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ON THE GROUND: A Photographer's Dream from Lancaster Ave. to Lincoln Highway

The open road serves as inspiration for many artists. For photographer Mike Arrison, a recent Drexel University graduate, Lancaster Avenue is more than a rundown commercial corridor stricken with decades-old issues of blight.
It is the starting point and telltale link for his dream project -- photographing the entire Lincoln Highway, the nation's first interstate highway that actually starts in New York City's Times Square and snakes through West Philadelphia out to the wealthy Main Line suburbs and into rural Lancaster County on its way to its ending point in San Francisco.

On this road, Arrison sees hope.
"This is a project that I by all means plan to continue working on for some years to come, and this is hopefully just the beginning of something far grander," says Arrison, whose senior thesis project produced eight striking photos of structures and scenes from Lancaster Ave., paired with faces he curated along the way.
"When it’s all said and done -- I don’t know where this is going because this is simply the beginning of something hopefully far larger --  I want to have photographs that say something about what it means to be an American in the 21st century."
For now, Arrison's work on the West Philly portion of Lancaster Ave. will be on display at Flying Kite's current On the Ground headquarters at 4017 Lancaster. He'll be on hand during Lancaster Ave.'s revived Second Friday celebration on Friday, July 13 (5-8 p.m.) to talk about his photos and also document the continued transformation of this important and historic roadway. 
It won't be long until the pull of the open road takes Arrison further along the old Lincoln Highway:
Flying Kite (FK): What inspired you to do this project? 
Mike Arrison (MA):I first started shooting on Lancaster Ave during my sophomore year, in a class taught by Andrea Modica. You could really see the soul of West Philadelphia in the street and how each and every building was vastly different from the one next to it, yet they still managed to work together to create an atmosphere that to me felt very unique within the city. Even the dilapidated portions still retained a beautiful dignity.
FK: Who was the most interesting person you met during the project and why? 
MA: I usually don’t talk much with my subjects. The only direction I give them is to look in the camera and let their face relax, and then I focus on getting the photo. I don’t want to impose to much, so I can capture a genuine expression, be it confusion, curiosity, passiveness, or whathaveyou. 

FK: Did you run into any trouble while doing the project? 
MA: I get asked this question a lot, and surprisingly, no, I didn’t. I got more curiosity then anything else, especially cause I tend to walk around with this massive tripod on my shoulder. Back when I was working with a 4x5 and a Hassleblad, most people thought I was a site surveyor taking measurements for a construction project!

FK: What do you think is the best thing, and the worst thing, about the parts of Lancaster Ave you photographed? 
MA: I’d have to say the best and worst aspect that shows in my work is the same thing, which is how the avenue refers to the past. So much of Lancaster Ave seems to be stuck in decades past, when it was thriving to a greater extent that it is now. However in recent years this seems to be working to its advantage; people are capitalizing on the great history of the avenue and beginning to revitalize the strip, with the past glory setting the foundation.

FK: Whose work inspires you? 
MA: This past year I had the chance to visit Andrew Moore’s studio in NYC, which was a great experience. His work, especially his latest work in Detroit, is breathtaking. 

My portraiture is heavily influenced by Gregory Miller, who visited our classes a number of times throughout my time at Drexel. His talks and critiques had a profound influence on my work.

Last and certainly not least, Jason Varney, a food and lifestyle photographer. I was extremely fortunate to work with Jason as his assistant for six months during my junior year. I consider those six months the turning point in my time at Drexel, after which I began turning out the best work I had yet to produce. Working and studying with Jason definitely allowed me to find myself as a photographer, and begin to develop my own unique style. 

FK: Why the fascination with this long stretch of road and what kind of impact would you hope a fuller version of this project would have? 
MA: The road starts on a university campus, travels through West Philadelphia and some of the poorer areas of the city, and then within a few blocks you’re on the Main Line, where some of the oldest wealth in America resides. You follow the road a little bit longer, and you’re in the country on your way to Lancaster city itself. It’s astounding that one road so neatly sums up so much of what this city, state, and ultimately country is made up of. That’s fascinating to me. It is a very visual story, both within the landscape as well as the population. 

As I did more research on the Avenue, I came to learn that it’s a part of the Lincoln Highway, which spans from Lincoln Theater in Times Square, to Lincoln Park, San Francisco. Built in 1913 (The Centenial is next year!) as the first national memorial to Abraham Lincoln, the road served as the nation’s first transcontinental automobile highway. 

General Dwight D. Eisenhower marched along the Lincoln Highway in his early days in the military, which served to inspire the eventual Highway Act of ’56, the bill that commissioned the building of the Interstate Highway System we all use today. The history behind the road is phenomenal.  My grand plan is to document the entire highway, from New York to San Francisco. This is a project that I by all means plan to continue working on for some years to come, and this is hopefully just the beginning of something far grander.
FK: Tell us about the equipment you used.
MA: For my first term, I switched my medium a few times, from a DSLR to a Hassleblad 120 to a Toyo 4x5, but eventually settled on the 5D MkII, set on a tripod. I learned from Jason Varney to use a digital camera as if it’s a larger format, and to take your time to set up your shot. 90% of the final images were shot with a 50mm, which is my go-to lens of choice.

FK: How did this project help you develop skills for your career?
MA: This was my first long term project. Up until that point, our longest project was 10 weeks, if that, whereas this was nine months. It certainly was a challenge to go out shooting week after week for three-quarters of a year, along the same stretch of road, which I more or less have memorized at this point. But, it was nice to have that time to allow the project to grow and evolve into what it is today.

FK: What other parts of the city do you find inspiring to photograph?
MA: I’ve always been in love with Kelly Drive. It’s absolutely gorgeous and packed full of history and gorgeous architecture.   A project that’s been in the back of my head since high school really has been to follow the El as it travels through the city, both the city itself, the residents who live in the shadow of the el, and the commuters who ride the train. 

JOE PETRUCCI is managing editor of Flying Kite. Send feedback here.
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