February 12 – Suicide Alley

02-12 Suicide Alley post


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.


The Yashica-D

Yashica-DThis 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.

– – –

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.


Vivian YouTube

February 07 – Changes In Perspective

02-07 Tucson Underpass postThis Sunday’s photograph of the day is one of the older classics I’ve always loved and nobody else ever seemed interested in. That’s just one of the painful little things you have to get over when you’re an artist; almost every single painting or photograph that I love are the very paintings and photographs nobody seems to like. And those pieces that I’m not so sure about? The ones I even consider throwing away or deleting? Well, people tend to love those the most.

It’s just one of the ironies.

Nevertheless, I remember looking at the negatives, still dripping wet after being developed in my friend’s kitchen. These are Fujica Half images, so there were tons of exposures to look through. The composition of these really intrigued me. I had a small pile of proof prints eventually made, and that’s when I realized how I wanted to display these images. Thumbing through the proofs, I saw this image upside down, and it really intrigued me. It looked like an alien city or a futuristic concept.

I was reminded of the scene from Steven Soderbergh’s “Ocean’s Eleven” where the fidgety tech character is in the labyrinthine hallways to seek out the server room and tap into the security camera output for the hotel. The room itself is flooded with blue neon light and looks incredibly alien – it turns out that the film’s location scout had looked at a photograph of a server room upside-down and though it looked neat. So the set was built, complete with neon lights coming from the floor, rather than from the ceiling.

Happy little accidents. It’s the simple things we don’t think of that can really influence our work. That’s why critique is important, and why artists like to bounce ideas off each other. Some small little detail may make all the difference.


February 01 – San Pedro Chapel

02-01 San Pedro post

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.


The Fujica Half

fujicaOriginally marketed as a “true candid camera,” the Fujica half was a wonderful new addition to the world of casual “economy photography” in 1963. Using standard 35mm film, this camera split the 35mm frame size in half, allowing for two vertical exposures for every single frame – hence the name “half.” Seventy-two exposures were now possible from a thirty-six exposure roll of film. Pretty snazzy.

The Fujica Half was likely developed to compete with the Olympus PEN half-frame camera, which had experienced a great deal of success. Boasting crisp pictures from a wide-angle (28mm) five-element lens, the Fujica Half could also open up to a 2.8 f/stop, making it unusually versatile. Wide angle, low-light friendly, sharp fixed-focus, extended frame count, and all in a compact design small enough to fit in your pocket.

Designed for a point-and-shoot audience, the built-in selenium light meter and compact design made the Fujica an ideal machine. It was one of the most accessible, user-friendly camera models designed until this time, delivering the practice of photography into the hands of an unprecedented number of consumers.

It was the iPhone camera of the 1960’s. Period.

As film prices dropped throughout the latter 60’s, “whole-frame” cameras supplanted the half-frame models. By the end of the decade, major manufacturers abandoned the half-frame model altogether. It was a short-lived fad, but these metal-constructed beauties were built to last. For any camera enthusiast, it’s easy to find a functioning model for a cheap price. They’re a lot of fun to shoot with.