Sunday, August 28, 2022

What's Left, Part One

A recurring theme in my photography the past twenty years has been places either discarded or that have been subsumed by nature’s wrath. Today’s story looks back at a few images from two decades of photographs that depict the blighted and beaten remains of man’s failed attempts to tame an unforgiving land.  Wilting heat and the worst drought in 1,200 years have turned rivers to trickles, rushing streams are parched washes and shriveled lakes reveal the carcasses of mob hits in steel drums. Many a desert settlement has returned to the wind and sand. Fecund oases like the Owens Valley in California have become alkaline dust bowls thanks to greed, corruption, and willful ignorance. The major landholders in the valley sold their water twice to slake the rapacious thirst of The City of Angels and Owens Lake became a desert.

Good Luck

Malone Street, Keeler, California

As the road flattened 15 miles shy of Lone Pine, I saw a sign to a place called Keeler. Being a curious soul who’s easily distracted turned left and entered what’s left of the town sitting on the eastern shore of what once was Owens Lake. Little did I know that a single image from that detour to Keeler, Good Luck, would inform my photography from that moment forward.

Good Luck, the trailer that no longer stands, pointed me toward an evolving portfolio of photographs that memorialize what once was and is no more. I have variously called the series, At the Edge of What’s Left or The Edge of What’s Left or its abbreviated cousins What’s Left or The Edge. I still prefer the wordy but descriptive At the Edge of What’s Left.

There are common themes in these blighted yet beautiful places. Sometimes the mine petered out. Other times the railroad stopped stopping. Or the water source dried up and the town with it. The Interstate Highway bypassed the place, and it became a footnote. Or trying to inhabit the location in the first place was a fool’s errand come to naught. Every one of these fading places has a story of when and why it's gone. Many of these stories are well chronicled while others have no recorded history, and we are left to write one from our imaginings. Often the bounty upon which the economy of the town was dependent disappeared or become too expensive to extract. It’s the depletion of that resource, say silver or gold, that precipitated the collapse.

Denver City Mine, Leadville

Remains of the Denver City Mine fire

That’s the case in Leadville, Colorado. In Leadville the Gold Rush lasted from 1860 to 1866. Silver was discovered and the boom lasted till 1894. It was the most expensive real estate in the world in 1879. But when the US Treasury stopped supporting the Silver Certificate in 1894 and silver fell to at 60 cents an ounce the town went belly up. What’s left is tourist town built on the bones of its handsome historic downtown.

It can be said that mining, water, and the railroad built the West. New Mexico is crosshatched by 2,000 miles of railroad tracks. Though it feels like much more since it seems that every village in the dusty reaches of the state sits alongside a track. Small towns sprung up to build the rail lines and to maintain them. With little else to provide employment these towns with few other means of employment withered and died. Encino, New Mexico such a place.

No more services, Encino, NM

Terminus or the end of the line, Encino

Encino’s location traces back to a spring that was a welcome oasis for travelers. A post office, two churches and a general store followed. In 1905 the Burlington Northern Railroad announced that it was building a depot in Encino. It was a magnet for homesteaders and speculators ready to ride Encino’s wave of prosperity. Two newspapers were established in 1910 and 1920. Both quickly failed. Encino’s railroad depot closed in 1965 and that spelled the end of Encino. Its high school closed its doors in 1982. It's a too common story on the plains of Central New Mexico.

This an edited portion of my September-October article What's Left for Shadow and Light magazine. At this hot minute I expect there will be two more posts along these lines. Then again things change. Who knows?

Sunday, August 21, 2022

Local Knowledge

San Antonio Church, Angel Fire

San Antonio Church

David Michael Kennedy at the church

David Michael Kennedy is one of my photography heroes so when he suggested a photo tour I was honored, excited and not a little daunted. Why would a Master hit the road with a journeyman I wondered. A few months back he told me, “I’d like to head north with you. Let’s see what mischief we can make” or words to that effect. What mischief, indeed, can an old hippy (his description of himself) and an octogenarian manage? He asked if I liked mushrooms. I replied that,” I love them sautéed in olive oil with chopped garlic or better yet in risotto with fresh herbs.”

Used Dodge, Elizabeth Town

David at the Elizabeth Town Cemetery

Then at last Friday he called and asked if I’d like to do a photo excursion around Taos next week. I answered, “Sure. I can do it any day. He responded, “ How about Monday?” And Monday it was.

Ruins on Upper Lama Road

Looking through Lama ruins

Inside Out, Lama

David in Lama

He arrived at 9:30am. I made him a cup of coffee and gave him a tour of our art filled walls. He told me he wanted to drive so he would be able to remember how to get to the remote locations on my go-to list. Turns out he had booked a photo tour in September. His repeat clients wanted to visit Taos and environs on of their days and he wanted to put together an itinerary. “Besides, I’ve got Cody with me.” Cody is his six-year-old Lab. A more devoted companion you will not meet. He only had eyes for David. He didn’t even know I was there.

Since I was to be the tour guide, I had a loop in mind. We would drive US 64 east from Taos to Angel Fire, photograph San Antonio Church a little east of the village. We'd return to 64 and proceed north to Eagle Nest. Along the way there are some abandoned buildings and a shuttered resort on the north shore of Eagle Nest Lake. From there we’d drive to Elizabeth Town. We’d continue on the Enchanted Circle through Red River, the westernmost town in all of Texas. Not really. It just feels that way. We’d grab a bite and continue west to Cuesta, nothing to see there. Then we'd turn south on NM 522 toward Taos where we’d photograph in the rural villages of Lama and San Cristobal.

Not every site was a knockout, but there was something worthwhile in each. San Antonio Church was a hit. The ruins on US 64 between Angel Fire and Eagle Nest were worth a stop. Elizabeth Town, one of my favorites, was disappointing. There were fences and no trespassing signs everywhere. The lovely little cemetery had gone to seed. The abandoned resort on the lake was locked up like Fort Knox. David photographed the Texas owner's contact information and pledged make contact and gain permission to enter the site. He'd attempt the same in Elizabeth Town. 

At the top of Upper Lama Road in Lama were a cluster of ruins that I've photographed many times. We had the run of all the houses even their interiors. David was in his element as was I. We're both drawn to the forgotten and forlorn.

Strewn throughout this post are selections of my efforts at San Antonio Church. Elizabeth Town and the ruins in Lama. Some are candids of my traveling companion, one David Michael Kennedy.

The dude likes the camera, and the camera returns the favor.

Sunday, August 14, 2022

Three Stacks and a Rock

Three stacks in the fog

The volcanic plug called Morro Rock

I first visited Morro Bay in 1958 with my mother and returned as recently as 2016. Then as now the features that tourists come to see are the enormous volcanic plug,
Morro Rock, and the 485 foot smokestacks of the powerplant that closed in 2014. Some may see the stacks as industrial blight. Not me. As you well know I’m addicted to man’s footprint in the landscape, especially if it has been abandoned and left to the elements. That’s case with the shuttered plant which is now an asbestos and guano ridden shell of its former self. To residents the stacks are a proud symbol of the Morro Bay’s working-class roots. They will be demolished by 2024 and many in the town are not amused.

Morro Bay Power Plant

Three stacks

Morro Rock

In their glory days fishermen used the stacks like lighthouse beacons to guide them home from the sea. Local surfers paddled out knowing that the plant’s outflow would warm the waves. Shop owners still sell T-shirts, coffee mugs and paintings bearing their image. A brewery is named Three Stacks and A Rock. A bistro is dubbed STAX. The town’s nickname after all is Three Stacks and a Rock. The smokestacks are a major part of the town’s identity. 

But times change. The planet warms at an alarming pace and soon the stacks will disappear from Morro Bay’s skyline. The plant became a relic when California started moving to renewable energy. And many in the town, especially merchants, are heartbroken. In a recent LA Times article commercial fisherman Bud Hurless laments, “Everyone comes to Morro Bay to see Three Stacks and a Rock.” It won't be the same without them.

The fate of the Morro Bay power plant represents the evolution of energy in the Golden State. Built by Pacific Gas and Electric in the 1950s, the plant first operated on oil. Then it transitioned to natural gas before shutting down six years ago. Now, Vistra Corp., a Texas energy company that owns the site, is proposing to build one of the world’s largest lithium-ion battery storage facilities on the plant’s 22 acres. I don’t know if that’s good or bad. I just know it won’t have smokestacks.

Sunday, August 07, 2022

Quick Studies

I’ve reported at least ten times over the past several years on encounters I’ve had with complete strangers that resulted in learning their life stories. I have made the case that if you’re a good listener you’ll be told the high and low points of a long life inside fifteen minutes. Nothing touches me more than making that kind of connection. It’s pure serendipity and pure magic.

It has dawned on me that a guy could make these encounters his life’s work. I may not make that commitment, but I will travel near and wide to find more life affirming engagements like the one with James Iso eight years ago at the Heart Mountain Internment Camp in Powell, Wyoming. He had been imprisoned there as a teenager before "volunteering" to serve in the Army.

I’ll lead with Iso because I have my notes from 2014 at Heart Mountain handy. This is a lightly edited version of my original post. I’ll follow with photographs and snippets about others I've met on the road to oblivion. Each has been the subject of a much longer blog post and I have a eleven of these chance meetings so far. Since it's clear that I won't be writing the novel you're not expecting but maybe I can corral enough strangers on the highway of life to fill a 2 inch binder.

“I overheard last night at dinner that you served in World War Two Korea and Viet Nam. Is that even possible?" I asked Iso.

He replied, “Yes, not always in uniform but always in the military.” That was a cryptic but most intriguing. Channel your inner Graham Green if you please.

James Iso at the Heart Mountain Reunion

James Iso was a spook. He boasted, “ You know we shortened the war by two years. Everybody knows about 442nd Regimental Combat Team but they've never heard of us." he mused wistfully. "We translated Japanese communications, broke their codes, and planted misinformation. In one case our forces won a major battle when the Japanese commander acted on the bogus intelligence we created.” His service cap reads Military Intelligence Service. I've got a thousand words about the man and we were together for fifteen minutes tops. Fifty like that with portraits is a book done the easy way.

Mr. Iso was bright eyed, engaged, smart and charming. He moved like a young man and wore his suit with aplomb. I asked him how old he was. He said, “Guess?” The numbers added up to old, so I demurred.

He replied with a measure of pride, “I’m ninety.”

Amy French at the Watchtower

When I photographed Amy French at the Watchtower at Desert View on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, Her first words were. “I’m a breast cancer survivor. I just finished chemo. That's the reason my hair's so short" Strangers lead with the headline it seems to me.

Clarence Vigil in Cundiyo

Clarence Vigil whom I met in the village of Cundiyo, NM said that he refused to join Army during Viet Nam and spent a year in prison in Safford, AZ. “It wasn’t that bad.” he told me. Then he became a wilderness firefighter, a Jehovah’s Witness and one of the happiest people I've ever met. He gave me a dozen eggs and told me, "I can tell you're a nice guy." 
So are you, Clarence.

Rudy Mauldin on the range

Rudy Mauldin was the manager of big ranch near Cline’s Corner, NM.  I met him on US 285 just outside the outfit. He asked "You want to take a closer look?" I answered "Yes" of course. So I followed him through the gate to the ranch. He was bringing hay to the cattle. Rudy is a life long cowboy who had been an detective for the BLM where he investigated the theft of Native American artifacts in the Four Corners. He gave me the name of a book about one of his capers. He told me he’s gone to high school on the Pojoaque Reservation. “Because I was an Anglo, I got my ass kicked on a regular basis.”

Luis Ocejo, proud Viet Nam veteran

I met Luis Ocejo after services at the Catholic church in remote Llano San Juan. I was photographing with John Farnsworth and Steve Bundy. Luis was a pugnacious soul who told us. “You don’t want to mess with a Viet Nam vet.” Nam was still top of mind with Luis and clearly the most important event in his life.

Ken Tingsley in Hondo

When Ken Tingsley saw me photographing the Arroyo Hondo rim north of Taos he hollered, “Take my picture. I’m getting married today." I photographed him on rim and at his trailer. He poured himself two fingers of whisky, lit a cigarette and said, “This tee shirt was my son’s. He died.” He pointed to the shrine to his son in his trailer. In the center was a framed photograph of the Ken and his son taken years before. His so was wearing the venerable tie died shirt.

Master Sargent John Bustos at Heart Mountain

I photographed retired Master Sargent John Bustos at Heart Mountain the morning before I photographed James Iso. Bustos was a Viet Nam vet like Iso and Ocejo. Nam had been the most important thing in life, too. As the senior enlisted man in the Cody area he was commanding the color guard in a noon parade honoring the internees of the Heart Mountain Internment Camp. At 72 he looked like he could still deploy to a war zone. He was an imposing specimen and looked like he could still bench press 400 pounds like he did in fifty years ago. John Bustos was also to the right of Atilla the hun.

“See this rifle?” he asked. “I’m saving one round for Obama.”