Sometimes a lonely highway and a huge open sky is like nothing else. Especially when you need to get away from all the pressures of life. The high plains desert around Willcox Arizona is one of these places. Sandwiched between the I-10 freeway and the Mexican border, the standing water on the local playa attracts wild migratory birds. The local farms attract illegal immigrants. The Border Patrol works around the clock. Occasionally, birders come out with binoculars too.
Small abandoned structures dot the landscape. These are left over from a time when there was a more personal relationship between the land and those working it. Periodic flooding and the industrialization of agriculture washed out most of these. With the current cloudy skies, you can feel like you are almost anywhere while driving through these barren plains — that is until you are stopped at the border checkpoint. Then you know you are in Arizona. Of course when you’re white, Border Patrol just waves you through. But if you’re brown, these checkpoints are serious business. A misplaced wallet may mean the difference between making it home to your family or a trip to an intern camp hidden away somewhere off the public radar while Immigration sorts out what to do with you.
I gave my girlfriend a pristine Lubitel-2 for her birthday. She’s been shooting it on our trips down here. I serviced and adjusted the focus so everything worked smoothly for her before giving it to her. Has anyone ever gotten a Russian camera that actually worked right out of the box? Certainly not me and I’ve bought way too many Russian cameras over the years. I knew she would like shooting it.
I bought my first Russian camera — a Lubitel 166B — while traveling across Eastern Europe. I had been forced to illegally trade some Western currency in order to get a hotel room on a cold rainy night in Prague and ended up with more unregistered local currency than I could easily spend. I bought the camera, a set of laborer’s clothes and a fancy Russian watch that broke almost immediately. Somehow I was hooked. The promise of what could come from the labors of a failed utopia was too metaphorically strong to compete with logic.
Even after selling much of it, I still have a medium sized box stuffed full of old Russian cameras. The discovery of each new model led me on a search to find a pristine copy along with the hope that through it I would somehow rediscover something new in photography. The Lubitel-2 that I gave my girlfriend looked as if it had never been used at all. I had gotten it at the Tucson Camera Show because it was so beautiful, complete with lens cap and shiny Naugahyde fitted case. I had never used it myself. I thought that it could be a great experience for her since she had never shot a TLR and aesthetically, there is nothing else quite like the Lubitel.
I’ve been happy watching her shooting it when we’ve been out together, but somehow my old Russian camera fetish got the better of me and I was feeling jealous of seeing her handling the old mechanical beast while I was just shooting my all electronic Olympus E-P1 digital. After my Nikon film scanner died and manufacturers stopped making affordable ones, I grudgingly transitioned to digital, though I will always love the way film looks and how quirky old mechanical cameras feel.
Before we left for Willcox, I remembered that I had an old Industar-69 Russian half frame camera lens that I had modified to fit on my E-P1. I had never really used it because from the couple test shots I took after adapting it to the Micro 4/3 camera mount, I could see that it was clearly crap — really soft and flared all over the place. It had come off a broken Chaika-II half frame camera.
Since we’ve discovered Willcox, my girlfriend and I have been going there a lot. It’s an easy getaway and a fun place to take photos, but the photography, no matter how good, never feels like we’re there to take “once in a lifetime shots.” It’s more about the adventure. Getting away together. If we miss some shots, we can always go back — and as I always say, there are infinite shots to take anyway, so no reason to worry about missing a few.
This made it a perfect trip to use my Industar-69 . I’d just commit to shooting the crappy lens and working with all its flaws. On my Micro 4/3 camera, the Industar-69 works out to be roughly equivalent to a 56mm lens on 35mm. I like shooting a long “normal” lens, so that part of the experience was something I felt comfortable with. I also typically like shooting pretty good lenses, so the “toy camera” aspect of the Industar-69 was a little outside my comfort zone.
We didn’t have much of a plan for the day, just decided that it would be nice to take the back roads from Willcox to Benson. The road where most of these photos where taken wasn’t even on the map. It would have been good day just driving, talking and feeling the miles of highway unwind beneath us, but it was also nice finding places to stop, explore and take photos along the way.
The way the Industar-69 works on my Olympus means that in bright sun, it’s impossible to focus with the lens stopped down and the exposures are way off. I can adjust the exposure, but for focus, I just used the little universal snap-shooter’s icons on the side of the lens. At f11, almost everything can be thought of as either a group of three people or a pine tree with cabin next to it.
It’s a matter of just guess focusing, framing and shooting. You get what you get. It’s really pretty fun. My girlfriend did about the same with the Lubitel. Who can really focus a Lubitel with that little flip-up magnifying glass in the bright sun? It’s hopeless!
So these are the photos I came away with from the day. They are what they are. Even if you think they’re crap — and they kind of are — they were fun to shoot and it was really nice day.