I own several dozen old film cameras from the 1890s-1930s period. I repair them, modify them for use with modern film (or cut down larger film stock down to fit cameras as needed), and use them to photograph automotive stuff for my day job as a car writer. During the course of the past week, I chose four cameras that were available for sale new in 1918, loaded them with film, and used them to photograph the ways the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the look of my neighborhood. Here are 18 of those photographs, shot between March 17 and March 23. They're organized by camera, not location.
I had been on a trip to California, flying home on the night of March 15 in a nearly-empty 737 after witnessing stores stripped clean by worried, stockpiling Californians. I hand-rolled some unperforated Orwo UN54 35mm film onto homemade backing paper and loaded it into a Kodak No. 00 Cartridge Premo, a tiny box camera. You can load ordinary perforated 135 film into this camera (you still need backing paper), but the real gone cats know that Kodak No. 00 photos didn't have visible perforation holes in 1918. My first stop was the Costco in nearby Sheridan, for the only photo in this set not taken within the city limits of Denver: the sign by the door telling shoppers to forget about buying the 50 pallets of toilet paper each sought.
I had to fabricate several film spools from scratch for this camera, but my lone OEM spool shows a date of June 11, 1918. This was the week the Spanish Flu became a true pandemic.
After that, I went to the Safeway at Downing and Evans in Denver. The 100-speed Orwo film is a lot faster than the stuff they used in 1918, so I was able to use a short 20-second exposure to capture this "Limit one package" sign in the stripped-bare toilet-paper section (rather than the several-minute exposure Kodak's original 00 film would have needed).
Apparently, panic-stricken shoppers had been shoplifting individual detergent pods from large boxes, so Safeway had to put the pods behind the counter with the cigarettes, baby laxative, and other theft-prone goods.
I took the No. 00 Cartridge Premo over to the South Pearl Street business district, home to many of Denver's most popular restaurants. At that point, restaurants that didn't offer take-out service had been closed down by the city. The last sit-down meal I had at a Denver restaurant before the closings had been at Ototo, a week before, so I photographed the city notices on the front door.
35mm film in a camera that sold for a dollar a century ago (that's about $18.50 today) results in photos that can be a bit hard to make out, so I dug up a cheap 1918 camera that takes a larger film format: my Conley Kewpie No. 2A. Once so equipped, I headed to the heart of downtown Denver. The Kewpie No. 2A took 116 film, unobtainium for 35 years, but I made some adapters to run still-easily-obtained 120 film. 120 is 1/4" narrower than 120 film, so you get a panorama effect when you shoot it in a camera made for 116. Here's the normally-frantic stretch of Broadway just south of 11th Avenue, looking north. It's even emptier now, a week later.
I'd loaded the Kewpie with authentic, 1918-style orthochromatic film for the occasion: Rollei Ortho 25. This film is typical of what the low-end photographer of 1918 would have used; it's very slow and doesn't pick up the color red (which is the reason actors in the early silent movies had to wear black lipstick if they wanted their lips to be visible). Here's Union Station looking strangely empty.
I'd have been run over a dozen times trying to get this shot during the pre-COVID era.
On Monday, March 23, I decided that my Ansco Buster Brown No. 3 box would be the right camera for documenting Pandemic Denver 2020. This camera was a low-priced Kodak competitor named after the Bart Simpson of the early 20th Century, and it was made to use 118 film. Since 118 bit the dust 50 years ago, I deployed my homemade spool adapters to load the much narrower 120 film, using Ilford HP5+ (really too fast for 1918, but it's what I had left). I took a walk down South Pearl to see how businesses were adapting. My favorite neighborhood bar, Hazel, serves strong drinks and displays my photographs, so I had hopes that they might somehow stay open. On Monday, they were taking a shot at doing walk-up service, with Mason jars of Old Fashioneds and six-packs of beer to go.
I'd brought the same camera, equipped with portrait lens for close-ups, into Hazel a month earlier. It's a good bar for shooting long-exposure shots with old film cameras.
Once the Denver lockdown became official, bars that don't serve meals had to close down all services. On Tuesday, I bought a couple of jars of Old Fashioneds and drank a toast to Hazel. I hope they can survive what might be a lengthy shutdown. When this is all over, I'll give the bartenders a framed print of this photograph.
A few blocks to the north, Park Animal Hospital had closed their offices to non-employee humans but was still accepting patients. You bring your pet to the parking lot and a vet comes out to bring the patient inside.
Usually it's impossible to park on South Pearl. This is looking north from the intersection at Iowa Avenue.
On the same block as Hazel, Suerte restaurant helps out the neighborhood by selling supplies from their stock. Since local grocery stores ran out of rice, beans, and paper towels long ago, this is a valuable service for the people of the Platt Park neighborhood of Denver.
Sushi Den, the best-known Japanese restaurant in the Mountain Time Zone, has set up a walk-up counter for order pickup, complete with six-foot social-distancing markers for diners awaiting their orders. I expect to be in this line soon.
Later on the 23rd, the news broke that all nonessential businesses within Denver would be shut down at 5:00 PM on the following afternoon. The initial release of the shutdown order seemed to indicate that liquor stores and cannabis dispensaries would be boarded up, so long lines formed immediately. I reached for my World War I-era no-name European folding camera, equipped with a Gauthier shutter, threaded a roll of HP5+ in, then took a look at the local booze shops. The employees of Pearl Wine Company were enforcing social-distancing regulations by allowing only a couple of customers inside at a time, while the line to get in stretched well down the block.
Customers seemed well-behaved and did a reasonably good job of maintaining virus-resistant distance from each other.
At the big liquor store a few blocks to the southeast, things were more hectic, with drivers arguing over parking spots and a crowd inside the store buying cases of... anything. Here's a satisfied customer stocking up on beer while his housemate takes the car to a different store for other pandemic-survival supplies. Not many hours later, the word came from City Hall that liquor stores would be able to stay open. I'm sure a lot of people are looking at the bottles of retsina and watermelon schnapps they panic-bought and feeling regret.
Meanwhile, cannabis buyers feared being cut off from legal reefer for the duration of the emergency, so they lined up dozens deep at every dispensary on South Broadway.
It would have been tough to enjoy the 11th repeat of Sssssss without the help of powerful weed, so being locked down is a lot easier with these joints-- get it?-- open for business.
I'm looking forward to going back to shooting my local junkyards and interesting street-parked cars with my old cameras, instead of depressing 1918/2020 stuff. Let's make sure we all get through this pandemic healthy and without hating each other, all right?