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

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.