Crystal Box: The Future of Las Vegas

A few weeks ago, I shared a collection of photographs of the newer glass box buildings on the Las Vegas strip. Living in Washington, D.C. area, I am no stranger to this architecture style, but while back home such buildings may appear unexciting and generic, in Vegas they felt remarkably refreshing and evoked a hopeful vision for the future of the city.

Aria Resort and Casino and The Cosmopolitan

Encore

Vdara Hotel & Spa

Every city is evolving, but on the Las Vegas strip this process is evident especially acutely. The themed hotel-casinos, like the enormous and grand Caesar’s Palace or particularly grotesque Excalibur, seem to be falling out of style, and the new trend are the sleek, glassy edifices like Aria, Wynn and Encore. The main features of these new casinos are the glass-clad exteriors, while the interiors feel especially airy, spacious and light-filled. The latter part was especially important for me, as I did have a strange feeling after spending time in the older casinos, where the only daylight is the painted sky on the ceiling. Of course, the gambling rooms are still dimly lit even in the newer casinos, but they tend to have higher cielings and feel less crowded and you can walk out to the windows, and in some cases even sit down!

Excalibur

New York-New York

Forum Shops at Caesar’s Palace

Painted Sky at Planet Hollywood

Since these newer casinos lack obvious themes, their star attractions become the design itself and tastefully incorporated art works, like the famous Chihuly ceiling at Bellagio or Shards of Color by James Turrell, where you can even get inside the artwork itself.

Dale Chihuly ceiling at Bellagio

Shards of Color by James Turrell

Shards of Color by James Turrell

These new hotels and casinos are creating the much needed public spaces on the Strip, where once can escape the oppressive heat and unbearable crowds on the sidewalks outside and the numbing madness of the gambling rooms inside, and I hope this trend will spill out from the buildings onto the Strip itself. Maybe one day the Strip will be closed to traffic, planted with more trees for shade, and have streetcars run in the middle of it to efficiently move people? Interestingly, Las Vegas only needs to look at its past to see the future: Fremont Street has not only been pedestrianized, but has also been covered by an ingenious roof to provide some relief from the sun. 

Fremont Street

Freemont Street

But even looking into the crystal ball, or rather crystal boxes, can tell us only so much about what the city would become. The future will always more exciting than our wildest predictions.


Goodbye, Box Camera! Hello, TLR!

I started my film experiments a few months ago with a box camera. It is about as basic as a camera can get: as the name implies, it is a box with a simple meniscus lens at one end and the film at the other. Box cameras have put photography in the hands of the masses starting with the late 19th century, as manufactures sold them for very cheap in an effort to drive up film sales. They were the original point-and-shoot cameras, and their reign came to an end only in the 1950s, when the 35mm format finally took over the consumer market. There are plenty of these cameras on the market, and a working one can easily be found for $20 or less. Most of the box cameras have a single shutter speed and aperture, although mine, Agfa Synchro Box, had two shutter speeds (regular and bulb), two apertures, a yellow filter, tripod sockets for landscape and portrait, film pressure plate, flash connection and metal body. It must have been a premium edition back when it was made in the 1950s.

This camera was an amazing introduction to the world of film for me. First, after opening the back cover and peeking inside, I realized why we call these things “cameras”. Camera means “room” in Latin, and after dealing solely with tightly-packed 35mm and digital cameras, the inside of a box camera indeed looks looks like a cavernous room. Another impression was how anticlimactic taking a film photo really is: you do not see the image after you click a shutter, so you have to delay the excitement of examining your results until you develop the film. That is true with any film camera, but with a box camera you have to do so little to take the photo, it feels really bizarre at first. Did I just take a picture? Yes!? Good, let me take another one! And one more! Oh wait, did I wind the film between the shots? There are only eight shots per roll, so I guess I need to think a little before I pull the shutter lever next time…

Unfortunately, the simplicity of a box camera is also its biggest drawback. The waist-level viewfinders are fairly unsophisticated by design and since most of these cameras are more than 70 years old, the mirrors in them have typically deteriorated to a point where you are only getting faint outlines of objects, especially with the lack of contrasting background. The parallax is pretty bad and has to be corrected by trial and error, so I found it very hard to compose the shots to my liking. More often than not, my subjects ended up in the corners or cut off. Also, the original shutter speeds in these cameras were at the very limit of being short enough for handheld photography, around 1/30 to 1/50, as films were much slower back then. Over time, the shutter springs in these cameras tend to loosen, so the actual shutter speed increases and motion blur becomes an issue. Interestingly, in my case, the latter problem particularly worsened as I got more excited in the afternoons and my hands must have started to shake a bit! Finally, the camera has a fixed focus, and it is somewhere between 10 feet (3 m) and infinity, which was certainly a disadvantage in my recent travels to the lands of grand vistas.

With some patience and practice, I probably could have overcome those problems, but I feel the skills learned would not be as applicable to other camera types, especially the viewfinder issue. In our day and age a box camera is, essentially, a special effects camera similar to the Holga, and while it may be useful in creating vintage-looking photographs, especially portraits, that is not the path that I want to take right now. So from eBay it cometh, and back to eBay it goeth. But, as an homage to this camera, let me share the best photographs I took with it.

Minho Falls, North Carolina

Las Vegas

Las Vegas

Monticello, Virginia

Cape Henlopen, Delaware

Cape Henlopen, Delaware

These challenges have prompted me to look for another tool, and I focused my search on twin-lens reflex (TLR) cameras. The main features of the TLR are two lenses: one is called the taking lens, and it has the shutter and projects the image onto the film, while the other is called the viewing lens. It sits just above the taking lens and in front of a 45º mirror, which projects the image onto the viewing screen. The focusing in both lenses is coupled, so while you use the viewing lens for composing and focusing, the taking lens gets (almost) the same image and focuses to the same distance as well. Most of TLRs are also full-fledged cameras, with controls for aperture and shutter speed and a few other bells and whistles. There is one for almost every budget, too, from under $100 for the more basic models or lesser known brands, to upwards of $1,500 for Rolleiflexes in pristine condition. I ended up buying a Yashica-Mat with a four-element Yashinon lens that was made some time between 1958 and 1970, and it was remarkably affordable.

From the moment I took it out of the box, I realized what an amazing device it is. First, it is fully mechanical and has no plastic parts. Holding something like this in my hands is like traveling in time; they just do not make things like this anymore. Then, there is the focusing screen. After looking at it, I wonder why we consider LiveView LCD screens on cameras an innovation: we already had something much, much better seventy years ago! And most importantly, this camera can consistently take sharp images while being handheld. Finally, I think I found the camera for film photography that I was looking for.

Yashica-Mat

Yeshiva-Mat’s Viewing Screen

The two photographs below are from the test roll that I took with it, and I have cropped them to enhance the composition. Expect many more in the future!


Flickering Flickr

I had a busy weekend and was not paying attention to the news, but as I was hoping through my inbox this morning, I came across a note from Flickr announcing the acquisition by SmugMug.

I have been a user of Flickr for many years, and while I had few complaints about the platform until recently, I could not fail to notice its stagnation and decline, which became particularly painful and glaring after I have signed up for Instagram and other modern social media. After Verizon bought Yahoo!, an ominous cloud started to hang over the service: even though Flickr may have had value as a content-generating engine, its waining popularity turned it into a liability, and given how peripheral it is to Verizon’s core business and ambitions, I feared that the days of Flickr were numbered. 

In light of that, today’s news were very good, albeit bittersweet. The Flickr community has finally found what appears to be a welcoming corporate home, and probably one of the best ones they could have wished for. On the other hand, while no dramatic actions are planned imminently, I would not be surprised if Flickr will be slowly integrated and absorbed into SmugMug. So for Flickr, this is more of a retirement with honors rather than a beginning of a new era.

I am feeling a bit sentimental over this, as posting my photographs on Flickr was an important part of my life for many years. When I first decided to post the pictures I took online, it was in the dark ages, when Google was just another search engine and Facebook was still TheFacebook, among other things. I wrote Perl scripts and Photoshop macros to generate thumbnails, preview images and navigation links. Then came Fotki.com, which looked exactly like what I had in my mind when I created my home-brew tools, and I have used it for a few years. I do not remember why exactly I have signed up with Flickr, but it probably was for the exciting features like the easy upload, map, tagging, advanced album options, sleek interface and the fact that some of my friends were using it, too.

I could also go into details on why I have decided to move on from Flickr, but it hardly matters now. Suffice it to say, the returns from posting regular, quality updates on Flickr no longer justified the time investment for me. While I will do my best to keep my photo stream there flickering, my website and other social media will take priority. So, if you have not done already, I recommend that you start follow me on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter or Pinterest.

And, in honor of Flickr’s retirement, I would like to share a few of my favorite images that I have shared there.

The very first one I shared. New York, 2009.

Eliot Bay Park, Seattle

Hanging Temple, Datong, China

Rataskaevu Street, Tallinn, Estonia

San Telmo, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Cass Scenic Railroad, West Virginia

Using Format