Brass Valley: The Fall of an American Industry

Brass Valley: The Fall of an American Industry
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Tuesday, August 9, 2011

At the Crucible




PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL: The casting shop is a place of Stygian magnificence. Although the end of the shed is open to fresh air and daylight, inside the air is viscous and sooty, and one sees as if through cataracts into a tarred and dusted world that sucks up light and then suddenly sparkles and flares. Yesterday's image was shot here shortly after a truckload of scrap had been delivered. Along the edges of darkness they stacked gleaming bricks of discarded copper wire pressed tight the way unwanted cars are pressed tight at the auto junkyard. Wherever light caught the edges of the bricks they lit up like treasure chests.

The shed is extensive and lofty, and daylight glares from points on the far perimeter. It is strewn with dinosaurs of the brass industry's past, conveyors and compressors, tanks, pipes, and ducts, strange engines the size of cabins, rusted relics. Most appear to be in ruins, but along the back wall, as if from a great cave, this giant crucible still roars and glows. As Mike pushes a button the crucible tips, and molten copper flows into two molds. The molds are hard to make out as they drop into a pit below floor level where they are bathed in luminous water. It takes a long time for the molds to fill, but once they are loaded and gently cooled, Mike will hoist out two pillars of copper, fatter than telephone poles and glowing red.

The casting shed is a nasty place for taking pictures, with both too little and too much light. I put on my fastest lens, stop it all the way open, turn the ISO up to 1600 and try to squeeze out acceptable exposures at 1/80th of a second while dodging lens flare. I can't see to focus, and at f/1.8 focus should be precise. Sometimes I have trouble seeing the compositions through the viewfinder, and as I work my hands and gear turn black and buttery. It is a nasty place for taking pictures, and I keep going back for more.