Sunday, March 31, 2013

Raking the Runner Box

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL:  The runner box is a heavy, steel channel in the form of a "T." When set in place on the furnace, the base of the "T" catches the pour which flows along the channel to the two tips at the top of the "T."  From there the metal flows through holes on the bottom of the channel into two distributer cups that help to spread the metal flowing down into the molds so no air pockets develop. 

The channel is lined with insulating cement, and before the pour begins it is covered in a layer of charcoal.  As the hot metal flows over the charcoal, the charcoal burns to keep the metal from losing heat while flowing to the molds.  Periodically Mike rakes out the channel in the runner box to keep cooling metal from clogging the channel.

Friday, March 29, 2013


PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL:  I was back at the foundry again on Wednesday as I have been on and off with no notice in this journal. Immediately I was told there had been layoffs here and at the manufacturing plant in Waterbury. I had heard earlier that they had been hit hard by the sequester, that the work that had been done to bring in new contracts by adding a new alloy might be all undone by the stalemate in Washington. At least those were the rumors among the men.

Most of the men shrugged. A few said it was a good time of year to have some time off, but nobody knew if this was time off or time over - the last brass poured in Brass Valley. In any case, it was too immediate, too personal for anyone to think it might be the end of an epoch. Two billets were cast on Wednesday, and they told me the last two billets would be cast and pulled at 9:30 the next morning, Thursday. I was there, and it proved interesting in that the billets needed to be longer than usual.

I described the unusual manner of pouring the billets into rings rather than molds in an earlier post (  The usual manner of removing the  billets is to lower them beneath the rings and swing the assembly holding the rings to the side.  This time the billets were too long to lower beneath the rings so instead, they were cooled to shrink and then, first pushed up a couple of feet through the ring far enough to get a chain on the end so the crane could lift each one up the rest of the way through the ring.  A three-ton, singeing-hot billet dangling from a crane always looks precarious, but these were yanked up extra high in the rafters, and the chain was very close to the end of each billet.  

There's a moment in this process that I'm always ready for and always surprised by. It is when the billet passes by, and I feel the immense wave of heat radiating from it; how easily it might slip! I'm always ready with an escape route, and I'm always surprised by how hot it is and must stop myself from pulling back and losing the shot.  That this billet was gray rather than orange did not make it feel any cooler.  That made it even more surprising.

The billets cast on Wednesday and Thursday will be trucked to Waterbury for processing while the factory in Ansonia goes idle and in Washington, D.C., Congress claims to know how to create jobs but remains deadlocked and goes on vacation. On Thursday morning, March 28, 2013, two extra long billets were cast. May they not be the last.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

At the Opera

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL, Ansonia Opera House, Part 2: 

Nothing happens at the opera house anymore. Most people don't even know it's here. It's a relic of its time and silent but for pigeons; except for those with the ears to hear more and the imagination to remember. 

The opera house speaks of the decade after the Civil War had boosted manufacturing. Factories increased production to turn out cannons and bullet shells for the war and swelled villages up and down Brass Valley. Transportation was good enough that performers were taking acts on the road and looking for good halls and new audiences.  In 1870 business leaders of the Borough of Ansonia, not yet a town, decided that Ansonia needed an Opera House. It seemed like a good idea. It would be the first in Connecticut.  It would make Ansonia a cultural Center.

It seemed like a good idea, a place for wholesome entertainment the whole family can enjoy; a place for performers to stop along their circuit: minstrels and medicine shows and opera stars on tour. A place they can play to paying crowds - not a theater for lowlifes but a cultural institution for the arts, a place our town can be proud of - a place also where borough meetings can be held or town meetings if Ansonia becomes an independent village. 

It should be a place that can be rented out for weddings and  jugglers and magicians and patent medicine salesmen. Think what crowds would pay if the great Jenny Lind made another U.S. tour and came and sang in Ansonia!  What a profound and uplifting impact that might have on young people especially!

It seemed like a good idea, an opera house on Main street, one with a row of shops on the first floor bringing in high rents, and a not-quite-grand promenade past suites of offices boasting the town's most distinguished address and similarly high rents to the more-nearly grand stair that folds back on itself as it reaches the third floor and patrons come face to face with the grand stage of Ansonia's own Opera House.

They built it in 1870. The men who had pioneered the brass and copper industry in the 1830s and 40s were in the 1870s becoming elderly and could look around them at towns they had built. Up and down the valley they sought to burnish their legacy with public buildings and infrastructure that would last.  What better investment than an opera house, a place to keep idle workers occupied and out of trouble? Not a music hall or a theater like you find in the sinful cities, but an Opera House to give the community culture.

The new Ansonia Opera House was run by Ansonia's leading citizens, investors in the enterprise who ran it so as to always turn a profit. When transportation improved so that audiences in Ansonia could easily travel to New Haven, New Haven stopped doing the Valley circuit. Even then the opera house could still take traveling vaudeville and novelty acts and more and more people were getting married and then there was the skating. Annually high school seniors took their diplomas here and it became part of their lives. In this manner the Ansonia Opera House continued to serve the community and profit investors through World War II.

After the war things were different. More and more people went to the movies or stayed home and most of the time the opera house was dark, except for the skating, until that stopped too, and the school had its own auditorium.  Everyone was getting cars and televisions, and the old place was feeling creaky.  We took to the road and the opera house was taken over by a community of pigeons.  Back in the 70s some people tried to start an art center here and chased the pigeons out, but there were battles with town officials. It was a new age for fire safety too. After one performance the effort lost its wind, and the pigeons were back. It was another twenty years before the opera house was sold off by the City of Ansonia for payment of back taxes. The new owner patches things as best he can, but now it's always dark and there are always pigeons.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Ansonia Opera House


Skaters at the Opera House  

Everything important happened here,
weddings, graduations and town meetings. 
Romeo passed word to meet Juliet here, 
Mimi died,
Uncle Tom suffered dutifully 
while we held hands. 
We loved 
especially the magicians and their magic rabbits, 

Saturday afternoons everyone roller skated here, 
roller skating at the opera, 
and in the evening men sang and danced and juggled.
What spices can embalm the memories?
Will salt or smoke or drying make them last?
the voice cadances of childhood friends, 
this ones smooth assertiveness, 
that ones hesitation. 
a voice that smiled, 
eyes like kindling,
we can name
yet a crystal cadence
etched on memory.

We fall nameless 
like oval photos 
from the flaking album, 
and our spirits return to the old opera house, 
eternally circling there as when we were skaters.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Composition in Primary Colors


Empty Factories

They are like cloisters
battered and broken,
time feels bigger here
space grander 
than walls imply

When time stops,
instants are eons,
and a drop 
of river's flow
is oceans overflowing

They are like cloisters,
I walk by stained and broken glass
ponder how things decay,
my tripod aligns and spreads the rowed columns,
my lens fixes each time-sculptured brick in its crystal grip

When motion ceases
silence rumbles,
by and by
the quickness
of black night

They are like cloisters
When it rains the ceilings run, 
and ducts and pipes channel fountains, 
and cascades from broken skylights fall 
to pools, and tin roofs thunder.  

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Wheels & Cogs, a Decomposition

Henry James:  "It takes an awful lot of history to make even a little tradition."

Monday, March 11, 2013



Once We Believed

An arpeggio of corbeling
like a ripple of wind,
tiny flourish of masonic art,
imprint of the mason's hand
claiming immortality
on the back wall
of the idle

Sunday, March 10, 2013

The Idling Furnace

Garrison Keillor: "Even in a time of elephantine vanity and greed, one never has to look far to see the campfires of gentle people."

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL:  I arrived in the middle of last week's snow storm to catch pictures of the factory yards covered in snow and to see the snow flakes falling in front of old brick.  When I went in to check on casting I found the furnace idling. The furnace idles to avoid the need for priming it.

Can human capacities also be kept idling: social structures, institutions, expertise, values systems - to avoid the need for priming them? - if, in fact, such capacities can ever be primed again once they are lost.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Industrial Idling


Alchemy's Touch

Toothsome particulates hang in the air, 
the tongue knows first what  simmers there 
or if casting has begun, 
and on the nerve ends round the nose
asperities of sooty harvest, 
before eyes see the furnace glow.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The Old Mill No.5 (conclusion): Engineering

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL:  "A Day at the Mill, Concluded":  There were delicate calipers  and crow bars that were even heavier than they looked and a pair of glasses and an aging bottle of Alka Seltzer. I shot a number of pictures before I discovered a door at the far end of the room.  I opened the door and descended 4 or 5 steps to a passage that went on like a long, dark tunnel. Dim, dust-covered window lined one side of the tunnel and let in a bit of grey glow. It took some moments before I realized I was looking back down the same parts rabbit hole I had previously entered and photographed from the other end. 

I visited a few other places at the old mill that day, but when I returned to the trailer in the first shed, my friend let me know I had to leave. Perhaps he had no more stories to tell me. I tried several times to get back again, but it was clear the funhouse was closed for the foreseeable future and time to move along the track.

Monday, March 4, 2013

The Old Mill No.4: Office of the Chief Engineer

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL:  "A Day at the Mill, Pt.4":  As it turns out, the passage was a storage closet lined with shelves of  gears, wheels, cams; parts to a puzzle that no longer needed solving.  

I never reached the end of the passage. I turned back and followed other tracks, but later, having passed through a devious set of stairs and hallways, I entered a room that looked as if it had been the site of a brawl. It was clearly the engineers' office.  A large table on the back wall was laden with faded engineering plans and diagrams. A window by a desk was open and overlooked the arena, a place to watch the millworks working. 

Sunday, March 3, 2013

The Old Mill No.3: Parts

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL:   "A Day at the Mill, Pt.3":  After looking down on the arena from both sides of the arcade,  I noticed a narrow doorway at the edge of the arcade, and I investigated following a few steps down into a passage that went on like a long, dark tunnel. Dim, dust-covered windows lined one side of the tunnel and let in a bit of grey glow. 

I knew the windows must overlook the arena I had just looked down on.  I thought that with the help of my flashlight I might scare out a picture even if I couldn't quite see what I was photographing.  I descended into the darrkness, testing the floor with my toe.  I was three stories up, in a dark passage, and I knew nothing of the floor and wondered about rats. Slowly my eyes adjusted.

This image was exposed for 30 seconds at f/18, ISO 800 with a flashlight continually painting light over the scene. 

Saturday, March 2, 2013

The Old Mill No.2: An Area Like an Arena

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL:  "A Day at the Mill, Pt.2":  I tried not to look too eager to get on with my shooting as I left my new friend and his clean-up task. Near where the trailer stood, the long basilica was bisected by something that felt like a transept, though it only extended in one direction. It had the lure of complexity, almost like entering into an intricate machine. 

I climbed up a half flight of metal stairs to a metal deck beneath a tangle of ducts, pipes, conduits, and wires snaking where they could to cross around the transept opening. One duct looked large enough for a person to walk upright inside. Stairs scaled the walls through the anatomy of infrastructure and architecture; catwalks disappeared into unknown interiors beyond walls, pipes, ducts and on to sundry destinations for reasons mostly forgotten. In it's last life this had been a mighty factory producing heavy machinery.

The transept extended like an arcade with windows lining both walls, and when I went to the windows I was shocked to find myself looking down two stories into an area like an arena piled with more factory equipment. The space was two bays wide and longer than I could see.  Thirty and forty ton cranes straddled both bays. Whatever once went on here was big.  Now it looked like a tag sale of decommissioned manufacturing might.

Friday, March 1, 2013

The Old Mill

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL:  "A Day at the Mill, Pt.1":

I used all my powers to persuade the man to let me photograph the old factory sheds.  I followed him into the building as I made my case until we stood halfway down a long basilica-like space where a trailer served as his office.  The sheds come together at odd angles and were encrusted with rusted barnacles of past operations and promised a funhouse of adventure. He explained, the new owner had hired him to clean up.

He was alone, one man in a space the size of several football fields and loaded with equipment, some rusting and dead and some that looked like it must be the rummaged booty of failed corporations now dissolved and bankrupt.  The ceiling was leaking and the floors were greasy. He warned, "Gotta watch out for falling glass." In all directions the room seemed to disappear into shadows. There were places where stairs disappeared below the floor into darkness that I would never dare to enter.  Was that part of his job?  I also saw other dark doorways at grade level and off of catwalks high in the rafters.  I hoped he had a big crew coming. He considered my request slowly while he told me about other places he had worked and things he had done. He didn't seem at all busy. "Sure," he said finally, "you can shoot."