Dead Towns Live

Photographer brings breath to the rusting, rotting and falling down

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Courtesy of Steve Bingham

A tired and desolate ghost town cafe finds new life in Steve Bingham’s photography. The Payson photographer finds joy in turning the crumbling into eternal art.

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Courtesy of Steve Bingham

Hospital Asylum

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Courtesy of Steve Bingham

Salton Sea

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Courtesy of Steve Bingham

California Dreaming

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Courtesy of Steve Bingham

Payson photographer Steve Bingham digitally enhances composites of photographs to create emotion. Like the ghost towns he shoots in, however, some tricks will forever remain secret.

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Courtesy of Steve Bingham

Stairway to Dreams

The dead towns speak to him. Decaying buildings with glassless windows and rusted objects abandoned inside whisper tales of a nasty and brutish life cut short.

The resulting photographs often picture translucent women with forlorn looks on their faces, glamorous even in death.

But photographer Steve Bingham doesn’t believe in ghosts. He has never spent the night in the ghost towns he frequently photographs, and he is also unsentimental about the afterlife he imparts in his pictures with technology.

That is because Bingham, 73, is a hustler. He had children young and married at 24. With a family to support, Bingham needed to make money.

First, he worked as a juvenile probation officer. While working full-time, he earned teaching credentials and began teaching math. He eventually earned an administration degree from San Diego State University while teaching and worked as a school principal.

Later, he drove from San Diego to Santa Barbara every weekend for a year, earning a master’s degree in photography from the Brooks Institute so he could teach at the college level.

He has also operated a commercial photography business and would later move to Payson and start KRIM radio, which he still owns.

At Bingham’s core, however, is an artist who views Photoshop as the modern darkroom.

Most of his pictures consist of composite images, layered and arranged to evoke emotion and create drama.

He wrote his master’s thesis on alternative color techniques, and he says his digital images were the first published by Popular Photography in 1994. The article was entitled, “Digital Photography Comes of Age.”

Bingham never wanted to take artistic photographs for a living, and still he doesn’t aggressively market himself.

Despite loving the craft since discovering it at age 11, retiring into an artistic photographer’s life, and nearly sweeping the professional photography categories at the recent county fair, Bingham says he wanted to become an entrepreneur and inventor.

“On one hand, I’m an artist. On the other hand, I’m not starving,” Bingham said. Science, however, is not absent from photography, he pointed out.

At age 11, Bingham’s aunt gave him a camera, and he developed his first roll of film in his mother’s kitchen. Like many photographers, the magic of seeing an image appear on paper while developing chemicals washed over it hooked him.

Bingham conceives of himself as a magician. He refuses to divulge too many secrets of his pictures. Like a good card trick, the magic disappears when the viewer knows the mechanics.

“I try to create a mood in my pictures,” Bingham said. “Pictures need two things — emotion and composition.”

Roughly 10 years ago, Bingham’s interest in ghost towns began. “I share a kinship with ghost towns.

towns. We’re both old,” he said.

Settlers in the towns that are now ghostly toiled in self-sufficiency. Thousands of inhabitants built lives in these largely mining-fueled towns that sputtered after the mines busted or railroads no longer stopped there.

“People come and people go,” said Bingham. “Only the land remains.”

In photographs, Bingham gives life to the ghosts in which he doesn’t believe. They mourn the loss of a child in one tombstone picture.

Other times, he enhances the images he shoots of decrepit buildings or rusted machinery with color or sparkle that enhances reality.

Some ghost towns are maintained for tourists, while others are left to rot — forgotten by inhabitants and their descendants. Forgotten except for the few obsessed with their mystery; the promising start that lacked sustenance.

“It’s a race for me to photograph these buildings before they’re completely gone,” Bingham said.

Remnants in the towns provide mysterious clues to the lives that once raged inside. A 1931 copy of the Boston Post appeared in Vulture City, Ariz. Old bathtubs mingled with Polaroids in another town, a jarring juxtaposition that can only result from utter apathy.

Nobody cared.

Bingham is often the only person alive wandering these towns. He imagines story lines about the gutted café and truck stop. Maybe the old man had a heart attack or maybe the work became too hard. “You never know,” Bingham said.

Maybe they just gave up. In haunting images, the afterlife proceeds.

Bingham opens and closes his camera’s shutter to capture these fleeting slices of history. And in the process, he creates his own.

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