Tuesday, November 29, 2016

The Last Machine: Cutting the Bottle

Going on NOW!
"Brazen Grit: Images of Brass Valley"
photographs of Emery Roth

through January 7 (check library hours)
at Minor Public Library, Roxbury, CT
(just off rt.67)

slide talk: “Finding Brass Valley, a Place in Time that Has Almost Vanished”

Dec. 10 @ 1 PM Minor Public Library, Roxbury, CT

“The Bottle,” so named on the parts list, is the thick-walled hydraulic cylinder into which the piston fits. The oil injected into this container exerts its immense force on every inch of the piston head to move it. It exerts an equal force on every square inch of the bottle’s wall which must not move. The bottle anchors the system. Nor is it meant to be removed, and it will take Ben and Art many days to chop it into pieces they can lift and transport.

A quick review of my photo shoots shows it took from the mid-July until nearly the end of September for Art and Ben to get the half-million pounds of metal that was Brass Valley’s last machine chopped and out. Two months to remove just the machine, not counting time to remove the conveyor beds, ovens, control consoles and to drop to the floor the great traveling cranes that spanned and traversed the factory aisles and then to cut the cranes apart and down the rails. We photographed Ben and Art attacking the cranes in December of 2015, and they had already been at it awhile. 

So much effort to remove the last machine and its component parts! How long did it take to install it and put it in operation? 

Until last month, I didn’t even know when it had been installed. At the opening of my Roxbury Library photo exhibit an engineer who had worked there remembered it all. I asked when it was put in operation, and he stopped to reflect and calculate and said with certainty, “1979.” Before I could question him on the difficulty of installation, he began describing to me the difficulty of bringing the trucks through town and the gate at the top of the brass mill and down the historic road that crosses through the mill property from Liberty Street to the River. I had surmised it had been brought in by rail.

However, the difficulties were ahead. It required two years spent adjusting, and learning and fine tuning its production to make a reliable product. It was the machine to save the industry. It was the last major piece of heavy machinery installed in Brass Valley, and the last to be removed.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Brazen Grit

Share refreshments at the opening of 
Brazen Grit: Images of Brass Valley
an exhibition of photographs by Emery Roth

November 12, 2016 from 2 PM to 4 PM @ Minor Library, Roxbury, CT
Exhibition runs Nov. 12 thru Jan. 7

Brazen Grit: Images of Brass Valley

We are Makers. After our time in the trees, our human minds freed our dexterous hands to do impossible things. Making stuff, handiwork, is in our DNA. At least it’s in mine, which is maybe why it feels like death when a manufacturing region vanishes and a culture of innovation is hollowed out. The earliest photographs in this exhibit were made in 2011 when my colleague and I were invited to photograph men using ancient machinery in the last brass mills in Brass Valley. The mills ceased operation in 2013, and I made the most recent images in this exhibit this summer and fall, as the last mills were being picked and detoxified prior to demolition. For six years Ive sought to understand these mills and the men who ran them and those who demolish them. These photographs are the stories the men and the mills have given me.

They called the steep valley of Connecticut’s Naugatuck River "Brass Valley,” because from the time the world began running on steam and bearings, trolleys and soot, the Naugatuck Valley came to be where most of the world’s brass manufacturing happened. Beginning with the iron industry in the Northwest Hills, Connecticut became known for its metalworking and its machine innovations. New Britain was known as “Hardware City.” Meriden was the “Silver City.” Southington was the “Bell City.” But brass had a whole valley. From Bridgeport to Winsted was where brass was made and made into stuff from clips to clocks to the fittings for industry and the weapons of war. I was privileged to witness and photograph the final chapter in the story of Brass Valley.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Farrel Foundry "Sand Elevator"


Next Events:
Exhibit Opening: “Brazen Grit” @ Minor Library, Roxbury, Nov. 12, 2-4 PM
Slide-Talk: “Finding Brass Valley, A Place in Time,” @ Newtown Library, Nov. 14, 7:30 PM

PHOTOGRAPHER’S JOURNAL: I dislike the elitist aroma that haunts the word, “Art,” and the distortion it creates in the appreciation of a simple picture. And yet, I’m quick to assert that my photography is not intended as documentation. Because my photographs are sometimes valued for their documentary qualities, I’ve long looked for a way to distinguish between documentation and art without in any way leaving room to elevate one above the other. The pace of change has made more of us care about an accurate preserved record of the past. However, that’s not what many of us are trying to do.

I rather like Brooks Jensen’s formulation (“Looking at Images,” Lenswork Publishing). He distinguishes between photographs that show us what something looks like, and photographs that show us an experience. I wonder what others think?

I’ve been photographing this structure for seven years, but I keep walking by it and never tire of looking for photographs there. This one was taken two days ago and with the help of a new lens.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

The Last Machine, Part 5: "Carrying a Torch"

I invite those who enjoy these photographs and want to hear about Brass Valley, to join me at Two Roads Brewery in a presentation sponsored by the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation. Below is the text of their invitation:

The Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation 
Thursday, November 3rd
Cost: Free, Reservations Required, Space is limited
Location: Two Roads Brewery, 1700 Stratford Ave. Stratford, CT
Time: 6:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.
Food and Drink: Light refreshments and cash bar, beer and soda only
RSVP now to join the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation at Two Roads Brewery in Stratford, Connecticut as we welcome award-winning author Ted Roth, presenting his book: Brass Valley: Fall of an American Industry.
Enjoy a variety of Two Roads beers while Mr. Roth recounts his years photographing the brass mills and communities of the Naugatuck Valley, and particularly the last days of Ansonia Copper & Brass before it closed in 2013.
The images are unforgettable of grimy men working with patient skill in shadowy spaces filled with ominous machinery and lit by flashes of fire and glowing red-hot metal.
Two Roads Brewery is the perfect setting for this talk as it is located in the former U.S. Baird Machinery factory and has been beautifully restored and rehabilitated to suit the needs of full-scale brewery operations. Tours of the facility will be provided before and after Mr. Roth's presentation at 6:10 p.m. and 8:15 p.m. 

PHOTOGRAPHER’S JOURNAL: Art is mostly about work, but there are moments when it’s clear he enjoys explaining, and answering questions. And so I learn things like the difference between propane, propylene, and acetylene, and why he used propylene for one particular cut. However, every cut requires a bit of strategy. Gas and time are expensive. Freed metal chunks can kill. However, every cut will release liquid metal which will run down and harden as it goes, and a path must be planned so that he doesn’t have to cut the same metal more than once. One particularly tricky section required magnesium lances that were so long Ben had to light the lance end while Art adjusted the oxygen valve from the handle end of the lance.

Of course, what I like here is the fireworks, but it’s not just the show of it. It’s the way they call attention to Art and his torch and the old machines, and sometimes the factory shed around them. As Art cuts, he strikes poses to get an angle on his work. In the light of the spark-trail fireworks, a series of these photos become a dance.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

The Last Machine, Part 4

"Brass Valley: The Fall of an American Industry"
Nov. 3 @ 6:30 PM - Two Roads Brewery, Stratford, CT, for CT Trust for Hist Pres
Nov. 14, 7:30 PM at Newtown Public Library for Newton Hist.Soc.

PHOTOGRAPHER’S JOURNAL: This summer was full of photographs, but we returned to the last machine too late! Pieces of the “coil basket conveyer,” lay at the end of the shed waiting for the hauler, and if the “walking beam transfer rack” was there, it was unrecognizable to me. The control consoles, furnaces and other machinery had been cleared to the front end of the shed. Where previously it had been too tight to make pictures, there was now space to turn the large fork lifts that Art and Ben would use as they began the dismemberment of the long body of the extrusion press. Art and Ben would start at the back, called “The Bottle” that held the hydraulic cylinder (The Last Machine #1), and finish at the face that once extruded metal rod in infinite lengths.

For the first time we saw it without its drab raincoat. If I stress too strongly that it struck me as sphynx-like people might question my sanity, but in time I wasn’t alone in calling it, “The Cat.” Whatever the beast that hunched there at the back of the shed, it weighed a half million pounds according to the engineering parts list, and it wasn’t going anywhere quickly.

I’d learned that torch cutting makes for fireworks pictures. I asked if there would be fireworks pictures. A half million pounds of extrusion press made that a foolish question.

[This series, “The Last Machine” records the story and demolition of the largest extrusion press in New England, a massive machine which is currently being dismembered and scrapped at the old American Brass property in Ansonia on the site of Anson Phelps original brass mill there.]

Friday, September 9, 2016

The Last Machine, Part 3

PHOTOGRAPHER’S JOURNAL: In the extrusion shed, the row of machine shops (previous photo) received most of our photographic attention, though the giant extrusion press, “the last machine.” was like nothing we had ever seen, and we never really saw it. Always wrapped in black plastic and crowded in by furnaces and other machinery, it remained a Sphynx-like mystery. I photographed reluctantly and without conviction until I knew it would be gone.

An extrusion press squeezes molten metal the way a toothpaste tube squeezes toothpaste. The WWII extruder in Waterbury, which we photographed in operation, may be the central “character” of my book, but it was a minnow beside this whale. I was told this machine could extrude metal rod, “in infinite lengths.” All we could see beneath the plastic were the partially exposed haunches that squatted above a deep, wet cavity, accessed by stairs, too dark to photograph and too raunchy to tempt exploration. In front of the Beast were vast beds and a racetrack of coils; they were two distinct systems to which it once spewed its infinite rod. The plans refer to these as the “walking beam transfer rack” and the “coil basket conveyer.” They made good pictures but seemed incomplete without the machine that fed them.

The rest of the vast shed was empty, though the plans  show it was once populated with pickling tanks, wire machines, something called a “Vaughn Block,” and four large “Schumags,” (drawing machines, I believe) with pointers. It is a newish shed built onto older structures sometime after the aerial map of 1921. Its empty newishness made it, of all the sheds on the property, the place we photographed least until this July.  These pictures were taken much earlier. I had no idea the dismemberment of all this would provide a photographic spectacle like fireworks.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

The Last Machine, Part.2 - "The Lady Chair"

PHOTOGRAPHER’S JOURNAL: The story of the largest extrusion press in New England, “the last machine," is still mostly unknown to me. The press was always there when Lazlo Gyorsok and I began photographing in the casting shop on the same Anaconda American Brass property in Ansonia in 2011. The casting house was our primary interest, but in the long periods between pours, we’d explore the other buildings of the property, all silent and decaying. And so, from time to time, we’d shoot in the extrusion mill. There were many wonderful things to photograph there in machinists' bays along an ancient back wall that may have been built in 1845, when Anson Phelps built his own Ansonia Brass & Copper here. That was when he built the canal and industrial village that founded Ansonia. 

Unfortunately, the rest of this shed was newer, difficult to shoot, and uninspiring, but I wish I could go back and photograph that hall of idle machine bays when it looked like this.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

The Last Machine, Part 1

NEXT SLIDE TALK: "Brass Valley: The Fall of an American Industry"
Norwich, CT, Otis Library @ 6:30 PM on Monday August, 29.

PHOTOGRAPHER’S JOURNAL: Whether this is the largest extrusion press ever installed in New England, as the men tell me, is a question beyond my expertise. That it is the last machine standing of old Brass Valley is certain.

My friend, Lazlo Gyorsok, and I have been photographing the demolition of Brass Valley since 2010. This year we received a Preservation Award from CT Trust for Historic Preservation for our efforts. For the past two weeks we’ve been photographing the demolition of the last machine. It is an excruciatingly slow process with time for all sorts of photographs. One of the first steps was to slide this giant hydraulic cylinder as far forward as it could go in preparation for removing it from, “the bottle.” Here Art (real names withheld) is removing bolts that connect the fully extended cylinder to the steel block known as the "cylinder cover.” 

The men deny it, but taking this machine apart is a bit like solving a Rubix Cube. Some months back when the machine was operable, the cylinder might have been ejected by running the machine, but power is long gone from this building, and so Ben and Art must plan carefully which piece to move and when to cut so as not to waste effort, time and money.  They do this while recognizing that mistakes can be deadly. The cylinder alone weighs 55,000 lbs. No single machine in the shop is strong enough to lift it. They will have to position it so that two, giant fork lifts can grab it together.

Demolition of this giant extrusion press is, arguably, the final step in the dissolution of old Brass Valley. After this it’s only the truss-work sheds that sheltered the vanished men and machines. These men who have come to pick apart the last spoils of the industry may be the most hard-working I’ve yet met and photographed. 

[Extrusion Press demolition: Former Anaconda American Brass, Ansonia, CT.] 

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Making It Square

NEXT SLIDE TALK: Aug 21 @ 10:30 AM, JCC in Sherman, CT

PHOTOGRAPHER’S JOURNAL: I have been visiting recently with my friend, the cabinetmaker, Craig Chessari and photographing him in his shop in Woodbury, CT.  I’ve caught him in different stages in the construction of a single cabinet. The pace of work is relaxed with time for side conversations that may concern art, craft, music (He has a special love of Russian opera) or an antique tool which Craig has just picked up to use. Sometimes he stops to explain the characteristics of a certain wood or how a joint has been designed to contend with the stresses at work in the wood as temperature and humidity change. However, when Craig turns back to his work he enters a space all his own. His motions are at once calculated and instinctual. When he spins some wooden clamps over his head, it is a dance, when he anticipates the drop of a shaving, his face suggests a song. His music is in making it square, and I’ve taken up his theme.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Bone White and Dark of the First Opera House

Next book signing and SLIDE-TALK on 
"Brass Valley: The Fall of an American Industry"
August 21at 10:30 AM at the Jewish Community Center in Sherman

PHOTOGRAPHER’S JOURNAL: Main Street in Ansonia passes below these slender windows, but few who go there suspect this silent space is above or remember the stories it contains. It's a relic of its time, silent but for pigeons - except for those with the ears to hear more and the imagination to remember. Recently, the windows on Main Street were boarded up, so now the space is dark as well as silent, and no more pictures will be made. However, when seen, it still looks much as it did in 1870 when it was built. It is a treasure waiting to be discovered and find new life as a gallery or maybe a historical museum to preserve something of the historic mills now being demolished nearby. It might even make a fine exercise club while preserving intact its historic character.

I’m not from town, and I’ll never know it as locals do, but inside and out, the opera house speaks of the decade after the Civil War had boosted manufacturing throughout Brass Valley. Factories increased production to turn out cannons and bullet shells for the war and swelled mill towns throughout New England. In 1870 business leaders of the Borough of Ansonia, not yet a city, decided that Ansonia needed a large, multipurpose meeting space. Twenty-five years earlier there had been no Ansonia. Suddenly the borough was filled with mills and workers and new families and civic groups and associations and events.

A large meeting and function space was needed. It would also be a place for wholesome entertainment the whole family could enjoy; a place for performers to stop along their circuit: minstrels and medicine shows and opera stars on tour. A place they can play to paying crowds - not a theater for lowlifes but a cultural institution for the arts, an Opera House! It would be Connecticut’s first opera house. Imagine Ansonia, a cultural center. A place for Jenny Lind to visit should she make another tour. Did Tom Thumb ever play here?

By the 1870s the men who had pioneered the brass and copper industry in the 1830s, and 40s were becoming elderly and could look around them at towns they had built. Up and down the valley they sought to burnish their legacy with public buildings and infrastructure that would last.  What better investment than an opera house, a place to keep idle workers occupied and out of trouble? Not a music hall or a theater that would provoke rowdies, but an Opera House to give the community culture.

For this project the business leaders hired an up and coming architect. Robert Wakeman Hill. He would go on to design civic buildings and monuments all over the state for which he is justly remembered. He gave the business leaders an opera house with a row of shops along Main Street between the bridge and the mills which Almon Farrel and Anson Phelps had built. The Opera House is a building to fall in love with. In the center, a grand stairway still ascends under crimson carpeting to a second-floor promenade (less-than-grand) past suites of offices boasting the town's most distinguished address, and leading at the end to the more-nearly grand stair that folds back on itself as it reaches up to the third floor grand hall and the grand proscenium arch, both aged to the color of bone. There is no backstage, no fly-space. The floor was level and the seats folded so the floor could be used for roller skating and other indoor activities when needed. It’s unclear when basketball hoops were added. There are still footlights in place.

The Opera House maintained most of its prominence until the labor riots of 1919, though it lost some of its luster when a real concert hall was built in nearby Birmingham. After the 1919 riots a larger and even more multipurpose space was needed, and the armory was built on the hill above the factories with facilities for large functions and others to house troops, if needed. By then trolleys took people everywhere, and people in Ansonia could easily travel to New Haven for entertainment. 

Even then, there were countless town meetings and functions, organizations and committees to keep the Opera House busy. Annually high school seniors took their diplomas there and it became part of their lives. In this manner the Ansonia Opera House continued to serve the community and profit investors through World War II. It’s been silent now for well over half a century, and now it has gone dark as well. What might it become? 

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

The Dressmaker's Daughters - ANNOUNCEMENT


I’m proud and honored to learn that my set of six images entitled, “The Dressmaker’s Daughters,” photographed in the Ansonia Opera House in Ansonia, CT, has been selected for publication in Seeing in Sixes, a volume of art photography that will be available this fall from Lenswork Publishing. 

Seeing in Sixes is the idea of Brooks Jensen who created Lenswork Magazine to explore the potential of photography as an art form. Over many years of publication Lenswork has become for serious photographers what Aperture Magazine was to an earlier generation. 

Seeing in Sixes was born from Brooks Jensen’s belief that book format is an ideal way to present and enjoy art photography. “Sixes,” refers to six photographs set across three page spreads with whatever captions or bit of text might add to the fun. This format provides a container, as rigorous as haiku or perhaps sonnet form are to poetry. In it the photographer may place six images, no more or less, that make a coherent whole. I’m eager to see the other 49 “Sixes” in the finished book. The selection of photographers in the magazine is always eclectic and consistently excellent. I expect no less here. I'm proud to have been included in the first such effort and thankful to colleagues who looked at drafts of the finished submission.

“The Dressmaker’s Daughters,” tells the imagined life stories of four of the dressmaker’s 24 daughters... in six images. 

Those interested in learning about or subscribing to Lenswork Magazine or who are interested in purchasing a copy of Seeing in Sixes, here is a link to the Lenswork site:

NOTE: I will be giving my SLIDE-TALK on Brass Valley: The Fall of an American Industry on August 21at 10:30 AM at the Jewish Community Center in Sherman, CT.

PHOTOGRAPHER’S JOURNAL:  This is the second time this image has appeared in my blog. It is an image that always seemed to work better in monochrome than in color. Since five of the images in “The Dressmaker’s Daughters" were color, I needed to find a satisfactory color solution for  this image in color or I needed to choose another image. In the end I found a solution that saturated color to make the blue window light from the street contrast with the warm interior light of the opera house. The finished color version of this image was one of several challenges met in composing for Seeing in Sixes.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Watercolors No.9

To see other images in the "Watercolors" series, click here: http://rothphotos.blogspot.com/search?q=watercolors

Sunday, July 3, 2016

A Postcard Shot

PHOTOGRAPHER’S JOURNAL: I call a shot that under half-way decent lighting conditions sets itself up so naturally and so easily that one must be blind to miss it "a postcard shot.” It is an instant cliché. Many lie undiscovered, but others are known everywhere - are made into real postcards. The visitor center at Mt. Rushmore is so placed that, through all kinds of weather, every tourist with a camera owns the shot while photographers look hard to see something more. 

The view from Liberty Park is similar. It is so placed that if one knows where to look, one can see from the mouth of the East River and Battery Park to the Freedom Tower in Lower Manhattan to the Empire State Building on 34th Street, the Met Life and Chrysler Buildings on 42nd Street, to the suddenly famous, “pencil thin,” apartment tower on 57th Street, and including any new towers that sprout. Liberty Park offers, arguably, the ultimate NYC “postcard shot” - New York’s ultimate cliché? That didn’t stop me from standing in awe and then adding my own photographic moment to the river of such images.

A happy Fourth of July to all.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Ellis Island Hot Box

PHOTOGRAPHER’S JOURNAL:  One room was filled with chairs piled as if for a bonfire, a few rooms had dressers, but most were empty. However, some hospital equipment must have just been too costly to remove. It was always a surprise after turning many similar corners to come on something different, and one might be forgiven for thinking s/he had arrived at the hospital’s secret center of operations. What strange, Medieval medical instrument was here devised to cure the aching human soul? In fact, those who read the "Abandoned Ellis Island" link I posted know it is a wholesome bit of early technology to sanitize hospital mattresses. 

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Ellis Island Hospital Abandoned

[When ready, click the image above, and scroll right as in a slide show.]

PHOTOGRAPHER’S JOURNAL: What does one make of photographic exposures made over eleven hours in a single visit to the abandoned Ellis Island Hospital? It is not just another ruin, though until I began researching I hadn’t really understood how the hospital's story was distinct from that of the island’s northern half with its “Great Hall," celebrated now as our gateway. 

The Ellis Island Hospital, opened in 1902, was the nation’s first public health hospital and one of the largest such efforts in the nation’s history. Hospital workers had to learn to respond to conditions never before seen. Doctor’s, nurses, orderlies, administrators and officials had to learn to work with immigrants deemed too sick to immediately enter the United States, who often had little or no English and had never seen a doctor or stripped off their clothes in public. All were in a strange new place far from networks of community. Many of them were our parents and grandparents. All faced a watershed moment in their lives. In order to stay, the sick had to get well, the pregnant had to give birth to a healthy baby.

Once fully operational, the hospital took in 10,000 patients a year. Medicine learned here was sometimes cutting edge, and the morgue was a lecture space for visiting doctors. The hospital closed in 1930 and the buildings were turned to other uses until 1954 when the islands were officially abandoned and ignored. In 1996 the hospital buildings were listed among the 100 most endangered historic places in the United States. I had recently come to appreciate this history when I arrived on Ellis Island at 6:45 AM to undergo security screening and begin the eleven-hour photo shoot at 7:00.

Ellis Island Hospital is not just another ruin. However, time has sand-blasted away almost all visible clues to its previous purpose, identity or occupants. A ward of beds is merely a large room, and the recent preservation efforts have left most windows covered with metal panels in a design that offers the minimum of light and air circulation, and which hides the bruised and broken windows. A giant kitchen, an industrial laundry, the morgue, a few residences offer only flickering shadows of the world once busy here and say nothing of the complex stories occurring daily in these spaces. 

The power of the Ellis Island experience lay in the slow exploration of the large, complex site made mostly of endlessly wandering hallways and empty spaces. My sense of where I was in the large complex was often vague.  This series of photos through some of those places is intended, not as a tour, but as an impression.

[Click the image above or below and scroll right as in a slide show]