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.
The Rillito River no longer runs twelve months a year, although it is credited with Tucson’s early growth. During a brief period of time, I lived along the wash and rode my bike along the hiking path whenever I could. During the monsoon season, the stretch of the river wash near my apartment would erupt with the sound of chirping frogs, and sometimes at night I would hear packs of coyotes howling.
Beneath the Swan Road bridge, I made several studies of the steel beams. It’s a simplistic composition, but I always thought it looked interesting through the viewfinder of my Fujica Half vintage camera. This is one of the many pictures I made during that time.
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Film February continues with yet another recurring theme in the pantheon of old subject matter. Some people miss out on what’s going on around them because they stare at their shoes rather than look around. There’s nothing wrong with staring at the ground, if you ask me – there’s a lot going on there.
As I’ve mentioned in previous entries to this project, street photographer Aaron Siskind played a major role in inspiring a younger version of myself. Seeking out interesting compositions in mundane places became something of a game. While interning at The Center For Creative Photography in Tucson, I also became deeply fascinated by a photographer named Minor White, who also had a tendency to isolate seemingly normal, everyday objects and somehow manage to make them alien, interesting, unique.
There is definitely something magical about working in black-and-white film.
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.
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.