Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Handle and Latch

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL: I note the blacksmith who made this took time to shape the handle to fit a hand and to add a bit of flair in the arrowhead latch. I puzzled over the awkward position of the large ring should one want to add a lock. Could it be that at a later time the ring was turned ninety degrees, perhaps when the old wood cracked?

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Idle Latch

SALLY MANN: ".....I struggle with enormous discrepancies: between the reality of motherhood and the image of it, between my love for my home and the need to travel, between the varied and seductive paths of the heart. The lessons of impermanance, the occasional despair and the muse, so tenuously moored, all visit their needs upon me and I dig deeply for the spiritual utilities that restore me: my love for the place, for the one man left, for my children and friends and the great green pulse of spring."

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL: Spring is in readiness - I've never had that sensation so strongly as this year. We had a week of unusually warm, sunny weather. I walked every day, and I wrote of peeping shoots in the dark forest and of the first leaf bulbs surging. And afterward, Jane nudged me to turn up my ears and enjoy the song of the first pond peepers. But the weather grew suddenly cold and crisp, and I used the clear light to shoot the blacksmith's latches on the old farm. There was a bit of snow, and some of it on Winchell Mountain in shadows lasted to last weekend, and all that pent up exuberance waited and grew stronger. Now, temperatures have begun to rise again, and we've had three days of rain. Even if I can't yet see any green, I can feel it rising. The rivers are flowing full and the ground is saturated, and the weekend prediction is for temperatures to climb to the mid-seventies. Though all is still dark and colorless, the swollen earth seems ready to loosen and spring forth as never before.

Monday, March 29, 2010




What is it blacksmiths forged?
They seemed like rugged farriers,
Nose to the grindstone,
Plough to the seed row,
But they were magic men
Who tempered steel,
Made swords invincible,
Charmed compasses to spin
With the flux of the heavens.
From the steady beat of their hammer
Came music that made molecules dance,
Reverberating in the city's hum,
Resonating in the rumbling of continents,
Resounding in the silence of galaxies.
The doors of empty barns swing on their great, strap hinges still.
The straps still knit the crumbling doors.
Graceful hooks slide smoothly still to secure the hasp against the creep of tendrils and stalks,
Though the barns are cold, too cold for the mice.
Is the squeak of the hinges, the creak of the doors, the clink of the hook behind the hasp still the blacksmith's song?

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Anvil at Sunset

MACK M. JONES, from "War Department Education Manual, EM 862," 1944 quoting text of 1898:
306. Hardening and Tempering a Cold Chisel.-After a cold chisel is forged and annealed, it may be hardened and tempered as follows:

1. Heat the end to a dark red, back 2 or 3 in. from the cutting edge.
2. Cool about half of this heated part by dipping in clean water and moving it about quickly up and down and sideways, until the end is cold enough to hold in the hands.
3. Quickly polish one side of the cutting end by rubbing with emery cloth, a piece of an old grinding wheel, a piece of brick, or an old file.
4. Carefully watch the colors pass toward the cutting end. The first color to pass down will be yellow, followed in turn by straw, brown, purple, dark blue, and light blue.
5. When the dark blue reaches the cutting edge, dip the end quickly into water and move it about rapidly. If much heat is left in the shank above the cutting edge, cool this part slowlyso as not to harden the shank and make it brittle. This is done by simply dipping only the cutting end and keeping it cool -while the heat in the shank above slowly dissipates into the air.
6. When all redness has left the shank drop the tool into the bucket or tub until it is entirely cool.

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL: After following the beam of sunlight across the shop it was inevitable and just that the last sunshine fell where the smith sent sparks flying. Beside the anvil is the crank he turned to make the coals glow white hot until he deemed the iron ready to be worked. That knowledge, I'm told, was passed down through generations in a ceaseless regimen of repairs and improvements and occasional bits of virtuoso display all of which pressed on like the seasons. Since blacksmithing can easily be a two-person task, one can only imagine much was said in words and deeds around this anvil.

Normally I go to old places to look for traces of the past. Here the scene was nearly intact, the past was all around me, and what was striking was how it had remained so long. The men who worked here did not do so haphazardly. They were resourceful and hard-working. And then they put down their work and stopped, and the place is very quiet now and drafty, too cold for the mice.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010


SIMON WATNEY: "No picture has a single meaning."

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL: Yesterday I wondered about the place of the blacksmith shop in the finished photo. Can a photo, in fact, forget its origin in a specific time, place, or subject and take on a language more often found in a painting. Though taken in the blacksmith's shop, this might have been anywhere and whatever feelings or thoughts it conveys have little to do with smithing or farming or even drill bits. I have no idea what it's about, can't put it into words, but in it I find mysteries which continue to resonate softly.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Blacksmith's Hand

JOHN ROSENTHAL: "As a fledgling street photographer strolling up and down the streets of cities, I quickly became aware of Time and its erosive power. My early photographs focused almost exclusively on the signs of an older culture that was holding on for dear life. I'd photograph seltzer bottles in old wooden crates piled high in a truck, or the dusty windows of Jewish bread shops, or old men building February fires on the beaches of Coney Island. My interest was more than documentary, for it seemed to me that what was about to vanish was important and irreplaceable, and frankly, I wanted my photographs to offer, in some manner, the power of resuscitation. Actually, I still do, though I no longer believe that photographs can prevent the homely past from being plowed under; rather, I believe that photographs - especially good photographs that compel our interest - help us to remember; and even more importantly, they help us to decide what is worth remembering."

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL: What makes a picture? Is it this old Buffalo Forge blower, No. 625. I found one like it in a 1908 Buffalo Forge catalogue on the internet. Before hand blowers like this became available in the 1880s the blacksmith would have needed a large bellows and an assistant to work the iron.

Or is it about where the blower was in the room, the arrangement of hearth, blower, anvil that let the blacksmith's work flow?

Or should the photo rather be about where it was in the rectangle of the picture - not really about the blower or the blacksmith at all but a pleasing and harmonious composition of forms, colors, textures, light?

 If the photo can transcend the place, can it conjure the absent hand that turned the crank to deliver the blast of air that made the coals glow and superheated the metal in the forge until the blacksmith saw it turn the right color, lifted it from the forge, and turned to the anvil to begin his hammering?

And can it capture at the same time that absent hand and the quiet that dwells in the shop now and haunts this old farm?

Monday, March 22, 2010

Spare Parts

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL: These aging broken wheels can yet transport. Let us roll them round, finger the dry wood and imagine who last rode them into town when the roads were still dirt, and stones jostled the farmer's way. Even today between the ancient, genteel houses and shops, survivals of that carriage age, the snarling autos slow. They whine and throb but pause for families crossing Main Street munching pastries bought in shops where the farmer or his wife bought a new pair of overalls or a tin bucket or had a harness mended.

By the time the farm ceased operations in the 1960s, wagon wheels were a front yard cliché, but in this blacksmith's shop they've been saved, spare parts, carefully stored above the blacksmith's bench. Did they hang there for 50 years, a quaint souvenir becoming ever more obsolete before the farm stopped, and did they then hang another 50 years forgotten and gathering dust?

Why were they initially saved? How might they have been reused? Where are the steel hoop tyres, or were these straked? ( Were the tyres unrepairable and too valuable to save; traded as scrap for new metal the way horse shoes were recycled? Old carriage and wagon wheels roll us into an economy with very different dynamics from our own but not so bucolic as we might think.

Through much of the 19th century this farm operated in the midst of a thriving iron industry. The traces remain in place names: "Ore Hill," "Iron Mountain." This silent farm lies fifteen minutes by car from the ruins of charcoal ovens, lime kilns, iron furnaces, a major commercial forge. Western Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Vermont were known for their high quality iron. How many layers of middlemen did it take to get the raw iron into the hands of the farmer-blacksmiths of Scarf Mountain Farm? The farmer had neighbors who made their livings in the iron industry. If the farmer didn't make his own ax, it was because he could buy a Collins Ax that kept its edge longer and cost him less. And the ax may have rolled into town along rails that ran across Main Street and somehow connected to the Collins Company a days carriage away in Collinsville, Connecticut. More and more, the world was riding on iron.

But everything was local: mines, lime kilns, charcoal ovens, blast furnaces, foundries, fabrictors, blacksmiths, ferriers, wheelwrights, harness makers. Today iron and steel are exotic; they come from places as far away as China and Russia, and when the steel breaks or rusts to uselessness it will journey as far before it can be reused. A piece of steel may travel through many countries before it is a wrench in my hand. It's sobering to consider a time of such local self-suficiency.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Suspended Animation

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL: Yesterday, I followed a brook down to the old ice pond. At the bottom of the valley the first skunk cabbages were poking their bulbs out of the mud. Inside the wine-colored bulb the yellow "clown ball" was in waiting.

This morning I spotted a tree with tight leaf buds swelling, and beside it was a tiny pond peppered with frogs all croaking for mates. They were so eager they didn't dive for safety when I passed.

If they still farmed here, the silos would be nearly empty and cows would be gazing longingly toward still brown fields. And the farmer too would be changing his routines. The forge is a fine place to spend the winter, but this is the time when the plows must be sharp and ready to cut the earth. If they still farmed here.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010


Mack M. Jones, from "War Department Education Manual, EM 862," 1944 quoting text of 1898: "Different grades of iron and steel may be distinguished by the sparks produced when ground on a grinding wheel. The higher the carbon content of the steel, the brighter and more explosive are the sparks."

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL: After being forged and tempered, plough blades and other farm tools needed to be sharpened, but a good grindstone was also needed to sharpen many of the tools the smith used to work the iron. No blacksmith could be without a good grindstone. In an age before electricity a farm blacksmith needed a large stone that could develop significant centrifugal momentum.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Of Swages, Fullers, and Peens

FRED HOLDER ( "All work that a blacksmith does consists of a number of basic processes, which when taken together allow him or her to produce very complex forgings. In this article, we begin to explore these processes. Once each of them is mastered, the beginning smith is ready to begin applying them in more complex situations. The processes that I am talking about are:

  • Squaring
  • Rounding
  • Pointing
  • Drawing
  • Bending
  • Joining
I consider these to be the basis of virtually all blacksmithing tasks. Once a smith has mastered these, only the imagination is the limit of what he or she can do."

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL: So much of creativity is putting the same basic elements into new patterns. The trick is in finding the combinations that make the whole so much greater than the sum of its parts. Whether forging a hinge, programming a computer, painting the Sistine ceiling, or discovering the trick to make red earth into iron, it's rarely conscious logic that makes the essential leap, more often it's some secret syzygy deep in the inner cosmos of the mind, an alignment of orbs. How does one populate this creative space with the right raw material to feed creativity? What calisthenic limbers its muscles? When the leap is made, how does one spot it as genuine? From whence comes this voice of the mind?

The sun's late day beam continued to point my way. One by one it crept across a row of hammer-like tools carefully stored near the forge. Blacksmiths are tool makers, and their shops are often filled with unique hammers, tongs, swages, fullers, peens and widgets. The blacksmith crafts the tools he needs to carry out the six processes of his art. Can one find in those tools the kind of work he did? The special projects he undertook? Anything of the shape of his life? Something of his attitudes, temperament, thought processes even? Might it go deeper still?

I recently visited a working blacksmith, a young man with a growing business. I had lots of questions and when I asked how I might spot a handmade tool, he showed me forge marks and signatures, and how cast tools might have a casting ridge and how a set of handmade tongs was slightly irregular or the look of a handmade rivet. Finally, he reached in a different spot and brought down a handmade hammer. It was tucked away apart from other hammers at the bench. He said it was the first tool he had made. He spoke with an authority that came from knowing its curves by heart.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Swages in Sunlight

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL: Once again I'm reminded that, because I always photograph under available light, it always starts with light. The blacksmith's shop is a difficult place to shoot. In the previous entry I described it as, "little disturbed for sixty years." It might have been more appropriate to say, "unused." The place itself looks like it has been shaken by an earthquake. As a result, it's hard enough to find places to stand, let alone walk. Debris lies everywhere in and around the orderly work patterns left by the last blacksmith. How to bring aesthetic order to chaos when it is hard simply getting the tripod in place?

And it can be a crazy lightbox too, especially when the ground outside was covered with snow. Much of the shop's siding is cracked, and light enters in shards from a thousand points perforating almost every usable background. All that light blinds sight while offering little useful illumination. Eight, irregularly placed windows along the east, south, and west walls have lost glass and mullions and recently even some frames have fallen apart. On sunny days, especially in winter when the sun is low, sunlight enters through these windows in tight beams; it might be fun to spend a full day there as the earth turns.

On my previous visit I'd taken a good photograph of the smith's large grindstone spotlighted in one of these beams. Then the sky had become overcast. This time the sky was clear, and I was returning expressly to follow the late day beams through the west-facing windows. Where would they lead me before the sun passed behind the nearby house and some minutes later, below the horizon? It was not the first time I'd followed the sun.

There is a large, free-standing bench or table outfitted with slots for holding the smith's, largest, hammers and long-handled sledges. It can be seen in the first picture I posted of the blacksmith's shop ( Just as I was entering the shop, sunlight touched the corner of this table for the first time.

I've worked as a carpenter, electrician; I've laid tile, and developed and printed film. I've even tried unsuccessfully to throw a few pots. I worked for an architectural model maker and learned to turn plexiglass and brillo into a miniature, city landscape. I can find my way around most of the traditional tools of these trades, but the tools of the blacksmith are foreign to me. Does one need incantations to work them? I believe two of the tools in this photograph are swages that might be used to help pound a rod to roundness. They are the size of a man's fist, and the first implies a cylindrical shape of considerable heft. What is the third tool? Does it have a special name or is it simply a customized, flathead hammer (a flatter) perhaps used for smoothing iron after drawing it out?

I could almost see the sun moving across the tools, and by its trajectory, the afternoon's shoot looked promising.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Blacksmith's Cornucopia

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL: Of course the alchemists are real. We live amid their transformation. The difference between the way the native Americans processed maple sugar and the productivity of colonial methods was metal. Among the alchemists of that earlier time were the farm blacksmiths. When we think of blacksmiths today, we commonly think of horse shoes and sweaty men in the image of Longfellow's smithy. In fact the farm blacksmith did far more than shoe horses. He made hinges and door hardware, repaired wagon wheels and kept his plows and saws sharp. If he did not make his own chains, he knew how to add a link to repair them. He made a variety of tools for his daily work from drill bits to most or all of the tools he used at the forge. He could make a sturdy whiffletree and a smoothly operating clevis.

Since we live remotely from the magic by which raw earth is transformed to hardened metal of superior strength, we may think his task not too different from the potter's, but the potter's artistry is of another dimension from the blacksmith's alchemy. At his forge he transformed molecules by many different recipes. He could improve the metal's hardness, it's tensile strength; he could make it pliant or springy, and if he was highly skilled he could put a spirit in the metal giving it magnetic power. In fact, the very first electric motor was created by a blacksmith, Thomas Davenport, in Vermont. Whether a blacksmith could create a magnet or not, he was always arranging the invisible field lines of the molecules in the iron to flow like currents of water in a stream or like air flow around the wing of an airplane. He had to be precise in the temperature and the chemical make-up of his fire. Too much sulphur, the wrong amount of carbon and his efforts would fail. He had to know just when to pull his work from the forge and beat it on his anvil and when to turn and put it back in the white heat.

Of course he also shoed horses as is evident in this image from an abandoned blacksmith's shop little disturbed for 60 years; and he kept the hay wagons rolling when the ruts savaged another wheel. It was the practiced skill of the farmer-blacksmith that kept things moving.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010


PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL: It was here before I knew it. My son-in-law, Darrell, told me it's the succession of warm days and cold nights that gets the sap moving, pulsing nutrients stored in the roots up to where the leaves will form. And my grandson, Aiden, took me around Poppy Cherniske's farm so we could peek under the lids of the tin buckets to see how fast the drops fell, and we climbed the mountain, and Oppa flew Aiden over the rocks where the springs had washed out the trail, and we never found the top, but the forest was so open we we could see across the valley. Not a green sprout to be seen, but spring was surging.

Back at the bottom of the mountain everyone was gathered around the sugaring house where they were boiling down the sap. We learned that 40 gallons of sap makes 1 gallon of syrup, and that the buckets must be emptied every day or the sap ferments and has to be thrown away. Making syrup takes real work.

This row of trees is not on the Cherniske farm but along the road by Beardsley Farm in the Great Hollow. The previous photograph of roadside trees in the snow was taken less than half a mile from here and 6 days earlier. What a change! In a blog response to that photo Jane suggested that perhaps the early farmers who planted roadside maple trees also harvested them for maple syrup. I'm sure she's right. The early farmers learned to make maple syrup from the native tribes. Cane sugar was an expensive commodity in colonial times and had to be transported long distances, so maple sugar was the preferred sweetener.

Spring has arrived with startling speed. Now a crew rides up this road every day in a truck with a large plastic tank to collect the flowing sap. The trees in this stretch of road are fairly new in maple-tree-years and planted much closer together than was customary among 18th and 19th century farmers. In some places I can still find the mostly decayed stumps of the earlier generation of maples, like giant footprints across this new age, but the sap is still flowing.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Idea of Farmhouse: Roadside Trees

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL: It was an early Colonial tradition for a farmer to plant trees along the road that passed through his farm. I'm amazed that so many people fail to notice when the trees begin to march in even steps on both sides of the road, or if they notice they think that the thinning forest fell that way naturally or through a bit of pruning. Jane and I always look forward to finding these in our travels, and it has become one of our games to comment about the farmer who perhaps 200 years earlier had put them there knowing that he would be an old man before they provided much shade.

The tradition was not confined to gentleman farmers but was common among country farmers who lived off the land. It began before there were front yards, when the front yard emulating town was nothing more than a hill of bush beans, but the dirt road beside those bush beans was lined with saplings, most often maples, in evenly measured spaces. They would be nurtured so that some day when the farmer or his children drove their buggy back from town or returned from church on Sunday, long before he reached the door of the house he entered an arched, shadowed space like a cathedral nave where in spring and summer nesting birds sang and welcomed him.

The farmer planted these trees not just for himself but for his children. Was he also thinking about his relationship to that piece of earth and its importance as a legacy and as a stake in a new land? As Jane and I discover and pass such roadside rows, we always look for the farmhouse and to see what is left of the barns. There were always barns. We also notice how the power lines have cut their channel to bring light and heat and television and email. We count how many trees are split fragments, how many are carcasses rotting, how many are just double-width gaps.

This is what time does. Today most of us drive by at thirty miles an hour with windows shut tight, but it's a privilege sometimes to walk beneath the boughs and think about where the road has taken us and where it seems to lead.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The Idea of Farmhouse: Front Yard

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL: Originally New England farmers had no front yards. The front yard was an idea born in town. When a farmer tore up the bush beans, perhaps exchanged a stone wall for a picket fence, and planted two trees either side of the front door, he was turning his face to the road and providing formal welcome to the community. He was probably also making a statement about his social and economic aspirations or achievement.

Monday, March 1, 2010

The Idea of Farmhouse: Of the Land

JOHN ALVIN:"The proverbial blank canvas is the very mirror of stark raving terror. Many think that a profession in the arts is not very risky or dangerous. They are profoundly wrong. Gambling your very reputation and the full measure of your profession every time you stare into the empty void of a unused canvas, you are taking an emotional and psychological risk that is easily equivalent to the world's most dangerous and demanding professions. Anyone thinking the contrary should try to subsist on their own artistic skills and survive. Not so easy or casual. It is dangerous to the soul. It is risky to the heart. It is an extraordinary demand and challenge and yet it is the very core of what we aspire to as artists."

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL: David Pogue's question (Personal Tech: Photoshop and Photography: When Is It Real?): What is photography, "if you don’t have to worry about composition and timing, because you can always combine several photos or move things around later in Photoshop?" suggests another question: Is photography in some sense a performance medium, like playing the violin or ice skating; we admire the photographer's virtuosity with her camera?

Of course David Pogue's most important point was not about how technology changed pictures but how it has changed reality. Fortunately, I don't have to worry about objective reality. My aim is to try and portray subjective reality. The news photographer quickly worries, "How much manipulation is too much manipulation?" For me there's a different challenge: Because technology enables me to do anything, I must be sure I choose to do something. Technology has made the canvas completely blank.