Every now and then, seeking to rid my mind of thoughts of death and doom, I get up early and go down to Fulton Fish Market.”
— Joseph Mitchell
Among those who know his work, author Joseph Mitchell, of whom I have previously written, was famous for hearing people, for letting the sounds of their particular voices enter his ears and travel through him to the paper, where they emerged filtered and distilled and yet still intact. It was what made his work so uncommon and so enduring. He called his first book My Ears are Bent.
I couldn’t hope to be nearly the writer Mitchell was, nor am I much of a photographer, but one follows one’s heroes however one might. Mitchell was given to long walks around his city and along the Hudson River. Most days I eat lunch at my desk, dropping sandwich crumbs into the cracks between my keyboard keys, and then I take an hour to wander during the early afternoon looking for some way to reignite the little pilot light on my soul. Sometimes I am fortunate enough to tumble into conversations with strangers, but Seattle is not Manhattan, and people are not talkative here, now, the way they apparently were in New York in the ’30s. When human connections are scarce, I can get a different kind of benefit by searching out positive things about the city, which I otherwise regard as noisy and irritating. Often I enjoy observing the way nature, especially light, interacts with the glass and brick and steel of buildings, or even how older aspects of the city “interact” with newer ones, since the built environment has, as it were, a geology of its own.
Sometimes I take a little digital camera with me, which helps me search these things out. I’m going to post a few recent photos here, most of which have several things in common. There’s a blueness to a lot of these, sometimes because I shot them at twilight but often because the fall and winter air refracts the spectrum of sunlight in a certain way, which is picked up in shadows and in the apparent (as opposed to real) color of window glass (and often the window glass is “really” blue).
Also, I tend to focus on what happens when you zoom in on the city’s edges. Distance through space becomes compressed and lines and curves create vistas that boggle the eye, take on shapes whose logic can only be understood two-dimensionally. In these close-up framings, the side of a building often becomes the “sky” behind the subject.
“Art that has to be explained is no kind of art at all” must surely be a quote from somebody by now, although I admit that I just made that up. Nevertheless, this blog is explicative by charter, and I spend quite a bit of time taking and thinking about these images, so I thought it was worth a post. Put your walkin’ shoes on and come with me for a little jaunt around town.
1. Above is a good example of both the close-up and the blueness thing. The building in the background actually has blue glass, but the curved windows of the symphony hall are reflecting the blue sky of a clear morning. There is a squiggle of white reflected in one of the windows that is the only evidence here that the sun is up and very brightly shining on buildings nearby, while this entire view is in shadow. What caught my eye here was the thicker lines in the further building shooting down at angles to meet the place where it all goes curvy, and this audacious roofline whirling out of the picture. It is also worth noting that in reality, the curved lines and the angled lines on the further building are all — every last one of them — perfectly horizontal, yet here they seem all at odds with each other.
2. I call this photo “Two Pigeons”. I was doing an experiment that day in which I took off my glasses, which makes me blind as a bat. I can walk around, but I can’t see to read or resolve much detail. I could see there was a train going under — actually, I was lost among the parking floors of the very building shown when I heard the train, which was frustrating because I was trying to get over to the vantage point where I finally took the photo — but I couldn’t see, for example, the two pigeons, so that I had a good laugh later when I reviewed the photo. What caught my interest here was the fact that things are not how they seem. The winding of the rails gives the impression they are threading their way among buildings because they have no other options, which is not exactly true. The rails have been there for more than a hundred years. The buildings are the newbies here, even though they look so very solid and, especially the one on the left, rocklike. The fact that the buildings look as though they were dropped here at odd angles gives the clue that really it is the buildings that have accommodated their shapes to that of the railroad. The squeaking noise the wheels make as they roll slowly through this concrete canyon is hideously loud and abrasive, and the building on the left is condominiums. How do the occupants endure this?
3. Here we have the pedestal of the Rainier Tower, which appears almost as if it were the prow of a large concrete ship cleaving through the city. We don’t even see the top of the pedestal here, upon which, out of view, an entire building of glass and steel sits, and yet the older theater buiding is dwarfed by this sinistrous mass. Nature is utterly subjugated here — light is swallowed up and the trees at the bottom of the image seem to be mowed over like so much grass.
4. Here are three buildings that seem to be growing right out of one another, or at least that’s the effect I was trying to capture. In truth the lowest one is next to the middle one on the same block, while the furthest one, the “”old” WAMU Tower, is really diagonal across the street from the middle one. The actual ground distance covered in this view is the distance diagonally across two blocks. The lower building is concrete grey, and combined with yellow light from the street and blue from the sky it somehow comes out pinkish. The taller two have the same color “bones” but they are beyond the reach of street light and so appear cooler. Architecturally, the lowest one is oldest, a bunker from the ’60s, I would guess. This is the ugly building I’ve written about before. Reminds me of a skull with wormholes eaten through it. The ’80s saw a lot of repetitive pop-out elements (I call them) because of the increase in the number of middle managers needing corner offices. You see them in the middle building. The WAMU Tower also is from the ’80s, and one of the city’s more gracious numbers (we’ll return to this building at some point in the future). You can’t see the top here but it’s pyramidical, and I’m a sucker for pointy tops.
5. I will someday have to disassemble my love of trains and other rusty industralia here and examine it. It doesn’t really make much sense to me. I think freight trains just seem to me like a holdover from another time, even though they are still very much in use everywhere. I know that this tree is not very old, but if you think of the tree as iconic, you might imagine the various stages this view has gone through. A long time ago this might have been a photo of a tree, with maybe some hills behind (again, maybe not this tree, but…). A couple decades ago it might have been a photo of a hopper car with a tree in front of it, and maybe there would have been a granary or a water tower in the near distance. Here however, it seems to be three things at once, and not really fully any of them. Moving from the lower left to upper right we move through the decades. The tree seems to be crowded out by the train and fence, but the train is in a way jailed itself under the striped “sky” of the 3131 Elliott Avenue Building. But here’s something, The lines of the train and the fence reinforce the modern lines of the building, while the tree stands athwart all of the lines, those of perspective and, since it is not quite straight, even the vertical ones.
6. What does it mean when we say “outside the window was the moon”? Well, here you can see the answer. It’s about thirty feet. A crop of this image may or may not be what you see in the header of this blog, depending on when you’re viewing it. What I saw here was the moon — silly moon — trying to commune with lights inside this tower, as though it recognized some kinship there. And yet there is almost nothing similar between the world left of the dark edge — commercial, short-sighted and short-lived, always changing and progressing and consuming itself, confined, economically justified (or not) — and the world to the right of that edge, which is timeless, cyclical, unbounded, and exists apart from any justification. The distance is not thirty feet, it’s the entire universe. There are some wisps of cloud barely visible here.
7. This one’s for Louis. Unfortunately it is not a very good image by any measure. It seems a little out of focus, for one thing, and the light is uninspiring. It might be better at sunrise. I was going to crop this so that there was no sky showing, to increase the tension and sense of confinement. But then I realized that I liked the way the “shoulders” of both buildings are in view. Big brother, little brother. Two Seattle street toughs. It appears as though the WAMU Tower sort of has the little guy’s back. Or, I dunno, maybe it’s like one humunculus threatening another. You could decide.
8. I could do this all day, but I think that’s enough for now. I have lots more. The problem with digital is that you end up with millions of photos that sit around on hard drives, collecting virtual dust. So here’s a final image, one that isn’t so confined. Nothing terribly cerebral here. This is another that I took with my glasses off, which is what made me notice the various subtle curves — some almost concentric — and the vivid green against blue, one of my favorite color combinations. Also, I like how the mountains appear as the smallest and lowest things in this image, but that wasn’t by design. I couldn’t even see them when I clicked the shutter.
Thanks for coming along. We’ll do it again sometime.