Wednesday, March 15, 2017

The Blacksmith's Heart

next slide talks:
Finding Brass Valley: A Place in Time that has almost Vanished

Mar. 20 @ 7 PM - Milford Public Library, Milford, CT (Come also to see the exhibition)
Mar 27 @ 6 PM - Cheshire Public Library, Cheshire, CT

PHOTOGRAPHER’S JOURNAL: The Lenswork podcast below has gotten me thinking about the place of metaphor in art photography and the role of culture in determining the photographs we make. In the podcast Brooks Jensen points out, I think correctly, that what distinguishes documentary photography from art photography is that documentary photography is about the subject; art photography is always about something else - he says that's metaphor. He then talks a bit about how metaphor is culture-bound. I especially recommend this link to other photographers.

Because I strive to make “art photographs,"  in places that need to be documented, I must ask of every picture I choose to process: Why? And for whom? My publisher describes Brass Valley: The Fall of an American Industry as an ode, not a history, and I hope it is about something more than Brass Valley. What does “The Blacksmith’s Heart," mean outside the culture of smiths and smithing? 

Brooks Jensen’s discussion makes references to one of the great photographs of all time, Dorothea Lange’s, "Migrant Mother.” I hesitate to mention it on a screen with my own photograph in view. What is it that catapults that picture to being a metaphor of an era, over the other images Lange took that day?

I had always thought that music was at an opposite pole from metaphor; that, “All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music.” And the “condition,” as Walter Pater termed it, was that music touches us directly through the raw force of silence and sound arranged in harmonic, rhythmic, and timbrel patterns, without the use of metaphor. But how is it that raw forces such as intensity, timbre, harmony, and rhythm combine to touch the deepest levels of our spirit making us laugh, grieve, yearn, or find solace and balm? What part of our reaction is metaphoric and culture-bound, though primal and species deep? Where do those harmonies and dissonances lie?

I think it’s correct to see these musical forces as analogous to the photographer’s ability to communicate directly through composition and tonality. What distinguishes “Migrant Mother” from other photos of the series is not simply the inscrutable expression of the migrant mother but the powerful chord struck by the tonalities of garments, bunting, ringlets, necks that swirl around an axis and upon a compositional scaffolding of crumbling stability? What part of this picture is culture-bound? How deep in the heart does metaphor lie?


Half way down the “nave” of the Farrel Foundry is the transept. That is where the metal was poured into molds made of sand. Workers associated in any way with the Farrel foundry usually have stories to tell. Grime, danger, and heroism seem to be widely remembered, and there is a special regard given those who poured the metal. Founders, casters and molders are the priesthood of the metals and machine industries. Once theywere alchemists whose coveted secrets imparted the spirit to the metal and on whose crystal magic all future success depended. 

In 1731 quality iron ore was discovered in Salisbury, CT, and by the mid-1740s they were producing pig iron in East Canaan, Salisbury, Sharon and Kent, and the Northwest HIlls had become the center of America's iron industry. By the time of the Revolution there was hardly a community in the region that had the power of a good stream that did not also have a puddling furnace for refining the impurities from the pig iron produced in blast furnaces. Local farmers forged the purified wrought iron into the tools they needed, and the region developed an expertise in metal working. But forging and founding were different arts, and the most precious secrets belonged to those who poured the metal.

With ores and metals of uncertain purity and the fluctuating heat of charcoal, coke or, later, coal, they learned to make fires that would sustain the high heat required and relied on their senses, knew by the sound or smell, when it was time to add ingredients or mix or pour. The region developed an experimental curiosity about making and working metal that grew to expertise and drew the metals industries to the Naugatuck Valley and to Connecticut.

I’ve been told that existing journals of Barnum & Richardson, with furnaces in East Canaan and Salisbury show deliveries of iron to the Farrel foundry right up through WWI and deliveries still being made as late as 1925, two years after the smelting operations had shut down. The last delivery of Connecticut iron came in 1941, exclusively made up of old pieces of salamanders probably for a widening Second World War. The superintendent who kept those journals was reportedly, "proud that ‘Salisbury' iron had served the country from the Revolution through WWII. 

The people of the Lower Valley are also quick to talk about Farrel’s past importance to the nation’s defenses, and I’ve been told the foundry was hidden in camouflage during WWII. Pigs of iron, whatever the source, were delivered here, to the transept, where the metal was poured.