Blackbird Fly: Our Lady of Lavang & Holt Cemetery

The film camera I took on my most recent NOLA outing was the Blackbird Fly, a plastic 35mm TLR  rangefinder made by Superheadz (they also made my Golden Half). I haven’t used it in a while and I was considering selling it, but thought I should use it one more time before I made up my mind. I remembered it as difficult to use, but I think that’s because when I last used it I didn’t yet have much experience with rangefinders. Since then I’ve used several (and I collect Arguses, which are all rangefinders); my Yashica MG1 is my go-to camera for B&W, and even my Smena 8M is a rangefinder.

The only drawbacks to the Blackbird Fly is that a) it’s difficult to take horizontal photos, instead of using the viewfinder you have to compose your photo through a cut-out in the viewfinder hood, and that’s never a 100% accurate way to frame; and b) you have to really concentrate on getting your subjects level. I remember the first roll I shot looked like I had done it in a rowboat. And unless it’s really overcast or you’re shooting indoors, you need to stick to low-speed film (this is Kodak Ektar 100), because there are only 2 aperture settings to the camera–sunny and cloudy/flash–and both of them are fairly wide, I think F11 and F8. With higher speed film, 400 or even 200, in a camera with a normal range of aperture settings, I usually stop it all the way down to F16 when it’s a sunny day.

Anyway, I think I’ll keep it for now. It’s a little unusual to find a TLR that’s also a rangefinder, and the camera itself is fun to use and even rather cute. And like most rangefinders (except my Yashica, which has an in-viewfinder focus aid that allows you to be really accurate), the fact that you’re never 100% right about the distance from your subjects results in an appealingly soft focus.
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Holt Cemetery, New Orleans

My quest to photograph every cemetery in NOLA continues. Holt is the city’s cemetery for indigent people; as such it’s the only one to still practice in-ground burial, and many of the markers are hand-made by family members. It’s out on City Park Avenue, which I sometimes refer to as “the nexus of the universe”, because there are over a half dozen large cemeteries within a few square miles–I’ve photographed Greenwood and Cypress Grove already. I almost didn’t find this one, it’s behind the campus of Delgado Community College. The third time I drove past, I noticed a little side road leading onto the campus called “Buddy Bolden Road”, and I remembered that he’s buried in Holt, so I turned onto it and it led me right to the cemetery.

Weird thing abut Bolden, I keep stumbling across him. I read Coming Through Slaughter a couple of months ago, which is a fictionalized version of his life. (EJ Bellocq is also a character in it, and just before I read it I visited the cemetery he’s buried in and saw his mausoleum.) Not long after, we had the meetup in Jackson, which I planned before I read the book. Jackson is where the Eastern Louisiana Mental Health System is, where Bolden spent years (he was schizophrenic). And then I found out that a relative of mine–by marriage only–was also incarcerated there (although after Bolden had died there), after he tried to kill his wife, my great-grandmother’s sister. I’d always known about that, but not where he was sent.

Holt is a far cry from most NOLA cemeteries, with their grand mausoleums and towering marble monuments. The plots are inches from each other; the grass is shaggy and dotted with clover like an improbable May snowdrift. Graveyards almost never feel sad to me, merely peaceful, but this one has a melancholy that’s almost enjoyable–like when you press on a bruise. It hurts, but there’s something compelling about it, too. I don’t know, maybe it’s only because it’s the first cemetery I’ve been to since my grandmother died, but the people buried here seem more real to me than the occupants of those fancy above-ground tombs. People loved them enough to build a monument with their bare hands and whatever tools and material they could afford.


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