•COMING IN SEPTEMBER, 2015•

Brass Valley: The Fall of an American Industry

by Emery Roth

Friday, September 26, 2008

Room After Room, Just Visiting


PHOTOGRAPHER'S DIARY: Reflections While Shooting at Olson House, Part 9  

I was about 5 years old when my parents rented a new apartment in an old building in New York City. It remained my home until I left for college, and afterward it was my brother's apartment and the place of many family reunions. It is as much a part of me as the freckles on the back of my hand, and in my palm I still sense the unique feel of the crystal door knobs and bathroom faucets. 

Yet, among the profound mysteries of my childhood were the places in that apartment, usually around the door frames, where I caught a glimpse of strangers. In those places the clean paint of my home was nicked to reveal a cross-section of old paint layers. There were pale blues, dark browns, greens, or yellows piled on top of faded cream, on top of stately rust; they were stacked like geological stratifications. I remember taking chips in my hand and trying to peel them apart. Through those cracks in time I could travel back what seemed to me like eons into spaces that were at once my room and yet places very different where other people lived in my home. There I sensed the shuffling ghosts of generations. I like taking photographs in such charged places.

The inside of Olson House contained such cracks in time where stair treads were worn thin, where the grip of absent hands had rubbed the paint from door frames, where mirrors might hold vanished reflections, where scratches on the bottom-rail of a door told of a dog seeking to be let in or let out and a hand that would grasp the door knob in compliance. So far, most of the shots of Olson House that I've posted were taken from outside the house. Such intimate residuum is harder to find there. Much as I had eagerly anticipated shooting INSIDE Olson House, once I got my chance, I found it discouragingly difficult.  Interior space is much less forgiving of lens choices and tilts. Probably its also that I've done much less shooting in such narrow confines.

The spartan emptiness of the rooms was another thing. Furniture was minimal except in the shed, and that was already crowded with shooters. What objects should one introduce? How much should one stage the image? Or were the spirits to be found solely in the way light caressed the mottled, dappled, and stippled surfaces of the of the old house. It had been home, not only to to Christina and Alvaro, but to their forebears back to the Hathorne's who built it? Tillman's photos were elegantly simple and made the emptiness speak, but his medium, large format, black & white film, was also quite different. What should I do with my color digital technique?

In my first afternoon at the house I spent some time shooting an old rocker and its shadows in one of the otherwise vacant rooms. The angle of sun was such that the spindles in the back of the empty chair cast grotesquely exaggerated shadows on the floor, and I spent some time exploring these gothic geometries, but the result was contrived and ultimately passionless - not worth going further. Or perhaps I simply hadn't placed the chair properly, or I shot it in the wrong room, but I moved on. In the entry hall I liked how the afternoon sun caught details of the stairway and made the floor gleam, but I felt no presences, saw no shots, though I took some. I made a number of other tries, increasingly half-hearted, and retreated outside where the bright sun was making the exterior wood of the old house sizzle.  I had four more days to get inside, after all.

Outside the house was instantly gorgeous to me, and I shot until sunset. It was only that night that I recognized my retreat as the cowardly act it was. In order to overcome my difficulty, I decided that on the second day I would re-shoot a shot, justly famous. Even if I couldn't yet commune with the spirits inside the house, I hoped to control the picture space.

A tradition has developed in photographing Olson House.  Perhaps it was the inevitable outcome of the way rooms are strung together and receive light.  Wyeth, of course, set the pattern in, "Room After Room." He uses a similar device in, "The Ericksons."  When Tillman Crane shot his series of photos on Olson House, he reversed Wyeth's perspective by shooting from pantry to kitchen to shed.  

Numerous workshop students have also chosen Tillman's orientation, and it was what I wanted most to try. Of all the room after room possibilities, this seemed the most challenging. It is potentially the longest run possible and includes the three most furnished spaces. Light enters from three directions. I liked especially the bright light, way back at the end wall of the shed, and wanted to include it. Inverting Wyeth's shot allows inclusion of the gleaming wood cook stove and doing so you'd think you were at the Ericksons' instead of the Olsons'. Although I had wanted to shoot this room-after-room since I signed up for the workshop, I still had no Idea what I wanted to do there. 

The goal I set was technical: 1. Explore lens  choices, positions, and tilts and their effects. This is but one. 2. Use light and objects to lead the eye through the composition. 3. Maintain detail in all shadow areas. 

The length of the room-to-room run meant I had to coordinate my work with efforts of my colleagues in spaces down the line. We were all considerate of each other's needs, but progress was slow and sometimes heads and fannies popped unexpectedly into my viewfinder. A few of my shots feature such unscripted, guest appearances though they are not the spirits I was hoping to capture.  

This then is a sketch as I think about the experience of shooting here; I hope it is something to build on. I've shot up, down, left right, and maybe I've learned a bit about the consequences of each choice. If I get to shoot here again, I want to return with a plan and props. Any suggestions?