Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Flight of Locks, Black River Canal, near Boontown

PHOTOGRAPHER’S JOURNAL: The audacity of it! Three-hundred-and-sixty-three miles over which the supply of water must be monitored and sustained through knowledge and control of runoff throughout the watershed and through the management of feeder canals and reservoirs to keep the canal flowing, and never over-flowing, evenly throughout its length. 

The Black River Canal is one of the feeder canals. It was built between 1837 and 1850, and it carried barge traffic for 34 miles through 109 locks from the Black River, high up in Lyons Falls, over a summit in Boonville and then steeply down through tightly clustered lock stairways to the Erie Canal. Here, midway in its course, hidden in the woods beside Route 46, is either a “flight of four” or a “flight of five locks,” once a vital byway.  The path from the rim was trecherous, the ground in the lock too muddy for further exploration.

The earliest rumblings of our Faustian future were probably earth shifting beneath us for dams and canals, reservoirs, aqueducts, and water tunnels, even before there were railroads. The Erie Canal system is an engineering marvel, and it is no accident that the town where the Black River Canal meets the Erie Canal was named audaciously, “Rome.”

The upper section of the canal north of Boonville was abandoned as unprofitable in 1900, but parts of the system remained active until 1920. In 1925 it was officially declared an abandoned waterway.

What seems to me audacious, may, however, have seemed logical, even inevitable, to men who had been following the paths of the native people, portaging between rivers and ponds for a century until they knew the options for tying it all together into a waterway to reach beyond Niagara to an infinite resource with the port of New York City, its gateway. 

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

By Packet to Niagara

PHOTOGRAPHER’S JOURNAL: Imagine a riff of water on wooden gunwales and the slow song of your packet boat and mules drawing you through the mountains back in time along the Erie Canal through frontier Albany, Utica, Syracuse, Rochester, Buffalo; towns linked by the goods and news that flowed along the water and by the idea that still lurked out there along the edges of great inland seas. Some saw wealth, some power, some just the chance for an honest wage, but it was the idea of the almost accessible frontier and its limitless possibilities that animated the new canal.

Upstate by stage coach was bone-rattling agony over mountain roads beset by washouts and falling limbs. In 1825  there were no railroads but among the barges for freight, packets began carrying visitors through 363 wilderness miles along a smooth canal through 83 locks rising 568 feet from the Hudson River up to Lake Erie and level seas into wilderness.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Canal Beckons

PHOTOGRAPHER’S JOURNAL: Rivers always try to carry us downstream. But a canal beckons in two directions.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Control Tower

PHOTOGRAPHER’S JOURNAL: From his matchstick tower the crane operator saw all and controlled levers and pedals that connected by rods and cables to the motors and gears beneath him that made the crane do all its tricks. Before the windows were boarded, this was the eye of operations. The crane operators I’ve known were all deliberate people aware of the momentum of the mass they moved. How long did it take to master the technique for controlling the machine? How many master crane operators have sat here since the crane was built in 1917? Or did they stand? Was there once a chair, or did one have to lean into the machinery with the whole of one’s body?

Saturday, May 23, 2015


PHOTOGRAPHER’S JOURNAL: One must stand here, at the base of the mast, and observe how the cables fasten to the great wheel to appreciate the operation of the crane’s pivot. 

If there is a postcard shot of the dry dock, this is it. I relinquished this angle once when we entered the dry dock, and the  sky was good, and everyone streamed into the area around the boom. The spot was occupied throughout the workshop, and by the time I got back and found the tranquility to study the composition, the sky was glaring and awkward.

Although this corner was occupied with photographers studying the geometries throughout the workshop, nobody else offered an image from this location at our nightly image sessions. Seeing this (in a preliminary version), Tillman was rightly emphatic about the need for choosing an angle that allows for a person’s passage between the wheel and the railing; he ran his fingers along the empty passage to emphasize his message. Indeed, I had a number of shots that I’d ruled out for this defect. That’s only one of the geometric issues posed, but it is the first major constraint on where one must stand. Clearing the full path of the leading line was only possible in post-processing or by elevating the camera above my limits.

I wanted to include something of the tower from which the crane was operated, but opening too wide meant admitting more of the unpleasant sky. The final decision on where to crop the top was determined by the window, the brim of roof, and the need to show enough of the mast to give it importance. Even with sky minimized, as it is here (27mm DX), processing the sky required invention.

Tillman warns against the easy seductions of the postcard shot. Now, having taken this and understood it, I’m eager to go back and shoot it again, though I’d be sorry to have leaves on the trees.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Crane's Philosophy

PHOTOGRAPHER’S JOURNAL: Eventually, I did go to the very back of the dark, damp room which was the front of the operator’s shack, underneath the tower where the operator sat. Here is the clockwork. The tensile load from the boom is anchored to spools turned by motors and large gears to do the lifting. A second cable system, smaller, wraps around the horizontal wheel on which the crane turns. Together these make up the crane’s philosophy.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Tank & Hose

PHOTOGRAPHER’S JOURNAL: My eye was held by the large rivets on the compression tank and the coils of hose. It may have been used for nothing more than watering a lawn. Meanwhile, in a darker space behind me, too tight for good picture-making, the key to the dry dock’s operation remained still undiscovered, easy to miss while fixed on the eye of this serpent. 

Might I have gotten closer - made the serpent lunge? On a first shoot there’s always tension between the urge to stay and study, the need for an overview of all there is, and a reluctance to poke into the dark and damp.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

From the Gates of the Dry Dock

PHOTOGRAPHER’S JOURNAL: For me, part of the fascination of a place like this comes from understanding what it did and how it worked, and the essential photographic challenge is how to make it all clear in a single shot, not merely the crane as it is now, slackened, spiritless, resting on wood blocks. Can it be seen in its stilt-walking glory, overseen by the crane operator in his matchstick tower, yanking and poking at levers and pedals to rotate the wheel that swung the boom that lifted steel plates onto and off of waiting barges where welders made repairs? The age of mules and wooden barges was gone; in 1917 motorized steel barges sought to make the Erie Canal competitive with the railroads, and dry docks like this kept commercial barges afloat on the  Erie Canal for another half century.

Monday, May 18, 2015


PHOTOGRAPHER’S JOURNAL:  The dry dock was the first thing on the agenda for day two of the Erie Canal workshop. The site had been described as “uncertain”; nobody had yet seen if anything worth shooting was there. If it proved uninteresting, we were set to move on. However, we stayed. The dry dock was a relic from 1917 when the canal was rebuilt and enlarged. It ended the era of tow paths, mule boats and the complex routines in which teams of mules or horses pulled the barges in six-hour shifts. When the canals were widened, the mules were gone, and there was a need for large dry docks along the canal’s length with machine shops, mechanics, welders, and machinists to keep the large barges in repair. 

The postcard shot, the obvious angle from which to reveal the workings of the dry dock, was from behind the great wheel on which the crane sat. I got there quickly, but I had barely begun to study its complex geometries when, all the other workshop participants streamed into my picture. Conscious that the shot I wanted meant clearing one side of site where half a dozen might shoot, I relinquished my postcard perspective after only a couple of quick shots. I went instead where I could shoot uncontested and tried to photograph intimations.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015


PHOTOGRAPHER’S JOURNAL: Just off the Erie Canal a disused dry dock, once a busy place with a truss-boomed crane, rested ghostly and still. A canal keeper who let us in had run the crane, swung the boom, lowered the plates to repair rusting canal barges, but he was much younger then. He said the dock and crane were built in 1917.

The opening in the boom lattice was just large enough for my DSLR and fist. An LCD viewfinder is essential here. This is the kind of task where small lens cameras, with their extended depth of field, excel. I was uncertain if my DSLR would handle the task. We become the tools we use.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

On the Canal, Just Fishing

PHOTOGRAPHER’S JOURNAL: Most people think the tripod’s purpose is primarily to steady the camera, but tripod shooting fosters compositional seeing, allows one to study and fine-tune compositional detail, and probably aids in habituating the mind to compositional strategies. Unless I am doing street photography, on vacation, or shooting family, I almost always shoot from a tripod. However, tripod shooting has important disadvantages. It is awkward to use at interesting angles and low to the ground, hard to nuzzle into corners and often just recalcitrant.

When my friend and I reached the canal we decided to walk a bit and leave our tripods behind. As we began shooting both of us saw this opportunity at the same moment from different angles. Had I been shooting from a tripod, I would have scrambled to get in position in time to catch the fisherman in his pose. Camera in hand, exposure already set, I focused, aimed and clicked three times in fast succession. The whole thing took me no more than two seconds, but by the second shot he was already turning to leave, and the moment was lost. I recall wondering, “Would it suffice if the first shot were blurred?"

The devil is in the details; compositional thinking begins below consciousness. Years of tripod shooting led me to watch the edge where the pylon must be carefully placed and the opposite corner where the tip of the triangle must not be lost. Shooting hand-held encourages tunnel vision. I recall making a quick choice to leave no more than the triangular wedge of the bridge’s outer face. On reflection, it was the right choice leaving the parallel undersides of the girders to lead the eye with the river’s flow.

Luck, nature, or instinct placed the bit of branch and the diagonal post where they needed to be, leading your eye to the fisherman. In finding a tonal solution for the image I discovered that brightening the squarish end of the concrete crosspiece in the upper right corner reinforced the mass of the structure and the geometries within the picture frame. When it all works like this, I receive it as a gift, whatever its merit. Although a bit later in the day the light might have been truly spectacular on the river and the pier, I’m happy with the story of the patient fisherman, contemplating the flow beneath the thundering highway.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Canal Gate

PHOTOGRAPHER’S JOURNAL: My friend and I arrived in Rome, New York, a few hours before the Erie Canal workshop was scheduled to begin. With a few free hours we decided to explore, and after passing through the center of town we found ourselves at the intersection of the Mohawk River and the modern Erie Canal. Two large gates were held open along the canal beside where the river joined it.

The Erie Canal was begun in 1817. Sometimes called, “Clinton’s Ditch,” the original 389 mile canal was complete in 1825 connecting Lake Erie in Buffalo to the Port of New York via Albany and the Hudson River. It was a a landmark achievement that transformed a new nation and made New York City into the nation’s commercial center, and it provided quick access to the midwest. It quickly became, not just a single canal, but a canal system that opened a broad commercial region in upstate New York. It was rebuilt twice, and as “The Erie Canal National Heritage Corridor,” it continues operating today.

“Obliques are dynamic.” Those were the words Freeman Patterson used to cement in my mind a principle I already knew. That was in 2001, and I’ve thought of it often since then. Socrates was right, all important learning is really just remembering what you were born knowing. It was the first of Freeman's lectures on the syntax of photography, and it was the first formal photo workshop I had taken. 

The angle here is determined by where the oblique begins and ends and how it relates to all four corners. There are many choices to be made in processing. My intent was to contrast the dark massiveness of the gates with the wispiness of the clouds. Monochrome allowed me to maximize both.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

I'm Back

PHOTOGRAPHER’S JOURNAL:  It’s hard for me to think of the Erie Canal without hearing the strains of “Fifteen miles…” and imagining the mule barges bringing their cargoes to market. I’m just back from a five-day workshop with Tillman Crane on the Erie Canal near Rome, NY. Tillman has been systematically exploring and  photographing along the canal for several years, and has offered yearly workshops at different locations along the canal system. He was an excellent guide, leading us all to good photo sites that revealed the canal’s twisted history and provided rich opportunities for making pictures, and I look forward to seeing Tillman's finished collection of images for his unique vision.

I’ve found the experience of shooting with a bunch of strangers, and sharing images nightly is invaluable in learning new ways of seeing. The group of photographers who tend to follow Tillman’s workshops are often devotees of medium and large format photography. It is a different medium than 35mm photography with a long tradition of chemical processing that is fundamental to photography as an art form. Tillman’s license plate number is made from the chemical symbols for platinum (Pt) and palladium (Pd), and he is known as an expert in the intricacies of chemical processing and large format imaging. For me, his workshops provide a rare chance to focus a bit on what distinguishes 35mm photography from larger formats. Many of those who brought samples of their work to show brought only monochrome images. 

This image comes from the afternoon of the workshop’s first day spent in an empty amusement park. It followed a morning spent in “Erie Canal Village,” a recreated town made from 19th century salvage that had seen better days. 

Another workshop participant took a similarly composed shot. However, I was surprised by many of the elements that others found to isolate from the chaos of carnival rides and signage. A considerable part of the skill one learns as a photographer involves mentally imprinting strategies of pictorial composition. Head-on, frontal symmetry is a core strategy. That does not make it less apt in the right situations, but those who see primarily in monochrome will find very different things to isolate here. Either way, the devil is always in the details.

Be sure to view this large and against a dark background. You may even need to zoom in.