Elmer’s Bottle Tree Ranch in Oro Grande, California is located on a stretch of old Route 66 stifled by desert heat. It was once a well-traveled strip of tarmac that vacationers traversed en route to the coast. Now, it’s a semi-desolate and punishing arid corridor of kitschy Americana.
Despite the free-to-enter, stay-as-long-as-you-like, and go-wherever-you-want attitude at Elmer’s, you can’t help but feel like you’re trespassing. There are no signs, other than the thousands Elmer’s collected. Without a planned flow or path to follow, direction becomes meaningless. And I found myself wandering aimlessly, retreading territory to attempt to understand it better.
Things get interesting when Elmer himself inevitably pops out from his modest home to chat. His long, flowing wizard beard and floppy hat frame his desert-weathered face. Elmer has the keen ability to pare down answers and stories into simple yarns. He cuts the shape of a reenactment actor.
“My brain is like an old record player now,” he tells me. Yet, despite some practiced small talk, Elmer is willing to let me delve as far as I want to go. As a survivor of a murky childhood myself, I tend to know when I’m speaking to one of my own. He describes a mother with mental illness.
“I didn’t know what having a mother and a father was ‘til I was about age seven or eight,” Elmer admitted. “They lost track of me.”
At some point during Elmer’s childhood, his father headed off alone to the West Coast for a job at North American Aviation, leaving Elmer and his mother alone in Maryland.
Eventually, the family reunited in California. Once together, the father and son duo began collecting bottles together. There’s likely no deeper meaning to the collection—just a way for a father and son to reconnect and bond. Elmer describes it as something they did “just for fun.”
In adulthood, Elmer made a living in real estate. He claims to have done pretty well. Elmer’s dad never stopped collecting bottles, though.
Near the end of his life, his father started giving away the bottle collection. So, Elmer stepped in and saved what remained. With the collection partially salvaged, Elmer picked up the habit … and starting hanging the bottles on trees.
The ranch, in its current incarnation, is less than twenty years old. Its contents, however, reach back much further. There’s one tree in the middle with the oldest bottles of the collection. That tree glimmers with beautiful medicinal constructs that are difficult to find anymore outside antique stores.
The sharp edges of glass are where the true value of Elmer’s creations live. They remind onlookers that this is not just another roadside attraction.
The Bottle Tree Ranch is, as it turns out, a technicolor shrine to the relationship of a father and son bonding manifested as colored glass.
“This isn’t mine, anymore,” he explains. “Do you know what I mean?”
Getting a better shot
In this ongoing series, exploring both incredible destinations and how to capture them uniquely, I take you into my process—from research to what I encounter on site to how I shoot, and what, if anything, I do to my images in post production. Hopefully, this encourages you to visit these places for yourself and shoot an even better photo of your own.
However, until then, here’s how I got my shots.
Before I go anywhere for a shoot, I read about the location and review as many photos of the place as I can. Some might prefer to go in tabula rasa, without preconceived notions, letting feelings and observations drive their decisions in the moment. I prefer a slightly more methodical approach. I want to enter educated, so I’m not totally overwhelmed when I shoot.
With Elmer’s Bottle Tree Ranch, there’s no shortage of images of Elmer’s property and work. They generally look very similar, though.
The trees themselves are eclectic and the grounds—at least the main area—are jam-packed with them. It’s so crowded with bottle trees, in fact, it’s hard to find any other composition than the layered look of metal rods, bottles, and found objects.
I drove out hoping I would find something different at Elmer’s ranch, simply by trying to remove the complexity of it all a bit. Maybe I’d find an angle that made the whole thing easier to take in. Or perhaps I’d find a detail that told the whole story, rather than try to cram as much into the frame as possible.
THE BOTTLE TREE RANCH IS, AS IT TURNS OUT, A TECHNICOLOR SHRINE TO THE RELATIONSHIP OF A FATHER AND SON BONDING MANIFESTED AS COLORED GLASS.
I got up in the early darkness and headed off to time my arrival with the break of day. Most shots I’d seen of the ranch online were taken midday. I hoped capturing the rising sun through a bottle might be a good recipe for the shot less seen.
Pushing past ‘usual’
The gate to the ranch is surrounded with objects, both young and old. En route to the bottle trees, you weave through old signs, a rusted-out jeep, relic rifles, typewriters, car parts, plumbing, hubcaps, old tools, and figures of all kinds.
Here you can see the difficulty in photographing—you are surrounded. Take a few steps back and you bump into another object. With so much around you, these close compositions create a similar chaos to every shot. I decided to explore a bit more and head toward the back of the property.
Suddenly, things started to open up, with objects that have more space around them. And, as the back of the property faces west, I found some images looking back toward the sun that created some nice colors and light.
All cameras deal with lens flares slightly differently. As a general rule, to get flares like mine, stop down to a smaller aperture, and face the sun. Then angle your view just below or to the side of the sun. In the closeup shot, I angled down from the sun. In the wider view looking up, I hid the sun behind an object and moved it out just slightly until it flared.
Getting the Shot
I liked these shots looking back west and using the sun to do some interesting things with the bottles. However, I was still inclined to push further toward the edge of the property.
There’s a natural dividing line behind Elmer’s house where it becomes more of an open space—more of a traditional backyard. It feels more eclectic and experimental back here, with a an old trailer, some tires, and other items strewn about. This wider canvas allows for better images that are less cluttered and better composed.
However, this kind of thing is more typical of any backyard. I was hoping to find something distinctly Elmer back there. I headed around the trailer, and then I saw my shot.
Five different bottle trees stand near—but not too near—each other, way off toward the back fence. When isolated like this, their beauty really seems to come through. And the ample pace between them allows your eye to visually compare them in a single glance. With these five, you get a sense of Elmer’s real artistry.
There is a restraint in these particular trees that make them even more artistic and purposeful. I knew I wanted to capture them in this setting. I just had to find the right vantage point for it.
I experimented with a few different angles and lenses, as you can see. I settled on a spot that spaced them out evenly and created something like a lineup of characters. In this layout, I was seeing them more as individual personalities.
At this moment, the train came by. I felt I had all the right elements to do a shot that didn’t look like any other I’d seen at Elmer’s Bottle Tree Ranch before. Yet, it was a scene that could only occur there.
I held the camera up high over my head to position the train in a place where it didn’t take too much away from the bottle trees and it clicked.
Let’s talk equipment. Sometimes there’s things I’ll do with a lens or setting to add drama or effect to an image. In this case, though, I kept it pretty standard. Here’s how I approached it.
I’m shooting 35 mm here and on the single bottle tree. This is my standard focal length, as it offers a fairly “normal” angle of view. I didn’t see going wider or longer helping me. So, I stuck with my standard.
Aperture, shutter speed, and ISO
In these kinds of shots, I generally want everything sharp. So, a smaller aperture that offers a nice depth of field is essential. In these shots, I’m at f/8, so everything is going to be crisp.
I kept my shutter speed at a middling 1/640 of a second. That’s perhaps a tad slower than I might normally shoot, if I had a person in the frame. Being that these were still objects, however, I was able to put my ISO way down (to 160). This keeps the images free of any noise. Then, I compensated with a slightly slower shutter speed. None of this is extremely important for shots like these; the photo would look similar or equally good with different settings. This shot is mostly about composition.
The last step of photography is setting a look for your image. I’ll tell you how I did my post-processing on these (and why), but a lot of this is like seasoning a dish – whatever feels right to you.
For the single tree of bottles, here’s a before-after. You can see I brought my shadows up and added a bit of contrast and brightness. I also cropped it slightly to make the image a bit more heroic. Plus, it fills up the frame.
I like the way you can start to see inside the bottles, and the increased light gives you a sense of their volume. In a way, the light and color feels trapped inside the bottles themselves. Their magical qualities seem to shine through.
For the backyard “group shot,” my preference was to go black and white. Color is one of the first things that the eye discerns when looking at something. So, when it’s removed, the eye bypasses that superficial element and goes right into shapes and meanings.
That can be good when you want to accentuate a composition like this. Pared down in this way, these objects feel anthropomorphic, with heads and arms, personality, and character. For me, this offers a completely different look at Elmer, his artistry, and his ranch.
You can interpret this as the a more direct view of the artist’s work, without the distraction of “the whole forest.” Or, perhaps even a family portrait.
That’s how I got it. How will you?