slowly stretch and flow over the mountains there’s no place I’d rather be, just me and the coyotes, howling at the moon.
A Wonderland of Debris
The epic Pearsonville junkyard held a wide range of unusual machines: from an all wood, hook-and-ladder fire truck from the 1920s, rotting into the racetrack infield; to a whole fleet of bizarrely organic, Virgil Exner-penned, “Forward Look” era Chrysler designs; to a motley hodgepodge of R.V.s, campers, busses and trucks languishing along the back fence; to Packards, Cadillacs, Studebakers and a mix of pony cars. There’s something for every type of interest, every type of taste; there are even nine Edsels scattered in clusters around the lot.
The yard was loaded with unusual conversions too. There’s “The Mollusk” a full-bodied cab-over camper mated to a 1956 Cadillac front clip. In the geographical center of the yard there’s the “Dia•Log” truck, a WWII vintage International ambulance, re-bodied for cable-laying duty with a huge wire spool in the rear. If you have a thing for ‘50s-vintage ice cream trucks, car carriers, golf carts and garbage haulers, they were there too.
Another key feature was Pearsonville Raceway, with its banked turns and bleacher seats for hundreds. The catch fence poles and lights leaning drunkenly in the eroding berm and the rotten, collapsing press box belie how quickly the earth reclaims the man made when left unattended. Even for a short time. For people who find beauty and quiet drama in decay, the raceway is the centerpiece of Pearsonville.
Because the vast majority of cars in the rear section of the yard had been moved out, the tightly packed rows of cars you typically find in junkyards were thinned out, leaving just a sprinkling of isolated vehicles with lots of space around them. This gave a unique opportunity to step back and capture the entire car in this vast desert setting. With 8,400-foot-high Owens Peak and the saw-toothed southern Sierras to the west, dry China Lake and the Argus range to the east and the distant lights of Ridgecrest twinkling to the south, the expansive Pearsonville site was a photographer’s dream.