Add new comment

David Simonton, Ghost Truck

David Simonton

The title of this hard-won image is Rocky Mount, Edgecombe County, North Carolina, October 1997.  But in my printing notes it’s referred to as “Ghost Truck,” the working title that's helped me identify it all these years.

This is not a double-exposure. It's one long exposure—three-and-a-half minutes—on a single frame of film. During the final 30 seconds or so, a pickup rattled up and stopped at the light. I heard the truck long before I saw it.

Although it wasn’t what I'd planned, I thought, “This could be interesting.”

On that night I was part of a three-person show, and drove from Raleigh to Rocky Mount for the opening reception. I planned on photographing afterwards so I brought along my equipment.

Gear Used

  • Exakta 66 Model II, w/Waist-Level Finder & Beattie Intenscreen Focusing Screen w/Grid Lines
  • Schneider 80mm f/2.8 Lens, w/Bellows Lens Hood
  • Pentax Spotmeter V
  • Slik U-212 Deluxe Tripod, w/Single-Action Panhead (Pistol Grip)
  • 40” Locking Cable Release
  • Ilford Delta-100 120 Film (Processed in Perceptol 1:3 for 19 Minutes @ 68 Degrees, w/Gradually Decreasing Agitation)

After the reception, I drove downtown. It was a pin-drop quiet Sunday night in the South.

When I finally got set up, situated under an awning-and-umbrella combination, it was dark and lightly raining. I had photographed this corner before—drawn to its new/old look and striking geometry—but I'd never photographed it at night, and figured the rain was a nice bonus. Little did I realize…

I made my first nighttime pictures by happenstance in 1994. After a long drive, I found myself in the small mountain town of Sylva. At the end of the day I didn't want to stop shooting, so I kept on making pictures after dark. I'd acquired low-light skills, and my tripod and light meter, while photographing on Ellis Island for nine months in the late 1980s.

Soon enough, I began to recognize what works for me and what doesn't in a nighttime scene, with regard to contrast. By 1997, I was comfortable with my routine.

I always use the same film (Delta-100), so I’m familiar with its reciprocity characteristics; I keep a small handmade chart in my bag. I use a small lens opening—typically f/11 or f/16—and set my shutter on “B” (I use a small flashlight to help me see the settings). With my one-degree spot meter, I measure the highlights to determine my exposure time. I meter the part of the scene that I want to assure there's detail in. In this case, it's the white wall across the street. I place that value, based on my reading, on Zone 7, and let the other values fall where they may.

For this shot, the meter reading indicated an exposure time of 35 seconds, which, with compensation based on my chart, amounted to three-and-a-half minutes. Using a locking cable release, I open—and keep open—the shutter, using a stop watch to time the exposure. And then I wait.

To my mind this is one of the sweetest intervals in all of photography. A period of gestation. The beginning of the life of a photograph.

"To my mind this is one of the sweetest intervals in all of photography. A period of gestation. The beginning of the life of a photograph."

As fond as I am of Ghost Truck, I don’t print the negative very often because it’s marred by some flare from inside the camera. So each print requires hours of retouching, testing my illusionistic brick-painting skills, while depleting a dwindling supply of Spotone.

Struggling with my all-manual Exakta 66 for all these years—with its beautifully precise and rewarding lens, but a troublesome and frustrating body—has been challenging. Over time I’ve made adjustments, solving two major problems: I've adopted an arcane and complex film-loading/film-advance system that prevents frames from overlapping, and I've painted the shiny little screws inside the body matte black. Voila! No more flare.

The pictures make it all worthwhile, as does my experience of being in the moment and embracing chance encounters. In a 2014 interview William Albert Allard said, “To me, serendipity is almost everything. I can find a street, an alley, a storefront, a rest stop along a highway, almost anywhere I go there can be a wonderful picture that might show itself.”

Serendipity. On that night, in that place: the rain doing wonders for the surface of the street and the quality of the light; the pickup truck—and not, say, a bus—pulling up and stopping where it did, when it did; the person in the back seat (yet another bonus discovered in the darkroom); and the USA plate on the truck adds a nice touch, too.

Although I use a digital camera for my color work, I’ve grown very fond of black-and-white film photography over the years, in spite of all its quirks and demands. I love the whole magical/imperfect process—which also helps explain how I got the shot.


Over the past 25 years David Simonton has photographed in 365 cities, towns and small rural communities in the Tar Heel State. His North Carolina photographs are in the collections of the NC Museum of Art, The Do Good Fund Southern Photography Initiative, Columbus, Georgia, the Asheville (NC) Art Museum, Fidelity Investments, Boston, and the George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film in Rochester, NY. He is the recipient of two Visual Artist Fellowships from the NC Arts Council (2000, 2008).