The Texas Church Project

Recently, I attended a choir concert, where one of the pieces was a setting of the poem: “The Old Church”, by Della B. Vik.  The poem is from a book of poetry about South Dakota published by Vik in 1959.  An excerpt:

And every Sabbath morning we are still
Returning to the altar waiting there.
A hush, a prayer, a pause, and voices fill
The Master’s House with a triumphant air.

The old church leans awry and looks quite odd,
But it is beautiful to us, and God.

I immediately thought of some of the little, almost forgotten Texas churches photographed by me and four other photographers.  In 2004, my friend and fellow photographer Mike Castles bought a one hundred year old camera with the idea of photographing one hundred year old churches.  Mike shared his idea with photographer Lee Carmichael.  Both had already been photographing old churches.

Lee Carmichael

Lee_Carmichael_05

Mike and Lee asked three others to join the effort: me, Matt Magruder and Jeremy Moore.  This was the idea that spawned a collaborative documentary endeavor called the Texas Church Project: photographs of old, historic Texas churches made with black and white film.  By early 2006, we were serious, and soon had a mission statement, a website, and business cards.  The mission statement said, in part, that we were “combining interests in art, architecture, history, preservation, and traditional photography”.

Jeremy Moore

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L to R: David Brown, Matt Magruder. Mike Castles. Lee Carmichael. and Jeremy Moore (kneeling)

 

We were often asked if it was a religious project.  No.  We may have felt an affinity for these places, but not really out of religious devotion.  The British writer Simon Jenkins said that (to him) “a church is not a place of revealed truth but rather a shrine of impenetrable mystery, symbol of humanity’s everlasting quest for explanation.”

Nostalgia likely played a part in the form of a desire for a connection to the past; a connection to the souls of the people that settled Texas.  Into these churches, these early Texans poured their faith, joy, sorrow, labor and love.  Great cathedrals may speak the history of the rich and powerful, but the local parish tells of the common man.  These churches are where ordinary people married, baptized their children, sought refuge and council, and said final goodbyes to family members and friends.

Matt Magruder

manorchurch717_pd

 

Artist collaborations are difficult at best.  While we had our fair share of success, the project ended after only three years.  We first exhibited in May of 2007 and that same month appeared in a segment of the TV show: Texas Country Reporter (which can still be viewed on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QrrDMvDKEgA )

Sometime along the way, Jeremy had to drop out as he was a full time graduate student and had a job.  Lee had started to photograph less and less.  Mike, Matt and I carried on, and had two more exhibitions in early 2009.

TCPUNT

Each of us, whether the group of five or just the three, had different motivations for the work, and different approaches to it.  We were often asked how we managed to collaborate, and our usual, perhaps snarky, answer was that everything was a compromise, since we didn’t agree on anything.  By the time we hung the second 2009 exhibition, the project was taking a big toll on the three of us, especially in time and money.  We called it quits for the “time being”, but it has never gotten going again.

Yet, it produced a fair body of work.  We had certain criteria for the types of churches we were interested in, and had compiled a list of well over two hundred, which was by no means complete.  We did, though, actually visit and photograph more than half of the list!

Mike Castles

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The five of us became friends.  Lee Carmichael, sadly, was already slowing down due to health issues we couldn’t see at the time.  He died in 2012 and I miss him a lot, even having known him for only seven years.

I was asked recently if I wanted to photograph more churches.  As recently as a year ago I would have told anyone that if I never photographed a church again, that would be fine.  One must be careful in saying such things, though.  My current project involves church buildings, but in a much different way.  I am documenting historic pipe organs in North and East Texas using color and digital.  The fact that they are located inside churches is merely a coincidence.

Aside from the pipe organs, would I photograph churches again?  Maybe.  Probably not.  If I did, my current thinking is that I would also do it in color (and digital), rather than black and white, just like the organ project.

The choir piece reminded me that it has been six years since the church project ended – twice the length of the project itself.  Not sadness, or regret, but thankfulness for the period of sharing the creation of art with good friends and fellow artists.

More images from the two projects are on my website: www.silverdarkroom.net

My darkrooms, Part 5 of 6 – The first truly permanent space at home

I have been doing my own darkroom work since high school and I am now retired.  I started in my parents’ house bathroom.  After college graduation and the first job, I moved into a rent house that had a darkroom, and then I built one in another rent house, one for an employer, and two in houses that I’ve owned.

Shortly after leaving the security company (See: Part 4 of 6), my new job required a transfer to another city.  The house we bought had no good place for a darkroom.  However, I was traveling a lot and really didn’t give it much thought.  I did set up in the laundry room once, but there was a window and two doors (one with glass) to deal with.  Plus, there was barely room.

The house also had no place for my wife, a painter, to work.  She needed studio space.  We looked at a number of options, including adding on to the existing house and even purchasing a very small, older house in a nearby run-down neighborhood.  The option that won was to build a separate building on the back of our residential lot.  She got a studio, and I got a darkroom.  We called the building the “Art Dept.”.

The new building was 16 x 24, and two story.  The upper floor was hers, and the lower floor was mine.  I had the option to partition off as much of the lower floor as needed for the darkroom.  For some reason that surely must have seemed good at the time, I built the darkroom at 7 x 10 feet.  The darkroom I had left at my previous job was really not functionally any bigger, since it was all on one side.  This seemed to me to give 18-20 feet of linear work area, which was larger than what I had had at the company.

I partitioned off a corner of the lower floor.  In hindsight, I should have extended the partition all of the way across the short end of the building so that the darkroom was 7 x 15 (“nominal 16”), rather than 7 x 10.

My splurge purchase for this darkroom was an 8 foot sink.  This became the wet side, with a small table to hold the print washer just to the side of the sink.  On the dry side, an old 9 foot door – salvaged off of a neighbor’s trash pile – was repurposed as a counter top over a couple of cheap melamine cabinets.

Heat and AC was supplied by the central system for the building.  Plumbing was run from the main house.  Initially, I was still using the Chromega B I had bought for that first rent house darkroom, but another photographer let me have an old, well-worn but serviceable Omega D5 for not much money.  I made all my exhibition prints for the Texas Church Project and printed my 2006 and 2008 portfolios in this darkroom. ( http://silverdarkroom.net/?page_id=188 )

DR Vinewood back DR VW blog

My darkrooms, Part 4 of 6 – on the job

I have been doing my own darkroom work since high school and I am now retired.  I started in my parents’ house bathroom.  After college graduation and the first job, I moved into a rent house that had a darkroom, and then I built one in another rent house, one for an employer, and two in houses that I’ve owned.

For several years, I worked for a security company that had a large number of alarm and surveillance systems in banks.  There were (as I recall) 95 locations, with usually 2, but sometimes up to 5 cameras each: several hundred cameras.  Videotape surveillance cameras were just getting started and this was, of course, way before anything digital.  Most of the cameras used 100 foot rolls of 35mm film.  There were a handful of older 16mm cameras.  We bought 100 foot rolls of Kodak Tri-X by the case.  Hard to believe now, but in the 1980s, there was a wholesale photo supplier in San Antonio, Texas that had the bulk Tri-X in stock.  We never had to back order.

When I went to work for the company, they were having the film processed at a local commercial lab that had a machine for processing motion picture film and could handle the full rolls.  This was getting expensive, and it created a problem when there was an actual incident at a bank, since there were chain of custody issues with taking the film to this lab.

I wrote up a proposal to build a darkroom for the office and do the work in house.  In order to have management go for it, I did it on the cheap.  No automated equipment, I would process the film by hand with standard reels and tanks.

For space, we used an odd space that was available, but, was able to be plumbed.  The darkroom was 5 feet wide and about 16 feet long.  I had one long kitchen counter-top, with a standard single bowl kitchen sink in the middle – separating the wet and dry ends.  But, I had separately switched safelight fixtures, plenty of electrical outlets and central air and heat from the building.  I also had a lock on the door, and no one – I mean no one – was allowed to enter the room when the red indicator light outside was on.  It was better than a private office!

DR SS

I equipped the lab with a Phillips medium format enlarger, Ganz Speed-Ezels, Gralab timers, safelights, and all the tanks, trays and reels, etc. I needed.  Chemicals were kept simple: Dektol and D76, plus Acufine for when low lighting conditions required push processing of the Tri-X to ASA 1000 (Another advantage over the commercial processor.)  5×7 paper (grade 2) was stocked in the 500 count boxes.  Test shots were printed 5×7.  Only “incident” pictures were enlarged to 8×10.

The vast majority of my time was spent traveling around to the 95 locations and maintaining the cameras and replacing film.  In the darkroom, I re-loaded the camera film magazines, and processed periodic test shots taken from all of the cameras.  Only occasionally was there an “incident”, either a teller had deliberately taken a picture of a suspicious customer, or even more rare, an actual robbery.

This is the only image I saved from that job.  (Sorry that it’s not a better print.  I’m sure it is a reject print, which is why I managed to keep hold of it.)  It is full of cliche’, but is an actual armed robbery.  The robber is wearing a hat, sunglasses, and a fake mustache.  The gun is very real.  He also had a bag for the loot!

robbery

 

He jumped over the counter and filled the bag himself. And, he jumped over the taller part of the counter.  One thing I learned from working robberies and talking to the FBI agents: people who rob banks – contrary to movies and myths – are not geniuses!

Notice the teller on the floor in the lower right.

When a robbery occurred, I and/or a supervisor had to go to the scene, remove the film and take it back to the darkroom to process and print.  All of this had to be accompanied by an FBI agent for the chain of custody.  The agent would go into the darkroom and have to stay the whole time.  When loading the film, the lights had to be turned off, of course.  I always told the agent to “watch carefully” and then flipped the switch off.  None of them ever laughed, but most did remove their mirrored sunglasses.

Let Us Now Praise Crappy Cameras

Holgas, Dianas, and old Kodak Brownies are all the rage.  Outdated film, with its unpredictable results, is popular too.

Check out this link to a national contest:

http://hyperallergic.com/179872/let-us-now-praise-crappy-cameras/

For those of us who have spent most of our photographic lives pursuing the best technical quality that we could achieve, this current phenomenon puzzles us a bit.  On the one hand, we are thrilled that artists and young hipsters (whatever they are) are using roll film; but on the other hand, we wonder at the embrace of poor exposures, fuzzy lenses and light leaks.

I’ve gotten over it, but let me just say up front that I still have little interest in doing this myself.  It’s just not my style.  However, a photographer that I greatly admire uses these cameras.  So, who am I to judge?

Like many art movements, it may just be a reaction to the status quo.  Anybody can take a sharp, well-exposed picture with a relatively inexpensive digital point-and-shoot camera, or, of course, a phone!

Artist photographers are using simple, cheap cameras to illustrate that it is the photographer, not the camera, that makes the photograph.  Fair enough.  Younger people, who are not consciously thinking of themselves as artists have dived deep into the “lomography” thing for various reasons.  Nostalgia may be one.  Yes, one can use Instagram or other software to make digital captures look like old film photos, but why not just do it right (wrong?) at the start?  The right tool for the job, as it were.

Ecomonics is not what drives this.  Holgas and Dianas are surprisingly expensive.  And for the price of a plastic Brownie from the 50s or 60s, one can buy a decent 35mm film camera.

It’s a “thing”.  I sort of get it, but don’t need it.

In 1968, during Hemisfair ’68 in San Antonio, I rode the elevator to the top of the Tower of the Americas and held my Brownie Starflash, loaded with Kodak Verichrome Pan 127 film, over the side and took this picture:

tower small

 

Oh, who knows?  Although the aforementioned Starflash has sadly been lost over time, I have a small collection of these old bakelite cameras.  Maybe I’ll re-roll some 120 film onto 620 spools and try one out.

My darkrooms, Part 3 of 6 – the other rent house

I have been doing my own darkroom work since high school and I am now retired.  I started in my parents’ house bathroom.  After college graduation and the first job, I moved into a rent house that had a darkroom, and then I built one in another rent house, one for an employer, and two in houses that I’ve owned.

Shortly after getting married, we moved into a rent house that had a storage shed built off of the carport.  Not having that much to store, it was destined to become a darkroom.

I built work surfaces out of cheap particle board and two-by-fours, but then went to the trouble of putting multiple coats of polyurethane on them to make them waterproof.  For a sink, I bought one of those plastic utility laundry sinks.  Plumbing was supplied by a garden hose from the outside and a drain that emptied onto the grass in the yard.  Not ideal, but it was the only solution.

Once again, a second hand window AC unit came into play.  The shed had two doors, so I framed one up as a wall, with the AC unit installed in the wall.  Almost everything was made to be reversible so that when we moved out, there would be no problems.  I even reinstalled the second door.  However, the shed was much cleaner when we left, and now had nice paneling on the walls, so the landlady complemented us on “improving” the storage shed.

No pictures of this darkroom exist. It was not used much, since almost immediately after being completed, I was asked to design a darkroom for my employer, and became a darkroom technician for the company.  I spent so much time in the company darkroom, that the home one hardly ever got used.  We also bought our own house after a couple of years.  The new house never had a darkroom, since I had one “at work”.

Part 4 will discuss the company darkroom.