Tuesday, November 17, 2015


Placing Brass Valley
slide talk & book signing

Oliver Wolcott Library, Litchfield, CT
November 19 at 2 PM

Seymour Public Library, Seymour, CT
December 1 at 6 PM


Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Landing On Time

Four More Slide Talks before Thanksgiving

Friday, Nov. 13, 2 PM: Southbury Public Library

Saturday, Nov. 14, 11 AM: Danbury Public Library

Frederick G. Mason Lecture
Monday, Nov. 16, 5:30 PM: Mattatuck Museum, Waterbury

Thursday, Nov. 19, 2 PM: Oliver Wolcott Library, Litchfield

PHOTOGRAPHER’S JOURNAL: Time is everywhere, but the manufacturing of time was a Brass Valley specialty. Clock and watch companies spanned the entire Naugatuck River Valley from the “still place," where the Naugatuck empties into the Housatonic, and the Derby Silver Company made clocks in Shelton, to just north and east of the Naugatuck’s headwaters where the Gilbert Clock Company made clocks in Winsted. From the wooden clocks of Eli Terry to Timex “keeps on ticking," Brass Valley was always busy with time. The Naugatuck flowed from sundial time and church bell time to timetable and punch-clock punctuality. Nothing could be more central to Brass Valley than the four faces of Union Station tower in Waterbury where the eight hands of Seth Thomas still tell Brass Valley Time. 

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Seth Thomas

Brass Valley: The Fall of an American Industry

Thursday, November 5, Gunn Memorial Library (Washington, CT), 6:30 PM

Saturday, November 7,  Thomaston Public Library, 1:00 PM

Monday, November 9, Derby Public Library (Elizabeth St.), 6:30 PM

Woodbridge Town Library, November 10, 7:00 PM

PHOTOGRAPHER’S JOURNAL: Long after Seth Thomas Clock Company has ceased to be, leaving Thomaston shorn of the jobs that created the town, the Seth Thomas Building remains an iconic presence that still resonates the glory of the brass industry throughout the Naugatuck Valley. Clock-making flourished here because clocks used lots of brass. Across the river the old Plume & Atwood buildings are mostly gone.  They rolled brass for Seth Thomas clocks.  

I will never forget the first time I drove up Main Street in Thomaston and was struck by the grand and imposing presence of the Seth Thomas Building, like a town-sized grandfather clock. I knew I was someplace, and I knew I wanted to go back. 

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Fallen Leaves, Winchester

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL: Caleb Beach knew this place as Green Woods, and he built his house at the top of a long valley, on a slope above Hall Meadow Brook. The remains of the Old Valley Road still pass by his door before they disappear into the pond a half mile on. Just north of Caleb's house, apple trees, running wild, explode with several varieties of apples and the air smells of cider. Further on where the brook crosses the upland are the remains of millraces and the foundation of an old mill, but there is nothing here to tell if these pieces belong to each other. 

Caleb Beach built on a mound on the west side of the gently sloping valley we call “Hall Meadow." Farther west a rocky spine of forested hillside still rises steeply and separates Caleb's valley and watershed from the valley that channeled what we call "Ruben Hart Brook.” However, Caleb Beach built his house where the late rays of the sun would still touch his doorsteps, even as the shadows of the hillside to the west slid east across his valley lifting a veil of twilight over the orange and red blaze of the opposing hillside. 

Today both Valleys are dammed; Hart Brook fills a reservoir managed by the Torrington Water company, and Hall Meadow serves as a flood impoundment. Where their waters unite, the East Branch of the Naugatuck River begins.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Tuesday, October 27, 2015


PHOTOGRAPHER’S JOURNAL:  Driving over Connecticut’s hills I am entranced as the line of trees on each side of the road swells as I approach and pass, and I have had the recurring delusion that I am in the midst of an unending fireworks finale. 

The road between Warren and Kent is of special beauty, and the angle of the sun at sunset as it lights the trees around numerous ponds offers photographer’s a ready made palette from which to compose. I spent over an hour making photos here yesterday, and it was not my first visit this fall. 

While I was shooting from my tripod another photographer appeared. We exchanged greetings. He had spotted the pond, as I had, from the roadside. He made sure he was not in my field of view, explored angles, took a few photographs, and left. These are services the Kent Land Trust, which protects the pond from development, have no idea they provide to people they never meet.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Phantom Way

PHOTOGRAPHER’S JOURNAL: Concrete piers, marching across the swamp, a phalanx of mourners in close formation or at rest like headstones. We know from those who came before us that once they carried a cable system for harvesting ice from Bantam Lake to keep perishables cool through long summers to the final harvests of Thanksgiving. It was part of the routine of life, and through much of the year this alley was busy with traffic.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Monument Mills Water Tower

PHOTOGRAPHER’S JOURNAL: A rain of yellow leaves drifts, twirls, drifts again across my window. Autumn’s call has never been so insistent. One of the first places it drew me was to Housatonic, MA, where I photographed early yellows from within the ruins of an old Monument Mills textile factory. I processed several color versions before turning to black & white. In the end, I thought I liked it better. I wonder what others think.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Habits of Mind

NOTE: For those who ordered copies of Brass Valley: The Fall of an American Industry, at the Washington Art Association, the latest information I have is that a large shipment of books will reach the U.S. on Oct. 22. I still have a limited number of copies which will be on sale at the upcoming book presentation / signing at the library in Meriden on October 20. As soon as I have the books, I will make arrangements with Washington Art Association to notify those who placed orders there. Thank you for your patience.

PHOTOGRAPHER’S JOURNAL: Habits of mind– Where do they come from? How are they connected to learning? to culture? to genetics? to individuality? What is their relation to spontaneity and ecstasy? to style?

Today we are Information Technology people. When we kept the wheels of 19th and 20th century industry turning we were machinists and machine operators and mechanical engineers. At another time or another place we were stone cutters. The thriving culture is fertile, innovative, and we become our tools.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Smoke Out

6:30 to 7:30 PM
Washington Art Association

Finding Brass Valley
slide show & book signing
Emery Roth

In this expanded version of my book at the Washington Art Association, I’ll preface my usual talk about Brass Valley with images and comments about the nature and evolution of my photography and what I’ve been working on most recently. 

PHOTOGRAPHER’S JOURNAL: At Farrel Foundry, Ansonia, CT

 “Burnt out ends of smokey days.”  T.S. Eliot

Tuesday, September 1, 2015


Everyone is invited to our opening at the Washington Art Association on September 12, from 4 to 6 PM. We look forward to meeting new people and renewing old friendships, and we want everyone to see our show. I will have a limited number of advance copies of Brass Valley: The Fall of an American Industry for sale at the opening.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Inside Bristol's, Waterbury, 2013

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL: Brass Valley overflows with stories. By telling who we were, they help us know who we are. We forget them at our peril.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Bristol's, Freight-Side, 2013

PHOTOGRAPHER’S JOURNAL: The news of the fire at "Bristol’s,” came while we had house guests, and I have only today taken a ride by to see what remains, though the web video told me it would be inconsequential. This image was shot in 2013 on one of several visits. The blaze is a sad end to a place with a noble history, and I mourn its passing personally, while knowing it will be better when the earth is leveled over the site. It should not have lingered so long.

Professor Bristol’s story deserves to be better known, his passion for creating devices for metering and recording anything, his appearances at the great World’s Fairs of the 19th century, his part in controlling industrial waste and pollution, his early years in the Workingman’s School of the Ethical Society, and his role in the creation of the first full-length talkie a year before the "Jazz Singer." He is one of the great, unsung innovators of Brass Valley.

This morning I drove past the site, and the gates were open and lights flashing beyond. These were, I assume, security people and investigators. It appeared as if at least one of the high walls was still standing for cranes to demolish.

The buildings (I’ve read there were as many as 15) have for many years been beyond re-purposing. What might they have added to this South Waterbury area had Bristol’s not been left for a quarter century to rot and burn? How does one measure the value that would have accrued had they been re-purposed as the William Henry Bristol technical school, training teens for new technologies? Imagine kids learning new media skills inside walls where talkies were invented? …or if they had become the Bristol Garden Apartments anchoring the community in time and culture at a spot beside the Naugatuck where I often see people fishing? Imagine possibilities. We worry about the cost of clean-up but are far less scrupulous of the on-going bill for mess-up and decay that transgress property lines. 

These buildings were lost a quarter century ago. Brass Valley has vanished, and what is left is its fading afterglow, alas in this case too literally so.  What fragments can yet be preserved to give future generations something to touch and connect them to a proud tradition? –to connect the future to the achievements and lessons of the past?

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

On Composition

PHOTOGRAPHER’S JOURNAL: As a photographer I appreciate the concentrated focus of the welders craft, as he adds metal in order to even out worn train wheels. What others find tedious, he finds centering. Like a farmer plowing, row by row, his fields, the welder lays down rows of new metal that the wheel can be milled to precision and turn true.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Bread Yard

PHOTOGRAPHER’S JOURNAL: To me, it has always been the “Bread Yard,” though I’m quite certain there was never more bread here than it takes to supply a few workers' lunch boxes. The bread crane, with its vine-covered hook and its shantytown cab as photographed from above through that chain link fence in 2011, drew me to Farrel Foundry. (http://rothphotos.blogspot.com/2011/06/farrels-hook.html) At the time I had no idea whether the Bread Yard was within Farrel or was on the property of the neighbor to the north, Ansonia Copper & Brass. 

After searching unsuccessfully at Ansonia Copper & Brass, it was one of the first places I tried to find when I briefly got inside Farrel Foundry in 2011, and I found it. However, it was so clogged with semi-trailors that I realized the best photo had been the one I took through the links of the fence, though I had thrown away thousands of pixels. 

Bread or no bread, it was a senseless place to put a yard for semis, hemmed in on all sides and at farthest remove from street or rail, a place only reached by bringing semis through the busy, dirty, danger-filled center of the foundry with cranes shuttling 60 ton castings overhead. 

The reason for the Bread Yard lies hidden beyond the tin building at the back of this picture, in a space like the secret compartment on an old desk, and accessible behind an unused building at Ansonia Copper and Brass. It was another year before I found my way to the long pool that lay between the buildings of Ansonia Copper and Farrel. Even when I saw it I was too dense to realize that the pool and pump house marked the aborted end of the old Ansonia Canal which still flows from the Kinneytown dam, a mile and half north, and which once continued south, before there was a pump house, through the Bread Yard and on along one edge of Farrel Foundry beside Main Street, then crossing under Main Street and the firehouse and flowing south, eventually looping back to the river. The eastern bay of Farrel sheds and the Bread Yard had been built where the canal once flowed.

Finally, last fall the semis were removed, all but the bread truck, and I took a number of pictures of the Bread Yard through which the canal once flowed, though the vine that had filagreed the hook was long gone. When the bread truck is gone, will there be cake? 

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Big Hook

PHOTOGRAPHER’S JOURNAL: I first began noticing hooks at Farrel Works. Even before I got permission to shoot inside in 2011 I was shooting through the chain link fence trying to photograph a vine-covered hook the size of a gorilla that once spanned Farrel's sunken courtyard beside Main Street. It seemed to say everything that needed to be said about heavy industry in the valley, though it resisted becoming a photograph. 

I’ve been noticing cranes ever since. Like silos on old farms, lingering long after the barns have blown away, cranes are often the last hint of the scale of what went on in a place after the looting is done. The large bridge cranes are frequently tucked up at each end, rusted in place. The big ones may have more than one trolley and more than one hook. And along each aisle, at every station, jib cranes mark the size and sometimes the nature of the work done there. Even in the most ruined sheds, one can still usually read, painted on the side, the load for which each crane and hook was built. From what still exists, 3 to 5 tons seems to have handled much of what had to be hefted up and down Brass Valley, even in big sheds. 

Inside the abandoned basilicas of Farrel Works there are probably twenty to thirty traveling, bridge cranes. The smallest is rated at 5 tons. Many are rated at over 40 tons. This is part of one of two bridge cranes that span the main foundry aisle and travel the length of the nave, a space in which half a dozen football teams might practice simultaneously. The large hook is rated at sixty tons. The bridge is rated for carrying ninety tons of load. Whatever it lifted had to be passed through the factory to reach the siding where it could be loaded onto a railroad car. The hooks here at the south end are shy, hiding up in a shadowy corner, hard to photograph, but they are the largest I’ve found. 

In a dark attic byway threaded through the roof trusses of two abutting sheds, in a space which happened to have its own crane, I came upon a spare hook. The space was high and narrow, and I had to point my flashlight into the shadows to be sure the massive shape wasn’t the carcass of a beast, but it was another 60 ton hook, lying on its side at the base of an attic crane-way, an inert remnant in a place once well prepared and humming. These are among corridors to be visited on a magical mystery tour of Farrel Works.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

The Orgblo

PHOTOGRAPHER’S JOURNAL: These are noble spaces, but it’s not only in their high vaulting, shadowed tracery and dark silences that these Farrel sheds resemble cathedrals. Here, in the side aisles behind the cathedral nave, a hose saddle waits like a minor altar inscribed, "Spencer Turbine Company, Windsor, CT, Hose Rack No. 2.”  It was one of various vestiges hinting that purposeful work once took place here, but nothing explained what part the Spencer Turbine Company’s rusting hose reel played in Farrel Foundry’s daily devotions and in the rites of those who came here religiously for long hours in service to the Foundry. It made me curious: Hose? Turbines? What did they do here beside the casting ovens? 

I went on a Google pilgrimage and learned that Spencer Turbine still exists in Windsor, CT, and an email inquiry brought a friendly reply from Janis, Spencer Turbine Marketing Manager. She explained that the company had begun in 1892 as manufacturers of the “Orgblo.” 

In an age when keyboard music in church, theater, or soon in silent movie houses may have been most people's major experience of professionally made music, the Orgblo, Janis wrote, "provided air to pipe organs – many are still in operation today – churches, theaters, universities, etc.” 

In 1892 practical electrical motors were still in their first decade, but they were already powering new trolley travel bringing people over greater distances to dance halls and skating rinks, to churches and theaters where the stomach rumbling organs could be felt, and Orgblo was giving organs new lungs at the dawn of that era.

It’s not clear what hose was wound here, but it’s not likely Farrel Foundry had a pipe organ. What they had was a lot of hot and dirty air, and the makers of Orgblo had a useful engineering expertise for moving it. Janis of Spencer explained further: “Today we manufacture multiple types of air and gas handling equipment including central vacuum systems for industrial applications and at a  few noteworthy landmarks (Statue of Liberty, Chrysler Building, White House,etc.)” 

The saddle looks not too different in size from a saddle for garden hose, and I’d take a wild guess that pressurized air might play a role in cleaning debris from fresh castings. Whatever was done here, the hose saddle and the small crane behind it are relics of equipment long gone and labors long ceased in a world that is vanishing as I write. It’s good to know Spencer Turbine is still in Windsor, Connecticut.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Re: Flags

PHOTOGRAPHER’S JOURNAL:    I had thought to post this without comment, but I took it in 2011 before flags were in the news, in order to tell the story of High Rock, and so I add this footnote.

This is High Rock. Those who drive Route 8 know this stretch where the Naugatuck Valley narrows between Beacon Falls and Naugatuck.  Men with dynamite blasted into the hillside to let the highway through, but the valley remains rocky and narrow by High Rock. From time to time people plant a flag here, though few realize how fitting the display at one of democracies minor monuments.

From the highway today this region feels remote and wild. Few remember that in 1880, in the era before trolleys made people mobile, George W. Beech, Superintendent of the Railroad, created High Rock Grove, planted gardens and built a pavilion for roller skating. He built a platform by the tracks, and for a quarter century people came from up and down the Naugatuck Valley to picnic and party and row in the still waters behind the factory dam. There was always live music. What other kind? And people dancing, hiking, having fun in a variety of accents and languages. There were extra trains on the fourth of July, and the Valley mingled. Today it’s just a clearing at the end of a dirt road where waters tumble from a mountain gorge and trails lead here, to the top of High Rock. People celebrate elsewhere, and hikers know little of what happened here.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Farrel Cathedral

PHOTOGRAPHER’S JOURNAL: There’s just no better word to describe the grandeur of this work shed, no fitter term to describe it’s place in the diocese of Farrel buildings or the orbit of Brass Valley. It feels no less regal for the degradation the building suffers. I first came here in 2011 knowing little of it’s history, but a man hired to clean up and inventory let me explore and shoot then, a permission later rescinded by order of his boss. 

Even then, I knew that the passage from the sand elevator over the rail line must end somewhere in these buildings at the foundry. I had no real idea of where or what the foundry was or why they needed sand. However, my instincts led me part way down this nave to a pace where a transept seemed to cross. My first surprise was when I climbed a half flight of stairs into that transept and found myself looking down through a window on sheds below as vast as this cathedral above.

I had no more than four or five hours to shoot then before I was exiled. The photo record of that first visit caught the noble spaces warehousing industrial electronic components packed so tightly that getting around was a maze for a mouse, but I found my way into grand and mouse-sized spaces, and it was not until I finally got back inside in 2014 that I could place all my pictures and discover how much I had missed.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Farrel Foundry: Imperial Basilica

PHOTOGRAPHER’S JOURNAL: Farrel Works feels like a giant cathedral. Or rather it is a half dozen giant cathedrals set side by side, some end to end. Stand anywhere, and the space you are in is a basilica echoed by side aisles on one side or both and reverberating on into shadow. Trusses soar like tracery and end either in stained and broken glass skylights, or along rusted stair rails with checkerboard shadows and catwalks between ducts and stacks into darkness. Suites of chambers are apparently carved inside of walls between buildings and sometimes into bedrock. Beneath, the foundry is tunneled with catacombs that wind past open wells where molds were set for casting. One needs a flashlight to find the way from well to well and out to air and sunlight. There are places, beyond locked doors and across catwalks too frail for cats, that may never reveal their secrets. 

Almon Farrel, son of a Waterbury millwright, built Ansonia and pioneered in the manufacturing the tools used for large scale manufacturing. This was the foundry that produced large machinery for making paper and rubber and for grinding sugar cane. Of all spaces of Farrel Works, none is as grand and exalted as the nave of Farrel Foundry. Is it Connecticut’s greatest surviving cathedral of industry? It deserves the title: Imperial Basilica. Whether there is anything of it that can be preserved other than memories, I have no idea.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Cliff Walkers

PHOTOGRAPHER’S JOURNAL: Cliff walkers, heads in the clouds, suspended on time, bearers of the seeded fruit.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Confluence (Paper Mill, Lyons Falls)

PHOTOGRAPHER’S JOURNAL: When my journal was side tracked and broke off a week and a half ago, I was in the midst of telling about the ancient Black River Canal, now a dark mucky groove, lined crisply with massive rocks, that cleaves the earth’s crust with canal-lock stairways beneath a forest canopy lost to time. (http://rothphotos.blogspot.com/2015/05/flight-of-locks-black-river-canal-near.html).

Lyons Falls, New York is at the top of the stairway, at the confluence of the Black River and the Moose River, where there is a beautiful waterfall and a long dam. It was famous once for its "triple bridge that joined three shores with a junction over the water. Lyons Falls was a paper mill town whose vitality depended on the lumberman upstream and the seasonal supply of new logs that flowed on the river, and the dangerous work on the river was a sign of the town’s spunk. 

The once thriving mill has become a wreck and a hazard and a constant reminder to a community on the brink, of a life that is gone. I arrived even as a crew of three, with cranes that wielded jack-hammers, chipped at a section of brick structure, as the rivers at this confluence idled and flowed.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Back to the River: Ghost Road

PHOTOGRAPHER’S JOURNAL: They called it "Castle Bridge,” though I have no idea why, but at one time I suspect it was one of few landmarks along the road through the long, wooded narrows of the Naugatuck Valley between Torrington and Thomaston. It was just below Campville, where in 1841 Jebez Camp built his sawmill, when the valley road was all dirt. 

Today it is a ghost road, pavement appearing first where it begins to bank and rise toward stranded concrete piers that once carried it across a rocky cleft and rushing Naugatuck waters. The span is long gone. Vanished. The banked road stops before the piers. One must climb steeply up to the long, black, level pad of pavement, crust cracked and sprouting forest. “One two, buckle my shoe… nine ten, start again."

Monday, June 1, 2015

Since 1825 and Ready for 2015

PHOTOGRAPHER’S JOURNAL:  Between 1905 and 1918 old Erie Canal and offshoot canals of the system, with their towpaths and mules were re-engineered into the Erie Canal System for motorized freight barges. It remains a triumph of Jules Verne era engineering. Nothing is too big to be magnificently detailed and spit-shined. Tubes, meters, valves, insignias of brass - even the fuses have heavy caps that shine like gold. There are watch-like mechanisms of levers and gears, and escape valves that fly open by centrifugal force when they spin too quickly, and all still as a pin in a little windowed house, like a museum display.

Even today each lock is kept polished and painted by a lock master and crew who greeted us on our arrival. They work with military precision and compete much as local volunteer fire departments do to maintain the discipline of their work. Even if the canal system is no longer essential to commercial traffic it is an integral part of flood control throughout the Mohawk Valley. 

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Flight of Locks, Black River Canal, near Boontown

PHOTOGRAPHER’S JOURNAL: The audacity of it! Three-hundred-and-sixty-three miles over which the supply of water must be monitored and sustained through knowledge and control of runoff throughout the watershed and through the management of feeder canals and reservoirs to keep the canal flowing, and never over-flowing, evenly throughout its length. 

The Black River Canal is one of the feeder canals. It was built between 1837 and 1850, and it carried barge traffic for 34 miles through 109 locks from the Black River, high up in Lyons Falls, over a summit in Boonville and then steeply down through tightly clustered lock stairways to the Erie Canal. Here, midway in its course, hidden in the woods beside Route 46, is either a “flight of four” or a “flight of five locks,” once a vital byway.  The path from the rim was trecherous, the ground in the lock too muddy for further exploration.

The earliest rumblings of our Faustian future were probably earth shifting beneath us for dams and canals, reservoirs, aqueducts, and water tunnels, even before there were railroads. The Erie Canal system is an engineering marvel, and it is no accident that the town where the Black River Canal meets the Erie Canal was named audaciously, “Rome.”

The upper section of the canal north of Boonville was abandoned as unprofitable in 1900, but parts of the system remained active until 1920. In 1925 it was officially declared an abandoned waterway.

What seems to me audacious, may, however, have seemed logical, even inevitable, to men who had been following the paths of the native people, portaging between rivers and ponds for a century until they knew the options for tying it all together into a waterway to reach beyond Niagara to an infinite resource with the port of New York City, its gateway. 

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

By Packet to Niagara

PHOTOGRAPHER’S JOURNAL: Imagine a riff of water on wooden gunwales and the slow song of your packet boat and mules drawing you through the mountains back in time along the Erie Canal through frontier Albany, Utica, Syracuse, Rochester, Buffalo; towns linked by the goods and news that flowed along the water and by the idea that still lurked out there along the edges of great inland seas. Some saw wealth, some power, some just the chance for an honest wage, but it was the idea of the almost accessible frontier and its limitless possibilities that animated the new canal.

Upstate by stage coach was bone-rattling agony over mountain roads beset by washouts and falling limbs. In 1825  there were no railroads but among the barges for freight, packets began carrying visitors through 363 wilderness miles along a smooth canal through 83 locks rising 568 feet from the Hudson River up to Lake Erie and level seas into wilderness.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Canal Beckons

PHOTOGRAPHER’S JOURNAL: Rivers always try to carry us downstream. But a canal beckons in two directions.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Control Tower

PHOTOGRAPHER’S JOURNAL: From his matchstick tower the crane operator saw all and controlled levers and pedals that connected by rods and cables to the motors and gears beneath him that made the crane do all its tricks. Before the windows were boarded, this was the eye of operations. The crane operators I’ve known were all deliberate people aware of the momentum of the mass they moved. How long did it take to master the technique for controlling the machine? How many master crane operators have sat here since the crane was built in 1917? Or did they stand? Was there once a chair, or did one have to lean into the machinery with the whole of one’s body?

Saturday, May 23, 2015


PHOTOGRAPHER’S JOURNAL: One must stand here, at the base of the mast, and observe how the cables fasten to the great wheel to appreciate the operation of the crane’s pivot. 

If there is a postcard shot of the dry dock, this is it. I relinquished this angle once when we entered the dry dock, and the  sky was good, and everyone streamed into the area around the boom. The spot was occupied throughout the workshop, and by the time I got back and found the tranquility to study the composition, the sky was glaring and awkward.

Although this corner was occupied with photographers studying the geometries throughout the workshop, nobody else offered an image from this location at our nightly image sessions. Seeing this (in a preliminary version), Tillman was rightly emphatic about the need for choosing an angle that allows for a person’s passage between the wheel and the railing; he ran his fingers along the empty passage to emphasize his message. Indeed, I had a number of shots that I’d ruled out for this defect. That’s only one of the geometric issues posed, but it is the first major constraint on where one must stand. Clearing the full path of the leading line was only possible in post-processing or by elevating the camera above my limits.

I wanted to include something of the tower from which the crane was operated, but opening too wide meant admitting more of the unpleasant sky. The final decision on where to crop the top was determined by the window, the brim of roof, and the need to show enough of the mast to give it importance. Even with sky minimized, as it is here (27mm DX), processing the sky required invention.

Tillman warns against the easy seductions of the postcard shot. Now, having taken this and understood it, I’m eager to go back and shoot it again, though I’d be sorry to have leaves on the trees.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Crane's Philosophy

PHOTOGRAPHER’S JOURNAL: Eventually, I did go to the very back of the dark, damp room which was the front of the operator’s shack, underneath the tower where the operator sat. Here is the clockwork. The tensile load from the boom is anchored to spools turned by motors and large gears to do the lifting. A second cable system, smaller, wraps around the horizontal wheel on which the crane turns. Together these make up the crane’s philosophy.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Tank & Hose

PHOTOGRAPHER’S JOURNAL: My eye was held by the large rivets on the compression tank and the coils of hose. It may have been used for nothing more than watering a lawn. Meanwhile, in a darker space behind me, too tight for good picture-making, the key to the dry dock’s operation remained still undiscovered, easy to miss while fixed on the eye of this serpent. 

Might I have gotten closer - made the serpent lunge? On a first shoot there’s always tension between the urge to stay and study, the need for an overview of all there is, and a reluctance to poke into the dark and damp.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

From the Gates of the Dry Dock

PHOTOGRAPHER’S JOURNAL: For me, part of the fascination of a place like this comes from understanding what it did and how it worked, and the essential photographic challenge is how to make it all clear in a single shot, not merely the crane as it is now, slackened, spiritless, resting on wood blocks. Can it be seen in its stilt-walking glory, overseen by the crane operator in his matchstick tower, yanking and poking at levers and pedals to rotate the wheel that swung the boom that lifted steel plates onto and off of waiting barges where welders made repairs? The age of mules and wooden barges was gone; in 1917 motorized steel barges sought to make the Erie Canal competitive with the railroads, and dry docks like this kept commercial barges afloat on the  Erie Canal for another half century.

Monday, May 18, 2015


PHOTOGRAPHER’S JOURNAL:  The dry dock was the first thing on the agenda for day two of the Erie Canal workshop. The site had been described as “uncertain”; nobody had yet seen if anything worth shooting was there. If it proved uninteresting, we were set to move on. However, we stayed. The dry dock was a relic from 1917 when the canal was rebuilt and enlarged. It ended the era of tow paths, mule boats and the complex routines in which teams of mules or horses pulled the barges in six-hour shifts. When the canals were widened, the mules were gone, and there was a need for large dry docks along the canal’s length with machine shops, mechanics, welders, and machinists to keep the large barges in repair. 

The postcard shot, the obvious angle from which to reveal the workings of the dry dock, was from behind the great wheel on which the crane sat. I got there quickly, but I had barely begun to study its complex geometries when, all the other workshop participants streamed into my picture. Conscious that the shot I wanted meant clearing one side of site where half a dozen might shoot, I relinquished my postcard perspective after only a couple of quick shots. I went instead where I could shoot uncontested and tried to photograph intimations.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015


PHOTOGRAPHER’S JOURNAL: Just off the Erie Canal a disused dry dock, once a busy place with a truss-boomed crane, rested ghostly and still. A canal keeper who let us in had run the crane, swung the boom, lowered the plates to repair rusting canal barges, but he was much younger then. He said the dock and crane were built in 1917.

The opening in the boom lattice was just large enough for my DSLR and fist. An LCD viewfinder is essential here. This is the kind of task where small lens cameras, with their extended depth of field, excel. I was uncertain if my DSLR would handle the task. We become the tools we use.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

On the Canal, Just Fishing

PHOTOGRAPHER’S JOURNAL: Most people think the tripod’s purpose is primarily to steady the camera, but tripod shooting fosters compositional seeing, allows one to study and fine-tune compositional detail, and probably aids in habituating the mind to compositional strategies. Unless I am doing street photography, on vacation, or shooting family, I almost always shoot from a tripod. However, tripod shooting has important disadvantages. It is awkward to use at interesting angles and low to the ground, hard to nuzzle into corners and often just recalcitrant.

When my friend and I reached the canal we decided to walk a bit and leave our tripods behind. As we began shooting both of us saw this opportunity at the same moment from different angles. Had I been shooting from a tripod, I would have scrambled to get in position in time to catch the fisherman in his pose. Camera in hand, exposure already set, I focused, aimed and clicked three times in fast succession. The whole thing took me no more than two seconds, but by the second shot he was already turning to leave, and the moment was lost. I recall wondering, “Would it suffice if the first shot were blurred?"

The devil is in the details; compositional thinking begins below consciousness. Years of tripod shooting led me to watch the edge where the pylon must be carefully placed and the opposite corner where the tip of the triangle must not be lost. Shooting hand-held encourages tunnel vision. I recall making a quick choice to leave no more than the triangular wedge of the bridge’s outer face. On reflection, it was the right choice leaving the parallel undersides of the girders to lead the eye with the river’s flow.

Luck, nature, or instinct placed the bit of branch and the diagonal post where they needed to be, leading your eye to the fisherman. In finding a tonal solution for the image I discovered that brightening the squarish end of the concrete crosspiece in the upper right corner reinforced the mass of the structure and the geometries within the picture frame. When it all works like this, I receive it as a gift, whatever its merit. Although a bit later in the day the light might have been truly spectacular on the river and the pier, I’m happy with the story of the patient fisherman, contemplating the flow beneath the thundering highway.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Canal Gate

PHOTOGRAPHER’S JOURNAL: My friend and I arrived in Rome, New York, a few hours before the Erie Canal workshop was scheduled to begin. With a few free hours we decided to explore, and after passing through the center of town we found ourselves at the intersection of the Mohawk River and the modern Erie Canal. Two large gates were held open along the canal beside where the river joined it.

The Erie Canal was begun in 1817. Sometimes called, “Clinton’s Ditch,” the original 389 mile canal was complete in 1825 connecting Lake Erie in Buffalo to the Port of New York via Albany and the Hudson River. It was a a landmark achievement that transformed a new nation and made New York City into the nation’s commercial center, and it provided quick access to the midwest. It quickly became, not just a single canal, but a canal system that opened a broad commercial region in upstate New York. It was rebuilt twice, and as “The Erie Canal National Heritage Corridor,” it continues operating today.

“Obliques are dynamic.” Those were the words Freeman Patterson used to cement in my mind a principle I already knew. That was in 2001, and I’ve thought of it often since then. Socrates was right, all important learning is really just remembering what you were born knowing. It was the first of Freeman's lectures on the syntax of photography, and it was the first formal photo workshop I had taken. 

The angle here is determined by where the oblique begins and ends and how it relates to all four corners. There are many choices to be made in processing. My intent was to contrast the dark massiveness of the gates with the wispiness of the clouds. Monochrome allowed me to maximize both.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

I'm Back

PHOTOGRAPHER’S JOURNAL:  It’s hard for me to think of the Erie Canal without hearing the strains of “Fifteen miles…” and imagining the mule barges bringing their cargoes to market. I’m just back from a five-day workshop with Tillman Crane on the Erie Canal near Rome, NY. Tillman has been systematically exploring and  photographing along the canal for several years, and has offered yearly workshops at different locations along the canal system. He was an excellent guide, leading us all to good photo sites that revealed the canal’s twisted history and provided rich opportunities for making pictures, and I look forward to seeing Tillman's finished collection of images for his unique vision.

I’ve found the experience of shooting with a bunch of strangers, and sharing images nightly is invaluable in learning new ways of seeing. The group of photographers who tend to follow Tillman’s workshops are often devotees of medium and large format photography. It is a different medium than 35mm photography with a long tradition of chemical processing that is fundamental to photography as an art form. Tillman’s license plate number is made from the chemical symbols for platinum (Pt) and palladium (Pd), and he is known as an expert in the intricacies of chemical processing and large format imaging. For me, his workshops provide a rare chance to focus a bit on what distinguishes 35mm photography from larger formats. Many of those who brought samples of their work to show brought only monochrome images. 

This image comes from the afternoon of the workshop’s first day spent in an empty amusement park. It followed a morning spent in “Erie Canal Village,” a recreated town made from 19th century salvage that had seen better days. 

Another workshop participant took a similarly composed shot. However, I was surprised by many of the elements that others found to isolate from the chaos of carnival rides and signage. A considerable part of the skill one learns as a photographer involves mentally imprinting strategies of pictorial composition. Head-on, frontal symmetry is a core strategy. That does not make it less apt in the right situations, but those who see primarily in monochrome will find very different things to isolate here. Either way, the devil is always in the details.

Be sure to view this large and against a dark background. You may even need to zoom in.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Back to the River: Upstream Headwaters


It has been a hectic week with much to be happy about, but by Friday I ached to be out making photographs, and I followed the Naugatuck River past a series of dams to this one which impounds Hall Meadow Brook Reservoir near the top of the Torrington Hills. If pushed for a word to describe these hills, I might say “primeval." I would say it despite knowing that the land was timbered and mined even as it was dammed and milled. First came iron and timber. Climbing the hill I passed Wolcott Road, named for the woolen mill that that opened here at the beginning of the 19th century and Brass Mill Road, named for the brass mill that followed it. And yet it feels primeval.

I left my car at the northern end of the Reservoir and explored the ruins of some sort of concrete bunker, now roofless, but otherwise impervious to all except gang graffiti. In a scrubby area, where land turned to swamp, a pile of asphalt had been dumped, and I climbed to the top to see if elevation would better tip the pond into my picture. The muffled light of the clouds made the wet hillsides thatchy and added a bit of color. Finally, I walked south along the side of the reservoir on what must once have been the old road into the valley to the point where the road goes under and becomes a highway for fish mostly. In front of me was the rubble wall of the dam with a tiny hut and a stair down that seemed only big enough to let insects climb inside the dam. The dam was one of a series installed by the insects to control the river’s surge and keep it from washing over the flimsy villages in its path. 

That was 1955, and it was remembered as the year of the great flood. There is nothing primeval here it is only that here the world feels momentarily in remission while old scars heal a bit and the hills seem again to become ancient and holy.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

The Farrel Sand Elevator

PHOTOGRAPHER’S JOURNAL: Even before I wanted to know what it was, I imagined what it might be like up in those tin can offices with their rickety terraces and dangling stairs, and what treasures had been left moldering deep in the bowels of the beast? It is as much a relic of industry as of railroading and an archetype for model railroad enthusiasts to miniaturize. Some of the track remains in place that threaded the rail yard to carry trains through the opening under the elevator and into the long shed that stretched to the end of the property.

I didn’t know then that the bridge and tower dated at least to the start of World War I, nor had I yet discovered what was still up in the long passageway or how deeply it penetrated the rows of Farrel, work sheds to deliver sand from train cars to molds used by the foundry to make giant rubber and sugar calenders for which Farrel-Birmingham became famous. 

What does Connecticut want to remember from what’s left of Ansonia’s industrial heritage? What does future Connecticut need to know about those who came before? Should any part of this place be salvaged to help tell its story or provoke a question? 

I’m only a photographer, and my photographs are not meant to answer those questions, only to show the things that caught the camera-eye of one of time’s vagrants looking for shelter along the track.