The photo vault: ghost town photos

May 21, 2012 Published by . Leave your thoughts
Orval “Hoppy” Ray, 2006

About 6 years ago a friend and I took a random road trip to Tulsa, Oklahoma to hunt for ghost towns.  It sounds like a weird idea now and it was probably a weird idea then.  We had the notion that we would take hundreds of amazingly brilliant photos of Old West style storefronts, boarded up and with tumble weeds blowing past, and maybe even abandoned wagons and buggies or anything that looked like we might have stumbled on the set of “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman.”

Instead, we found something we weren’t expecting to find: people.  We met several people still living in what the rest of the country titled “ghost towns;” towns with no post office, any open businesses to speak of, barely any public works departments, street lights, police and fire departments or any of the other things that put a cluster of buildings on a map.  Most of these towns had been boom towns of some kind- they had struck oil or zinc or some other resource, became a quick town years ago, then the population either slowly or abruptly receded when the business left the town.

The town that fascinated us both the most was Picher, Oklahoma, just against the border to Kansas.  Picher became an instantaneous town in WWI when a zinc mine opened and hundreds of thousands of people lived and worked there.  After the war and zinc was no longer needed in such quantities, the town’s population dwindled; but shot up again during WWII when the mine bustled again.  And then again, the population numbers dropped.

In the center of what used to be the heart of the town we found a storefront that was still open.  It was a pool hall/music venue/museum operated by a man named Orval “Hoppy” Ray.  Hoppy lived in Picher his whole life.  His father was a miner during WWI and he was a miner during WWII.  In one corner of the store amps and microphones were set up: every Monday some of the old timers got together and played country bluegrass music.  Hoppy complained that some old lady always came to sing and was so lousy she should probably stay home.

The rest of the store had several pool tables set up and some glass cases with mining tools, pieces of rock and ore, and tons of old photographs.  Hoppy had tacked photos all over the walls and had boxes and albums filled with photos that went back to about the time photography was invented, including large panoramas of group photos of town council members, schools, miners, and more.  He told us stories of the mine until the sun started to set, and a handful of locals came in to play pool while we talked, then joined us in looking through photos when Hoppy started to unroll long, sepia-toned panoramic shots of the first time the town was actually called a “city.”

Here’s where the story gets sad… Hoppy had terrible things to say about the Army Corps of Engineers.  He said that the mine under the town was unstable.  Huge sinkholes opened up regularly, chemicals and excess minerals had been leeching into the water supply for decades, causing illness.  The town was supposed to be an Army Corps Superfund site: where the federal government funds a massive cleanup and develops a plan to get the area back to tip-top shape.  But Hoppy claimed they were misusing the money and not making a difference.

Around the time we were there most of the residents had left but people like Hoppy who lived there since birth and wanted to see the town shine again were hanging in there as long as they could.  The town became divided: there were those who took the buy-out money the government offered to purchase their land and help them relocate so they can bulldoze the town, and those who wanted to stay put.  Apparently we had just missed an independent film crew who came through to make a movie about it.  It’s called The Creek Runs Red, and they got Hoppy to narrate it.  I saw it on PBS about a year later.

I only bring these photos from Picher out of the vault to look at them now because my traveling buddy, Josh, just sent me a link to this New York Times article today, which talks about Picher’s sister city, Treece, Kansas; and how both Treece and Picher were eventually bought out to be closed up forever.

Photos on a 52 year old camera

May 13, 2012 Published by . 3 Comments

I decided that as the weather warms up in (cold, blustery, wet, and windy) Chicago I should get out of the studio and take some fun snapshots around the town.  But after spending most of my days with a 21.1 megapixel two and a half pound digital SLR strapped around my neck this year, I kind of wanted to leave my usual camera behind this time.

Just like any good photographer… okay, let me rephrase that… Just like any unnecessarily nerdy photographer, I had about 8 or so vintage film cameras in my collection to choose from.  Should I take the 1960’s Nikon with pop-top, waist-level viewing?  Or what about the 1981 Chinon?  A lesser-known brand of its era but with some of the best optics and metering out there.

Then I remembered “Mr. Brown.”  Several years ago (okay, probably 7) a friend and I were doing some thrifting in a resale shop when I found “Mr. Brown” on a shelf wedged between some books and broken radios.  “Mr. Brown,” as I call it, is a Kodak Brownie Bulls-eye camera, manufactured between 1954 and 1960.  I bought it for $2 and haven’t gotten around to testing it out.  Until last weekend.

Jamming some film in “Mr. Brown” and testing it out remained on my to-do list for 7 years because it doesn’t eat normal 35mm film, or even normal medium-format 120 film for that matter.  Medium format 120 film is the proper size for the Brownie Bulls-eye, but it’s spooled on size 120 spools, and these cameras take 620 spools.  Which are no longer manufactured.

So where does someone go to find the proper food to feed a 52 year old camera?  A 113 year old camera shop.  I figured if anyone knew how to get a hold of 120 film on a 620 spool it would be Central Camera– the oldest camera shop in Chicago.  I’ve been going there for years, but since I packed up my darkroom (temporarily- some day, somehow, I will get it back…) I haven’t stepped through their doors in quite a while.

I asked if they had 120 film spooled on 620 rolls.
“There’s only one guy in the country who re-spools those things and sells them…” said the film guru behind the counter, “and we stock his stuff.” Of course they do.  Central Camera is awesome.  I kind of feel like I need to say that again.  Central Camera is awesome.

So last weekend “Mr. Brown” was fed his proper film food and took some of its first photos in probably decades.  Here are two of them- processed and printed by Central Camera (which is awesome).  I had them request that the lab return the extra 620 spool so I can experiment with my next adventure: re-spooling 120 film on the 620 spool myself so I can feed “Mr. Brown” regularly and do this again.


My neighbors are goofballs

May 3, 2012 Published by . Leave your thoughts

My neighbor’s Latin combo band, Street Sounds, needed some new group shots for press, artwork, and bookings; so the other evening we wandered to an empty lot and took some photos.

It was great to get out of the studio for a bit and trample through some weeds and a little light rain to earn a good photo.

The only difficulty was… well… the band.  I had them hold some instruments as props but about 15 seconds after they picked them up they started playing them.  In this shot to the right they had just started messing around and playing a bit of a song.

Then they wouldn’t stop.  And they wouldn’t look at the camera.  Did I mention it was raining a little?  So I had them drop their instruments for some shots without them- thinking that the instruments wouldn’t be there to distract them from the business of having their photograph taken.

They just goofed around with each other instead.