Friday, September 30, 2011


PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL: Lathes and drill presses, like potters wheels and compasses and gyroscopes and the music that used to gyrate from phonographs and that game at carnivals where kids paint on whirling plates, all partake in the magic of spin. Spin has the feel of life. The wheel is only a circle until you feel the forces spiraling out, rotating, translating, revolving into corkscrew sprays of centripetal blossoms. They tell us DNA is the way spin gets into our marrow.

When I was a kid, of all the tools in our high school shop, it was the lathes that received the most respect, and each of us looked forward to our turn at making something on them. Until we got to the lathes, shop was about making boxes. I can still feel the jolt of that spinning and the current of vibration, while steadying my chisel on the fixed ledge of the lathe and my eye on the spinning block and then drawing a smooth curve that instantly sprung into three dimensional space. It was the exquisite physics of circular motion that turned boxy wood into fluid shapes, sent pedestal trays and bowls home to mom and dad and occasionally sent shards of bowl and classmates flying across the shop. There's alchemy in spin.

The lathe brings final precision to the block. Dennis centers the 300 pound block around the hole and positions the cutting blade. When he starts the block spinning the blade will move steadily, evenly, automatically along the block's surface, peeling away excess copper and leaving a perfect cylinder, shiny and smooth. The diameter will be precise to within hundredths of an inch.

When the block is removed it is finished, ready for transformation.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011


MARSHALL McLUHAN: "We shape our tools. And then our tools shape us."

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL: A moment of homage, please, for the utility of the thumb which came to us by way of the trees and gave us tools and the brains to use them and so brought us here to the wonders of 19th century toolmaking capped by 20th century button making that allows the thumb some leisure while the index finger alone stops the drill press. The hole is complete. The open door reveals a nest of copper shavings which accumulate by the ton and fill scrap hampers on there way back to Ansonia to be recast, and the flow of copper continues, while thumbs and index fingers everywhere are moving on to iPads and dissolving in cyberspace.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Crystal Palace

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL: Imagine the drill bit needed to drill these solid, copper blocks from end to end, the tempered hardness of its edge. Imagine the force of the motor and the jaws that hold the block while the bit turns. Fred minds Gisholt while it bores the hole while midday sun pours through the WWI louvered wndows. I wonder, do the louvers still work?

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Billets to Blocks

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL: Dave cuts billets into blocks according to custom specifications. Carlos moves a ceaseless stream of billets onto a gravity fed conveyor where they wait for Dave to roll the next billet onto the rollers of his saw's conveyor. He measures where to cut, positions the billet under the saw blade, and starts the saw. He stamps a number onto the edge of each block after it is cut and records the number in a computer terminal. Once stamped, the stream of copper continues as Dave piles blocks onto pallets. Each block weighs about 300 pounds and will wear its number until it is transformed.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Stair Landing


Between Stories

On the way up
or down
in a trice
in the well
in between,
pause and borrow some moment,
but don't 

This is inside the brick building pictured a few days ago on TODAY'S. It was probably built by Holmes, Booth and Haydens sometime between 1870 and 1880.  Only the first floor is in use as the tooling shop for the mill where the billets are still processed. The other floors once held additional machine shops, offices, and at one time the second floor may have been used to manufacture the brass, burner mechanisms for oil lamps.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

In Transit

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL: They fly through the air with the greatest of stress. Each billet weighs, Carlos estimates, between one and two tons. He has learned to move evenly and to guide their enormous mass with masterful delicacy. If there is alchemy here, it is in that learned touch.

John and Carlos keep copper in motion beneath the old sawtooth roof built quickly by American Copper just as the United States was gearing up for World War I, and immigrants were streaming up the Naugatuck Valley to factory villages and ethnic neighborhoods and churches and labor unions that all spoke the mother tongue. Just beyond the glass wall of the factory the Naugatuck Line cut its channel through the buildings, yards, and activity. Many of the buildings are still there but they're empty now. Further across the tracks there was a neighborhood where the highway now runs. What is the mass of such shifting culture, the touch that might steady it, and how does it whiplash through time?

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Rolling Mill Playground


The truck with Mike's billets arrives here at what's left of the old Brass City campus of American Brass, though old-timers and historians may know it as Holmes, Booth, & Hayden or Benedict & Burnham, but it's the same company. Tracing the old buildings' pedigrees through mergers, acquisitions, and divestitures reveals continuity through changing names.

Even today the factory is an enormous beast made of many buildings that hugs both sides of the Naugatuck River at a point just before the Mad River adds its waters to the flow south. Once it was an industrial tiger. At least a dozen buildings remain, but most are empty shells. The flow of brass is down to a trickle now, and the trains that carried it are gone. It is as if the beast is moribund, cooling and diminished to one building at the center where Mike's billets arrive to be made into tube. From this field I can still hear the growling engines that power the mill and make the copper glow.

I spotted this angle on a walk around the neighborhood, but I was on the wrong side of a chain link fence, trying to shoot between the links. As for neighborhood, my side of the fence was more like a cheerless, crumbling corridor funneling cars and occasional pedestrians toward a gap beneath the north-south infrastructure of highways and partially abandoned train lines. It is the only place where people from communities on the east and west sides of the valley might drearily get across for a visit. I appreciated their trek. Getting from where I stood on the wrong of the fence from a decent picture was a long way around, and at the time I was going the other way.

Only later did I find my way to the right side of the fence through a retailer's parking area. The lot I'm standing in is behind his one-story structure selling lighting fixtures and other building supplies. The chain link fence is his and he closes it each evening after work. He almost locked me in. It appears he once stored sand or gravel here. Is it the bad housing market that has let the meadow in? Tonight I learned that Google Maps has a name for this meadow between the dying beast and the traffic's rush; they call it "Rolling Mill Playground," and the city of Waterbury considers it as, "public parkland," that must be protected.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Founder's Lair

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL: Squirrels hide their acorns in the empty Hendey factory in Torrington, while downstream, at the bottom of the valley, where the old sailing ships used to come up from the sea, the last of the old brass mills chugs on. We're back at the foundry where MIke is still pouring copper billets.

Mike is the beginning of the process. At the front of the shed, beside the train track, a flatbed truck is unloading scrap buckets from the processing mill halfway up the track, up the river, up the valley in Brass City. The billets Mike casts here will leave there as copper tube. I'm told this working, pre-WWII production line is the last of its kind. I wonder what the squirrels think of that.

Monday, September 12, 2011

You're It!

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL: Back on the track this morning at dawn, this time following the rail line behind the Hendey site where three tracks of the old Naugatuck Railroad used to cross through the center of Torrington on their way north. Service reaches only as far as Waterbury, but track is used as far up as Thomaston; the idle track continuing north is overgrown here and stops completely a half mile further on, a little past where the old depot used to be. Not even a trace is left of the roadbed that once got up to WInsted.

Pigeons have taken over the third floor and attic of this 1908 Hendey, factory building, but only the squirrels know their way through those holes on the second floor and through other sciurine perforations to where their nuts are stored.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Source

by Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1827:

The River

And I behold once more
My old familiar haunts; here the blue river,
The same blue wonder that my infant eye
Admired, sage doubting whence the traveller came,--
Whence brought his sunny bubbles ere he washed
The fragrant flag-roots in my father's fields,
And where thereafter in the world he went.
Look, here he is, unaltered, save that now
He hath broke his banks and flooded all the vales
With his redundant waves. 
Here is the rock where, yet a simple child,
I caught with bended pin my earliest fish,
Much triumphing,--and these the fields
Over whose flowers I chased the butterfly,
A blooming hunter of a fairy fine.
And hark! where overhead the ancient crows
Hold their sour conversation in the sky:--
These are the same, but I am not the same,
But wiser than I was, and wise enough
Not to regret the changes, tho' they cost
Me many a sigh. Oh, call not Nature dumb;
These trees and stones are audible to me,
These idle flowers, that tremble in the wind,
I understand their faery syllables,
And all their sad significance. The wind,
That rustles down the well-known forest road--
It hath a sound more eloquent than speech.
The stream, the trees, the grass, the sighing wind,
All of them utter sounds of 'monishment
And grave parental love.
They are not of our race, they seem to say,
And yet have knowledge of our moral race,
And somewhat of majestic sympathy,
Something of pity for the puny clay,
That holds and boasts the immeasurable mind.
I feel as I were welcome to these trees
After long months of weary wandering,
Acknowledged by their hospitable boughs;
They know me as their son, for side by side,
They were coeval with my ancestors,
Adorned with them my country's primitive times,
And soon may give my dust their funeral shade.

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL:  Once there was a sawmill here at Campbell's Falls, high up in Connecticut's hills and just west of the Naugatuck Valley, but industry played out early, and tranquility has had the upper hand ever since.  Water that passes here takes the long route to Ansonia via the Housatonic.  Rain that falls just a bit west follows an express route via the Naugatuck to the same destination.

Friday, September 9, 2011

In Memoriam

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL: They tell me energy can be neither created nor destroyed, only transformed and that the whole is never greater than the sum of its parts. Is it bird that still burns in the desiccating bird? Do the old habits of organization linger in the dissipating heat or drift among dust motes? What does spirit weigh? What is the coefficient of conversion for wisdom passed from old to young, and what happens to those energies when the wisdom is garbled or lost?

Thursday, September 8, 2011




at the top of the
Hendey Tower
in the updraft
where rocks
chipped the mansard and
smashed the window,
the green hanging folders,
analog bequest
of Hendey,
flop across the floor.

NOTE: The Hendey Company, a major manufacturer of precision, industrial lathes and other metalworking machinery was established in Torrington, Connecticut, near the top of the Naugatuck Valley in 1874.  The distinctive Victorian tower of the old factory offices was the  gateway to the main campus. Here is a short history of the company with a photo showing the campus in 1896. Much of the campus survives but has been empty many years. 

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Ansonian Basilica

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL: Most who replied to the last two blog journals wrote to praise, "ruin porn" or to reassure me. I wasn't really questioning my chosen subject matter but hoping to investigate the impulse that leads me and others to shoot among ruins. What draws us? What shades of mystery are there? What can be learned? One friend, a university Latin and Classics scholar, wrote, "You undertand, my entire profession is grounded in 'ruin porn.'"  

Another friend, however, in an extended exchange was bothered by my link of rusting, factories such as the one in Unplugged  to my images of, old, rotting corn husks, lilies rising from the mud of a pond bottom ice melting at the end of winter, and bugs in a small universe. Corn husks, pond lilies, winter freeze, and bugs are living things that regenerate, he suggested, they are part of an ongoing cycle and transcend their passing. Well, I suppose my friend had fully accepted the challenge I was proposing, and I understood that in a very real sense those links connect to places inside me where my friend feels uncomfortable. 

Over the course of several exchanges my friend proposed we make make an odyssey together through ruin beauty, and we agreed on an itinerary for our explorations.  Destinations included several abandoned factories, the "trunkless legs" of King Ozymandias somewhere in a desert, the Acropolis in Athens, and Edward Hopper's "Nighthawk" neighborhood. All seemed excellent vistas from which to both gawk at and examine the wreck.  

It took almost two, parched months to locate Ozymandias. A time traveler who was into geocaching provided the final clue, and the trek ended in many miles of apparently endless, rolling dunes, as our GPS zoomed in on the coordinates.  We were both amazed at how little of the king was left and paused before getting close.  My friend looked at it in total despair while I took a drink from my flask. To me it was both troubling and comforting, and as I knelt before it I allowed the soft, warm sand to run through my fingers. 

"Ach, these are lifeless things!" my friend cursed, and decided to take no photos, but he cried a bit and then sniffed, as if a bit disgusted with his bit of sentiment.  I walked around looking for a long time. In truth, it's a very moving place to me. One can still make out the face and a sneer I thought I recognized. I took several photos, but the one I like best I took from a distant dune on the trek back with the legs just visible and sticking above a wide horizon of dunes.

When we got to the Acropolis my friend was instantly excited. The sun was beginning to set, the clouds made god-like forms in the sky, and he ran around capturing beautiful images of the ruin and admiring them on his Blackberry. I half expected him to capture chariots in the sky. He made triumphant images of the Temple of Athena Nike raked by orange sunset light that edged every crack and detail. In other shots he caught the caryatids silhouetted against beautiful orange sky. The light in his pictures gave to the ruins the appearance of eternal glory.

As he danced after images, a  stooped, old, market woman passed me, and I asked her about the poor condition of the building. I thought she would complain about the Turks who blew it up a few centuries ago, but instead she railed against the populace who had become disenchanted with government after surrender to the Spartans.  Some insisted that all tribute to the Spartans be deducted from town upkeep, and an ordinance was passed prohibiting tax increases.  Meanwhile my friend kept photographing, but I preferred to wait until the morning of our flight out of Athens, when the smog of the modern city again lifted its curtain of gray haze between my lens and the ruin. 

Our flight back was long, and my friend spent the time talking to the guy in the aisle seat, an insurance salesman from Cleveland. We reached the Nighthawk around two in the morning. My friend had been yawning since nine, but I was just beginning to feel sufficiently noir.  As we came in to the diner two men at the counter got up silently to leave, and when they reached the street, turned in opposite directions.  There was a red-headed woman asleep at a booth in the back. My friend sat down at the counter and ordered a black coffee to keep him awake, but I was too excited to wait for him.

Street lights, the window light from closed shops and the bright diner sign bounced off shop windows and splashed colored light in all directions across the empty streets while setting off areas of deep shadow.  I walked around like a voyeur looking for the occasional glow of the insomniac's lair or the chance to photograph someone yawning from an open window or to catch an unguarded moment behind a curtain.  I shot all that night, it was too good to miss, knowing I'd never make an image that came near the power of Nighthawk but delighting in the pleasures of discovery.  I looked in several times at the all night diner, but early on my friend had moved to a booth and gone to sleep on his back with his feet projecting into the aisle next to where the red-headed woman lay dreaming of a new hat.  When I finally woke him to leave the light had just crept up, and we heard the sparrows in the gutters.

We reached Ansonia before 10 AM. I thought it might help if my friend saw the factory before it was in ruins, and we arrived in 1942 when workers were busy producing equipment for the war effort.  There were many more women in the factory than before the war, and during break they shared letters from the front. There was an energy to the place that was thrilling. An older foreman told us about when his grandfather, who spoke little English, had worked here. The union struggles had all gone badly, but in the end many families had done well. I thought it might help if we climbed to one of the high, overlooking windows above the work floor to glimpse the old grandeur of the place, but it was already getting late, the hallway was dark, and at the top of the stairs we smelled rotting pigeons and turned back.  Most of the old machinery is gone now, but to me it is still one of the grandest architectural spaces in the area, though fallen on hard times. I'd be interested in any information on the rusty, round columns that support the rails for the 30 ton crane. Perhaps the order should be referred to as, "Ansonian."

Saturday, September 3, 2011


PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL:  "Ruin porn"? That my pictures lack social purpose, I freely admit. I admit also that if staging is dishonest, I am guilty. I have waited for people to move off camera so I could, maybe, catch the desolation that lay between a shadow and a crumbling wall, though people were bustling all around; and I've turned away from a thriving new supermarket on one side of the street in order to photograph on the other side the eyeless eyes of a ruined factory where broken mullions still clung to shards of glass.  Once, I even copped a sky. My aim is not to provide documentation.

As to the charge of gawking, I recognize there may be others who feel the pain of the ruin more immediately and materially than I do, and I sympathize with them. However, the accident belongs to all of us; it is ongoing, and we are all gawkers and eventual victims, though most among us, myself included, haven't quite acknowledged how personally and totally we are involved.  We gawk to satisfy a yearning for answers to questions that lie beyond understanding.  If such a thing as art exists, surely it has something to do with this kind of inquest. 

Of course such meditations may be spun, not only from building ruins, but from old, rotting corn husks, from lilies rising from the mud of a pond bottom, or even from ice melting at the end of winter. I've seen the questions appear within a small universe defined by a window and a storm window on an old barn. Is the essential mystery the fluid impermanence of all things, the stealthy way today has of suddenly being tomorrow or the day after, with half shadows of many yesterdays, as if all creation were nothing but a never-ending palimpsest swirling by us, calling to us to pay attention and see where we fit?

Of all the ruined, old, factory sheds I have photographed, this is the most boundless, dark, and mysterious. Several large sheds huddle side-by-side, bay after bay, up the hill from the Naugatuck River. Between, up, around and over the sheds, masonry walls melt to a tangle of stairs, passageways workshops and offices clustered in crevices. In some places stairs ascend to balconies, high up doorways and catwalks; and in other places concrete steps descend beneath the slab and into darkness. Once a workforce of many thousands were busy here making large machinery for world-wide manufacturing. Machines too large to fit on a railroad car could be loaded on barges and sent downstream to the harbor in Bridgeport. Giant cranes lie rusting overhead. Now it is a salvage warehouse for what look like used, power components from other idle or demolished factories; it is a landscape of imported wreckage.