Where Weeds Are Winning

PERHAPS you need to commute at least two hours a day to fully appreciate this photograph.

And not just any commute will do. You need two hours of "gridlock" commute, when the highway traffic creeps itself to a halt, with nary a blinking brake light down the line to suggest that somewhere, at least, some car is moving again. At that moment, just after all flickering ceases, I look to the side of the road, to that space where asphalt meets organic life.

At that point - incredibly - the plants are winning. Hearty grasses, weeds, and even wild- flowers somehow sink roots and grow in between cracks in the asphalt. Many even appear to be nudging concrete and rock aside in a bid to secure turf and move on.

In Robert Harbison's photograph, a car dominates space in the frame, yet somehow the plants are winning.

A splendid car it is: a rusting, 1940s-something blue Dodge that somehow got sidelined on its way to a second life as an antique in Hemmings Motor News.

There is life in this car yet. The widening tracks of rust nearly qualify the car as "performance art," a living scupture. This car has stories to tell. Whence come those bullet holes (if bullet holes they be)? And who left the car in a field with the trunk-door handle open, as if a family just pulled out a picnic hamper and somehow found another way home?

Harbison found this car behind a barn near Smethport, Pa. He was first attracted by an abandoned filling station, with old-style gas pumps (the price of gas was posted at 34 cents a gallon). Behind the barn, he found this treasure.

The heart of this image is the tension between the rusting car and plants with a will to grow. It's more than the biting greens of the film that draws the eye to this point in the photo.

It's called composition by elimination. "When something catches your eye, you keep eliminating until all that is left is what attracted you in the first place," Harbison says. The outtakes from this photo shoot include shots of the full car engulfed by greenery. In one photograph, foliage shoots up through what was once a hood. This is an image to look at and chuckle over, briefly. But the tighter shot is poetry.

The close shot transcends the scene. To me, it evokes images of Cambodia's Angkor Wat temple complex, overrun by centuries of jungle growth. This abandoned temple was rediscovered by a French explorer in the 19th century who is said to have stumbled over a Buddha's head in the jungle, looked up and saw the world's largest religious structure swathed in vines. A few more centuries and the jungle would have won.

Classic cars come as close to objects of veneration as anything in our age. And yet, the plants are winning.

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