Thursday, March 29, 2012

Arrangement of Solids

Jeremy Brecher: "Deindustrialization liquidated not only factories and jobs; it liquidated a legacy of community building in the Naugatuck Valley and in working class America. While family networks, unions, churches, ethnic associations, and other working-class institutions had been able to establish considerable control over daily life, they had hardly even attempted to influence the basic decisions of capital. Those decisions, it turned out, could lay waste to everything they had gained."


Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Gotham Light

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL: After the charging of the furnace I had hoped to catch more images of the flying billets, but when I showed up Thursday they were dealing with some sort of failure, and it may be several weeks before they can resume. So this image is offered as a kind of  "work in progress," to continue the billet processing series. I hope the interruption is as brief as possible.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012


PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL: On Monday morning I was up at 5:30 to catch sunrise light and fog, but I lacked a clear destination. Fate brought me here to Burr Pond, up where waters bound for the Naugatuck River collect behind an 1851 dam built by Milo Burr to power a tannery and three saw mills. In 1857, it was the site where Gail Borden built the world's first factory for condensed milk, an important part of the diet of Northern Soldiers during the Civil War. It was initially developed as a park by the CCC.

The sun had been up for 90 minutes by the time I got to Burr Pond and the fog was not especially photo friendly, but the water was still, the air was warm and the birds were singing.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Charge

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL: The truth of the foundry is its darkness except where there is light, and then truth comes in flashes, flares and flourishes. Whether beautiful or ugly, they snag on my lenses and make pixels bleed. In the sooted darkness, even bare, fluorescent tubes among the trusses of the shed, glare explosively on my images and must be avoided or removed.

Last Monday repairs were completed on the casting furnace, and Willy began lighting fires for the charging of the furnace. Both Mike and Willy said charging the furnace was a photo op, but I only had a vague idea of what to expect. Willy explained the process and suggested a good place to catch the event, but an hour of preparation remained first. Charging begins with a small amount of metal in a small furnace at the far end of the shed.

It took a long time to bring this metal to the required temperature. Meanwhile a second crucible was being heated next to the furnace. That's where the flames in the picture are coming from. When the temperature was right, the charge was poured into the second crucible which was lifted and carried by crane to the casting furnace at the other end of the foundry. Flames had already been lit there so that all vessels were at the same temperature.

Then Willy poured the molten copper from the transport crucible into the casting furnace. The air ignited. A tempest of sparks whirled from the mouth of the furnace and rose in a plume into the trussed roof. The utter darkness of the cavernous shed sucked up the plume of yellow and orange that kept rising from the furnace while at its base a short, still, white stripe glowed intensely where the molten copper poured furiously. It was a mashup of blinding light and blinding dark, of gush and stillness.

Alas, the plume of sparks rising into the dark vaults of the shed was bigger and taller than my wide-angle lens could grasp; the light brighter and darker than my camera could record, and the motion of the sparks challenged available shutter speeds. I'm considering strategies should I ever get another chance to shoot the charging of the furnace.

Slowly the plume grew smaller and less interesting until Willy leveled the transport crucible and took it away, and they finished loading copper scrap into the casting furnace in order to cast the first billets.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Sooted and Still

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL: The truth of the foundry is its darkness. To enter it is to find oneself in a haze of 19th century industrial noir, to breathe soot. The foundry seems to call for its own special photo processing. In a photograph, atmosphere and grit tend to be mutually exclusive. In foundry images I often want both.

Mike led me here to this broken down balcony from which I could look down the axis of the foundry and the end of a line of eight furnaces, or the remnants of them, that once cast copper day and night, seven days a week. There is another long axis like the axis of furnaces on the other side of the balcony, out of site. There, incoming scrap was received for processing, twin aisles. The twin axes are crossed by a dome of skylights like a weird transept near the southern end of the shed, but little of the old ritual continues today.

I asked Mike what the balcony was for. He said it held many smaller furnaces; that once there may have been as many as 40 furnaces in all keeping the flow of copper and brass moving back into production.

Everything has been halted while the only furnace still operating is refitted and repaired. The shed is oddly still. Missing is the sound of rushing air and water and the motors of the furnace. As the shed fills with scrap from the manufacturing line upstream, the factory upstream slows almost to a stop. Everything waits for repair of the foundry and the flow of brass billets back into production.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Phantom Station, 11 AM


WyPall, Clean Hands to Go

Spirits in the old foundry shed,
sweeping time aside,
Do you hold the missing keys?
Begin the Beguine
from the silent boom box,
new numbers chalked
on old lockers,
and vintage grime, 
allure of the corded desk phone
in biscuit tan,
the scent of lime.
Who will pick up
on the other side
where time has stopped
at quarter to four
in May of two-thousand and nine?

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Anatomy Lesson

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL:  I was back at the foundry again yesterday, hoping to get a shot of the the billets just after they rise out of the pit in which they are formed, glowing like the monoliths in 2001. What I found instead was that the furnace was still shut down, scattered in pieces and unrecognizable to me. However Mike's and Willy's coaching a few days earlier had taught me at least to find the molds. You can see them here; one is behind the broom handle, a quarter of the way down (Click the picture to enlarge it). The other is just to the left of the first.

When the furnace is shut down, the men who regularly run the foundry, work on refitting and repairing it, and as always Mike was happy to show me around.  There were other men there too, engineering staff with the tools to install and test new hydraulics and gas lines and electrical circuits. There is no repair man to call on equipment like this, no single book from which to order the replacement part; what breaks, you fix, what fails, you remake. When conditions change, you innovate. 

Unfortunately, much of their work on the furnace happened in tight spaces and was not visually interesting, so I went off and explored other parts of the campus. I'm told that once, 3000 people worked here. In the foundry alone they said there were 8 large furnaces and many smaller ones. Other shops on the campus processed the new metal from the foundry into wire and rods. In my explorations I passed through what must have been the main engineering shop, row after long row of immense tools and benches, bits and chucks and widgets all in neat, graduated rows, enough to keep at least 100 engineers busy repairing, sharpening, building new. Several hours later I returned to the foundry and the lone furnace, last piece of equipment in operation on the campus.

While I was gone the crew had remounted the crucible on the new hydraulics they had been installing, and the hydraulics were extended, tipping the crucible steeply. It seemed the perfect shot to explain the anatomy of the furnace. In front of the crucible and looking a bit like two fire hydrants, are the plugs (perhaps one of the men will tell me if there is a better term) which close the bottom of the billet molds. The plugs have been raised high, more hydraulics refitted there. 

When I was back at the factory today they were relining the runner box with some sort of material like clay, and they were testing gas lines to the furnace blast. Flames were coming out of the leveled crucible, a picture I missed. They expect to start it up on Tuesday. Before the furnace can be put into operation, the hood will be refitted over the furnace (as shown here). Then the large cover which holds the molds will pivot on the track, back over the plugs, and the plugs will rise into the bottom of the molds. 

The metal tipped from the crucible flows through the runner box to the distributer cups above the molds. As the copper cools, the founder lowers the plugs, and the solid end of the billet drops down and becomes the new plug. Then he tips the crucible to send more fluid metal flowing toward the molds.

I thought about the small cohort of people who were repairing and maintaining this lone furnace, the genius they shared, the bonds they developed, a culture; then I multiplied that many times as it was when the Valley was filled with factories, and families whose children rose through the mills.  Then I thought about the dark sheds around me here, not the empty benches and idle tools, but the culture that had vanished, engine of initiative and innovation. How do we renew that culture, refuel that engine here, where everything is disposable and wealth is digital and what we need comes from somewhere else?

Monday, March 5, 2012

Scraping the Runner Box

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL: When in place, the runner box directs the liquid copper to the two distributer cups. Before the billets can be lifted from their molds, the runner box must be moved out of the way and scraped clear in readiness for the next pour. The sparks are real, the magic, Promethean.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Distributer Cups

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL: From behind the camera lens, removing the billets appears as mysterious as any alchemical incantation. With the flow of metal halted, Willy removes and cleans the distributer cups. The metal flows from the crucible to the cups which distribute and slow the flow of metal into the mold and give it time to harden. The cups must be removed before the fresh billets can be lifted.