Kicks from Route 66

October 12, 2010

By Barbara Goldman

Jim Luning

If you need to shoot motor culture with a unique point of view that connects to real people and real living, then photographer Jim Luning of Chicago, IL is the man you want.

Luning grew up in a rural area and got his first motorcycle at age five, started driving cars at 13 and racing bicycles nationally at age 14. He is an avid collector of vintage motorcycles and has published three travel book along the way.

So Lunning was the right guy to document the legendary and historic Route 66. As the famous song goes:
“if you ever plan to motor west , Travel my way, the highway that’s the best. Get your kicks on Route 66!”

And that is exactly what Luning set out to do in 1999 from Chicago the first time around with journalist Tim Steil. They did a 17-day odyssey about Route 66 to create a travel book that was different for that time from any other about the iconic route. The book is now in its 5th printing and is still considered one of the best Route 66 books to date.

Now fast forward to 2009 and the duo of Luning and Steil have teamed up again to produce a documentary film “Route 66 – Ten Years Later” about the very people and places they met and fell in love with along the famous road ten years earlier. This time the film version deals with the bonding and friendship that happens when you are on a road trip. Both Luning and Steil have changed greatly over the years since their first book. The film documents their own life changes and how they have become a unifying thread for all their interviews and scenic shots.

They shot on the very same dates, ten years apart and motored west from Michigan Ave. and Adams in Chicago to the Santa Monica Pier. This time though, instead of 400 rolls of film and a bevy of Nikons, they shot with high-definition video cameras and sound equipment. Luning took on the roles of director, camera man and sound engineer.

This second time around also presented a two-fold learning experience for Luning. His inspiration for the documentary was to go out and see what had changed along a sleepy East-West Route in a world that has had meteoric changes and upheavals since 1999.

He documents how people, places and things have become transformed or have gone away completely. A rigid schedule had to be maintained to finish on time and much more was involved with shooting video rather than just shooting stills.

He stops at places like Hackberry General Store in Kingman, AZ, then heads for the town of Oatman for the best garlic burger he ever had. Luning finds old favorites like The Jack Rabbit Trading Post, started in 1949 at the Here It Is gas stop signage in Joseph City, AZ. The place is a bit weathered, but still in good shape and then off to Twin Arrows, AZ, which used to be a gas stop with restaurant and gift shop. The arrows are pretty dilapidated but there is a rumor of restoration by a new group. In the town of Williams, AZ you can take the train to the Grand Canyon and there are new and interesting shops, restaurants and things to do. There are civic-minded “Route 66” businessmen and colorful and gracious locals, who convey their passion for these small towns in the interviews. They are busy creating new successful stops along the route to keep the road alive and kicking.

The second aspect for doing “Route 66- Ten Years Later” was also just as important to Luning as observing the changes. It was a chance to learn more about the craft of filmmaking and to make the moving image create the same powerful connection as his still imagery. He manages to let his interviews have the look of his still portraits and his landscapes have the blue/black skies and zooming clouds from his earlier book.

He purposely used a pro-level video camera and lens adapters for the depth of field as opposed to a Canon 5D. Plus, adding sound on location, the camera moves, follow focusing, blocking shots–all were new objectives that he set for himself and met. He did all the post production work, which included editing, sound design and DVD authoring. “I made a lot of mistakes and learned so much from them,” says Luning.

“Route 66-Ten Years Later” achieves both goals for Luning and proof is in the finished documentary and its reception. It was premiered on September 9th in Chicago at the classic and very appropriate Portage Theater that goes back to the 1920s. The 53-minute film has received rave reviews. See his trailer for yourself and get your kicks from Route 66 and enjoy the ride here.

See more of Jim Lunings’s other road trips, personal stories, videos, snapshots and his blog at