I’ve never dined at The Checkerboard Café, but I always liked the sign. Billed on its website as “Tucson’s Friendliest Diner,” I suppose I will make this my first destination upon my return. Of course, the home page possesses a few typos, including listing at as “Located a Grand and Oracle Road,” when I’m pretty sure they meant Grant Avenue, I supposed I’ll give ’em a pass. Seeing as how the website also lists its copyright as 2012, I suppose I’d have to dig a little deeper just to confirm that it’s even still there.
One of the things I enjoy most about photographing using traditional film methods is the aesthetic. The ease of digital photography has ushered in a new era of thoughtlessness; we are free to machine-gun the shutter and then pick-and-choose which images we like after the fact. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, but it’s a time-consuming approach. I genuinely believe that the time, limited frame-count, and money involved with film photography naturally motivates the photographer to be more thoughtful regarding what to photograph and how to photograph it.
I made today’s photograph of the day using my twin-lens Yashica-D vintage view camera.
There is also a built-in aesthetic that comes along with black and white photography. Removing the color element, the photograph is more focused on the architecture and balance of composition. These photographs appear more “classic” or “timeless” because of the reticulation of the film grain and the lack of vibrant color. I’m reminded of a lecture delivered by one of the best professors I ever had, Mr. Keith McElroy.
“If any of you are interested in your photographs being important, remembered, recirculated, studied in text books, there’s one sure-fire way to help your chances. Go to the grocery store, the shopping mall, the warehouse markets. Go up and down the isles and photograph a catalog of all the merchandise on the shelves. In fifty years, the global marketplace is going to be different. Many of those products will have changed, will not exist, will be antiquated. People will be interested in seeing what they were like.”
It doesn’t sound like a glamorous project, but there’s so much truth to this. Photographs of turn-of-the-century Main Street, of general stores with apron-clad mustachioed men with monocles, New York street scenes with horse-drawn carriages, or street scenes with early model Ford cars and horses both navigating the thoroughfare – these are interesting photographs, even if the skill used to execute them is pedestrian. It’s the document that’s important and, in conjunction with the happenstance “aesthetic of age,” these photographs become unique (and sometimes important) historical specimens.
We never know what’s going to be considered important or interesting to future eyes. For all we know, a snapshot of t-shirt wearing shoppers at your local Wal-Mart will be republished in a History of Photography anthology at the dawn of the next century.
With the proliferation of photography, I expect to be reminded that such a snapshot would be but one of millions floating around. But computers crash and hard-drives fail. Not nearly as many photographs are printed as we might imagine. Digital file formats change, and can be corrupted; they disappear. Physical prints that survive the ages will be somewhat more significant.
Take a close look, too. Your one-hour photo prints are usually printed improperly, with exhausted film chemistry by unskilled technicians. You may notice your old family photo albums are filled with fading coloring prints. And do-it-yourself printing is even worse. Inkjet prints fade faster and are highly susceptible to water damage. But then look at great-grandpa’s album. Those black and white albumen prints probably still look pretty darn good.
If I were you, I would scan and re-print all of your cherished prints before they fade entirely.
In October a train hits and kills a pedestrian around 7am. Officials investigate the incident as a suicide.
In November, a man kneels down in front of a train. The conductor tells police the man walked out of the bushes near the tracks and bent down to place something on the tracks. He then knelt down, facing away from the oncoming train. A note is found on the body, along with a single dollar bill. The note says goodbye to a friend and requests that whoever should find the note to please deliver the dollar, a debt, to the mentioned friend.
In December a man steps in front of a train and remains there until he is crushed. Witnesses tell police that the man intentionally stood in front of the train; the engineer sounded his whistle and flashed his lights and was unable to stop before killing the man.
Sixteen years ago, the Tucson Citizen published an article about railroad deaths after a series of tragic incidents, accidents and acts of suicide. Although the number of railroad suicides isn’t known, they’re not uncommon. The article included an interview with Dan Hicks, a veteran railroad conductor who has worked in the Tucson area.
“Hicks, 48, said he’s experienced the trauma of rail accidents several times,” the article reads. “Engine’s he’s operated have hit trucks, cars, and in one horrifying instances, a drunken woman who had been beaten and left on the tracks.”
Today’s photograph – two exposures made with my handy-dandy Fujica Half – shows an area south of downtown Tucson. Around the time these two images were made, I met an engineer at Hotel Congress. I was sipping a beer and waiting for some food at the lobby restaurant, The Cup Café. He was dating one of the women who worked there, a woman I’d known for a little while. He told me about the number of accidents he’d witnessed, and the number of suicides. He also talked about a stretch of train tracks nearby that area rail-workers referred to as “suicide alley,” where a cluster of deaths had occurred. He told me how certain determined people would arrange their bodies on the ground, laying their necks directly on the track.
I’d recently been walking around that very stretch of tracks. Taking photographs was actually a challenge while I was studying photography – an irony I can’t even begin to describe – and it was an activity usually undertaken on the weekends. I’d never considered that suicide by train was a problem in this shiny new modern world. I remember thinking I hadn’t heard anybody talking about it. I hadn’t heard anything on the news.
But then – I’d pretty much been living in the basement of the Theater Arts Building (where the photo lab was), so how would I know? For the past several months that’s the only place anybody could ever find me. I ate there, worked there as an employee and worked there as a student. Hell, I had a sleeping bag and pillow, a hot plate and a wet-bar (rum, coke, tonic water, and whiskey) in my private, closet-sized darkroom in the bowels of that institution. I only ever emerged to meet my girlfriend downtown for food and drink, or to fetch a pack of cigarettes from the 7Eleven across the street.
It shook me to think about what it must feel like, to be that determined to end one’s own life. It shakes me still.
I can’t look at these photos without thinking about it.
This camera is closely associated with what press photographers carried during the 1950s and 1960s, although I must admit that the Yashica is a bit of a knock-off; the Rolleiflex is the original sensation. The reason these were considered more professional had a lot to do with the lens specifications and the selective-focus feature, allowing for more artful and aesthetically pleasing compositions.
This is a medium format camera – accepting 120mm medium format film – and makes 6×6 centimer square images.
Most of the latter models were equipped with a three-element 80mm lens capable of opening up to f/2.8 – this is considerably “faster” glass than many contemporaneous camera models, allowing for faster exposures, effectively giving the photographer the power to ‘freeze’ moving objects on the film plane. Earlier camera models had darker glass and slower shutter speeds, so moving objects would render as a blurry jumbled mess.
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With the discovery of Vivian Maier‘s work and the release of her books, the often ignored TLR style camera has seen renewed interest. Prices for the Rolleiflex have risen significantly, leaping from as low as $150 to figures closer to $1,000. The Yashica (and the Rollei) are relatively easy to find, and because they aren’t as user friendly as your smart phone, I’m confident this fad will die down. When the fad dies down, so will the price.
If you’re a camera freak like me, I suggest you keep your eyes peeled – get one of these as soon as possible. They’re cumbersome to work with compared to modern DSLRs, but they are reliable, sharp, and produce stunning negatives. Like any tool, a well-built camera is a joy to work with.
And if you haven’t heard the name Vivian Maier, go and see John Maloof & Charlie Siskel’s documentary “Finding Vivian Maier” immediately. It’s blasphemous if you haven’t at least heard the name.
Monday saw the start of Film February – only film photographs for this month during the 2016 ‘Photo A Day’ project. I began with an image taken using one of my favorite vintage cameras from the 1960’s. I realized that my explanation about how the Fujica Half works might not be entirely coherent to those of you who aren’t as absurdly gear-headed as I am.
Today’s image is intended to illustrate a little more clearly what the Fujica Half accomplishes. Instead of one horizontal picture, like what you would get using a regular old 35mm film camera, the Fujica half makes a series of small vertical exposures – two exposures fit in the same space that one standard 35mm picture would go. It takes some getting used to; when you look through the viewfinder, the image plane is vertical. I can’t think of any other camera out there that operates like this.
These two images were taken a few years ago. I used to carry the Fujica Half everywhere I went because it was such a compact camera. In my free time, I would go on bike rides all over Tucson, looking for interesting things to photograph. If memory serves correctly, the palm tree is from the center median along Swan Road, just north of the Rillito River wash. The statue on the right is from Evergreen Cemetery, located near Oracle Road & Miracle Mile.
Film is not dead! It’s only kinda, sorta, half-way, a little bit, almost dead.
February over here at LenseBender Design is going to be the month of film. Every single day I’ll be contributing a new film-based photograph made exclusively with one of my vintage film cameras. I have an extensive collection of old cameras – and even some vintage film stock – so this should be a pretty fun ride.
The first photograph of the month was made using a little-known camera known as the Fujica Half. For more information on this nifty little hand-held miracle machine, you can read about it here.
The San Pedro Chapel (pictured above) is located in the historic Fort Lowell neighborhood near the Rillito River north of Tucson. The neighborhood is named after the military outpost that once stood nearby. Fort Lowell was an Army outpost active from 1873 to 1891 and was intentionally placed on the outskirts of Tucson at the confluence of the Tanque Verde and Pantano Creeks. Year-round water at the mouth of the Rillito River made this area prime real-estate for a camp.
Once the fort was decommissioned, the Department of the Interior put the fort’s lumber, windows, doors, and other salvageable items up for sale; the fort was quickly dismantled and hauled off. The old adobe structures were already disintegrating back into the desert by the turn of the Twentieth Century, when immigrant families from Sonora, Mexico began to settle into the territory.
The migrants occupied the remaining fort structures and replaced the missing windows, roofs, and doors. The enclave eventually became known as El Fuerte. The community mainly raised livestock and sold lumber to residents in the town of Tucson.
The community developed strong roots. They built new houses in the Sonora Ranch style, dug wells (finding water at less than thirty feet), built a school house, and established a cemetery and built a church. The first church on this site was just large enough for the Carmelite Fathers to stand in while serving mass; the congregation would gather under the mesquite trees outside.
A more permanent structure was built in either 1915 or 1917 (the records are not clear on this), but was destroyed by a tornado in 1929. The San Pedro Chapel that survives today was built directly over the ruins of the previous chapel in the Mission Revival Style and dedicated in 1932.
In the 1940s, as Tucson was growing, the Church and general store of the El Fuerte community made this area a de facto town center. Mexicans living in the east of the territory would travel to El Fuerte to attend mass & school as well as enjoy family parties, baptisms, and other social events. The Chapel is still in use today, as it was then, for baptisms and weddings. At its height, the community was only about three-hundred people, and this building is one of the few reminders of what once existed here.
And I just happened to stumble across San Pedro Chapel on a bike ride.
Pretty darn neat.