For about 8 years there was a giant enlarger taking up a lot of real estate in my darkroom. It was an 8x10 Durst Laborator model L-184. They are made in Italy and are the Ferrari of enlargers, but in all the years I’ve had it I only made prints on it once so I could see how it worked. It worked wonderfully by the way. A month or so ago I decided to let it go to someone who’s been lusting after it for a while – Steve Watkins in Fort Worth, TX. As part of the arrangement I was to deliver the 350-pound beast, which made it a perfect opportunity for a photo road trip. A workshop for three people was also arranged, to be hosted by Lone Star Darkroom in Dallas. Lone Start darkroom offers rental space for people to print their own images, custom printing, classes and more - check them out if you're in FWD area.
From San Diego to Fort Worth and back is a long drive and with only a week to do it in and . Here’s an action shot of the enlarger as it was entangled in the web of long-haul delivery and ready for the journey.
On the way there, a friend of mine offered to stay the night with his family in Tucson and, in order to get there at a decent time for visitors, I didn’t stop to make plates. Head of the household I stayed in though, Tio, is really worth mentioning. He is 93 years old and all of his life resided in Tucson area. He’s sharp as a tack and is a living repository of local history, which should really be recorded in hours of interviews, but I didn’t have time for it. In the morning, I went to Mission San Xavier Del Bac – a functioning catholic church built in late 18th century.
Driving on eastward, I couldn’t help stopping when I saw the boulder-studded hills of Texas Canyon, near the town on Dragoon. Just by taking the exit and parking within 100ft I got the following plates, so it’s definitely a spot to come back to.
Still having a long road ahead, I drove on and on… Between El Paso, which passed sometime in the night, and Fort Worth there’s pretty much nothing. I’d like to explore than nothingness in more detail, but I had to push on and only stopped late next morning, when I saw an inconspicuous exit by a small town of Westbrook, Texas. Right at the entrance to town I was greeted by the following scenes.
After that I went straight to Fort Worth to finally meet Steve in person. After some years of online correspondence, he definitely lived up to expectations and more. He works in IT, fixing problems for larger companies that I only pretended to understand when he went into any detail, but loves vintage cameras and photography and is an excellent large format photographer. His family were fantastic hosts as well and there were always bagels waiting on the counter. I also got to meet Steve’s friend Pete, a great character and long-time photographer as well with many fascinating stories to tell. With Pete’s help we wrestled the enlarger into Steve’s darkroom and set it up It actually fit better than any of us imagined and so here is a shot of it in a place where it’s hoping to get more use than it has seen in at least 25 years.
Saturday morning, Pete took me to an abandoned incinerator to make some plates. Steve’s son and his girlfriend also came along. The incinerator was burning waste from 20+ years before closing in mid 1980s and by now it lay thoroughly abandoned and layered with graffiti and is a great subject. Pete, by the way, possesses a very special gift of which Steve informed me on prior occasions – Pete is basically a human equivalent of a light meter. Below you will see a plate with a shaft of light coming from an opening in the ceiling. When making it I had to resort to using a spot meter and, to test Pete’s ability, asked him for readings in various spots long that wall by the ladder. Without ever having worked with collodion, but knowing that I’m thinking of ISO 0.5, Pete called out exposures within half a stop of a Seconic L-508.
As a side note. To get to the incinerator we had to put my box with all the chemicals on a dolly, and roll it down a dirt road, lift over some railroad tracks and through a well-established hole in the fence. Here’s an action shot I took while rolling it all back and with freshly-shot plates drying on top. It was during this return trip that my tank with fixer apparently became opened and when we returned to the car I found a puddle at the bottom of the box. From this point on I had to use rapid fixer instead of my usual potassium cyanide, which made for a lot longer washing times, but didn’t seem to affect tone or brightness of the plates at all.
Saturday evening Steve took me to Cabella’s – a Texas-style sprawling store dedicated
hunting and other such outdoor activities. It is a sight to behold. Here’s one quick picture. Yes, those are all real taxidermy, this but a 1/20th of what was there, if that…
On Sunday, the workshop at Lone Star Darkroom went off without a hitch. Incredibly, none of the students had trouble with pouring collodion or developer and so plates were nice and clean. The only factor that really messed with us were the fast-moving thick clouds that varied UV in the air considerably. Still, the plates were all a lot better than what I did at my first workshop.
Sunday evenings on KTCU-88.7, a Fort Worth radio station, there’s a show called Superfluous Sundays. That show, which is a lively mix of excellent music and sharp commentary segments, happens to be narrated by Steve, Pete and the sound man Tom. That evening I was invited to be a guest there and thought to myself, how funny would it be to make a plate live while on air? Steve agreed that radio seemed like a perfectly logical communication medium for the art of photography and thus it was set – a tintype will be made. I dragged in some Photogenic lights, which I brought in case there was rain during the workshop, and set my dark box right on the table in front of Tom’s sound board. I must say, I’ve never felt more under pressure not to spill anything…
From my understanding radio studios are usually compact and this one was no surprise in that regard. Positioning lights not to be in the shot and camera so it doesn’t fall onto Tom’s board was a great puzzle. Nailing the focus though was the really fun part – I used a 90mm Nikkor-SW, the widest lens I had with me. It happens to be f4.5 and that is fast enough for the amount of flash power I had with me. I wanted Tom to trigger the shutter and lights with a cable, and I also wanted that cable in focus along with the faces of all three hosts. In the end, I think it worked out pretty well all around for the slight exception of Pete, seen peeking from behind my dark box, who came out a little underexposed and about six inches out of focal plane. Seeing how absurd the concept is, I doubt it’s been done before, thus I do believe this to be the first tintype ever to be made while live on the radio.
I'm hoping to get the recording from the wonderful folks at KTCU and if that happens I'll update this post by inserting it here.
Monday morning it was time to headed back west toward California. For some reason, I wanted to make some plates in El Paso. That city, long with Rio Grande by it, hold a special place in American history and folklore. When I got there, I was greeted by the reality that much of the US bank of Rio Grande, which there separates Mexico from US, was walled off in the manner that our current president wishes to see the entire border be – rather high solid mesh fence, photography through or over which was impossible.
Driving back and forth along this border I came upon an abandoned historic site – Fort Bliss officers housing buildings that sat right on the riverbank. Sometime in the past it served as private housing for ordinary citizens, but it looks like it’s been a while since that phase ended and now the buildings are vacant with an air of importance still lingering around them.
As you can see, the first plate above has a very ugly blueish mark on top and right edges. The second one has a similar, but smaller mark in top right corner. That is there because my collodion was getting to be too thick – after so many plates have been poured back and forth, ether and alcohol have evaporated enough to make it more jelly-like than it should be. On the second plate above I adjusted my pouring technique, but even that didn’t get rid of the mark completely, so I spent the next hour or so hunting down some 95% Everclear. I had about 90ml of collodion left and added about 20-25ml of alcohol to it. That brought back correct consistency and from then on plates started to look a lot better.
I don’t remember how far I drove after El Paso and into New Mexico, but there I chose a random exit and found this right by it.
Farther out west I noticed this abandoned hotel and just before the sun set made this plate.
Next day I stopped at the Painted Rock site, just west of the town of Gila Bend. The site has some great petroglyphs and is a lot more known than the site I went to a few weeks before (detailed in the New Years Desert Trip post below). One of the interesting things there is that settlers started to leave their own marks long before the words like graffiti and vandalism were a part of daily vocabulary, and so there’s rather well-done signatures with dates like 1809, 1873 and so on. I tried my very best to make a plate of the 1873 date, but to no avail. I think my box needs a little attention in the light-proofing area – it’s perfectly fine when I’m in the shade, but if I’m set up at just the wrong angle in full sun I think it’s letting in a little light. Due to the way that parking lot is configured and the way the wind was blowing I could not re-setup the box in any shade and so I have no plates to show you despite dashing 200ft or so back and forth between the rock and bark box three times. Instead of a plate here’s a quick snapshot of the mound where most of the glyphs are found with some tourists, of which there were plenty, around. There’s also a shot that a photographer by the name of Michael Rausch, who happened to have been there, snapped as I was scurrying from the box to the scene during one of my feeble attempts at securing a plate...
Frustrated I drove and drove until I noticed the shrubs by the highway sway a lot less from the wind and then stopped by the small outcrop of mountains just east of Yuma. I again didn’t venture too far off the exit – being parked within a stone’s throw from the road I was able to make the following compositions.
The last plate above is what I thought to have been my very last plate left on the trip. I was very happy that it came out as well as it did (and in real life it’s a lot better than on your screen). However, Steve wrote and reminded me that I still had a glass plate with me and so right before sunset I pulled over again and found this composition on the eastern outskirts of Yuma. It’s a ¼ plate and is the only ambrotype (actually on green glass) I made on the trip, all the rest were tintypes.
Being back in San Diego for a while I can now concentrate a bit on putting the final finishing touches on the studio and catching up on other fronts, but of course I can’t wait to hit the road again and when I do there will be another post about it, you better believe it.