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.


January 30 – The Connecticut River

01-30 Connectitcut River post

In New England the character is strong and unshakable.”

~Norman Rockwell

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Yesterday was an amazing day – like all good days, it was too short. I found myself being guided along by my uncle Rick, who has lived in this territory for the past twenty years. There’s no such thing as a transition between the southwest and the east coast – they are different worlds altogether. We didn’t cover a tremendous amount of territory, but New England is so dense with architecture & history, I imagine I could spend ten weeks in a ten mile radius and not ever – not for a single moment – feel bored.

Along the Connecticut River are a number of beautiful places to make pictures. This is just one of them, a position adjacent to the historic Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Connecticut.


January 24 – Downtown Tucson

01-24 Rio Nuevo post

I was a freshman at The University of Arizona back in 2001. The whole of downtown Tucson has completely changed in the years since then. University Boulevard was a third-world country; the old brick buildings at the intersection of Park & University were a shelled-out scene reminiscent of 1980s East St. Louis. The only missing set-piece would be an arrangement of chopped cars on cinder-blocks. The old drug store was razed that year, piles of bricks and construction equipment lined the streets, and the sound of jackhammers provided the background music audible from my eighth story dorm room in Coronado Hall.

Downtown wasn’t entirely different. Congress Street, the main thoroughfare, had it’s own share of problems. The Screening Room still had events every weekend, Hotel Congress was a hub for live music & adult beverage, and The Grill – open twenty-four hours – always had coffee, beer, and tater tots for the restless insomniac artist. The scene was markedly different in the light of day, though; many of the storefronts on Congress were shuttered and vacant, rents were low, and a series of businesses seemed to play musical chairs with commercial space.

A lot has changed since then.

Today’s ‘photograph of the day’ is an old market just south of Tucson’s downtown area on 6th Avenue. I don’t have a lot of information about the old business, but I’m guessing it was one of the many bodegas near Barrio Viejo that eventually fell into irrelevancy. The structure appeared to sit vacant during the entirety of my tenure in Tucson, the ten years stretching from 2001 to 2011.

Revitalization hasn’t just hit Congress and 4th Avenue – the old KY Market has been purchased by a gentleman named Danny Vinik and converted into a multimedia space for his company, Brink Media. I worked for the company, briefly, but I don’t think I possessed quite the skill-set, and the project I was working on didn’t seem to be too tremendously focused. The people that work there, however, are some of the most brilliant web developers, graphic designers, and videographers I’ve ever met. I was happy to be a part of the operation, short-lived and fruitless as it may have ultimately proved to be.

I have a lot of pre-restoration photographs of downtown Tucson, and this is one that has a little bit of meaning for me. Progress happens, and I’m happy knowing that the building is finally being put to use; one of the greatest friends I’ve ever had works there today. But I also selfishly enjoy the rustic aesthetic of abandonment. Maybe I just have sour grapes that the whole time I lived in Tucson, the whole of downtown was like a pile of rusting beer cans in the desert, and now it all seems to have sprung to life – you know, now that I’m not there to enjoy it.

So it goes.


January 20 – Here’s Your Sign

01-20 Your Sign post

Our life is what our thoughts make it.
~Marcus Aurelius

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I’m not the only photographer that has a weird fascination with signs. It seems like a habit a lot of us have fallen into. I don’t think it’s the signs themselves that attract us, but the era they evoke. Designs from the golden age of commercial neon signage, starting roughly in the 1950s, have long ago gone out of style. Vintage neon tubes are getting harder to find, especially in their original context. Buildings are torn down and the signs are often demolished, too. A few survive in their original context, usually on registered historic buildings, and others survive in personal collections.

Old buildings, ghost towns, unique architecture, and vintage signs present something of a game to image collectors; objects like these are like checklist items in a photography scavenger hunt. The image above is actually a bit of a “non-sign,” I’d venture to say. It’s likely the entrance sign for an old two-pump gas station on this street corner. There’s a shuttered repair shop, aluminum doors locked, and the gas pumps have been removed. This sign frame is a rusting heap keeping vigil over a shack and a loosely organized pile of whitewashed cinder blocks that vaguely resemble a low-rent apartment complex.

Hell, since the original picture was made five years ago – never previously published – the area may be completely different today.

The street corner is on South 4th Avenue along the Old Benson Highway on Tucson’s south side, across from the Lazy 8, Tucson’s “cleanest budget motel.” A lot of you Tucson folks have probably driven that stretch of highway but never stopped to look at the scenery; mostly cheap hotels, run-down apartments, abandoned commercial structures, rent-a-fences, and dumpsters. You’ve probably clapped eyes on the Lazy 8 sign on your way to the airport, but never had a reason to pull over and check it out.

That’s what I like about this photography gig. Boring things become interesting. You stop and look around when you normally wouldn’t have any reason to hit the brakes. Sure, the suspicion that there might not be anything of interest often proves to be true, but it’s still a different kind of experience. There’s a slow-down that happens when you look at the world through the lens. I became addicted to that sensation when I first started making pictures, and I’ve never gotten over it.

I encourage everyone to take the time, even just once, to walk around with a camera and start looking at the world through that funny little box with a lens. It can be pretty eye-opening.


January 19 – The Old Aztec Theater

01-19 Art & Athletics post

“Unless we tell stories about ourselves, which is all that theater is, we’re in deep trouble.”
~Alan Rickman

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Winter-time in Kansas City is like summer-time in Tucson – the streets looks deserted most of the day, as if everybody packed in the middle of the night and fled without notice. Instead of tumbleweeds, the crisp air carries dead leaves and newspapers.

I went on a walk in downtown Shawnee, through the nearby cemetery and up towards city hall. The temperature has been hovering in the teens and twenties; needless to say, I didn’t see any other pedestrians, save for the poor pitiful fool dressed as the statue of liberty, promoting a tax prep service on the corner. There ought to be a law against that kind of cruelty.

Pictured here is the Old Aztec movie theater.

The Old Aztec was designed by the Boller Brothers architectural firm of downtown Kansas City, Missouri. Their designs ranged widely in size and style, from minor vaudeville houses to grand movie palaces. To date, about twenty surviving Boller Brothers theaters are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The Old Aztec is clearly among the smaller houses, commissioned by Shawnee’s third mayor, Mr. Marion Summeror, and opened on Labor Day in 1927.

It was named Aztec in the 1940s after it was acquired by Dickinson Theaters. The current signage was installed in 1972 after the theater was purchased by the Pflumm family. Closed for renovations in the summer of 1975, the theater never reopened. There was a time in 2005 when the building changed hands again. Renovations began again, too. The outside has been finished, but the project stalled and the status of the theater is not known.

I like the way old towns feel, although that sense of Main Street life has largely melted away. This little intersection in Shawnee is surrounded by an ocean of strip malls and shopping centers, traffic congestion and highways. But for one block, you can dig your hands into your pockets, bury your head between your shoulders, and walk down the sidewalk against the wind. You can look up at the old marquis and consider a time, almost a hundred years ago, when people walked the same streets, through the threshold and into theater, to watch a silent film dance across the canvas screen of a true American movie house.