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Rocket City

My infatuation with New Mexico began when I was 17 or 18, around about the time that I was similarly infatuated with the idea of the American Road Trip: I devoured On The Road and Dharma Bums by Kerouac, Travels with Charlie by Steinbeck, and I remember a book by a woman who traveled across Australia with her dog and maybe a horse for company (I didn’t like this one quite as much because, typically, the dog died). I would scour the bookstore for titles that seemed relevant, and read them all: anything, everything that let the spirit within me roam and fly free while my feet remained safely planted within the comforting walls of my parents’ house. When I think about my teens (especially mid-to late teens) what I remember most is that restlessness, and if I could go back and talk to the girl that I was, I would say for goodness sake quit mooning around, just get up and go do something; you’ll get to roam plenty one of these days.

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So, my infatuation with New Mexico began in that hotbed of hormones & dreams, when I found a wacky novel called Rocket City at my local Barnes & Noble. I don’t know how many people read that book, but I adored it, probably in part because the story was infused with so much that was strange (and yet not strange), and the fallout from that love affair was a powerful attraction to a state I had never given any thought to before. Last year I finally got to visit, and it certainly didn’t disappoint me; this year I have already been back once (and will hopefully get to go again before the year is out), and on that second visit I got to see the fabled city of my teenage dreams: Alamogordo.

It’s fine if you’re laughing at this. I honestly don’t know a dang thing about the city, other than its proximity to White Sands, besides what I read about it in that book so long ago, which is mostly that it was a kinda odd place with lots of signs in the shapes of rockets. Last year we were planning on heading that way after we left Roswell, but the weather forecast was bad so we went north instead. This year, our main destination was White Sands, so I knew we would be going through Alamogordo and I was full of a ridiculous amount of excitement that I mostly kept to myself because I didn’t want to make my family crazy.

We approached from Cloudcroft, where we were staying (sort of, in the forest), which meant a long lovely descent out of the mountains. Then suddenly, there in the distance, we saw the glitter of white sand, spread out like a mirage on the horizon. Before it lay the city of Alamogordo, in what is possibly the most obvious display of an area’s geologic past I have ever seen: there on a flat plain, buttressed by mountains, so clearly to my eyes the site of an ancient lake or sea. I shifted in the passenger seat, got my camera ready, and prepared myself for the fun onslaught of rockets.

Well, there weren’t any. Not that I saw. The city was flat as the Texas panhandle, and we drove right through what was probably the outskirts since it was the fastest route to our destination. The best I could do was this one, later, after we returned from an afternoon of frying in dehydration on the gypsum dunes, hot, dirty, thankful for the ice cream place I had found thanks to a search on my phone.

We didn’t stay long; just a quick drive through the historic downtown, and then a hasty retreat back to camp for the hot showers we had seen advertised. We had to be there by 5.

I seriously doubt that my brief visit to Alamogordo did it much justice. It’s difficult to do that when you pretty much only stop for ice cream. Maybe I’ll be back there one day, with a little more time; maybe I’ll find the rockets. . . . or maybe, like so many teenage dreams, they were something that existed only in the made up world of the author’s mind.

Many of these photographs were made from the passenger seat of the truck, and it’s possible some of them are not actually in Alamogordo; it’s hard to remember everything precisely when you’re living moment to moment, and I don’t write down records of where & when I hit the shutter button. All color images are Nikon FM2 and Kodak Ektar; the black & whites are Hasselblad 500cm and Kodak Tri-X.

Some large formatting

Recently we made a spur of the moment trip to Johnson City (Texas), a place I love to visit. It’s a town full of history, precious memories, good friends, and really wonderful art - plus there’s a plethora of wineries and cideries nearby and it’s chock full of excellent photographic prospects. I could go on and on about it. (No, they aren’t paying me to say all this, but I tell everybody I know that they need to get out there for a visit. Honestly, I like it better than Fredericksburg.. . . sorry Fredericksburg.)

It had been maybe a year since I did any large format photography. . . . or I think, anyhow. It had definitely been a good long while since I processed any sheet film; it took me no short amount of time to just locate my view camera. I couldn’t even remember putting it in the place I found it. So it was high time to get back into the saddle and this day trip was the perfect opportunity. Johnson City is loaded with the kind of things I enjoy photographing with a bigger camera.

We stopped for coffee in Dripping Springs on our way out, and I made two exposures there, but those will have to be shared another time because I ran out of steam in the darkroom on the day I made contact prints. My garage gets pretty hot during the summer, and the black plastic I use to create a dark space sure does retain whatever heat builds up; I guess the older I get the less I am inclined to tolerate too high of a level of discomfort when I am printing.

Dripping Sprints setup

Dripping Sprints setup

But I digress! It was a good day out with my Kodak 33a. I photographed in Johnson City itself, on the land that I’m pretty sure is part of the LBJ National Historic Park. It has lovely paths, interesting old buildings, and some obliging longhorns.

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I was using Arista EDU 400 5x7 film, and a Protar V lens: the lens is always an added layer of adventure since I use the lens cap for exposure after I stop it down, usually all the way to f64. I tend to end up with negatives that are nice and dense, which makes for a good contact print. My scanner freaks out when I try to scan a 5x7 negative, so I don’t even bother (the file is a whopper, let me tell you); instead I just make the prints and then scan those. They might not have the same level of detail that a scanned negative would hold, but it makes my life easier.

Years ago I purchased a bumper crop of photographic paper for a super bargain price, including a bunch of Ilford RC Pearl. I’m not a huge fan of enlargements done on the pearl paper, but I have recently discovered that it makes lovely large format contact prints. The two images above are on that paper, as are the images that follow, which were made at the LBJ Ranch.

These two negatives weren’t as dense as I would have liked - in contrast to what I said above, of course! - but I am still happy enough with them to share.

This tree was my favorite from the ranch. I waited for what felt like 20 minutes for the sun to come back out before I made my split second exposure. It was worth the wait! It ended up being my favorite photograph from the day; the contact print you see below is on RC Pearl paper.

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What I was really excited about when it came to my recent printing session, however, was the big box of Azo paper my Dad gave me. I may have heard of the paper, but I had no idea what it was, and according to Dad it could be exposed in the sun since it was made to be extra slow, exclusively for contact printing.

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I loaded my freshly dried negative into the contact frame with a piece of this paper, plus loaded another contact frame with a piece to try making a photogram of pinecones in the sun, cyanotype style. Having read briefly online something about 15 seconds of exposure, I started with that. The paper turned completely black when I developed it. So I tried again, just with the negative this time, for 5 seconds. Still black. I walked outside and just kinda showed the negative to the sun: still black. I tried that same thing in the shade: still black. My next trial was with the enlarger, for a variety of times, and eventually after trying a minute exposure that way I saw a glimmer of an image, instead of completely white or completely black. I decided the enlarger bulb wasn’t bright enough, so I just switched on the regular darkroom light for 60 seconds and EUREKA it worked! Something on the paper was better than nothing; I washed the print and went back to using RC while I waited to see how the print would dry down.

Azo paper test print in the wash

Azo paper test print in the wash

I made a contact print of the same negative on the RC Pearl so I could compare the results. You can see them below - and I don’t know if a scan plus a computer screen will do them much justice, but my current plan is to rig up a brighter bulb in my darkroom and start using the Azo paper for my contact prints. It’s lovely, and the depth of the image is much nicer to my eyes than what I can get with the RC. Fiber paper always seems to be worth it! (Below, the first image is on the Azo paper; the second is on Ilford RC Pearl)

Friends with cameras

“When I started really getting into photography, I had never heard the term ‘street photography.’ I just knew I enjoyed taking pictures of strangers.” I’ve said those words, or some arrangements thereof, more times than I can count. For years. And once I got into photography online, my head exploded not only with the amount of street photographers, and street photographs, out there, but also with the amount of discussion about it. The discussion carries on in my house, in restaurants and bars: why, does it make sense, is it weird.

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Recently I decided to consult Google about it - what is it exactly? What I found made me laugh. I’ve copied & pasted it below, with some edits.

“Street photography, also sometimes called candid photography, is photography conducted for art or inquiry that features unmediated chance encounters and random incidents within public places. Although there is a difference between street and candid photography, it is usually subtle with most street photography being candid in nature and some candid photography being classifiable as street photography. Street photography does not necessitate the presence of a street or even the urban environment. Though people usually feature directly, street photography might be absent of people and can be of an object or environment where the image projects a decidedly human character in facsimile or aesthetic.

The photographer is an armed version of the solitary walker reconnoitering, stalking, cruising the urban inferno, the voyeuristic stroller who discovers the city as a landscape of voluptuous extremes. Adept of the joys of watching, connoisseur of empathy, the flâneur finds the world "picturesque".

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The street photographer can be seen as an extension of the flâneur, an observer of the streets (who was often a writer or artist). — Susan Sontag, 1977

Framing and timing can be key aspects of the craft with the aim of some street photography being to create images at a decisive or poignant moment.

(See more on Wikipedia )

Flânerie is the act of strolling, with all of its accompanying associations. A near-synonym is 'boulevardier'. He is an ambivalent figure of urban riches representing the ability to wander detached from society with no other purpose than to be an acute observer of society.”

Urban riches! Haha! I’ve never thought of myself as an observer of society, but ok.

Sometimes, I wish it wasn’t my passion. Sometimes I think that being passionate about some other kind of photography would probably lead me down a more lucrative path, a less frustrating one, one that didn’t involve sometimes feeling like an interloper. But you love what you love! A true passion is like a Harry Potter wand: you don’t choose it, it chooses you.

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Street photography seems to be best carried out alone, not only so that I can focus but also so that I don’t feel like I’m being rude to the people with me, although at the same time there is perceived safety in numbers. Having the padding of other photographers or even camera-less friends alongside me makes me feel less conspicuous as an individual (even if we are more conspicuous as a group). Anyhow, it can be lonely, It’s getting together with other photographers is a challenge, what with the demands of daily life in general. BUT WHEN IT HAPPENS! It’s magic.

Part of the reason is freedom. These people, these lovely friends, have cameras too. Love to photograph. Are (mostly) happy to sit and pose for a photograph. I don’t have to resort to bribery (daughter) or subterfuge (strangers). They understand: sometimes you just need to stop in your tracks. Sometimes you need to wander off. Or stand in one spot for a long time looking and waiting. We all have different visions, but we all speak the same language. There’s a great amount of comfort in that.

Part of my shying away from street last year was not feeling like I had it in me to navigate the reality of photographing someone unawares. There’s at least a touch of sneakiness to it, especially since I don’t like the idea of making anyone uncomfortable. I have a tremendous amount of respect for my fellow humans, and try very hard to exercise that respect even when I’m making a photograph of them without their knowledge. Sometimes balancing my feelings and personal convictions with the energy involved in street photography is too much, and so I gravitate toward making portraits of people who don’t mind. Other photographers are the perfect subject! Interesting, beautiful, understanding, and kind. Friends with cameras. Friends who get it.

Back in March, thanks to a fellow film photography enthusiast visiting Austin for SXSW, I got to spend a couple of afternoons wandering around with a friend/s with cameras. If you’d like to see some of the results of their work, we published a little group article today on the Film Shooters Collective website. They are both talented photographers! Please go check it out.

Another summer

Dear Summer,

What can I say? You broke our hearts last year. What we used to have (bountiful time) is gone; what we have now (scraps) is a poor imitation of the season we loved with a passion for nearly 11 years. We are trying to make the best of things, look at the bright side, make the most of what we are allowed, but it isn’t the same. The loss is still too near for either of us to really know how to handle it.

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These photographs are from another summer. One in the past. One from the days when the last day of school felt like the opening of the gates of paradise: weeks upon weeks together to live to the fullest! I’m still not sure how to translate what our hearts long for into a timespan that gets counted out in days.

I had forgotten about this roll of film. I didn’t look at it besides to quickly scan it into my computer, and finding it again made me stop in my tracks. It’s Kono (Kolorkit 250, here’s an article I wrote a while back on them), part of a pack they graciously sent me to try out. This is one of the things that I love about film photography: somehow the quality of that emulsion managed to perfectly translate the feeling of a lost summer, buried in the past, buried in my heart, before I even knew it was something that I would miss. The film did that through the lens of a plastic Superheadz wide camera, with no control from me besides clicking the shutter. Then it sat back to wait.

Nostalgia is powerful but can be debilitating. I try to look at the past as something to learn from, a launching point, rather than a place to dwell. It doesn’t help a bit to long for things that you can’t get back. At least we have the memories, and the photographs.

So now we focus on the present, forging new paths, making new memories. Our time at the waterpark is very limited, but there are new roads to travel. And, like it says in one of our favorite picture books, “that is a story for another day.”

Making new

I know I said I was going to quit making things because I’m out of space and it’s driving me nuts, but you can’t turn off the desire to create. Sometimes the inspiration phone rings, and it’s cyanotypes on the line. When that call comes, well, you go out in the darkroom & coat what was left of your stock of watercolor paper (I’m out now, hello Jerry’s!). Then you hop on your bike even though your legs are sore & you’re filthy and itchy from your morning run, and ride down to the place where you saw all the wildflowers. I came back home with a small box of treasures that kept me busy for a good 2 hours, using the sun to make new work.

It has been a gorgeous, long wildflower season here in Texas. It’s something we pride ourselves on, but we don’t always get it if the fall rains don’t just about annihilate us with flash floods. I’ve never really honored them with cyanotypes before, so I guess it was high time.

The hot sun helped me preserve their shadows forever on paper, in a bed of blue. Shadows, with the memory of them blowing in the wind in the field by the reservoir, like the memory of so many beautiful late May days.

Happy creating, friends! Hope your own inspiration hotline starts ringing off the hook.