Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Scorpion Garden #3

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL:  The rhythm of the train gives way to the jackrabbit rhythm of the street.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Scorpion Garden #2

T.S. Eliot: The world revolves like ancient women gathering fuel in vacant lots.


What Need

to find the nexus 
between this sprite 
and the weight of coal 
that has been borne here 
a flowing river 
from the heart of mother earth 
to fires 

Monday, July 29, 2013

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Guest Photograph by Gary Anthes

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL:  The photograph above was taken by my friend and periodic shooting companion, Gary Anthes.  His picture fills an essential gap in my story of Coal Pier #18 for which I have no photograph of comparable quality.  I thank him for permission to include it here.

There is a courtyard, town square, plaza that falls between the second and last sections of Coal Pier #18. It is a community space where you can sometimes meet and talk with other visitors.  As architectural space it adds unexpected openness, a place where one can see across the pier unobstructed.  
The original purpose of the pier is impossible to understand without understanding the six-story high dinosaur that once stood in the public square. Track ends on one side, continues on the other to the end of the pier where the ramps grow slender at the scorpion's tail, and the track's path is unclear.

Railroad "dumpers," were a late 19th century, Rube Goldberg invention perfected through the 20th century rise of industrial America.  They were giant structures designed to move goods, especially coal, ever faster to feed the fires of growing consumption. By 1915 a single state-of-the-art dumper could dump forty, 100-ton coal cars in an hour and automatically distribute the coal in the hold of a waiting cargo ship. Dump is exactly what they did, lifting the whole coal car 
and tipping it sideways into chutes to distribute the coal evenly into the ship's hold below.  My understanding is that this dumper was designed so that while a loaded car was pulled up one ramp to the dumper, an empty car on the way down served as counterweight. The scorpion tail at the end was where the upbound car would switch tracks to the downward bound ramp.  The tail may have given a bit of kick to its roll back.  

On our recent visit, I was already heading back from photographing at the end of the pier, had crossed the public square and had my mind set on a few possible shots I'd seen earlier.  I was surprised to see eight or nine young men walking on top of the coal ramp. How did they get up there?  My mind was focused on what I wanted to shoot, but I shouted back to Gary to call his attention to the boys who he had also just spotted.  He was in the plaza and caught the shot when they reached the end of the track.  The red, white and blue graffiti is one of the best on the pier, but it would always be a disappointment  to have it without the boys who knew the secret of how to get up there.  This was their home turf.

They didn't stay long, and I had barely set my tripod up at the start of the pier when I saw the line of them on their way back.  I watched to see how they dismounted.  Near the beginning of the ramp a tree grew close to the concrete abutment , and large, steel spikes, an inch on a side, had been driven like a spiral stair down the tree trunk.  I watched as each of the boys grabbed the tree, swung out and climbed down, some with the graceful care of tigers, the last with an awkward leap and a four-point thud. There were all shades between. This was not a group bound to be urban freerunners.  Do they know of McMyler dumpers and the story of their jungle gym playground? How deeply do cultural discontinuities divide us?  How quickly the past looks ancient!

For inspiration:  While researching McMyler dumpers, I came across this video of a model of one that operated in New Jersey:

You can see more of Gary's photographs of Coal Pier #18 here.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Get Fried

EDDIE COLLA: "The problem with vandalism is that it eventually attracts unwanted museum exhibits."

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL:   Of course, graffiti has been commoditized, and spray can virtuosi are now art celebrities, but here it is still a renegade gallery and nothing lasts too long. I wish I knew the tempo of the place. Everything notable seems to be first commented on, then defaced and paintballed, and finally it is overwritten. When I returned this June, two years had passed since my previous visit, and I found nothing remaining from the prior trip. A few efforts were still mostly clean. Were they too new or too sacred to touch? The participants in this visual orgy seem to range from gangs to nerds to lovers.  It's not clear to me if any group prevails.  Especially here in this central section, every inch is coveted and re-coveted. Perhaps because space is so precious here, nothing is as well developed as graffiti I've found in abandoned Waterbury factories where there is no audience.  Here it is the utter riot of the place.  One common thread remains: I've never seen anyone with paint.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Picnic by the Coal Pier: White Hot

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL:  To some of us this is an assault, its transience unsettling. For others, it is merely the natural expression of the chaos of our time.  As art, it challenges the art of collectable commodities out of which we have built our culture.  As political statement, it challenges law and exalts chaos.  Scrawled in endless repetition on our buildings and on our buses and subways it is an irritant and a challenge meant to offend. Here, beyond the chain link fence in the people's park, for good and or ill, it is the law. 

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Picnic by the Coal Pier: PRAK

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL: What could future archeologists understand of the warning implicit in this pictography?  How many of us Sunday visitors can tell the war rooms from the shrines?   

Monday, July 22, 2013


PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL: In the middle of Coal Pier #18, beyond the long arcades with the black track still climbing steadily above, the pavilion becomes a cluster of chambers and cells. When enclosed, these were shops where machinists kept the coal port humming smoothly, moving coal through the harbor to power steadily increasing demand for kilowatt hours that gave the morning air a chalky taste.  Now the shops are sorry boutiques, galleries for a grim art of outrage, cave paintings for the new millennium.

Sunday, July 21, 2013


PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL:  The first time I visited Coal Pier #18 was in early morning. This time we arrived on a beautiful Sunday afternoon, and no-man's land had become a people's park.  Men with tackle boxes and poles, whole families, too, with picnic baskets, and little children climbed over the roots of trees to swim in the river. The coal ramp itself had become a pavilion for the ever-evolving art of the people, though it was often hard to distinguish gang art from dilettante dabblers and paintball casualties.  Some men were fishing at the end of the dock, and I asked if I could take their pictures, but they waved me off without a word of English.

In my own mind Coal Pier #18 divides into three sections and a courtyard.  The great public spaces of the previous two images come first where the ramp takes off. They end in 4 arcades that are stopped variously by walls and divisions until they become a bit of a maze, and one forgets the noise of the city.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Urban Anagrams

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL:  My second encounter with Coal Pier #18 came on the way home from the silk mill. Two years earlier the way in to the pier had been hard to find, but now new highways were under construction along the waterfront, and for awhile we weren't sure if the pier and ramp were even still there.  We took a left into a road that looked like it would get us closer to the water. A policeman parked like a sentry stood guard.  I took a deep breath as we asked about the pier.  At the exact same moment, my friend and I recognized the spot in spite of its recent transformation. The cinder road to the pier was at the back of this lot, almost within sight, though the sentry said he'd never heard of Coal Pier 18. All our hearts were thumping a bit, but he never stopped us as we continued to the back of the lot where the trail we knew began.  

The road was mostly as I remembered it, lined on one side by the willow forest, thick as thatch, too thick to enter except at several points where small trails emerged like scoops. They were the work of ATV's. A pedestrian in there would have no chance if one came speeding by. I imagine few cities in America offer such an extensive network of un-patroled byways for the daredevil hellraising of urban ATV enthusiasts as the yards around Coal Pier #18.  The other side of the path had been brutally cleared; it was a gaping wasteland of hardening mud to the point where jungle was still unmolested.  

The first view of Coal Pier  #18 is as a cleft through a high dirt embankment. Two concrete retaining walls hold back the earth so the cinder path can continue at grade through this canyon. In fact, standing there, we are already within the great ruin of the pier. The concrete retaining walls on either side once supported the heavy-gauge tracks that carried coal trains over our heads and along the pier's ramp. The cinder path itself must be an old rail bed crossing beneath. 

A few steps back, a narrow path beside the cleft leads down to cavernous spaces beneath the piers structure.  From here it is clear that ATV racers are not alone in this people's park.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Cola Pier #18

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL:  Coal Pier 18 in Philadelphia was once a key transfer point where rail cars loaded with coal from the mines were pulled up a steep ramp, picked up bodily and dumped into waiting barges which brought the coal to world markets. It was a hub of activity. 

The only way to reach it now is along a cinder and rubble trail through a trash-filled forest of willows and brash brush. It is the stuff that roots and widens crevices anywhere it can find a grip. The trail gets darker and then before you know it, you're under the ramp. 

Coal Pier 18 is a part of the furious clammerings of a great city, cut off only by an unbroken rumble from six, sometimes eight lanes of traffic and acres of chain link fence. Regulars know its ways.

There are other abandoned coal piers in what was once the Richmond Yards, but Coal Pier 18 stands out because of the steep concrete ramp that supports the remnants of two tracks and extends like a scorpions tail 500 feet into the Delaware River.  It is a four-story high monument to the great and grimy in our fading industrial heritage, and the shadowy spaces beneath it invite exploration.  

Both times I was there it was spring, and the tangle of leaves and branches that surround the pier and the ramp felt a bit like the Forest of Arden inviting exploration into a forbidding maze of passages and spaces beneath the ramp.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Silk Factory

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL:   What need or urge propelled human spirit more than 5000 years ago to domesticate Bombyx mori, the silkworm, the way we have domesticated cows and cats and corn? Was it refined tastes that sought out that delicacy or the need for a fiber of unmatched strength? Or was it merely the need to unwind mystery? Silkworms, like spaniels, only survive through cultivation. Whatever the motivation, it took a patient, observant and creative imagination to see in the fragile thread of the silkworm's discarded chrysalis shroud, implications that led to a fiber unmatched in nature for beauty and strength.

Plant fibers are, comparatively, an easy accomplishment, and furs, and the vision to shear the sheep. But those who found the way to silk kept it a secret for two thousand years. It is a finger trick, they say, the tedious softening and scrubbing of each moth's cocoon and to patiently unwind the larva's delicate dance; to slowly bathe the cocoon and unwind the single filament of protein spun from the silkworm's two spinnerets and wash it clean. 

It takes unwinding 2000 to 3000 cocoons to make a pound of silk or about a thousand miles of filament, enough for a kimono.  It seems an unlikely journey for mind to travel, from watching the larva slowly spinning its figure eight, to this supremely strong, polished thread of a hybridized moth, woven into fabric that glides over skin, wicks perspiration and makes colors glow like no other. Was the invention of silk a cultural phenomenon, or is the mind that imagined silk fundamentally the same as the Enlightenment-rased, DuPont mind that imagined nylon?  

Friday, July 12, 2013



Pity the Bombyx mori 
who would question the meaning of life; 
who engorges on mulberry 
to spin its own shroud
to keep genteel ladies 
in ribbons and gowns.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Twitch and Shuffle

This link ( is to part 2 of a series of films of Vietnamese silk making.  It includes machines in action that clearly are cousins to the ones in the Klotz mill. Part 1 of the series follows silk making from silk worm to the tedious and skilled task of unwinding the caccoon the silkworms have spun and separating the individual fibers to be spun into thread and yarn. Parts 3 and 4 show weaving and dying of yarns and fabrics.

As I explained in an earlier post, I had begun the silk mill shoot with a walk-through of what I thought was the whole factory, and I paced my time to get back to all areas of special interest.  Three of my four hours were over when I was shocked to discover a stair at the back of the second floor that I had missed in my walk-through. It led past a spooky, rusted bathroom with too little light for me to shoot unless I wanted to spend my time on five minute exposures of uncertain outcome, and down to another vast mill room full of machines that once twitched and shuffled and turned to their own special beat.  I went with the flow.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Factory Lift

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL:  I guess I've always believed that there was something mystical about elevators. We get inside, and the doors close, and we stand still, and moments later they open, and we are somewhere else. They are Ferries to another dimension, but they are also places where anything can occur. In 1860 when the five story Grosvenor Hotel in London installed elevators, they were powered by city water pressure, and the visitors arriving from Victoria Station called them "ascending rooms."  However, even then elevators had been around for centuries, and we can be certain that from the moment men learned how to hoist the stones of ancient monuments, they also hoisted themselves and upon reaching a new plane, enjoyed the view. Whether we call them lifts, cranes or hoists, they are all elevators, and even the lowly dumbwaiter plumbs mysterious depths.

Perhaps the magic is a legacy from childhood in New York City. What city kid doesn't run to be first to the elevator for the privilege of pushing the button or remember being scolded for pushing the button too many time?  When I was little, elevators in new Manhattan office towers had just begun using magic buttons that sense body heat, and light green to summon the elevator.  Is that still magic for kids in the age of touch-screens?  Do they still test it to see how close they can get before it turns? Those were the elevators that started so quickly they left my guts on the floor and then stopped fast while my guts kept rising.

At about the same age I recall being amazed that there were elevators that opened on both ends and were so big that cars could drive on to them and get parked in upstairs parking, but they were nothing compared to the elevators at Madison Square Garden where sometimes the passengers were large elephants and the floor was littered with straw and manure. On newsreels I saw the elevators of aircraft carriers that lifted airplanes, but I knew the important magic was not size, but connections.

The ascending room I remember best was the one I rode each time I left or returned to our apartment on the 16th floor at West 86th Street. It had never been updated, as some buildings, to run automatically with no operator.  The room was paneled in worn wood the color of chocolate sauce, but it sparkled, the brass controls were original and polished by use. The ceiling light had facets that glistened and reflected in the large mirror on the back wall that made the room seem large. If it wasn't quite elegant, it seemed enduring, and so it has been. I can still hear the creaking wood as it began moving or came to rest, and the sense of foreboding at rare times when malfunction forced them to open the doors between floors and I realized it was only a box in a deep, brick shaft.

Normally the shaft was hidden by heavy, metal doors. Riding in the cab, I watched them pass at each floor- saw how they locked from inside the elevator with bars geared to fit heavy latches top and bottom. At every floor, but especially at the lobby, the latch bars were worn and shiny at the spot where elevator drivers had grabbed them over decades of opening and closing for passengers. Of course, to me it seemed the elevator operators I knew had always ferried people there, they were eternal, and I knew them all by name.  

I can still picture a tall, grey-haired man with a fading brogue and a black man named Willy and Henry. I especially recall Henry who had a German accent and a military disposition to match his cap and brass buttons. That was sixty years ago, and they still wore uniforms. Behind the metal doors was an accordion gate with two brass handles,  I never knew why there were two because nobody used the first, and the second always looked as if it might soon come loose from overuse. The gate rode in a track at the top and bottom of the elevator cab and it rattled playfully as Henry swung it open or closed, but when he let me try, it took all my strength to budge it an inch or two.  So Henry closed the accordion gate for me before relinquishing to my control the large brass lever that made the elevator go down when you swung it left and up when you swung it right, and, if I was coming home, with both hands I swung it right and began watching for the numbers at each floor except 13 because there was no thirteenth floor. Of course it all depended on if there were other passengers and who they were, but in any case I'd always watch the doors pass, and I learned to distinguish floors by the changes repairs had made to some of the closers and the careless ways the numbers had been applied and how they were chalked in where some had fallen off.  

One can be hypnotized as the floors go by, and elevator culture is a curious thing. Sometimes people strike up spontaneous conversations with complete strangers and at other times pause in silence with friends. People on similar schedules find themselves riding up and down with similar people and over decades never exchange a word or learn each others names, and other people arrive in the midst of a running narrative that finally trails off as the elevator leaves them at their floor, and nobody else says a word, though we have all shared the cross section of an opera with no beginning or end, only the closing door.

If I forgot to keep watching and counting and we got to fifteen, Henry would shift position and look down, and I'd know my stop was next.  If I could land the elevator within an inch of being level with the landing, that was pretty good docking, but Henry was always ready to nudge it up and down until the cab was perfectly level with the landing so no one would trip, before he unswung the accordion gate and pulled the bar to unlatch the door on the 16th floor.  I knew he could land it level in a single move, and I sought to match his control.

I suspect that elevator operators in that same elevator where I grew up are still training a new generation to land the cab in one move.  My niece and nephew, who grew up in the same building a generation after I did, may also have controlled the ascension room and recall operators who guided their navigations, and generations have followed since then. There are few buildings with elevator operators today; they've all gone automatic, and the space is not quite the same without the ferryman. Curious that in this most transitory of crossroads Henry and Willy have become welded to my soul while so many possible encounters were squandered between floors. 

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Friday, July 5, 2013

Idle Maple Swifts

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL: All pinions and talons and things arachnid.  Here's a more sober description from 1919, production records of the Klots throwing mill: 

"To remove the sericin coating the filaments, mill workers soaked the skeins for several hours in warm water, with soap, oil, glycerin, perfume and other agents. Water was removed by mechanical extraction, or "whizzing," and the skeins were dried, and stretched around octagonal maple reels, or swifts, supported by elastic cotton bands."

Is that what was done here? How did porcelain guides align with swifts, and why are there swifts on both top and bottom.  How did the swifts look hung with silken skeins?  Who alive today remembers when these were spinning and yet so finely has the maple been turned, fitted, and balanced that the swifts remain straight and can still be set spinning with almost no force. Even the elastic bands are intact despite the leaking roof.  

The boxes with the three finger holes on each side are filled with delicate wooden spools. I wouldn't be surprised to learn there were a hundred-thousand of them; they are everywhere.  

And now I see it is a shot in need of one thing more to connect the work with those who worked here, something found among the abundant props on hand that might have been forgotten here or left for the next day's efforts that day before the strike. A worker who was 20 when the mill closed would be 76 today.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Spider Drive

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL:  Whatever other magic may be found at the silk mill, for me it's unique beauty is the intricate delicacy of the works, and I suspect I'm not alone in this respect.  Along each row of machines my eyes followed the even line of porcelain glides that once guided silken threads. How did those filaments pass through the silk-works? How was it rigged?  Which parts turned; which jiggled, bobbed or wound when the works were set in motion, and one could watch the silk spin?  The beauties of the mill strike me as Victorian-haunted and appropriately arachnid, all pinions and talons ingeniously devised to weave a diaphanous web.

It is perhaps this more than anything else that has led me to finish these images in monochrome (in this case, slightly sepia-toned). It was a difficult decision as the mill is naturally colorful, and bare woods are beautifully darkened with age, and work harmoniously in most of the color photos,  In this image I've also bleached the high end tones to emphasize qualities of light and delicacy, and I've set the whole in a frame to contain the extreme divergence.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Brazen Ritual

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL:  While I was far away at the silk mill, I received word that back in Brass Valley, the brass mill was again casting billets.  I shot this last Tuesday. Willy has just removed one of the distributer cups that spreads the flow of liquid brass into the form below. In a moment, he'll pick it up and rest it inside the edge of the barrel.  With any movement the cups give off sparks.  

I've shot this many times, and the ritual is familiar, and each time it's performed I get to try again to perfect a proven angle or find some new ones during the key moments when the two billets are pulled and set to cool. The ritual is always the same and I keep shooting it because the moments are so filled with the unexpected. 

I was back at the foundry yesterday, but they have again shut down the furnace for a few weeks, and all faces are glum. I will go back again as soon as I learn they are casting. There are more silk mill images to follow, but I couldn't resist putting the orange chiaroscuro of the brass mill beside the B&W chiaroscuro of yesterday's shot in the silk mill.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Silk Throwster's Bench

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL:  One of the first things I saw when I entered the factory was this small bench.  Clearly, it was put here by previous photographers, and I've found web images showing the same pair of shoes in other locations around the mill. One can imagine a photographer months or years back arriving at this spot, props tucked under his arms as he kneels and arranges a pleasing still-life; perhaps it was a team effort.  Then came the followers adding, subtracting and remixing perfection, though to me the terrifying questions was how to approach the bench. It is a decision fraught with decisions, hulking consequences and immovable givens: windows, doors, light, shadow. I willingly did my part by moving one of the spools of silk and joined the list of others who photographed here.

After that, how far can the boundaries of photographic art be pushed before one has left photography altogether, or is it possible to slip back and forth across the border at will as if the photographic art of capturing the telling instant, and the digital technology that permits infinite reconsideration of every instant, were all one? When the medium can do anything, where does one find landmarks to chart a course through billions upon billions of pixels?

Monday, July 1, 2013

Bees' Noise

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL:  There are many ways to be a photographer.  Someone once suggested to me that each can be characterized by what it misses. This is the third photograph posted from the series taken while stalking the drive mechanism; each of my companions was simultaneously stalking his/her special "game."  I'll pardon my own self-indulgence in posting three; the point here is to set possibly redundant shots side by side, observe the paralax changes and think about how such changes influence meaning.

The problem I set remains the same. I have moved backward several steps and raised my tripod to look down on the spinning equipment, and I've turned my camera horizontally to try to take in more of the room's spaciousness. 

The first image in the series, although it is presented as a horizontal, was shot as a vertical.  Interesting to note that the first image could not be as well composed from either of the subsequent camera location. How does the moving photographer find such locations? Are there congruencies that can only be found once the eye has reached the critical spot?

I prefer to compose in the camera, so, in that sense, the shot was a failure of seeing. Why did I miss it while shooting?  Drive shaft and aisle were the main "players," with which I'd chosen to work. Vertical seemed to be the right way to limit compositional elements and focus on my subject, so most of my shots were vertical. Only occasionally did I vary my orientation to try and see what was there. As I moved forward, backward, up, down, sideways, I was always putting the wheel in relation to aisle, columns, ceiling, etc., I missed the abstract rhythms of the isolated aisle and machinery beneath the wheel.  It was much later, back at the computer that I found the forms of one of the images pleasing when cropped to exclude the wheel. 

The second image was the one that best fulfilled the challenge I had set, to tell the story of the power drive.  Time (spent bucket moving, tripod setting, lens changing) was the chief factor preventing me from taking on additional angles, my fear of missing other things elsewhere in the mill.  For purposes of framing, I try to shoot to set proportions.  Even afterward, the elements I wanted to include in the drive wheel story did not fit those vertical proportions, but I probably wasted a lot of precious time trying to make it work in the camera. I'd never be successful by the hour.

Now, a third image and I've spent 40 minutes and barely moved five feet!  In an exhibition, perhaps they are redundant.  Must one choose which story one wishes to tell? Is there enough of a story to tell?  In any case, while shooting the drive mechanism I was also looking for shots that could encompass the full architectural space. It is another quest not fully resolved on first visit, but looking back here will help when I return.  Any opinions from anyone who has read this far are most welcome.

As I was editing images from this shoot, I read an article in Lensworks Magazine about a photographer who went to the Yosemite Valley to assist Ansel Adams in a workshop.  There, amid glorious mountain peaks and heavenly light, he spent his time photographing old tent patches on weathered canvas and produced stunning images. There are many ways to be a photographer, and if we are really looking, many of the things leading our eye remain mysterious, distant voices.  Those are the things to pay attention to, I've found. try to see the stuff behind what's physically there while all the time still looking at drive shafts and machinery.