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:

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]

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

American River

PHOTOGRAPHER’S JOURNAL: Immigrants bought their train tickets on Ellis Island and waited for ferries taking those who were bound West here (Jersey City) or to Hoboken, while those heading East boarded ferries into Manhattan. Twelve agents typically sold 25 tickets per minute throughout the day. This is the train shed in Jersey City. It is directly adjacent to Ellis Island, and for many immigrants this was where they entered the restless flow of the nation.

The shed is in decay. Vegetation grows from the undulating roof, and the space beneath is secured by chain link fence. It was something of a challenge to poke a camera lens in at an appropriate angle. Even in its emptiness, it is bustling. The train shed was completed between 1912 and 1914.

The terminal building, below, was opened in 1889. At its peak in 1929, more than 65,000 people arrived or departed on 350 trains every day. Just beyond the terminal building are the crumbling ferry slips where passengers crossed through New York harbor.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Abandoned Ellis Island

PHOTOGRAPHER’S JOURNAL: At 7 AM last Sunday we crossed over the low, iron bridge, that staff and security people use to enter Ellis Island, to begin eleven-hours of making photographs inside the unrestored southern half of the Ellis Island complex. Tony Sweet organized this, first of its kind, event, and John McInnes, Public Programs Manager at Save Ellis Island guided us. The day was well planned and we were led by people who cared deeply about the places we were visiting.

There is an excellent photo tour of the buildings we visited here:

The southern half of Ellis Island holds the hospital buildings and related buildings as described on the link above. From within those buildings we could sometimes, see through grimy glass, the throngs of Sunday tourists disembarking to see the grand restorations on the northern half of the island. Ours was a world away and mostly silent.

I spent much of the day enjoying, but not photographing, an art installation entiteled, "Unframed –Ellis Island," placed in this most unlikely of galleries. There was much else to hold my lens. Late in the day I realized how much the art installation was calling to my lens to find ways to angle it and frame it.

We emerged from from this surreal journey Sunday evening and each of us encountered separately the news that had been blistering the world all day, and as I drove home from Jersey City Sunday night I thought about what Ellis island has still to say to us today.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Monorail Crane

PHOTOGRAPHER’S JOURNAL: Factories are architectural machines. Earlier this year I photographed and wrote about what is left of the famous and infamous Carrie Furnaces in Homestead, PA. Nowhere is that statement more true than at those furnaces which ran 24/7 over durations of 8 or 10 years, while being constantly fed with ore and limestone and other smelting ingredients in careful quantities delivered by workers to a 17-story high conveyor that loaded the furnace at the top while men poured iron into pigs at the bottom. It was a balanced digestive system kept eupeptic by ant-sized chefs and cooks and a channel of train tracks and a river of barges constantly delivering deliciousness for the Carnegie-Frick beast.

The Farrel foundry, was at the other end of the food chain, where metal is cast and made into precision machines for manufacturing. Like the Carrie Furnaces, it is a fully integrated digestive system, though of an entirely different scale with time to rest. For its type, however, it is giant and when gearing for war there was no time to rest. By my calculation, this room is near the bottom of the digestive tract. From this terminal room the monorail follows the track overhead and enters a tall crevice between the three large foundry furnaces on one side, and the roll sheds on the other. 

There seem to have been just two stops for this shuttle: this room with a chute to the foundry's main floor, and the place just beyond where the crevice intersected the side of the sand elevator bridge and opened onto the cathedral space of the foundry. There, the crevice crane and the sand bridge crane met at right angles, and people and material in buckets could transfer to reach destinations in either direction.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Temple of Precision

PHOTOGRAPHER’S JOURNAL: They are rails out of another time. The scale, to the left of the door, which weighed castings as they left the foundry, is calibrated to 40,000 lbs. The foundry has been as still as a sanctuary since 1986

Across the yard the machine shop is still a temple of precision. Machines still hum and machinists work and recall the days when the foundry was dangerous and important. At the head of the machine shop Joe adjusts a narrow groove called a “keyway," at the base of the large screw. The machine is a bit like the carpenter's router I used to use. The size of the machine is matched by the heft of the bench that supports the work, and I shouldn’t have been surprised when the heavy, steel bench started to move as Joe pushed buttons on a digitally calibrated display. A couple of times I watched Joe stop and check himself, “Which axis must be adjusted, how much, and on bench or router?

Distinguished machines like this will be upgraded and modified long before they will be replaced, and they develop a history. When I sent this photo to my friend, Don Bristol, he wrote:

The picture you sent, is my old machine, I ran that machine for years. There is probably only one other person that knows that machine better than me, that would be Wendall. He is most likely cutting the keyway or keyways depending on the specs. Some have one keyway while others have two, 180 degrees apart. Notice who made that Planner-Mill, Farrel did. I believe they only made two. I think one was sold, and that one has been used by Farrel for many years. Its been back and fourth between the Ansonia and Derby plants.

The size of the machine and the bench allow a skilled machinist to achieve tolerances to 1/1000 of an inch. Making a machine like that requires tolerances many times greater.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Through the Tunnel, concluded

Machine Shop to Foundry

PHOTOGRAPHER’S JOURNAL: Around 1890, when Farrel Foundry & Machine Company acquired the land beyond the old factory road north of their original buildings, it was to build a new foundry to handle demand for new and larger rolls and calenders. With the new foundry, people and materials were continually crossing the old factory road. Growth on the site over the next thirty years is well documented in the maps of Ansonia, and it is easy to imagine each expansion adding bridges to carry people, materials and utility lines over the factory road. 

However, from the start, the most important passage was across the small yard where the tunnel comes out of darkness. Along this axis heavy castings were regularly moved from the foundry to the machine shops where they were finished and assembled and readied for shipment. Several of the cranes on the foundry side are rated at 60 tons; the castings were huge.

Expansions would soon include new, larger roll mills parallel to the new foundry and lower on the hillside, and other axes would carry materials up from the rail line and down to the new roll sheds. Men working at the mill today tell me it was the largest machine foundry east of the Mississippi. It was becoming a machine-making machine.

Foundry to Machine Shop

Back down the Tunnel

Top of the Tunnel