For many people who need to “go,” the very last resort is often a port-a-potty. It’s a claustrophobic’s nightmare, but nonetheless they can be a desperate person’s saving grace.
Photographer Travis Rix sees them not only as a last resort, but also as a “First Sign.” Since he was a young boy, Rix has traveled around the country with his father, a floor-covering contractor for companies that build retirement centers. Born in Arizona but raised in Michigan, Rix has spent a lot of time on the road with his family, having seen roughly 45 of the United States. At a young age, Rix received disposable cameras and photo albums from his mother, who encouraged him to take pictures and to “keep them and remember them.” He said he did it reluctantly, though he loved looking through the viewfinder—especially in Colorado, where it was “too easy to make beautiful photos.”
In the summer of 2012, during one trip in Oregon, Rix was looking to photograph some landscapes for a class he was taking at the School of Visual Arts in New York, where he will graduate this May with a BFA in photography. Rix wanted to separate his work from traditional landscape photography and noticed a gorgeous setting in Pacific City, Ore., right along the ocean with huge, beautiful pine trees that dotted the coastline. But nestled among the natural grandeur, between the upright trees and a stump, was a blue port-a-potty. Inspired, Rix snapped the shot that earned mostly laughter from the rest of his family. But when he got home, things were different.
“When I looked at it on my computer, I thought there was something there,” Rix said. “The way the light came through the trees, the color of the port-a-potty against the color of the ground and sky. … It just said something, and when I went to Colorado the next week, I saw more and more of them, all with beautiful backdrops, and I thought, ‘I can’t ignore this.’ ”
Rix began to seek out similar scenes during future road trips. Although he shoots with a digital SLR camera, he approaches the shot as if he were shooting with a 4-by-5 camera, scouting beautiful backdrops, looking for the best angles and light, and the perfect placement of the port-a-potty. “The shot has to say more than, ‘We’re building a house here,’ ” Rix said. “[It has to say,] ‘We’re going to do a lot more than just build a house here.’ [The port-a-potty] is the first sign of environment change. It’s no longer going to look like a pristine lake or endless grassland or the mountain range. It’s going to be the oil refinery or the big city—something is going to be changed, and something is going to impact the environment.”
Rix said “First Sign” is an ongoing project, something he sees pursuing as long as he continues to travel and doesn’t get tired of the series. Rix says he now goes after more complicated images and is drawn to photographs that invite second looks. “The first time people look at them, they kind of giggle, and then they take another look and say, ‘Oh, I get it,’ ” he said.
Rix will be in the School of Visual Arts’ “Mentors” show in New York City at the SVA Chelsea Gallery from March 22 through April 5.