Following La Jicarita across the Digital Divide

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Santa Fe's Oldest Church meets the new technology of digital image editing: like the darkroom technique called solarization, here positive and negative are combined on a single plane.
Santa Fe’s Oldest Church meets the new technology of digital image editing: like the darkroom technique called solarization, here positive and negative are combined on a single plane.

Memoir and photos by ERIC SHULTZ

It was the fall of 1996. I know this in part because on the same roll of film there are shots of my daughter (now a high school junior) at less than a year old. But I don’t know the exact date, for one thing because my analog camera didn’t time-stamp the exposures, something digital cameras now do by default.

The camera was a Contax T that I bought second hand a decade earlier at E. P. Levine on Drydock Avenue in Boston. Even shopping for cameras was different in the pre-internet era and I enjoyed long, evolving relationships with the expert and eccentric staff at E. P. Levine and its adjunct, S. K. Grimes Camera Repair (Steve Grimes was the only person I’ve ever known to wear pince-nez eyeglasses). But on that morning in 1996 (an analog clock on the wall says twenty to twelve), the place was a meeting room at Max Córdova’s Truchas art gallery and community center known as Los Siete.

I remember a sense of tension and excitement. I also remember feeling sneaky as I unpocketed my miniature camera and snapped a photo—I didn’t see anyone else taking pictures. And so I used that marvelous little instrument to construct a detailed physical model of the scene—an “analogue” in the most basic and obvious sense of the word—and that analogue, my negative, still exists today. Last night I re-photographed it with my new digital camera and on the computer I “inverted” the negative into a positive with two clicks of the mouse (other digital adjustments are of course hugely variable and time consuming: I’m just talking about the first step).

!996 meeting in Truchas, (l to r) USFS forester Bill Armstrong, the back of Jerry Fuentes, USFS Forest Supervisor Leonard Atencio, and Truchas Land Grant president Max Cordova.
1996 meeting in Truchas, (l to r) USFS forester Bill Armstrong, the back of Jerry Fuentes, USFS Forest Supervisor Leonard Atencio, and Truchas Land Grant president Max Cordova.

On the left side of the image, the broad back and bushy head of eloquent Truchas activist Jerry Fuentes (at the time secretary of the Truchas Land Grant) fills the foreground. Over Jerry’s left shoulder we see a Norman Rockwell visage belonging to forester Bill Armstrong as he looks off into the distance. Behind Jerry’s right shoulder is Santa Fe National Forest Supervisor Leonard Atencio and next to Atencio sits the Truchas Land Grant president turned regional community leader Max Córdova.

1996 Truchas meeting: in back on the left, community organizer Santiago Juarez; in front on the right, Ruben Montes, aide to Senator Pete Dominici.
1996 Truchas meeting: in back on the left, community organizer Santiago Juarez; in front on the right, Ruben Montes, aide to Senator Pete Dominici.

The reason for this meeting was a federal court injunction that banned tree cutting—even for firewood—and with winter fast approaching, the communities of Truchas, Córdova, Río Chiquito and Cundiyó (whose inhabitants depend on wood for heat and who have for centuries sustained their fuel needs from a general area known as Borrego Mesa) had to act. So Córdova marshaled his courage and dropped the bomb: he informed Atencio that the Spanish crown had granted Borrego Mesa to their communities in the 18th century, and in a few days he would be leading his people to cut and gather fuel in their commons. If the Forest Service wished to issue permits, it could meet them at their staging area to do so, but the communities would proceed, permits or not. And that is what happened (see Kay Matthew’s November 1996 report in the “old” La Jicarita archive, as well as her January 1997 follow-up article on changed Forest Service-community relations).

Halloween morning on Borrego Mesa was an “f/8 and be there!” moment for an aspiring La Jicarita photojournalist, and I showed up with my camera ready. Forest Guardians director Sam Hitt—a key strategist behind the federal lawsuit that had closed the forests—was there to apologize, saying he never meant to hurt these communities. And I took a picture of him helping to load a truck, or I thought I did. When I developed the roll, frames 21 through 31 showed nothing but “base + fog” or, in electronic terms, no signal, just noise. Part of the mechanism had operated to let me advance the film (and think all was well), but the shutter itself must have stuck. Retiring my Contax T was a sad affair, but life compels us to let go and move on. I did get many good shots that day, but the one of Hitt hurling oozing chunks of tree into a pickup truck was not to be. Certainly digital cameras have new and sophisticated ways to fail, but they can show you the recorded image instantaneously. And yes, it is better to know.

Max Cordova conferring with community members on Borrego Mesa. Sam Hitt, right, was not part of the conversation.
Max Cordova conferring with community members on Borrego Mesa. Sam Hitt, right, was not part of the conversation.

In the summer of 1995, before I had met Mark Schiller and Kay Matthews and offered to take pictures for La Jicarita, and soon after I’d moved back to New Mexico from nearly two decades in New England, I attended the woodland meeting between Sam Hitt and the community logging champion Antonio “Ike” de Vargas at the latter’s camp in the Tusas mountains. De Vargas was a principal in a local logging start-up called La Compañía Ocho and was point man in the struggle to get a timber sale for the locals just when Hitt and his Forest Guardians were suing to shut the forests down. According to my artifacts, I was using two cameras that day: one with a wide-angle lens and black & white film, the other with color slide film and a short telephoto.

We “old growth” humans remember slide film as the pre-cursor to PowerPoint in theaters of cruelty both familial and institutional. But “chromes” were also the medium of choice for magazine photographers. In capable hands using top-grade equipment, it was slide film that gave us the National Geographic look. At that meeting in the woods, little did I know the eventual outlet for my pictures would instead be La Jicarita, a publication devoted to monochrome. But the “new” La Jicarita occupies a color space somewhere over the rainbow, and so for the first time ever here is Ike de Vargas in Ektachrome (or rather, Ike-de-chrome).

Ike de Vargas at his camp near Vallecitos awaiting a meeting with Sam Hitt.
Ike de Vargas at his camp near Vallecitos awaiting a meeting with Sam Hitt.

In analog photography, to make a black & white print from a color slide you “take a picture” of the slide using black & white film (“take a picture” is in quotation marks because I actually used an enlarger in a darkroom, but the principle is the same: a darkroom is just a camera you walk around in). That gives you an “inter-negative” for making positive prints. But for the best quality prints you want the largest negative you can handle. Since I have an enlarger that takes up to 5-by-7 inch negatives—a Durst Laborator 138 that I bought from Levine “in ruins” and have lovingly restored (i.e. rigged) to a kind of African Queen functionality—I made 5-by-7 negatives of a few select images of the meeting in the woods. One of these was of Marcos Maestas, a young but experienced sawyer eager to get work with La Compañía Ocho.

Marcos Maestas at the meeting in the woods.
Marcos Maestas at the meeting in the woods.

When I saw Marcos Maestas a few years later, I was working at Kokoman Liquors. La Compañía Ocho had gone belly up and Marcos had fallen on hard times. The last time he had seen Ike was to sell him something—a power tool—to raise a few bucks. He told me it was Ike who had given him his nickname, Marcatrocious, and he recited some raunchy rock & roll lyrics he’d been working on, probably something he did in his head to survive the tedium of his new job on a highway paving crew. I told him I had a picture of him from that meeting in the woods and he gave me his address. When I saw him next, he said he had given the print to his sister and that she loved it. I promised I would send him another.

I had sent him the only print I had from the first run, and to print even just one more would mean a string of little things to set up the enlarger for large-format negatives, and not-so-little things—since I was using the darkroom only rarely—such as buying and mixing new chemicals and buying photographic paper. This meant expensive stops in town and finding contiguous hours that were hard to put together. Days had turned into weeks when the guys at work told me that Marcos Maestas was dead.

When I see his picture today, I think of many things. I think of someone who should have been allowed to work in the woods—his woods—the woods supposedly set aside for his community (on that land of broken promises where Marcos grew up, see this article by La Jicarita co-editor David Correia). Instead, he was forced to find work on a highway, an antithesis of the woods, a stinking, shadeless and sterile expanse of gravel and asphalt where nothing lives and anything dies. But I also think less ponderous thoughts, about how quickly my little Epson could print an image file, and how I should probably see it as a deterioration of my own life that I no longer have (or take) time to work in the darkroom.

Ike de Vargas and Sam Hitt meeting in the woods. In back on the left, KUNM radio journalist Catalina Reyes holds a tape deck, boom pole and microphone: do those tapes still exist? Click on image to enlarge.
Ike de Vargas and Sam Hitt meeting in the woods. In back on the left, KUNM radio journalist Catalina Reyes holds a tape deck, boom pole and microphone: do those tapes still exist? Click on image to enlarge.

So it is not without conflicting thoughts and mixed feelings that I have embraced the technologies that make the new La Jicarita possible. And I know we are only scratching the surface of possibilities. As I’ve been looking through my negatives—my analogues—in preparing this piece, in so many of the images someone else is pointing a video camera, or holding a microphone. When La Jicarita started, video and audio recording were provinces apart from our kind of independent print journalism. But reduced to digital files, sound and pictures—both moving and still—co-exist with the written word in a common space. And as I begin to do audio recordings and have joined a video production class at the Community College, I am committed to making these possibilities into reality for La Jicarita. Don’t get me wrong. I love my analog pictures and I’m very glad they still exist and will continue to exist for some time to come. But oh, to hear the voices from that meeting in the woods would be something extraordinary! With our new tools and media, La Jicarita will make such things possible for people tomorrow. Please support us as we grow into the future.

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4 comments

  1. The person to the left was recording the meeting. Any idea who may have a copy of that audio? Great article and great pictures. A lot of people in them are gone now, including Marcos.

  2. Okay, I haven’t read the above article yet but am mentioned in the second caption from bottom above as well as pictured: “…KUNM radio journalist Catalina Reyes holds a tape deck, boom pole and microphone: do those tapes still exist?” Yes, every tape I ever made during my public broadcasting career, still exists. fyi. whoz askin’?
    —— ….now, whether or not _I_ still exist, is another matter….
    ’tis a _complete_ fluke, if not freak occurrence, that I happened to come across this at all; I haven’t seen anything _La Jicarita_ since it stopped coming in the mail. Anywho, if whoever wrote the caption actually does have some questions re: the DAT tape, transcript(s) of same (likely handwrit), or whatever was produced from them (transcript of _that_ would be relatively EZ, and typed): pls let me know… I have to enter my email to post this, so I assume LaJ could facilitate communication if needed.

    • Nice to hear from you, Catalina. Apparently you didn’t read your hard copy La Jicarita very thoroughly as we announced the transition to the new online La Jicarita and provided the URL. Luis Peña asked about your audio of the meeting in the woods with Ike and Sam (I was there, too). His e-mail is: luispena505@yahoo.com. What are you doing these days?
      Kay

      • EXCUSE ME, my reading capability has been and still is peachy, thank you. That you _must_ volunteer to find me both careless (at best) and literacy-challenged, neither of which my post provides either reason or excuse to assume, is _your_ rainbow picnic. There is no single word or combination of words therein to suggest (or so much as address) I at any time had any doubt, confusion, or suffering over (or, for all it’s reasonably inferable, interest in) the fate, whereabouts, or even existence of LaJ. *sigh.*
        That’s what I get, I suppose, for bothering to begin with to go out of my way to address [for all I could tell somebody-or-other]’s offhandedly-enough expressed, for-all-I-know entirely rhetorical, question.
        ‘What [I’m] doing these days’ apparently includes far too much clicking on randomly stumbled-upon web links that mysteriously contain my name. Share my email address w/Mr. Peña. Or, not. Just don’t list it here publicly; though gawdknowz it would take limited expense-free effort to reach me using a web search. Thx for your kindness.

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