On The Hilltop

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There’s a hilltop in Bisbee, Arizona, just a few miles north of the Mexican border. It sits over Brewery Gulch, casting its shadow over the canyon homes. The last several months I lived in Bisbee I was in a deeply disturbing relationship and everything around me seemed to be in chaos, but I would hike up to the cross on the hill every morning with my dog and enjoy the quiet and the peace.

I’m not a religious man, but I believe in the power of intention. I’d heard stories about the man who built this shrine, decades ago, and about the effort it took, hauling concrete and materials, an armload at a time, from Tombstone Canyon up to the hilltop. In the years since the cross was erected, other people have added onto the shrine. The ashes of peoples’ loved ones have been spread there, piles of candles have been left on the backside of the hill where a shrine to the Guadalupe Virgin has been built. A mural of Jesus is painted on the side of the hill and a monument to the people who have died in the desert trying to cross into America has been established; at the site, people deposit items found in the desert, left behind by border crossers, from backpacks and worn-out shoes to tooth brushes and baby bottles.

My heart is still in the Mule Mountains, even if it’s no longer in Bisbee. I will never forget the brief moments, sitting on the hilltop on those silent mornings, watching the sun rise over the desert.

May 10, 2017 – Service

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“All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.”
~Susan Sontag

I’m not sure if this place still exists. Unfortunately, I don’t even remember where it is. It’s probably somewhere on South Stone Avenue, or in the warehouse district on South Park Avenue. I suppose I could look it up, but it really isn’t important. I just remember riding my bike through the wrecked car lots, the warehouses, over the railroad tracks by the lumber yards and steel yards and welding operations.

I try to image what these places must have looked like when they were brand new. I can’t seem to conjure the image in my head. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a salvage yard or a warehouse that looked clean and new, with fresh signage and rust-free construction. These places always look like they’ve been there forever – they always look old. Old and tired.

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March 26, 2017 – The Road To Globe

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In another diversion from ‘Mexico in March,’ I need to break from the theme for my short little trip to Pinetop, Arizona. But hey – in an abstract kind of way, this territory was, once-upon-a-time, Mexican territory anyway.

On the long road north through Oracle and Catalina, the state route winds through a series of small mining towns, the first of which is a nearly-dead little hamlet called Mammoth. Several years ago, the smokestacks from the local smelt were dynamited and razed to the ground. Aside from local sheriffs patrolling the main roads and taking advantage of speed traps, there isn’t much here to speak of. Abandoned cars, heaps of illegally dumped garbage, and two gas stations represent most of what remains.

Once upon a time there was industry here. Today, it’s a way-station, a dusty relic from the early years of the twentieth century. Double-wide trailers and rusted pick-up trucks dot the landscape; plywood panels obstruct the busted windows of the failed and abandoned old-world businesses.

It has been about fifteen years since I passed through this territory. Even though the garbage, collapsing buildings, and general despair, I think this is a uniquely beautiful place. The trailers are rotting beer cans in the desert, corroded and sinking into the earth. The unforgiving landscape is slowly reclaiming the territory. The cops are bored and the locals, even more-so. But the expanding valley, stretching out to the north, still provides some of the most glorious sunsets a human being can witness.

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February 28, 2017 – Desert Rot

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One of the things that photography, and the volumes of underlying science, have taught me is that there is an aesthetic beauty implicit in the process of decay. When the veneer is stripped away, and as common objects are vulnerable, new textures surface. When we peel back the skin, we see new things – and we usually spend most of our waking lives trying not to see what’s beneath the surface.

Gray’s Anatomy. Diagrams of dissected bodies. Scars and scratches on once-pristine buildings, automobiles, billboards. We close our eyes in most cases, turn our heads, and ignore the viscera. I’m rather attracted to it.

Here’s my proof.

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January 14, 2017 – The Hilltop Cross

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Today I stumbled across an old photo, taken during the first few months I had lived in Bisbee, Arizona. It’s a mile-high historic town where one of the largest copper mining operations in the world existed. On a, 80 story hilltop overlooking the canyons the comprise most of the town is a makeshift shrine, evidently constructed by a single individual, who hauled mortar and supplies up the trail to the top of the hill, one small load at a time.

The folks that live in town have added to the shrine their own little flourishes. Candles, prayer flags, and sculptures have slowly accumulated, and the cross at the top of the hill kind of belongs to the whole community now. Even in the tumult of my last few months in Bisbee, with a flagging relationship and commensurate flagging reputation among some hostile locals, I always found peace hiking up into the hills to look at the view and be alone with my thoughts.

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January 06, 2017 – The Landscape

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After living in Kansas City for over a year, it feels so good being back in the desert, where I belong. There’s nothing like an Arizona sunrise. At every hour, there are wonderful things to photograph, mountains to hike, winding roads to drive down. This, to me, is paradise.

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February 15 – The Flamingo

02-16 Flamingo post1The Flamingo was originally built in 1948, providing comfort and shelter for the likes of Bing Crosby, Gene Autrey, Rudy Valley, and other members of the Hollywood and show-business elite. Before it’s doors were closed in the 1980s, it had fallen into miserable disrepair. The rooms were poorly lit, the pool was dry and cracked. The old-world gloss had given way to broken concrete and mold.

When the doors were locked and the windows boarded up, shrink-wrapped soaps still sat in their dishes, dusty towels still hung on the racks, the beds still tightly made. It only sat vacant for seven years before the padlocks were snapped open and the hotel was resurrected with new furniture, carpets, air conditioning, and placards on the doors to designate which Tinseltown stars had stayed there.

I had the pleasure of staying in Burt Reynold’s room. Above the bed was a framed poster of a 1973 Reynolds feature I had never even heard of before: The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing. I still haven’t seen it, but I think I might have to check it out and add a movie review.

The Flamingo was the first Tucson hotel I stayed at – it’s salmon colored paint drawing me in – back in the Spring of 2001. I’d taken a road trip out to Tucson with my girlfriend to check out the city, seeing as how I had just received my acceptance letter from the U of A. Thankfully the new owner respected the building’s history – rather than tear down the classic sign, it was resurfaced and adorned with new neon tubes.

Hopefully, even as the city around it modernizes, The Flamingo will hold onto its charm. The neighborhood isn’t the prime real estate it once was, but affordable rooms in a college town will always find occupants. It isn’t fancy by today’s standards, but I’ll never forget how good that hot shower felt after camping on Mount Lemon for several days.

Today’s photograph is a continuation of “Film February,” made using the Fujica Half. I think the aged aesthetic of film works quite well with a classic mid-century building.

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January 26 – Agave Americana

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Several years ago, I was in the habit of hiking the hilltop behind my house. I did this on an almost daily basis – sometimes early in the morning to try and capture photographs of the hummingbirds, and sometimes at dusk, as the light turned golden yellow. During the monsoon season, the skies swell with dramatic light-grabbing clouds. I think I made so many pictures of the area at that time, I began to forget how truly dazzling the scenery was; most of the pictures remain in the dark, unpublished and under-utilized in my catalog.

The silhouette is the dried corpse of an agave americana plant. These spires line the hills in the mountains of Southern Arizona and are as recognizable in the borderlands as the Saguaro Cactus (think Roadrunner and Wile W. Coyote cartoons) is just a hundred miles north in Tucson and the Coronado National Forest.

Commonly referred to as a “century plant,” they don’t actually live quite that long. These drought-resistant buggers typically live between ten and thirty years.

I figured a sunset photograph would be a nice book-end to my birthday. Thirty-three years ago I arrived on this peculiar organic spaceship, this mossy rock flying through the cosmos. A wetware android, my brain has been gathering information and making connections ever since that day, furiously trying to make sense of everything.

I’m not sure how successful I’ve been, but it sure is fun trying.
Most of the time.

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One More Word About My Friend

COVER

 

Aching legs, kicking the parking lot curb in Deming, New Mexico – if not out of exhaustion & boredom, then to loose the day’s dirt from our cracked boots. Cow shit, mud, wind-burned faces and angry lungs – we carried what might well have been bags of flour on the surface of our jeans and on our feet all afternoon, leaving behind an impressive pile of dust.

We headed out to the fair grounds from our Luna County motor-lodge every day for a solid week back in September 2010, specifically to see what the rodeo was like outside of the professional circuit. And outside of the circuit, out in the badlands – out where people hold the guttering torch of an agrarian lifestyle – things proved to be contrary to any expectation we could’ve had.

Out here, ranchers exchange stories about the season’s rain, and drought is on their minds. A rash of hardship – of broken men and busted operations, sick livestock and parched crops, lost land, failure, sadness, and suicide – permeates their conversation. There’s also the non-sanctioned events of the working-rancher’s rodeo, cowboys (and girls) telling stories to one another and laughing, exchanging advice and promising prayers and support, good luck and good will. The rodeo performance itself is unflinchingly quiet, even anti-climactic to most of the rodeo crowds we know. The livestock here belong to the ranchers themselves, not a stock agency. Nobody is risking harm to self or harm to their animals – they simply can’t afford it – and that kind of risk just isn’t what we see in pro-rodeo.

At PRCA (Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association) events, many competitors certainly do herald from the ranch-lands. No question about that. But there are endorsement deals – Jack Daniels, Coors, Boot Barn, and Stetson, to name only a few. Those are professional athletes competing for professional money, and it’s a spectator sport. Risks are higher, so is the money, and sometimes people get hurt. In the photo pit and up in the crow’s nest are photographers, print journalists, and videographers, all waiting for that perfect ride. And let’s be honest: many of them are waiting for blood, too. The crowd itself is in for excitement, shaking the grandstand with stomping feet.

With working ranchers, events are skill-based with diminished risk, with little chance of personal injury or damage to livestock. It’s a meeting-ground for regional farmers & ranchers interested in land-management, stock-prices, water resources, and futures markets.

It’s a different game entirely.

Unlike pro-rodeo, women are allowed to compete in events other than barrel racing, and some of them can throw a rope with remarkable skill, rivaling the most celebrated male competitors. Ropers and muggers aren’t as daring, and there’s no Jack Daniel’s tent pouring free samples for onlookers.

These aren’t professional athletes. They’re businessmen.

This is a social gathering for ranchers, whose fates are tied together by market price and rain-water, seasonal planning and farm size. These men and women raise livestock and grow produce. They represent an increasingly rare incarnation of the American laborer. The national average of US ranchers and farmers are approaching sixty years of age, with less than two percent of the US population currently dedicated to producing food. It’s no surprise that events like this are becoming increasingly rare. In fact, when I returned to Luna County in 2011, the rodeo event was canceled due to lack of participation. With few competitors, the prize-pot was far too small to justify the expense of attending.

No gold buckles are awarded here. There are no endorsement deals. No radio station promos or truck dealerships. These men and women pay to play, with the possibility of making business contacts and winning some cash. Eliminate half of the incentive, and the rodeo grounds remain woefully empty.

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Gray skyscapes and scattered clouds boiling off into the east and a peach mist of dirt in high winds, dissolving as the sun crawls down. We stomp our boots and smoke our cigarettes, leaning against the car, kicking tires and uncapping a bottle of cheap off-brand whiskey in the motel parking lot. The room is dirty but I’m not paying, so there’s no reason to complain. Moldy carpet and four channels, a shitty water-heater that takes twenty minutes just to warm up, and an infuriatingly faulty ice machine – this couldn’t be mistaken for paradise.

But hell – not half bad.

With a case of Mexican beer and a bottle of local wine from local St. Claire, the ‘take’ of the day arrives in wry comments, inside jokes, and several hundred near-useless photographs, choked-out as thoroughly as we were by the dust.

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This is my best memory of Will Seberger – photojournalist, political junky, decent human being. Unafraid to curse in mixed company, he was superhuman in his ability to inject benign conversation with pointed and incendiary commentary – and usually some laughter – and all without coming off as elitist or disrespectful. He passed away unexpectedly in the wee-hours of August 17th, leaving in his wake a constellation of family, friends, fellow journalists, and a wife.

It was this trip to Deming that stands out to me, as both a photographer and a friend. Recently unemployed and living on a buddy’s couch in Tucson, this trip was a gift to me. Will called me up, lord knows why, and asked me along. I didn’t have anything better to do and I felt honored for the invite. This was an opportunity to escape my depression, to get out of the house, to be challenged as a photographer, and to spend time with my friend. I told him I was ‘in’ without skipping a beat.

I’m saddened by how few photographs I actually took of him in the twelve years I knew him. Most of the images presented here, Will was standing right beside me. At the hotel each night, reviewing our work, he didn’t pull punches when critiquing my work. I always appreciated that. It takes a good friend to look you in the eye and say “that’s shit” while loving you at the same time.

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We spent a lot of time outside on the splintered concrete in front of the room, sifting through photos on Will’s laptop, a glowing screen perched on the hood of his JEEP. We smoked a lot of cigarettes outside our non-smoking room, enjoying the autumn weather. Absent a corkscrew, I remember Will cracking the head off a bottle of wine with his survival-knife. He may have ruined that knife, but we enjoyed drink, dag-nabbit.

“Drink up. It’s only ‘day one,’ and we’re only gettin’ dirtier.”

We filled the bathroom sink with ice each afternoon for beer. Twelve hours under the sun each day, rings of mud on the damp bandannas we wrapped over our mouths, local food and cheap Mexican beer were our only comfort outside of conversation. But we talked a lot. And that was nice.

We never complained. This was fun for us.

As the week wore on, the titled presented itself: Apocalypse Cow. We’d wandered into foreign land and buried ourselves in the job. After heat-stroke, booze, and a gaggle of interesting characters – a drunken beast insisting that he was black ops and handed us a copy of his self-authored bio-pic screenplay, a wild-eyed fifty-something donning kilt and ‘zombie apocalypse’ baseball cap telling stories of chemical baths, government medical experiments, anthrax, and cancer – the title seemed appropriate.

“Apocalypse Cow” became the name of the trip. We decided it’d be the name of the gallery show if we ever had one. Sadly, such a show never materialized. We did gather a lot of pictures, though, and we met a lot of great people. I’m confident some of Will’s images wound up in the portfolio, and I know there are a small handful of images that I’m proud of, too. We took notes, collected phone numbers, made plans to return. I just wish we’d found the time to get back out there.

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Our political climate – of vitriol and anger, polarized constituencies and ineffectual representatives – doesn’t have much place out where Will and I ventured. In a saloon, two photographers from the Midwest found each other and struck up a friendship. Our paths were circuitous, but Will and I possessed a healthy blend of old-world values and new-world education. Neither of us were particularly seduced by partisanship. When we worked together, we’d often arrive at the media tent side-by-side. He’s bang on the door and announce: “the liberal media has arrived!”

Always a joke, and always laughter from the other side of the door.

I can’t recall Will ever scoffing at someone’s vote – even if it was against his own horse. He was a man of moral and social integrity, and always fought for what he thought was right. He understood that there are few Truths, and he burned few bridges. He was deeply principled and unforgivably opinionated, but never without a sense of humor to blunt the angst.

Time spent in the borderlands, Will appreciated that some old-world values still exist. He believed that working people matter. Beyond politics and exit polls, network & cable news, party affiliations, gender, or personal bias, he believed in our collective ability to push forward. He found common ground with each and every person he befriended, each and every person he photographed, each an every person he reported on (for the most part). He believed in the possibility of disparate players, approaching the table.

Will was my friend. And I write with a heavy heart that I can’t imagine life being as valuable without him. May he be at peace, and may he and I meet again, against all odds, in the great beyond.

It was a good ride, Will.

If I live to be twice as old and achieve half as much, I’ll be happy.

Thank you. For everything.

-joe