Saturday, March 18, 2023

Wandering the Fifth and Third Wards of Houston, Texas (TX 03)

This is the third of my irregular series on Houston and south Texas. 

The Wards were political subdivisions of the City ofHouston. The City officially abolished the Wards in 1915, but the terms remain to describe the approximate geographic districts of the city. People still say that they live or work in one of the wards.

Fifth Ward

The 5th ward was north and east of the city. It was formerly a working class district with laborers from the shipyards and the Houston Ship Canal. 

I had been photographing downtown and wandered into the 5th Ward sort of by accident. All of a sudden, I was in West Jackson again. I saw block after block of little wood shotgun shacks, some painted but many dirty, piles of trash, boxes, filth, and bedsteads on the curb, rows of grim brick subsidized housing, gutters/troughs full of ponded water, dangling wires, abandoned strip malls and corner stores with trash on the pavement, and some houses with big fences and "No Trespassing" emblazoned on big signs. The dudes were washing their bling cars with the protruding cones sticking out of the wheel hubs. How is this possible? Are we cursed forever with this economic/social blight, even in rich American cities? 

View of Houston business district to the southwest
West Street cottage near Tower 26 railroad junction
Brooks Street cottages

Several streets near the Tower 26 railroad junction had many abandoned houses. The backs faced the tracks. Maybe train traffic made them too noisy or dangerous.  

2023 Semmes Street, former school but used by a recycling company (probably defunct)
Restored shotgun houses, 2208 Semmes Street

Third Ward

Third Ward is southeast of downtown within the 610 loop. It is east of the Texas Medical Center and easily accessibly by bicycle on the Brays Bayou Greenway Trail. According to Wikipedia, "The ward became the center of Houston's African-American community. Third Ward is nicknamed "The Tre""

Homan Street near the Columbia Tap Rail Trail
Church of the Living God, 2509 Burkett Street
Cormorant mural, Delano Street

As you can see, Houston is full of interesting subject matter. Stand by for more examples.

I took these photographs on Kodak Gold 200 film using my early-1950s Kodak Retina IIa camera with its 50mm ƒ/2 Xenon lens. The Gold 200 is rather grainy and I may not use it again. I miss the gorgeous Gold 100 from the early 2000s. The Retina has an excellent coated lens and I have no issues with its optical quality. But I am having some trouble framing correctly through the rather squinty viewfinder. And the camera is a bit fiddly for my clumsy hands.

Saturday, March 11, 2023

Railroad Crossing at Tower 26, Houston, Texas (TX 02)

Houston from Tower 26,West Street, 5th ward (250mm ƒ/5.6 Hasselblad Sonnar lens, yellow-green filter)

Three railroad lines cross at a junction in northeast Houston called Tower 26. There is no tower there any more, but the name has lingered. It appears to be a popular spot for railroad photographers because it has public access via West Street, and serious freight trains thunder by on regular intervals. 

I had been looking for an interesting place to photograph railroads and drove to Tower 26 on December 17 of last year (2022). A fellow came up to me rather excited and asked if I was there to see the classic xxx rail cars. I was not quite sure what he was describing, but in a few minutes, the Polar Express trundled by, complete with restored classic passenger cars containing kids wearing their pajamas and at least one Santa Claus. OK, I had not expected that. What timing. 

Modified Polar Express rail car with picture window (80mm Planar-CB lens, no filter)
Polar Express en route back to Galveston
View east from Tower 26 junction (80mm Planar-CB lens)
Rail line junction, view east to downtown Houston (50mm ƒ/4 Distagon lens)

Tower 26 is northeast of the downtown in the district formerly known as the Fifth Ward. Some of it is pretty rough. I saw some abandoned cottages near the tracks of the type that remind me of west Jackson (Mississippi).

1510 West Street (med. yellow filter)
Facing the tracks, no address
Ready to move in, 2404 Brooks Street

Standby for more photographs in the Fifth Ward. 

I took these photographs on Kodak Panatomic-X film with my Hasselblad 501CM medium format camera. Praus Productions in Rochester developed the film. I scanned it on a Minolta Scan Multi film scanner using the Tri-X 400 6×6 profile. The Silverfast software does not have a Panatomic-X profile, but the Tri-X showed the right tonality.

My Hasselblad 501CM with 80mm ƒ/2.8 Planar-CB lens and correct hood

Saturday, March 4, 2023

Footloose in Houston in the early-1980s (TX 01)

Blog note

Dear Readers, this will be the start of a series on Houston and south Texas. I have hundreds of negatives from my previous life when I lived in Houston but will never have time to scan them all. Two months in Houston in late 2022 gave me a chance to explore the city again. There is so much to see!

I photographed in the Texas Panhandle in the past as part of my Route 66 project, at the Rio Grande border and Big Bend, and in Galveston. If interested, please type "Texas" in the search box. I will start numbering this new series to keep track of these SE Texas posts. Texas is endlessly fascinating. Enjoy the ride! 


In the early-1980s, I worked in the oil industry and lived in West University Place, a quiet enclave within Houston, Texas. Having moved from the suburbs of Boston, Massachusetts, Houston was a culture shock for us (more so than Athens, Seattle, Providence, and any number of other cities). Houston was a new, noisy, vibrant, flashy, and disorganized city, so different from staid and traditional 350-year-old Boston or 3000-year-old Athens. West University Place was perfect, an established neighborhood with mature trees and handsome mid-century cottages within walking distance to restaurants, stores, and Rice University.

Our comfortable little home in West University Place, still extant but different paint. It had genuine wood floors and plaster walls. (Kodachrome 25 slide)

Downtown Houston

When I was in town (meaning not offshore), I explored downtown and took pictures. Having a "real" job, I bought a Rolleiflex 3.5E camera and updated my 35mm equipment. I also took two full-semester photography classes at University of Houston from Dr. Suzanne Bloom. Here are a few examples from my early explorations.

The Houston skyline in 1980 from Glenwood Cemetery (Nikon 105mm ƒ/2.5 lens, Panatomic-X film)

Glenwood Cemetery is still a peaceful green relief from the highways and noise of the city. Today, many more skyscrapers fill the sky. I have taken a repeat picture from the same site, which I will show later. 

In 1982, downtown Houston still had the look of "old American city" with grungy discount shops, loan stores, old-line clothing shops, and mature companies dating back before WWII.

Main Street view north

Elegant professional ladies with Samsonite briefcases. Wearing stockings? 
Cheerful gents

Main Street was boisterous and busy during the day. But after about 6 pm, Houston rolled down the shutters and the inner city became quiet. Few people lived downtown then and office workers drove off to the suburbs. Today (2022), the downtown has apartments and restaurants, and the warehouse district just east of downtown is being redeveloped with very nice townhouses.

Abruptly, in typical Houston style, a furious rain storm engulfed us. What fun.

I took these 1982 photographs on Panatomic-X film with my Rollei 35S compact camera. I bought it in September of 1981 for $141 at Southwestern Camera, now long gone. Rollei had just gone through bankruptcy and reorganization, and Southwestern was selling off their stock of Rollei products. This little camera, with its excellent 40mm ƒ/2 Sonnar lens, served me well for many years, especially when I was traveling. I convinced two coworkers to also buy Rolleis. 

In 1982, you could still buy a brand new twin-lens reflex Rolleiflex 2.8F or 3.5F from the New York vendors. Why didn't I jump on the opportunity?

You will see more Houston photographs in the future. 

Rollei 35S with 40mm ƒ/2.8 Sonnar lens, body made in Singapore (from Wikipedia). It used an odd 30mm filter size.

Saturday, February 25, 2023

Vicksburg with a Hasselblad 100mm ƒ/3.5 CSi Lens and Fuji Pro 160 NS Film (Abandoned Films 10)

After successfully completing some medical treatments, I was overcome with a serious bout of GAS. That is Gear Acquisition Syndrome, although the other gas was also present. 

Hasselblad 501CM with 100mm ƒ/3.5 Planar CSi lens and correct hood

For over five years, I used an 80mm Planar lens on my Hasselblad. But sometimes I wanted just a bit more reach. With 35mm cameras, I liked the 55mm ƒ/1.8 Super-Takumar lens on the Pentax Spotmatic. This was just marginally longer than the more common 50mm. Hasselblad's 100mm Planar lens would provide a diagonal coverage on 6×6 approximately equal to 55mm on 35mm, so I started looking at online vendors in USA. Soon, this gorgeous 100mm ƒ/3.5 Planar CSi lens came in a big padded box from Camera West. This is a 6-element Planar design and is reputed to be the highest resolution Hasselblad lens for distant subjects.

On a foggy and drizzly day in January (my favorite light), I loaded a roll of Fuji Pro 160 NS film in the holder and headed out. This is a neutral color balanced film designed for wedding, fashion, and commercial product photography. Fuji did not distribute 160NS in the USA and discontinued it in the Japan market in October 2021.  

I posted these frames at 2400 pixels wide, so click any picture to see the details. Most were tripod-mounted.

Polk Street view east, Jan. 7, 2023, 1/15 ƒ/11
Monroe Street looking south from China Street. The former Junius Ward YMCA is to the right.
Pearl Street near Fairground Street, 1/15 ƒ/16
2521 Pearl Street, still occupied (taken from railroad tracks)
501-509 Fairground Street (taken from railroad bridge), 1/15 ƒ/16
Floodwall and Bunge Corporation, Levee Street, view south (hand-held)
1109 Mulberry Street, view east, 1/30 ƒ/11

LD's Restaurant is in a building that formerly housed a club/bar (closed several times because of shootings) and a liquor store.

Railroad yard from Levee Street - 250mm ƒ/5.6 Sonnar lens, 1/4 ƒ/22
2427 Washington Street - 80mm ƒ/2.8 Planar-CB lens

I added two frames that I took with my 80mm and 250mm lenses. Hasselblad's 100mm lens is considered to be their "sharpest" (whatever that means in internet fantasy-land), but all the Zeiss lenses are superb performers. My 250mm Sonnar is a 1960s silver barrel example with single coating, but it is just fine.

I found a very handy padded bag to hold my camera on the car seat next to me or on the floor. The rest of the kit stays in a larger camera bag. This is a Ruggard Onyx 35, only $17.95 from B&H. $17.95? That is the cost of a roll of film now. The original idea came from a WalMart lunch box, but this Onyx is well-sewn and protective. Highly recommended.

Saturday, February 18, 2023

From the Archives: Iraq in 1956

In the post-WWII era, Iraq looked like a progressive and advancing country, with active foreign trade, factories, major agricultural output, and (most important) oil. My dad worked on water supply projects there in 1956 for an American engineering company. I assume the work was funded by US-AID, as were infrastructure and water supply projects around the world. This was the short period when the USA was still seen as one of the victors and heroes of the war in Europe and Asia. We funded development projects around the world, fed a starving Europe, and shared scientific knowledge. These efforts led to the green resolution and the virtual elimination of small pox, tuberculosis, and polio. These were the good years before we ruined our reputation with the misguided interference in Latin America, the Bay of Pigs, and the disaster in Vietnam. 

In the 1950s, Iraq was awash with oil money. The government even commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright to develop a Master Plan for Baghdad. None of it was ever built, so my dad did not enjoy any of Wright's extravagant architecture (such as the opera house on an island in the Tigris!).

Tigris River from Zia Hotel (?)

This may be the view from the Zia Hotel, where my dad possibly stayed. 

Agatha Christie lived in the Zia in 1928 and used it as a model for her Tia Hotel. 

Haydar Khana Mosque, Baghdad 
Super stewpot, metalworkers, Baghdad
Villagers walking past an archaeological site
Checking out the date harvest
Ruins of the Arch of Ctesiphon. Note the massive base.

Ctesiphon was an imperial capitol and rich commercial city on the east bank of the Tigris about 20 miles southeast of Baghdad. The arch is a famous tourist destination. 

Ruins of the Arch of Ctesiphon.

Note how a modern buttress had been built to keep the wall from toppling.

From Alamy via The Economist.

Early-to-mid-1900s passenger network, from The Economist

The Middle East once had a comprehensive network of rail lines. You truly could take the train from Berlin to Baghdad, and continue to Basra, or the line to Beirut, and hence on to Cairo or Medina. Most of it has fallen into ruin after a century of war, deliberate destruction, mismanagement, and bad governance. But select rail lines are being rebuilt. 

This ends our short visit to Baghdad. My dad's employer never signed a contract for hydrology projects in Iraq and we never moved there. It would have been an adventure.

My dad took these pictures on Kodachrome film with his Leica IIIC camera and its 5cm ƒ/2 Summitar lens, the same package that I occasionally use today.

Saturday, February 11, 2023

Verichrome Pan Film in Mississippi and Louisiana (Abandoned Films 06b)

In 2020, my friend from Indiana sent me a roll of the long-departed Kodak Verichrome Pan film in 120 size (for medium format cameras). I used it on a snowy day in Vicksburg in early 2021 and loved the results. It was high resolution and just perfect for my type of photography. I never tried Verichrome Pan when it was in production, but now I wish I had. 

I have had surprisingly good results with discontinued black and white films such as Kodak Panatomic-X and GAF Versapan. But it is always a gamble with expired film and I decided to only buy fresh product from now on. Well, as you can guess, I was unable to stick to my own advice. A seller on eBay claimed two rolls of Verichrome Pan had been frozen for years, so I succumbed to temptation.

Of the two rolls, the first was perfect. The other was so thin, it was useless. That is the risk of buying expired film. I used that first roll in the Mississippi Delta on a blazing hot June day with harsh and unforgiving light. The camera was my Rolleiflex 3.5E with its 5-element 75mm ƒ/3.5 Xenotar lens. Even today, this 1959 camera is totally usable and optically excellent. Used Rolleiflexes in good condition sell for serious $$s on eBay or via auction houses now. Click any photograph below to see it expanded.

Louise, Mississippi

Louise is a small agricultural town in Humphreys County west of Yazoo City. It consists of a small core of houses with silos and former shops along Main Street. It may have been busy decades ago, when the railroad ran through town. But today, it is forlorn.

Main Street view north, Louise, Mississippi (1/30 ƒ/11, orange filter)
Main Street, Louise
Silos (1/15 ƒ/16, orange filter)
Main Street stores, Louise (1/30 ƒ/16, yellow filter)

Lee Hong Grocery, Louise (1/60 ƒ/11.3, yellow filter)
Quiet afternoon in Louise

Yazoo City, Mississippi

Yazoo City was the "Gateway to the Delta." It is still a busy town with a harbor on the Yazoo River. Timber is a major product. But the town is a bit rough.

Fixer-upper store, West Broadway, Yazoo City (1/60 ƒ/11.5, yellow filter)
Garage and gin, 301 West Bridge Street (1/125 ƒ/8, yellow filter)

Tallulah, Louisiana

The last stop on our Verichrome Pan trip is Tallulah, Louisiana. Tallulah is just off I-20 about a 20 minutes west of the Mississippi River.

Former Tallulah High School, Bayou Drive (1/30 ƒ/11.5, orange filter)

This was a blazing hot (95º + F) afternoon with harsh sun. I had one frame left and stopped at the old Tallulah high school. Much of the roof has collapsed, but the brick walls remain. The ball field to the left out of the picture view is still in use. It is sad that these handsome brick buildings are abandoned.

This ends our short Verichrome Pan tour. I probably should have dialed back from an orange to deep yellow to just plain medium yellow. Internet users claim that Kodak's discontinued Plus-X film was very similar. My friend will send a couple of rolls of 35mm Plus-X for me to try. I'll post the results later.

Note: some film users on the internet believe the new Kentmere 100 in 120 size looks much like Verichrome Pan. I need to try it. Kentmere is made by Ilford company, and the 120 size is a recent (early 2023) introduction.