Saturday, March 25, 2023

Checking Out Commercial Houston (TX 04)

Houston is one giant commercial engine. Everyone is rushing around, 18-wheeler trucks thunder along the freeways, long cargo trains rumble on the tracks, strip malls with sort-of reasonable and grotesque stores can be found every few blocks, construction cranes reach up to the sky, and there is constant traffic. 

The good side of this booming prosperity is that you can find superb restaurants and truly top-class arts and museums. For me, it was such a contrast to be in a metropolis with an expanding economy, a place where something is happening. During my recent stay in Houston, I wandered around looking for my type of photographs. There was plenty of good material!

Waiting for the tram at 07:15

The METRORail light rail (tram) is efficient and runs most of the day. You can take your bicycle. To pay, you use a pre-loaded fare card or a phone app. 

N. Fannin Street view north to Texas Medical Center - pretty crummy walking but at least there is sidewalk
 Vote for Tires, 3801 N. MacGregor Way - not sure if I would buy tires here
Dakk T-shirts, 3801 N. MacGregor Way
Secret Recipe West African cuisine, but not any more

Head west out of the downtown business district and you reach the Montrose Neighborhood.

Americana strip mall architecture at its best, 1660 Westheimer Road 
Americana signage at its aesthetic best, Westheimer Road

Westheimer Road runs east-west through Montrose. In the 1980s, this was an artsy area with galleries and alternative clubs and bars. At that time, it was the center of Houston's gay and lesbian community. Today, it is one of Houston's main cultural centers, noted for its art, food scene, and night life. 

And some Montrose galleries are seriously upscale now. In November, my wife and I visited the Catherine Couturier Gallery. At first we did not recognize the featured artists. But then, while flipping through their stacks of matted prints, we saw genuine original silver gelatin prints from Weegee, Bill Brandt, Callahan, Doisneau, and more! Prices ranged from $4000 - $10,000 each. If only I had a bit of spare cash.....

Not upscale apartment, Kyle Street, Montrose - maybe I won't rent here
TR Acupuncture Herb Clinic, 6723 Weslayan Street - they will fix anything that ails you
La Calle Tacos, 401 Grey Street

In the 1980s, Grey and West Grey were grungy. Now this district has been renovated. I need to scan some of my 1980s negatives from this area.  

Historic Niels Esperson Building (1927) and its tempietto, Travis and Walker Streets
Houston Camera Exchange museum of good stuff (digital file mobile phone)

These 2022 photographs are from Kodak Gold 200 film. I used my little Kodak Retina IIa camera with its 50mm ƒ/2 Schneider Xenon lens.

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.  

Update March 26, 2023: These little cottages have recently been demolished. The land is bare and freshly scraped. Tractors and trucks were parked near the site. 

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 accurate shutter and excellent coated lens; 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. 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 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

Update March 26, 2023: These little cottages have recently been demolished. The land is bare and freshly scraped. Tractors and trucks were parked near the site. 

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

Update April 15, 2023: I returned to Tower 26 on March 26. I met a gent (an MD from MD Anderson Hospital) taking photographs. When I told him I had taken some frames of the Polar Express, he said he was on that ride with his young son. He sent me a clip from the video he took during the ride. It can be a small world among photographers.

Dorky photographer with his Hasselblad at Tower 26

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 and took pictures. Having a "real" job, I bought a Rolleiflex 3.5E camera at Southside Camera Center (long gone) 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 will show a recent picture from the same location 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 Kodak Panatomic-X film with my Rollei 35S compact camera. I bought it in September of 1981 for $141 at Southwestern Camera, possibly at 1416 Main Street (now a parking lot). 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/2.8 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 30mm filters, which were hard to find.