Brass Valley: The Fall of an American Industry

Brass Valley: The Fall of an American Industry
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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.