Like many photographers, I have a camera that serves as back-up to my primary photography equipment. In my case, it’s the Leitz-Minolta CL with the 40mm f/2.0 M-Rokkor lens.
The CL has its quirks. There are dozens (hundreds?) of articles that can be accessed online that’ll give you an idea how radical this camera was in the Leica world. I won’t rehash the accounts here; that’s not the purpose of this story. I will say, it takes a bit of practice to develop the muscle memory to handle the CL, especially if you’re familiar with the workings of the Leica M series.
I found myself needing some hands-on time with the CL because of my infrequent use of the camera. So, long story short, I took a deep breath, put away both my Leica M2 & M4-P and started to use the CL for the summer of 2017. Let the learning curve begin!
In our small town, we’re fortunate to have a piece of unusual roadside architecture. Think along the lines of Randy’s Donuts in L.A. or the HP Hood Milk Bottle in front of the Children’s Museum in Boston. If the Oscar Meyer Wienermobile and the Airstream Bambi had a baby the offspring would be a mobile hot dog stand in the shape of a: Hot Dog! The owners, Andrea & Alan combined sheet metal, fiberglass, and an ingenious paint scheme to transform the aluminum 1963 Bambi camper into a rolling hot dog. They christened their stand “Top Dog.” You can’t help but smile when you see it. To add to the package, the hot dog stand is towed about behind their classic 1972 Checker cab in full yellow & black-checked urban livery. During the day, they set-up in a parking lot off of Connecticut Route 66 [no, not the famous Route 66. This is the other one!] in Portland Connecticut. A few tables with chairs & umbrellas allow al fresco dining. They have fiercely loyal customers (myself included.) Top Dog’s humble offering is a steamed hot dog with a variety of homemade add-ons. It’s a simple concept, but it’s so good.
During any given day, you could be in line with a mix of camp counselors from the local outdoor Y camp, building contractors, senior citizens, a police officer & excited children in multi-colored crocs. A cross section of hot dog hungry America.
One afternoon early in the summer, I was running an errand in town. Top Dog was rolling down the highway on their way home. I thought “this might be a picture.” The next day, I stopped at the stand, bought a chili dog and ran my idea past the owners. They liked the picture idea. A panning shot of the cab and wagon driving down the highway. I’d pick a spot and pan as they rolled by. Simple. Motorsport photographers use the technique all the time. Little did I know it would take multiple attempts and I would only succeed on the last day of summer. This is the account of that seemingly simple idea that almost didn’t work.
It was important to know the time the left their home in the morning [9:00 am.] What time did they drive thru the intersection in the village of Cobalt or when they drove past the prehistoric Dinosaur mini-golf course? What time did they pack up and drive home in the afternoon [3:00 p.m.]? If the weather was too hot [95°F or hotter] or the day was rainy, they didn’t set-up. All this information would play a part in the scouting of suitable locations.
New England’s geography is not actually known for being flat. Our roads trace their DNA to cow paths and old farm roads. The section of Route 66 that Top Dog travels on is hilly and curvy. I had to find a part of the road that was level, didn’t have a distracting background and where I could be safe and protected from the traffic. These points limited my shooting location to only a few places.
Equipment & Film.
• Leitz-Minolta CL
• 40mm f/2.0 M-Rokkor (retired after a few attempts.)
• 21mm f/4.0 Voigtlander [m-mount] & 21mm viewfinder
• Gossen digital exposure meter
• B&W ND 4x Neutral Density filter
• Ilford HP-5
My standard film stock is Ilford HP-5 (ISO 400) Almost immediately I found I couldn’t get the shutter speed slow enough to achieve the desired blurring effect. I wasn’t about to switch to a slower film just to get the Top Dog photo. The solution was using a 4X neutral density filter. It allowed me to use slower shutter speeds that would produce the look I was after.
The Top Dog photos were usually taken on a roll of film that contained other images. They might have been at the end of a roll that I took when we were in New York City or Boston. If we spent the evening at a free outdoor concert, I’d save a frame and go out in the morning to shoot Top Dog.
Other than single test roll I shot when scouting potential locations, I never shot an entire roll dedicated to just this project. I only made one exposure each time they drove past me. There wasn’t time and any possible way I could find a route to drive around them and find another location in the short distance they traveled.
The Process and Workarounds.
From the test roll, I identified four locations that might work for me. Not any one was ideal, but I could work around the adverse elements. Only by making photos at each spot would it allow me to pick the best one out of four.
I took a few of the photos with the 40mm lens, but the limited angle of view and spatial perspective didn’t produce the look I was after. The 21mm lens was substituted for the 40mm lens. I liked how the 21mm rendered the foreground, and it produced a bit of an abstract look when combined with a slower shutter speed.
The next task was to make a few photos from each spot to actually see if they would work. This was like NASA trying to evaluate landing sites for a moon mission. I had three expectations for all the sites: a) an uncluttered background, b) no distractions from other vehicles such as tailgating the cab & trailer, passing them at high speed or a cluster of vehicles surrounding them, and c) an area that provided me with some safety.
Three of the four sites were eliminated because they didn’t meet one or more of the criteria I had established. One other thing I had never considered popped up during the process of evaluating the locations. It took a while to notice it.
Top Dog has a unique logo and lettering painted on the side of the trailer (Attempt #4.) It’s what you see when you approach the service window and grab a handful of dogs. But it only appears on one side of the trailer. The opposite side has no graphics at all.
Each location put me on the side of the trailer without the graphics (Attempts #1-3.) They were interesting photos, but the logo & lettering were what made the photo.
The fourth and final location was my goldilocks spot. It met all the criteria, and the logo and lettering were visible. All I had to do was make the photo.
However, the photo gods decided to keep some factors in play over which I had no control over. The first was time: I was coming to the end of summer and my self-imposed deadline. I couldn’t control the weather. If it rained, Top Dog stayed put in its doghouse. The third was traffic: the best location was near a traffic light. The light had to stay green as I took the shot. If the light changed to yellow or red as they approached the intersection, the shot could be ruined as the traffic slowed to a stop. And finally, if a car drove in front of me as I was panning & making the exposure, the shot would be useless. The gods decided I would work to get this shot. If I failed, then I failed.
The Trials, Pitfalls and Success.
I made a total of 12 photographs over the course of the summer. From that number, I selected the ones that best illustrated the trials, pitfalls & finally, success.
Attempt #1: Route 66 transitions from a one lane divided highway to a two-lane divided highway. I find the 40mm lens is too narrow, the shutter speed is too fast, and the background was too busy. This location won’t work.
Attempt #2: Taken at the second location along the road where there is a travel lane and passing lane. Top Dog stays in the travel lane, which places the cab & trailer closest to me. I use the 40mm. Abandoned this location because the busy background and cars passing Top Dog. Off to another location.
Attempt #3. The third location. My first photo using the 21mm lens. I’m hoping the wide field of the 21 allows me to frame the car & trailer. I also need to talk to the local police officer that has stopped and asks what I’m doing. Someone may have seen me and thought my movements were suspicious. I carry prints of the project with me and showed them to the officer. All is OK. After I develop the film, I’m happy with how the 21mm lens & the ND filter will work out. However, I still have the problems of cars speeding by and driving too close to Top Dog. This location won’t work.
Attempts #4 & 5. My fourth and final location. I mark a point where I can stand with traffic paint. I’m facing a time crunch, so these three photos were taken on three consecutive days. All of them near misses! A car passes in front of Top Dog (attempt #4). The next shot (attempt #5), I tripped the shutter too soon, and Top Dog is off position. Two fails in 2 days. I have only one day remaining until the start of autumn.
Attempt #6. This is it. The final day of summer and the last day of my self-imposed deadline for working with the CL. The day is overcast, which should work in my favor. I arrive early, return to my mark on the pavement, take some practice shots, and check my watch. They should pass in front of my spot around 9:20 a.m. All I can do is wait, and hope Andrea or Alan didn’t wake up with a toothache or the car didn’t have a flat tire.
9:20. Right on time! Traffic is clear, no distractions! I line up the shot as they approach, take the pic as they roll past and let out a deep breath. Done. I can’t do anymore. The final exposure was 1/30 of a section @ f/16 (with the ND filter.)
I process the film and find that the final frame on the final roll on the final day that I succeeded. I got the shot. I met my self-imposed deadline, and avoided this project turning into a photo version of hunting for the great white whale. We all know how that turned out in the end.
I’m slightly off on the timing and composition, but these are minor errors that will be corrected when I print the negative. I make an 11X14 fiber print, mount, and matt it for them as a thank you gift.
• I kept a photo journal, and this narrative was made from those notes.
• The lighting varied from heavy overcast to bright sunny days. In the final analysis, it was the flat, overcast days that worked best. I had a bit of ‘wiggle room’ when it came to shutter speeds.
• In 2020, Top Dog celebrated 40 years of being in business. The pandemic curtailed what should have been a great milestone. They did open for an abbreviated season, following CDC guidelines. They reopened in 2021 for their 41st year. The location is Portland CT, along CT Route 66 Just look for the hot dog. Cash only.
• In 2021, they reduced their hours to four days per week.
• At the end of 2017, I sold off the Voigtlander 21mm lens. I purchased it initially when we went to the UK in the spring of 2017. I wanted to do some architectural photos and to have fun with it when we visited Brighton Beach. I never really warmed up to the lens.
• When the full impact of Covid-19 hit Connecticut in March of 2020, the CL became my primary camera. I tried to document our small corner of the world and how we coped with the pandemic. Tiny but mighty, the CL doesn’t scare people. It had to go in to repair the take-up spool in March of 2021 (a known weak point of the camera.) DAG replaced the faulty spool with a new & improved version. The CL will stay with me.