Brass Valley: The Fall of an American Industry

Brass Valley: The Fall of an American Industry
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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."