Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Our Man in Havana 3: View from the Top

When I visit a new city, I always try to find a tower, church steeple, or high viewpoint to see the lay of the land. When we arrived in Havana, my co-travelers and I checked into the Park View Hotel on Calle Colon. And by luck, the Park View had rooftop access.
An advertising brochure claims that the Park View was one of Havana's most sophisticated hotels in the 1920s. Maybe so, but it looks like it has barely been vacuumed or cleaned since then. Some character-building adventures:
  • Room 1: 1 cm of water on the bathroom floor, with more water dripping through the ceiling. OK, they had a second room for us. The lady at the front desk was very courteous.
  • Room 2: only 2 towels total. OK, one can serve as the bathmat, the second we shared. 
  • Shower hose: burst upon use. When repaired, the new hose was too short for the head to mount in the holder on the wall. 
  • Safe: locked, and no sign of a key anywhere. Was a previous guest's possessions still in it? 
  • Hot water: we had plenty, but some of our friends in other rooms never had any. 
  • Elevator: worked, but the electronic display showed floor 6 all the time, and there was no sign of any type of safety inspection. 
  • Breakfast: the fruit was good, but the rest mediocre. The tablecloths were stained and clearly well-used. In the hotel's defense, much of the food in Cuba as of early 2017 is not skillfully prepared. 
As for the view: the restaurant was on the 6th floor. Just off the landing, there was a narrow spiral steel stair that went up somewhere. I ascended and saw an unlocked door to the roof. Well, this was a treat. The photograph above shows the view looking west with the Straits of Florida to the right.
This is the view to the north towards the mouth of the harbor, or the Canal de Entrada. Note the construction cranes - Havana is beginning to rebuild. Visit soon if you want to see old Havana, The building on the very right is a former cigar factory. The bellhop in the Park View said the cigar factory had some major collapse in the center and all repair work had come to a halt.
To the southwest, the big building with the oval windows in the attic is the prestigious Ballet Nacional de Cuba (Cuban National Ballet School). It has 3000 students. In the evening, on the nearby Prado, you often see little girls in their tutus with their parents.
Room with as view: our second room, the one without a cm. of water on the bathroom floor, had a great view of adjacent rooftops. I love these complicated urban scenes. Note the pigeon pens on top of the green corrugated roof.
I also took a Tri-X photograph with my Leica camera. This has a more gritty urban feel, but you lose the color data. More Havana to follow....

Color photographs taken with a Fuji X-E1 digital camera. In the first picture, I used a Leica 50mm Summicon lens on my Fuji. The black and white photograph is a Tri-X 400 exposure taken with a Leica M2 camera. Click any picture to expand to 1600 pixels wide.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Margaret's Gro - Continuing Decay, Feb. 2017

Bad news on the folk art front: Margaret's Gro. is deteriorating badly. Margaret's Grocery, at 4535 North Washington Street, Vicksburg, was an amazing piece of imagination and devotion crafted by the Reverend Herman D."Preacher" Dennis. Margaret died in 2009, after which the reverend moved to a nursing home. Without his constant attention to painting and repair, his Temple to the Lord deteriorated and crumbled. Preacher Dennis died on September 4, 2012.
I occasionally bicycle to the site, and each time, the decay is more pronounced. Around 2010-2011, a group of preservationists tried to get funds to move and rebuild the temple in a protected space, but it was the depths of the recession, funds were unavailable, and the project did not proceed. Some of the sculpture and parts have been moved, but the bulk of the building is slowly collapsing.
This is the grocery in 1985, about the time that H.D. Dennis married Margaret.
Only five years later, look what he had achieved. It was still a grocery, and you could buy some supplies there. But for the most part, the Gro. attracted tourists from all over the world. If any of you readers visit Vicksburg, take a look before it is gone completely.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Our Man in Havana 2: On the Waterfront

Havana is a spectacular seaport. Facing the Strait of Florida, the Spanish knew in the 1500s that a fortified city here could control the strait and protect their treasure fleets before they set sail across the Atlantic to return to Spain. And being only 90 miles from the Florida Keys, Havana became a convenient travel destination for Americans in the 20th century. During the Prohibition era, Havana was wet, fun, naughty, and nasty. What happened in Havana stayed in Havana. Remember the musical, "Guys and Dolls"? The gambler, Sky, takes the dowdy Sarah to Havana, and after a number of milkshakes containing Bacardi, she really begins to enjoy herself as well as Mr. Sky.
This is the view of Habana Viejo (Old Havana) from the east side of the harbor channel, from below the Castillo de los Tres Reyes del Morro (El Morro fortress). There was some sort of smoky fire burning in the city, unless it was a factory spewing smoke. Air pollution is a serious problem in Havana with all the old cars and industrial sources of smog.
We crossed the harbor by ferry boat (see the previous article) from Casa Blanca to Havana Vieja. I was surprised to see dilapidated wharfs, clearly unused for decades. Three large wharfs are attached to a huge terminal building, known as the Terminal Sierra Maestra. The northernmost wharf has been restored and serves cruise ship passengers, but the southern ones are unrestored. The photograph shows the Santa Clara, but in faded letters you can see "Port of Havana Docks Co,"
The Sierra Maestra terminal was built between 1910 and 1914, a period when Cuba generated tremendous wealth by selling sugar to the United States. A crane barge with bucket was moored next to the building, and I saw some new sheet pile along the shore. The building with the domes across the street is the Sacra Iglesia Catedral Ortodoxa de San Nicolás, the only Greek Orthodox church in Cuba. 
A sign describes some of the renovation that is underway. I tried to enter the building at what looked like an unused door, but a guard shoed me out (they do that to me a lot). 
The restored part of the terminal is quite handsome. The tower with the clay tiles reminds me of railroad stations in the US Southwest built by the Santa Fe Railroad in the late 1800s or early 1900s. 
Che Guevara is here, as he is almost everywhere else in Cuba. Alberto Korda took the iconic photograph on March 5, 1960, at a funeral service for Cubans workers who were killed when a ship carrying arms for Cuban revolutionaries exploded in Havana harbor. Korda used a Leica M2 and 90mm lens on Plus-X film. Che is a martyr of the Revolution. Granma, the "Órgano oficial del Comité Central del Partido Comunista de Cuba" wrote, "Che, Cuban citizen by birth. Since 1959, the Cuban people have considered Che one of their own, and the heroic guerilla responded in kind." Click the link to read the rest of the article. It's amazing what skilful propaganda can do.
The color photos above are from a Fuji X-E1 digital camera with 18mm and 27mm Fuji lenses.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Our Man in Havana 1: the Hershey Train

Dear Readers, this will the first of a series of articles about Cuba. This is a fascinating travel destination in every way - culture, music, architecture, nature and bird life, and art. And the people are friendly, gracious, and welcoming.

I borrowed the my title from Graham Green's 1958 novel, Our Man In Havana, which was set in Cuba before the 1959 Revolution. It is about a vacuum cleaner salesman, who may be a Mi6 British spy, or maybe he isn't. Who can be sure? It's a great read, like most of Graham Green's novels.
The Hershey Train was built in 1922 by the US Hershey Corporation to service its sugar mills and farms in central Cuba. The line runs from the east side of Havana Harbour, the area known as Casa Blanca, to the city of Matanzas, about 57 mi to the east. This is the only electric line in Cuba and now mostly serves commuters. According the the World Tram and Trolleybus web page, The Hershey train is one of the few interurban rail systems still in operation.

Because of Cuba's lack of infrastructure investment since the Revolution almost 6 decades ago, the line is essentially unchanged since it opened in 1922. The current rolling stock may be Spanish, replacing the 1920s American Brill electric cars. According to Lonely Planet, all rail service in Cuba is erratic because of frequent breakdowns and track bed failures. The trip to Matanzas takes at least four hours, and the return may or may not be possible on the same day. The day this picture was taken, January 21, 2017, this author was pleased to see the green car slowly trundle out of the Casa Blanca station, with chickens and pedestrians slowly moving off the track to make way.
The Casa Blanca Station is located on the east side of the harbor channel, not in Havana Vieja (Old Town Havana). It can be accessed by the harbor ferry. The Hershey train did not run into the main part of Havana because United Railways, the British company that ran Cuba's trains in the first part of the 20th century did not allow the Hershey train to use its rails into the city. The ferry boat is a fun ride across the harbor. Two tickets cost only 0.50 CUC, or about 50 cents US. There was surprising security presence and X-ray inspection because many years ago, someone commandeered the ferry and tried to sail it to Florida. We saw the local bicycle club in the waiting area.
This is the view of the east or Casa Blanca side of the harbor channel.

Photographs taken with a Fuji X-E1 digital camera.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Escape from Berlin, 1945: a Family Journey

Dear Readers, this article is different than the normal Urban Decay topics. Still, it is a story of decay - of the catastrophic collapse of an evil government and the fate of some of its innocent victims. This is the story of how my family escaped from Berlin in April of 1945, during the chaotic final days of the Second World War in Europe when the Soviet armies were entering Berlin.

My family came from Greece and moved to Berlin in 1938, when my grandfather got a job in Germany. He was a highway engineer, and at this time, the Germans were building the autobahns and were at the forefront of highway technology. My grandfather (Opa) and mother were Greek-born, while my grandmother (Oma) and Aunt Hellas were German-born. Needless to say, moving to Germany in 1938 was a terrible strategic decision.
The family moved to a flat in the Charlottenberg area of Berlin, near the Neu-Westend U-Bahn station and near the 1936 Olympic stadium complex. My mother remembers that they lived on the second floor at the corner of Ratzeburger Allee and Ebereschenallee. These buildings survived the war with little damage, and the area is still a quiet residential district.
My mother was a young girl then and did not remember the exact the address of the flat. But when I showed her this picture of the door with twin portholes, she immediately recognized it (you can see it in Photograph 1 behind the yellow car). She said when you entered, one flight of steps led up and another led down to the basement, which was very frightening.
This is Steubenplatz today, with Ebereschenallee coming in from the right. My mother remembers that one store facing the platz in the 1940s was a pharmacy.
This is the Neu-Westend U-Bahn station. The location and shape is likely the same as in the 1940s, and the vertical beams with rivets may be pre-war.

My mother and Hellas went to school. My mother remembers that girls and boys were separated by a barbed wire fence. The teachers were very strict, and everyone had to rise and say, "Heil Hitler." She also remembered seeing Jewish people wearing the large yellow stars on their clothes. She must have been very young because (from what I have read) almost all Jews had been expelled from Berlin by 1939 or 1940.

After the war started, the family applied to leave Germany, but because my grandmother and Hellas were German-born, they were not allowed to leave. The family was not in a wealth category in which they could buy an exit permit by turning over valuable assets or properties.

As the war progressed, my grandfather lost his job. Oma's Uncle Max and his wife took over the apartment so that it would appear to be leased to a German family. Opa had to remain hidden in one room in the flat for fear that he might be arrested. My mother said that other residents surely knew that a Greek family was in the flat, but no one ever turned them in to the police. The ladies were blond and spoke fluent German, so they could leave the flat and move about. The family sold possessions to raise money for food. They had only two food vouchers, for the two German-born  members of the household.

For 18 months, the Allies bombed Berlin day and night, and for most nights, residents had to shelter in the cellars. But Opa had to remain hidden upstairs even during the bombings. One day, a bomb fell through the bathrooms and the tub from above crashed through the ceiling. Luckily, the bomb did not explode. She remembers Opa listening to the BBC on a wireless receiver with a blanket over his head to muffle the sound. Listening to foreign radio was an offense that would lead to execution.

Late in the war, Aunt Hellas was evacuated to the woods of Prussia along with other school-age girls to escape the bombing. But she and a young actress or opera singer knew someone important in the Goebbels propaganda organization and they secured travel permits to return to Berlin.
My mother said one day she and Oma were out shopping for vegetables and heard noises of gunfire. The civilian population had been so thoroughly insulated from real news by the government's propaganda, they had no idea the Soviet army was entering the city. Today, we find this hard to believe, but totalitarian governments know that control of the media means they can dominate the populace. This is a map of Soviet advance from:
They rushed home, grabbed a few possessions, and went to the train station. Prior to this, residents were not allowed to leave Berlin, but all order must have broken down. Amazingly, even as the Nazi government was collapsing, trains were still running. I assume they went to the Westend Bahnhof. My mother and Oma went one day, while Opa and Hellas followed a day later. The 1946 photograph above shows a tank graveyard near Westend Bahnhof, from :

Their destination was a small town in the Schwarzwald (southwest Germany) named Reichental, where the family had vacationed before the war. Everyone with any sense tried to flee to the west, away from the Soviets. The train ride was terrible. When allied planes flew overhead, everyone got off and sheltered in ditches or fled into fields because the planes strafed the trains. People were packed tight into cattle cars. Oma had a brother, Kurt, who had died in Stalingrad. His wife was on the train with two children. The baby died, and my mother said the baby was thrown out because there as no room. It is hard to believe horrors like this. I do not know if the family was ever in touch with Kurt's wife after the war and do not know what happened to Max and his wife. My mother, sister, Oma, and Opa survived, and eventually made it back to Greece in the late 1940s. They had endured a decade of war and turmoil. One day I will scan some of my photographs from Reichental.

Dear Readers, this was only 72 years ago, in what had been one of the most urbane and developed countries in the world. So many millions of innocent people suffered and died. But despite the lessons of history, many people are still susceptible to the hollow promises of  demagogues. Consider the 2016 election in the USA. Remain vigilant and never let a war like this happen again.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Cement Silos of Redwood with Fomapan 100 Film

In 2010, I wrote about the deserted cement silos in Redwood, Mississippi. They are still abandoned and loom up above Hwy. 3 in all their concrete ugliness. It is a good site to test film, and I returned to test Fomapan 100 Classic film in my Fuji GW690II medium format camera. The tracks lead to the International Paper mill just to the north.
The brush is pretty thick and it is hard to reach the silos from the former work yard on the west. This photo is not completely sharp because of camera motion.
A hulking ruined concrete mass is in the work yard. Did they pour unwanted concrete into some sort of bin?
This is a loading dock on the railroad side of the main building. Being winter, there were no obvious snakes or bats present.
This is one of the chutes that would dispense powder into trucks. This was a 4 min. exposure at f/11. The light meter indicated 30 sec. at f/11, but I knew that to adjust for the film's reciprocity, I should use 8 times the metered exposure. Reciprocity failure means that in dim light, the film no longer responds in a linear fashion to increasing exposure time. Most film is linear in the range of 1 sec. to 1/1000 sec., but if you are in the range of many seconds or minutes exposure, you need to multiply the light meter setting many times. A Wikipedia article describes the phenomena, or contact me if you want to do some film photography and I would be glad to help.

Film: Fomapan 100 Classic.
Camera: Fuji GW690II with 90mm lens.
Development: Xtol by Praus Productions, Rochester, NY
Scanning: Minolta Scan Multi using SilverFast Ai software, 2820 dpi.
Resize for web display: ACDSee Pro 2.5.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Vicksburg Decay 2016 with Fomapan 100 Film

Mercy Hospital, Vicksburg (currently unused)
This is a three-part experiment of a new film, a commercial laboratory I had not tried before, and new scanner software (I know, I know, too many degrees of freedom).

Experiment 1: A few months ago, I read some highly positive reviews of Adox CHS 100 film, a classical fine-grain black and white film. While in Berlin last September, I stopped at Fotoimpex (a real film store) to buy some, but they were out of stock. The sales agent suggested I try Fomapan 100 Classic, a similar film made in the Czech Republic. Fomapan was established in 1921, so it has a long history of making sensitized materials for the photographic industry.

In December here in Vicksburg, during some overcast days with soft light, I tried a couple of rolls of the Fomapan in my big Fuji GW690II camera (this is a medium format rangefinder camera that takes eight 6×9 frames on a roll of 120 film). I like days with soft light when an exposure will reveal details in the shadows, such as under porch roofs. My usual practice is to overexpose and underdevelop to soften the contrast, so I exposed the Fomapan at ISO 64.

Experiment 2: I did not have time to develop the film at home, so I sent it to Praus Productions in Rochester, New York. Praus developed the film in Xtol developer at N-1 (pull one stop), as I specified. The negatives looked pretty good, a bit dense but with full exposure range. Next time I will try ISO 80 or 100.

Experiment 3. The Minolta scanning software that came with my "antique" Minolta Scan Multi scanner was pretty kludgy and was low resolution on a modern big monitor. Surprisingly, the German company Lasersoft Imaging still sells a version of their Silverfast Ai software for the Scan Multi. I thought the price was outrageous, but a Christmas 25% sale made it a bit more palatable, so I bought a license for Ai. It runs on my Windows 7 computer and correctly controls the scanner. Result: major improvement over the Minolta software with far more options for film profiles. Note: I could never get Vuscan software to work.
Results: Well, I am pleased. These are beautiful full-tone negatives. They have similar grain to Tri-X, which this reinforces the classical B&W photograph look (which can't be simulated with software). The photograph above of Zollinger's Hill Road almost looks like the bushes are covered with frost, sort of a hidden garden. Click any picture to enlarge it and see the texture.
This is Marcus Street near where it intersects Confederate Avenue. The house is no. 1620. This was a 1/2 sec exposure at f/22, with fill flash to add some light on the tree trunk.
This cottage at 1630 Marcus Street is empty.
These steps are next to 1630 and lead down to Ethel Street. During summer, the jungle mostly engulfs the steps.
Martin Luther King, Jr., Drive is the former Openwood Street, leading from downtown east to the Vicksburg Military National Park. It is one of Vicksburg's older streets and is lined with historic cottages.
The cottage at 1900 MLK, Jr., Dr. suffered a fire.
No. 1826 MLK, Jr., Drive is a 1920s or 1930s cottage, now empty.
No. 1832 is a duplex partly sheathed with the concrete material shaped to look like limestone blocks.

In the future, you will see more examples of this Fomapan film as well as the ever-dependable Kodak Tri-X film.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Travels on the Mother Road, Route 66 - Part 8, New Mexico

Let's continue our drive along The Mother Road, Route 66, into New Mexico, the "Land of Enchantment." Crossing the border from Arizona to New Mexico, I was running short on time and could not follow all sections of old 66. In many areas, 66 followed the frontage road paralleling Interstate 40 - I think the original pavement is gone. I headed to Gallup to find a hotel.
The famous El Rancho Hotel is still in business. The western motif is possibly a bit over-the-top, but this is Route 66, and the El Rancho really does ooze the ambiance of the old west, glamour, and movie stars. Numerous stars stayed here while filming classic westerns during the 1930s and 1940s, and the rooms are labeled with their names rather than numbers. Today, European and Asian tourists love the place.
It would be hard to find a more exuberant lobby than this amazing timber and portrait-filled space with two stately curving wood stairs leading up to the rooms. There is a tiny elevator off to one side, and the desk clerk needs to operate it with a manual lever. I wonder if they once had a fellow dressed as an Indian Chief run the lift?
They assigned me to the Lorraine Day room, which was cosy. The compact bathroom had a tub and plumbing fittings similar to the ones in our 1920s house. The restaurant in the El Rancho is not very inspiring.
Unfortunately, the rest of Gallup is uninspiring, as well. Other than the El Rancho, the other lodgings looked rough. In the morning, I packed up and departed.
I had to push on and continued east. Wow, many people drive 90 mph along Interstate 40. At high altitude, I had to push the old Volvo hard - pedal to the metal. Fortunately, I was able to find gasoline stations with 100% gasoline (meaning no ethanol), which runs better in European cars that predate the ethanol boondogle.
The "top of the world" is the North American Continental Divide, here at an elevation of 7,245 ft (2,208 m).
This map shows the western continental divide, generated from various data sources at (hosted by Esri  (a.k.a. Environmental Systems Research Institute)). West of this dividing line, rainfall flows to the Gulf of California or Pacific Ocean, while rainfall to the east makes its way into the Mississippi River basin and, eventually, to the Gulf of Mexico. In Arizona and west New Mexico, although water flows into the Colorado River, very little reaches the Gulf of California because most is diverted along the way for agriculture and urban use.
Continuing east, I reached Grants, a town in Cibola County, about 80 miles west of Albuquerque. The old Swap Meet had not been swapping for many years.
The pawn shop was a bit more active, with plenty of "old-fashioned" stuff to give it the antique look. The Continental Divide Trail passes near here, and many through hikers pick up supplies or rest in Grants.
The historic Rio Puerco bridge, crossing the Rio Puerco, was built in the 1930s under a program funded by President Roosevelt's administration. It is a Parker truss design bridge, common in the 1920s and 1930s. Interstate 40 now carries traffic across the valley, and this old bridge is for pedestrian use only.

Next stop: Albuquerque.

Photographs taken with a Fuji X-E1 digital camera with various lenses. I broke my film camera earlier in the trip and therefore could not use any black and white film.