Wednesday, March 15, 2017

The Blacksmith's Heart

next slide talks:
Finding Brass Valley: A Place in Time that has almost Vanished

Mar. 20 @ 7 PM - Milford Public Library, Milford, CT (Come also to see the exhibition)
Mar 27 @ 6 PM - Cheshire Public Library, Cheshire, CT

PHOTOGRAPHER’S JOURNAL: The Lenswork podcast below has gotten me thinking about the place of metaphor in art photography and the role of culture in determining the photographs we make. In the podcast Brooks Jensen points out, I think correctly, that what distinguishes documentary photography from art photography is that documentary photography is about the subject; art photography is always about something else - he says that's metaphor. He then talks a bit about how metaphor is culture-bound. I especially recommend this link to other photographers.

Because I strive to make “art photographs,"  in places that need to be documented, I must ask of every picture I choose to process: Why? And for whom? My publisher describes Brass Valley: The Fall of an American Industry as an ode, not a history, and I hope it is about something more than Brass Valley. What does “The Blacksmith’s Heart," mean outside the culture of smiths and smithing? 

Brooks Jensen’s discussion makes references to one of the great photographs of all time, Dorothea Lange’s, "Migrant Mother.” I hesitate to mention it on a screen with my own photograph in view. What is it that catapults that picture to being a metaphor of an era, over the other images Lange took that day?

I had always thought that music was at an opposite pole from metaphor; that, “All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music.” And the “condition,” as Walter Pater termed it, was that music touches us directly through the raw force of silence and sound arranged in harmonic, rhythmic, and timbrel patterns, without the use of metaphor. But how is it that raw forces such as intensity, timbre, harmony, and rhythm combine to touch the deepest levels of our spirit making us laugh, grieve, yearn, or find solace and balm? What part of our reaction is metaphoric and culture-bound, though primal and species deep? Where do those harmonies and dissonances lie?

I think it’s correct to see these musical forces as analogous to the photographer’s ability to communicate directly through composition and tonality. What distinguishes “Migrant Mother” from other photos of the series is not simply the inscrutable expression of the migrant mother but the powerful chord struck by the tonalities of garments, bunting, ringlets, necks that swirl around an axis and upon a compositional scaffolding of crumbling stability? What part of this picture is culture-bound? How deep in the heart does metaphor lie?


Half way down the “nave” of the Farrel Foundry is the transept. That is where the metal was poured into molds made of sand. Workers associated in any way with the Farrel foundry usually have stories to tell. Grime, danger, and heroism seem to be widely remembered, and there is a special regard given those who poured the metal. Founders, casters and molders are the priesthood of the metals and machine industries. Once theywere alchemists whose coveted secrets imparted the spirit to the metal and on whose crystal magic all future success depended. 

In 1731 quality iron ore was discovered in Salisbury, CT, and by the mid-1740s they were producing pig iron in East Canaan, Salisbury, Sharon and Kent, and the Northwest HIlls had become the center of America's iron industry. By the time of the Revolution there was hardly a community in the region that had the power of a good stream that did not also have a puddling furnace for refining the impurities from the pig iron produced in blast furnaces. Local farmers forged the purified wrought iron into the tools they needed, and the region developed an expertise in metal working. But forging and founding were different arts, and the most precious secrets belonged to those who poured the metal.

With ores and metals of uncertain purity and the fluctuating heat of charcoal, coke or, later, coal, they learned to make fires that would sustain the high heat required and relied on their senses, knew by the sound or smell, when it was time to add ingredients or mix or pour. The region developed an experimental curiosity about making and working metal that grew to expertise and drew the metals industries to the Naugatuck Valley and to Connecticut.

I’ve been told that existing journals of Barnum & Richardson, with furnaces in East Canaan and Salisbury show deliveries of iron to the Farrel foundry right up through WWI and deliveries still being made as late as 1925, two years after the smelting operations had shut down. The last delivery of Connecticut iron came in 1941, exclusively made up of old pieces of salamanders probably for a widening Second World War. The superintendent who kept those journals was reportedly, "proud that ‘Salisbury' iron had served the country from the Revolution through WWII. 

The people of the Lower Valley are also quick to talk about Farrel’s past importance to the nation’s defenses, and I’ve been told the foundry was hidden in camouflage during WWII. Pigs of iron, whatever the source, were delivered here, to the transept, where the metal was poured.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Cathedral Space

4 slide-talks in March

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

exhibits also in Millbrook, NY and Milford, CT
Brazen Grit: Images of Brass Valley

photographs by Emery Roth

Mar. 4 @ 2 PM Merritt Bookstore, Millbrook, NY (Come also to see the exhibition)

Mar. 12 @ 4 PM - Wilton Public Library (part of series: "Finding our Place: Evolving American Identity")

Mar. 20 @ 7 PM - Milford Public Library, Milford, CT (Come also to see the exhibition)

Mar 27 @ 6 PM - Cheshire Public Library

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL: Foundry Collapse! The news of the building collapse at Farrel Foundry came with the city's commitment to demolish it. The story seemed to pass through the news cycle causing barely a blip, even among those of us who care about such places. By the next day it was gone. 

Demolition is probably long overdue, but it seems irreverent to let it pass without memorialization of some sort. Farrel Foundry was recognized as “the archetypal foundry building of its day,” and it was probably the largest machine tool foundry in New England. It was surely the Valley’s grandest industrial cathedral.

The foundry was built in the early 1890s by the Berlin Iron & Bridge Co. The enormous basilica was the culmination of the family company that Franklin Farrel inherited from his father in the town whose dam and canal they had built together in the employ of Anson Phelps almost a half century earlier. Almon Farrel was a millwright who had been building millworks and mill dams for new industry up the river in Waterbury, when he was asked by Anson Phelps to build the millworks for an industrial village that would be named Ansonia. 

In 1847, two years before there was a railroad, Almon Farrel acquired a tract of land from Anson Phelps, plus “one half square foot of permanent water,” from the canal the Farrels had built. Farrel began by making brass and iron castings, wooden mortise gears and parts for water-powered plants.

Essential to industrial growth in America was the ability to cast the metal parts needed for the machines of manufacturing. Soon Farrel was manufacturing the rolling mill equipment for the rapidly expanding copper and brass industries up and down the valley, and as the river valley became famous as Brass Valley, industries that used brass parts wanted to be near the companies that made them, and some of them would need machines that Farrel made. 

The central aisle of Farrel's foundry is 55 feet across with wide side aisles. From the start, an important feature was an immense traveling crane that spanned the central aisle and traveled the full 300 foot length (soon extended) of the shed. By the 1890s, this was the key to moving the heavy rolls that Farrel was making and assembling in calenders for rolling paper, rubber, and metal, and for crushing stone, ore, sugar and grain; anywhere large, hard, metal rolls were needed in giant sizes. 

The crane girders were carried on unusual, round, iron columns, three feet in diameter and tapering gracefully. But for their color, one might expect to find them on the portico of a Congregational church. One of these columns can be seen clearly on the right. The crane at the back of the picture, one of two that were there when this picture was made, is rated at 60 tons.

At the midpoint of foundry nave is a transept, just behind where the duct is broken off on the right. That is where the heating and pouring of the metal happened in three great casting pits. The art of heating, mixing, pouring and, especially, cooling the metal required secrets coveted by the alchemists who ran the casting furnaces. From the beginning, the men who cast the metal and the places where they cast it were regarded with a special reverence. What should be said at its passing? What token of its existence should be passed to future generations?

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

The Sterling Opera House, Birmingham

PHOTOGRAPHER’S JOURNAL: The Sterling Opera House stands on the Birmingham Town Green. The opera house was a gift of the Sterling Piano Company. It was the age of the piano, and the Sterling Piano Company was Birmingham’s largest employer. The town needed a gathering place and the piano company needed a recital hall. But the Sterling Opera House contained far more than a hall, and it played a significant role in creating the culture of the region. 

From the tower of the Sterling one can look down on the Birmingham Town Green. The Green was a gift to the town by Anson Phelps and Sheldon Smith who had founded the town of Birmingham by building a reservoir and canal along the west side of the Naugatuck River and by selling mill sites to promising entrepreneurs. It was the early 1830s, a time of growth.

Unlike hill town greens, this property was given on the condition that no animals graze on the green and with other restrictions in accord with propriety.

Smith and Phelps also gave land on three sides of the green for the construction of Episcopal, Congregational, and Methodist churches. It was a vision of how a free society might come together. The opera house was built fifty years later.

From one entrance at the corner of the building patrons purchased tickets and climbed a grand stair to the first level of the opera house.

From a different entrance at the center of the building one entered City Hall. On the streets around the green, named for the wives and daughters of Smith and Phelps there were fine fine homes and families with parlors and pianos. The problem was, neither Derby nor Birmingham were cities. The nearest city was Bridgeport. Birmingham was a borough of the town of Derby, a town that contained no cities.

Towns generally have a selectmen. Only cities have mayors.

Birmingham was a powerful community. The dam on the Housatonic was owned by Birmingham businessmen, and the profits and taxes that resulted benefitted Birmingham though they were earned from the industries in Shelton, just across the Housatonic River on the west, and from Ansonia, just across the Naugatuck River on the east.

The opera house complex has a fascinating layout in which spaces serving the opera house and those serving the city hall are woven over and under each other but rarely connect. As one descends to the back of the city hall section, one eventually comes to the small police station and the jail with three cells.

However, for most people the building's feature is not the city hall but the opera house. The grand stair that rises from the ticket window continues to two balconies with plenty of room for intermission, a time to climb to the top of the tower and look for Long Island Sound.

The hall was a place for theater and for town gatherings and it was a recital hall for concerts featuring Sterling pianos, of course. 

The Sterling piano was commended and advertised by the foremost piano virtuoso of the time, Ignacy Jan Paderewski. Paderewski retired from the concert stage after WW I to become prime minister of Poland and to represent his country at the Paris Peace Talks. It is likely he played to these benches.

The age of the piano! Virtuoso pianists were idols. There were “Monster Concerts” featuring a hundred pianos playing at once. If a well-off middle class family wanted music, they bought a piano and invested in piano lessons for their children. I have a letter written by my grandmother to my great grandfather in which she talks about her chores being done by her siblings so that she might play music for him. 

The hall was designed after principles devised by Richard Wagner for his opera house in Bayreuth, Germany, and its perfect acoustics may have helped its architect, H. Edwards Ficken, become co-architect of New York's Carnegie Hall.

John Philip Sousa stood here and rattled the walls; Houdini disappeared through the trap door in the floor boards; Bing crooned to adoring teens. before it closed after WWII.

But when I think of Sousa and his gleaming brass, I imagine them marching here on the Common that Anson Phelps and Sheldon Smith gave to the town.

Smith and Phelps had started a brass mill here, and because pianos used lots of brass parts, the largest industry in Birmingham and Shelton was pianos.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Blacksmith's Tools

PHOTOGRAPHER’S JOURNAL: I’m told that the farm blacksmith who made these tools was working here still in the 1960s. A sign on a post above the blacksmith's blower tells customers   “Make checks out to….”  

How many of the transformative innovations of American industrial technology came from thinkers who learned their first skills in places like this working with the metals of their time? What is the role of “hand made” in shaping thought and spirit?

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Blacksmith Redux


Exhibition: “Brazen Grit”
photographs of Emery Roth
Minor Memorial Library, Roxbury, CT

PHOTOGRAPHER’S JOURNAL: The day in 2009 that I climbed through the broken siding of a decaying farm building in Kent is memorable, even though I didn’t know at the time what I had stumbled upon. There was a hole in the floor right where the siding had been broken into, and beyond that there was barely room to step. I was nervous, not sure if my permission to photograph extended there. I shot randomly and left. 

By the second visit I realized this had once been a blacksmith shop, and by the third visit I had permission and began earnestly to make images. The passage below, from the original post, conceals my earlier entry but makes clear the challenge and importance of understanding my subject.

A decade has passed since I began this blog. Ten ful years encompassing 1,403 individual posts, remain accessible here on Blogger ( Back then I used HDR to control the extremes of light, but I’ve learned other methods since, and I look forward to updating other images from this series. 

PHOTOGRAPHER’S JOURNAL, April 5, 2010: When I first entered this shop, I had been told it was a blacksmith's shop, but I was barely aware of the anvil and hearth amid the clutter. I read about smithing, made repeated trips and educated my eye. One by one, all of the blacksmith's essential tools revealed themselves to me as if out of thin air. Now when I enter it feels as if the blacksmith had just stepped outside before I entered. Was he out by the barn replacing a hinge and puffing on his Edgeworth? Would he return momentarily and fire up the hearth? The tools he needed would be around him and ready as they were a few moments back. 

Long after his essentials had reappeared, one item remained plainly invisible to the blind man. A note in an old blacksmith's text I found online pointed the way. It said a blacksmith always had a bucket of water by his work to cool or temper the iron. Was there a bucket? My images to that point revealed none. I got back to the shop as quickly as I could. Of course it was there, right where it should be. It's visible here between the blower and the anvil. Someone has let it run dry.

Some readers will look at this and remember an earlier image posted here, not too dissimilar but from slightly further back and a bit to the left. I posted it twice, first as a monochrome and then, "in technicolor." It was the first shot of the shop interior I posted. It was a month or more before I began the series. Several people commented that they liked the splash of light which peppered the room and fell over part of the anvil, but the overall sense of the image was the chaos. At that point, that's all I could see. Now it's clear that had I changed position and angle slightly the order could have been clear, but everything was still invisible to me then.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Monday, December 19, 2016

Canal Bridge

PHOTOGRAPHER’S JOURNAL: It has been called the first "industrial park" in Connecticut, a place designed and built, not for a particular company or manufacturer, but with the aim of offering for sale multiple factory sites with power to turn machinery, and transportation to move goods for visionary manufacturing entrepreneurs. At it’s center was a five-and-a-quarter mile canal that allowed barges heaped with goods for market to more easily pass the falls and shallows below Enfield on the Connecticut River. 

In 1827, when work was begun, hopes were buoyed by the transformative success of New York's Erie Canal, two years earlier. Unlike that canal, where barges were pulled by draft animals along a tow path, the new canal was structurally reinforced to withstand steam-driven tug boat traffic. The project would open the single greatest bottleneck in the passage of goods along the Connecticut River all the way into Vermont, and it would sustain the commercial viability of Hartford against the competing interests of New Haven which were then at work on the Farmington Canal. Canals were being planned everywhere. There were plans for a canal between Albany and Boston.

The new canal would be designed with locks to raise and lower boats thirty feet along its course. It required the building of a large dam on the river and an aqueduct to carry canal water 104 feet across Stony Brook to feed apertures with steady flow past mill wheels at five factory sites. The passion to move goods by canal boat faded quickly as the steam that had begun powering tug boats along the Connecticut River began powering locomotives at greater speed with fewer interruptions over evenly graded tracks through the same valleys where the rivers flowed. Did this bridge once swing to admit visitors from the railroad to the right over a canal becoming less busy? Though the canal’s value for transportation diminished, it’s value for power generated increased as mill wheels became turbines and later as turbines turned electrical generators. The Windsor locks were a monumental undertaking; the first time Connecticut River water had powered mill wheels, one of the largest construction projects ever attempted in the state, and it grew to be a community.

[The Montgomery Company, Windsor Locks, CT - July, 2016]


Sunday, December 4, 2016

Factory Light

Come to the slide-talk, see the exhibition
Dec. 10 @ 1 PM, 
Minor Memorial Library, Roxbury, CT (just off Rt. 67)

slide-talk and book signing

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

Brazen Grit: Images of Brass Valley

photographs by Emery Roth

exhibit runs thru Jan. 7, 2017

PHOTOGRAPHER’S JOURNAL (continuing the story of the Last Machine): At the opposite corner of this shed Art and Ben are disassembling the last machine. While they cut and scrap there, here their smoke filters through sunbeams that fall into a space built shortly after 1890. If we could slip between the decades to before the Civil War we’d find Anson Phelps old brass mill here, the one he built on the canal that brought power to the mill town he built and the town he created.

These mills have long been patchworks. I suppose it’s a measure of the vitality that kept them reconfiguring to meet changing demands. However, this shed, except for the back wall seemed uninterestingly new. I never paid attention to this shadowed corner, though I passed it daily. There is no sawtooth of rowed clerestories here, as elsewhere, to fill the aisle with light, and nothing ever happened here when I visited.

I try to imagine it in 1895 when it was the new casting shop for the company Anson Phelps had established here. There would have been furnaces, buggies full of coke and metal and radiating heat and danger. They built the new casting shop with a monitor roof beside the old one, closer to the tracks. The old one had been smack up against one side of the furnaces, and when the new Rolling Department shed was completed there would be space all around the furnaces. The 1895 tax map shows the new casting shop beside the old one which is labeled, “Vacant 16.” And the large muffle room beside the furnaces is labeled, “This building to be rebuilt at once.” By the 1900 map, the area that includes “vacant 16,” the furnaces, and the “Muffle Room” has been incorporated beneath a second monitor roof, long gone, that paralleled this one.  

The published maps let me travel back through one more layer of sooty shadows to 1884. No large furnaces are shown, but at the end of what I guess to be the old casting shop there is a single, small chimney. And on the spot of ground where these smokey sunbeams shine, Ansonia Brass & Copper had some sheds for storing lumber and coke beside the tracks.

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