Imagination

Inspiration: Opium Dollars

I have worked in a coin store for about 4 1/2 years. The job came about after I jokingly mentioned to a friend, “Hey, you need someone to photograph all those coins, right?” A couple weeks later I was offered the position. For the first few years, my sole mission was to photograph various coins for our eBay store and then ship out said coins. Last year, I started working the retail side in front of the store as well. It has been an interesting experience, and there are days I come across something I never even knew existed.

The first jarring experience came from holding a roman coin from AD 330 in my hand. Yes, you read that right. AD 330. The second most jarring was how inexpensive a 1,686 year old coin actually was to buy. Aside from that, I have discovered that from a collector’s perspective I prefer old currency, though I loath it from an imaging/sales perspective. Same goes for foreign coinage. I came across some coins from Norway once that were made from iron. I thought they were pretty neat, so I bought them from my husband. Still, I am not a huge fan of coins in general. I may or may not feel a slight animosity towards specific USA coin types due to the difficulties that arise when trying to photograph them efficiently and attractively. My favorite coins are Franklin halves, which are universally accepted as probably most lame coin variety to have an interest in. I like them because they almost always photograph beautifully. The way a coin photographs is about as complex as my interest in numismatics gets. It photographs nicely? Cool, I like it. It’s a pain to photograph? Burn in a fire. 

That being said, every once in a while something truly interesting comes into the store. We buy a lot off the public, and you never know what you are going to get when a customer pulls a little felt bag out of their pocket with a handful of coins they inherited. Most of the time the coins are common, worth a few cents or even a few dollars. Most of them come in with a story: a father fought in this war and brought these home from overseas; a grandmother has been collecting since she was a child; grandparents lived during the Great Depression, etc. etc.  Usually, whoever brings in the coins has no idea what they have inherited which leads to low, or occasionally very high expectations.

A gentleman came in recently with the usual, “These were my dad’s, I have no idea what they are, etc.” leading into a small felt bag with a handful of assorted coins. At this point, I can’t even remember what else he had save two particular items of curiosity. First, he had a small handful of sales tax tokens. These were interesting because I had never seen them before, but as tokens they fell quickly into the “these are neat but they aren’t worthy anything” category. Next, he pulled out what looked like an old trade dollar. Trade dollars are the predecessors to the silver dollars that most people are familiar with today, and also a type a coin I know very little about, aside from having some numismatic value. More interesting than the type of coin itself, however, was what had been done to it. In my experience, when coins are used for something other than a coin, it typically involves turning said coin into a piece of jewelry – often necklaces or bolo ties, occasionally rings. In other cases, people turn the coin into art such as hobo nickels or recently discovered (for me) some beautiful engraved coins like these.

This particular dollar had been cut open, hollowed out, hinged and made into a box that with a little compartment just big enough to fit a quarter. When closed up, the thing looked just like a normal trade dollar, which was the entire point. My analysis immediately gravitated to, “This is fake.” But as I looked at the coin itself, there were no immediate giveaways to an untrained eye to signify that this was not a genuine coin, despite it being able to open up like a box. Having never seen or heard of such a thing, I showed it to my co-worker who said we would have to wait for Boss-man to take a look at it before we could buy it. I took down the man’s phone number and sent him away with the coin and a promise to let him know what we found out about it, though not before taking a few pictures.

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While waiting for Boss-Man to return from lunch I started googling this strange little coin that had come across the counter. It turned out that it used to be common practice for people to hollow out the insides of old silver dollars and turn them into boxes. Today, they are known most commonly as “Opium Dollars,” an alleged smuggling device for small stashes of opium. I was immediately intrigued. It turned out that the “Opium” part of the history was mostly false, as the pocket inside the coin would barely hold enough opium to do any good. Instead, the coins were most often used to hide away a trinket of picture of a loved one. Like a locket hidden in your pocket. The stories instantly started brewing.

Unfortunately, the coin them man brought in turned out to be a fake. Which saddened me because I wanted to buy it, fake or not, but my measly personal offer wasn’t enough to bring the coin back to the store. However, Boss-man happened to have the real deal.

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While I had a hard time picking up the differences between the two, the interior of the coin sold me on the lack of authenticity on the first coin. In the end, despite that fact that I didn’t own even a fake one, I still found myself daydreaming about such a piece’s history. I still think about it, honestly.

I suppose that is one great thing about working in a coin store: you never know what you are going to find and what stories may lie hidden inside it.

 

 

Monday Inspiration

What is on my inspiration list today?

1. Adele: Set Fire to the Rain

I was driving around yesterday and heard this song for the first time. It immediately had me thinking of moments when a character would fit into this song. Those thoughts landed on a character I thought of recently who is obsessed with EKG’s and the idea of each heart having it’s own path and signature. I am excited to flesh this character out in further detail. And also do some research on EKG’s and polygraphs: two very different ways of recording transmissions from the body.

2. Photography

© Katie Rene Johnson 2014

© Katie Rene Johnson 2014

© Katie Rene Johnson 2014

There is something fascinating about old places. This building replaced the original cabin used a school house in 1901 and had a whole 45 students at its peak. Now it serves as a small community center sits empty most of the time. I have driven by this building a hundred times and finally stopped to take some photos.

3. Abandoned Places

I came across this image of a car graveyard near Chatillon, Belgium in a random Facebook post. My first thought was, I have to go there. So, I started looking up more about it, and it turns out the cars were removed in 2010. Initially, I was completely bummed, because holy cow was this place cool and I would never have the chance to visit it personally. Regardless, I was completely fascinated that such a place would have even existed in the first place. These cars spent 70 years in the forest, leaving an incredibly post-apocalyptic type scene for photographers to capture. You would think it was something out of a movie.

Inspiration: Photography

© Katie Rene Johnson 2014

Photographs can be powerful tools for inspiration. For many years, I carried a camera around with me whenever I went somewhere new or even well known so that I could take pictures to go along with my writing. Initially, it was on hiking or camping trips to find hidden locations that would fit into the setting of Kingdom Burning. They were never great pictures, not even something to hang on the wall, but they gave me tactile imagery to help build the fantasy world around my characters. Montana is a great place for mystical forests.

Nearing high school graduation, I decided to go to college for photography rather than English. The decision still baffles me a little bit, as at that point photography was a fairly new passion where I had been writing since I was a kid. I think the decision came from teenage close-mindedness and the absolute loathing at the time of literary and poetry analysis, which when going over course options was a large part of an English degree. And, I didn’t want to be a teacher, which was the most prominent thing to do with an English degree at the time. Point being, I went to college for photography – just a two year degree, but that was enough to help hone my skills. I have dabbled in portrait photography ever since, until last year when I started my own business. I also photograph coins for a living, a job I never would have looked into had it not been for my degree.

I shoot with a DSLR, which is a big clunky thing that is hard to carry around all the time for the chance of finding something interesting to photograph. But I ALWAYS have my phone on me. It has a decent camera and over the last few years I have collected over a thousand pictures, probably a third of which are of my cats. The rest, however, are of the things I see during the day as I walk around downtown, the things I find when I go on a road trip, the experiences that I am obsessed with documenting. When I photograph people, I am in control of the situation. I tell them where to stand, how to pose, where to look, whether or not to smile. It is a calculated process, aimed at giving a client the perfect image to remember that moment in their life. Children are a little less planned – I dare to to try and pose a two year old – but as I approach the subject there is still a goal in mind. I arrive at a location knowing what types of photographs I am going to be taking.

The images that I take on my phone are the complete opposite. I am in a constant mode of observation, even when I am walking the same three blocks back to my car after work. I look to the windows of the buildings around me, I watch the cracks on the sidewalk, I make a point of noticing things. There is always something seemingly insignificant that can catch my eye. I consider these moments found images. There is no posing involved, no placing of an object to get the right perspective. I move around the subject, chose my angle, frame the image to give it my perspective.

A while back I asked myself, what am I doing with all of these pictures? Even as I sorted through them and delete the pointless or repetitive ones, there are others that I just can’t get rid of. They speak to me, they are each a moment that has been frozen in time. I realized they are another outlet for the creative nature of my imagination. Without even realizing it, I began creating my own form of visual art. And I am in love with it. I can’t wait for the next moment that will catch my eye. I can’t wait to take that image and turn it into something more.

That moment when the sun sets and road seems endless and free:

© Katie Rene Johnson 2014

The moment when the light from the window highlights peace and affection:

© Katie Rene Johnson 2014

The moment of infinity on the ocean shore:

© Katie Rene Johnson 2014

 

Beauty surrounds us, and just as the characters  in my imagination walk beside me every day, these beats of time inspire me to keep creating and living in the moment. It keeps my heart content.

 

View more images here: Moments Urban Landscapes