END OF THE LINE
Bloomberg Businessweek|September 06, 2021
A photographer sets out to capture a city’s last pay phones before they disappear
David Dudley

We’re heading north up Rochester’s Goodman Street, past pizza places and gas stations and narrow wood-framed homes, when Eric Kunsman spots a red-crowned kiosk in front of the parking lot of a convenience store/smoke shop. It’s a payphone, one he’d probably seen many times before but had never truly seen until now.

“Look at that!” he says. We pull over, and he pops the hatch on his Toyota SUV. “I can’t believe I missed this one.”

In the back, Kunsman keeps photography equipment—a vintage Hasselblad film camera in a suitcase-size case. It’s an attention-getting rig, and as he sets it up and trains it on the battered telephone, the owner of the smoke shop emerges, frowning.

Kunsman is very familiar with this part of the process and with an enormous grin he explains himself: He’s a photographer, and he takes pictures of pay phones.

Specifically, Kunsman, who teaches photography at the Rochester Institute of Technology, is engaged in a multiyear project to document every surviving pay phone in and around the city in upstate New York. As of 2018 that would be 1,455 phones, according to a dogeared list of locations provided by Frontier Communications Corp., the telecommunications company that operates the machines that remain in Monroe County. So far, Kunsman has captured about 900 of them on film. Perhaps 35% of them, he says, still work.

It’s an endeavor born of Kunsman’s fascination with obsolete technology—and with a city that has become associated with it. Rochester was famously the home of George Eastman, founder of the Eastman Kodak Co.; at its 1970s peak, the photography giant employed about 50,000 people and fueled a quarter of the city’s economic activity. But the rise of digital photography and the collapse of the film business brought mass layoffs and a 2012 bankruptcy that hollowed out the city’s middle class. Once insulated from the hard times that had befallen nearby Rust Belt cities such as Buffalo, Rochester plunged into a sharp economic decline. Its current poverty rate, 31%, trails only Detroit and Cleveland as the worst among the 75 largest U.S. metros.

This history haunts Kunsman, who moved to Rochester from his hometown of Bethlehem, Pa., in 1996. “I got to see its heyday,” he says of the city, “and then I got to see it fall apart.”

Rochester’s payphones caught his eye around 2017, when Kunsman moved his photography studio from the Neighborhood of the Arts, a revitalized district in the city’s southeast, to a lower-income community inside the “crescent of poverty”—a complex of low-income neighborhoods north and west of downtown that had earned a reputation for crime and abandonment. Friends warned him that the area was a “war zone,” but once Kunsman set up his studio in an old bumper warehouse he found a tight-knit neighborhood of families amid the vacant lots and other signs of economic distress. Among those signs, he soon noticed one: a surprising surfeit of pay phones.

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