It may well have been the very first time I used a camera for something other than family pics. It was an old Argus C-3 I bought second-hand from a camera store in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, when I was still in high school; and my wife and I were in an old copper-mining town in the Arizona mountains, a place called Jerome. It was 1973.
Jerome was a ghost town. Once upon a time, the population peaked at 15,000, but, by the early 1970s, very few people still lived there. Mining fortunes had been made, I'm guessing--the mine itself was still there but not running; but most of those who'd pocketed the loot or run the bank or worked the drills were long gone. It was a Twilight Zone, streets empty, a grotesque parade of a hundred different houses caught in anguished disrepair, as if they were being forced to undress slowly right there on the street.
If I go a half hour in any direction from my home, I'll run into an abandoned farm because they are everywhere in the rural Midwest. I see them weekly, I'm sure, but they're still haunting because somewhere in the shape of things falling apart there still lives some remnant of a family's fallow dream of what could be--and wasn't.
But Jerome was no single family dwelling; it was an entire abandoned city, a mile-high metropolis almost completely abandoned. Once upon a time kids played on streets grown yellow with weeds. I don't remember a single house being lived in, but there were a few businesses open in the old downtown. Jerome was becoming an artist's colony back then, and Main Street held little but that kind of store, those kinds of businesses. Otherwise, nothing but desolation. A kind of open-air museum, post-apocalypse. Absolutely haunting.
I loved it--look at the pics. They say as much about me as they do about Jerome. I'd love to go back.
But I can't.
Along some Jerome street, we met a man who pointed up at a rundown place and told us it was his. He owned one of houses falling apart.
"What's going to happen here?" I asked him. He was a friendly guy, I remember--and he too loved Jerome.
"I honestly don't know," he told us.
"I hope it doesn't change," I said. Jerome was a ghost town, pure and simple. "I hope it stays just like this."
"That's not an option," he said. "Nothing stays the same."
Right then and there, I understood that what he said carried meaning far beyond the empty streets of an abandoned copper-mining town. Those dilapitated houses, as artful as they were back then--and as photogenic--couldn't stay in disrepair. There were only two choices, he told me--fix 'em up or let 'em rot. After all, nothing stays the same.
And that, of course, makes these old pictures--maybe the first attempt at art on my part--museum pieces themselves, I guess. I found them last week in the basement flood.
Were I to go up the mountain to Jerome sometime soon, lugging a digital onto those empty streets, what I'd shoot wouldn't be what's here in these old pics. That's long gone.
Nothing stays the same. A lesson both sad and sweet. Like truth itself.