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Colonial Theatre

The first time I visited the Colonial Theatre it wasn’t a theater at all. It was an art supply store. In the grand tradition of art supply stores it was a funky old building crammed full of art stuff. Initially I was preoccupied with my search for the perfect platinum printing paper. For my trouble, a pack of Strathmore 500 hot press pre-1980 did reveal itself, but this was no ordinary art store. Ornate columns popped nonsensically through the floor and disappeared into a hanging ceiling. An arched frieze festooned with the faces of women curved through the center of the store. Clearly, there was something unusual about this place.

My curiosity led to a conversation with the store’s proprietor, Steve Miller. Steve filled me in. The theater opened in 1903. It had a 49-year run, first with legitimate theater, then movies. In 1952 Steve’s dad, George, bought it at auction. George was not the high bidder but promised to keep the building intact. He leveled the floor and built a room inside the audience chamber for his store. The stage became the frame shop and the lobby was given over to wallpaper and home decorating. For the next 50 years the Miller Supply Company occupied the theater.

George, then Steve, cared for the aging relic, patrolling the attics and catwalks to place buckets under the leaks. Most of the theater was sealed off to keep the heat in and the vandals out. The gilded theater became monochromatic as the fine grit of the city filtered in and covered the horizontal surfaces. Such was the state of things in the1990s when Steve granted me access. First, he would go to an ancient switchboard and throw a few knife switches to turn on the lights. Next, there was an airlock of cardboard doors to push through, up a stairway, around a corner and then there you were in this tired and wondrous space. The feeling of emptiness was palpable where once a full house of over 800 people had laughed and cried and applauded and stamped their feet. Through the brick walls the muted sound of traffic on the county’s busiest road was audible. People were going about their lives not 100 yards away, but a timeless dream state engulfed the empty audience chamber.

Beyond the audience chamber was the stage. The stage however, was made over into a room, serving as the frame shop. Like a stage set, lines in the flyway suspended this room. It was in reality a functioning set in which people worked. Frames were even assembled here for Norman Rockwell. It lasted this way from the 1960s, when George Miller set it in place, until the renovation. With this orientation one had no idea they were in fact on stage. Beside the room a narrow stairway set zigzagged up the wall into a patch of light and then up into an unfathomable darkness. The stairs were drab and colorless, coated in fine sooty dirt. The wood was splintery, and they creaked and rocked with every move. Up I went, tripod and camera in hand. At the first landing planking provided a walkway across the back wall to the opposite side where a single small window provided the only illumination for this cavernous space. There too was the pin rail. Here coarse three-strand hemp lines materialized out of the darkness from above where decades before they had been made fast to the rail. Their considerable tails lay coiled on the floor. This was a stagehands’ station (though we might have been aloft on a square-rigged ship). Also on the suspended platform was a chair and some old burlap- covered counterweights. On the brick walls the names of stagehands and set painters were handsomely painted and dated. From this restricted perch they painted canvas backdrops on a stage-sized easel which was raised and lowered past the stationary painters. The base of this easel was covered in sculpturally thick paint drips, but the drips, ablaze with color at their inception were now drab under the omnipresent soot. Cradled in coils of line was a dead starling who had managed to enter the chamber but for whom there had been no escape. I noted with interest the bird’s ongoing decay as I revisited the site from time to time. The stairs led much further up – all the way to the top of the flyway but as there was no light and no place to position a tripod I concentrated my photography on the middle level cat walk.

As color was nonexistent, this place spoke in black and white. The low light level and unstable footing presented a technical challenge. Exposure times of more than a minute were necessary. Some scenes were too dark to focus in the camera and had to be done by distance scales. The swaying platform and planks needed to come completely to rest before the shutter could be tripped. I needed to remain completely still during the exposure. It was not until the film had been processed could I know for sure if it had been a success. Upon reviewing my negatives my appreciation for this scene grew with every viewing and new avenues of exploration continually presented themselves.

From this vantage point, level with the top of the arch, the heavy asbestos fire curtain blocked the view into the audience chamber. The curtain had been lowered two-thirds of the way since 1952 or before. The arch, the lines, the curtain back, and pin rail combined to form a novel and evocative space where time, geometry and scale interwove into a fantastic and improbable place. At this juncture, imagination was directing the camera. This is the absolute best place a photographer can hope to be in. It was as if the theater, this machine for fabricating illusion, had created its own illusion in the many years since anyone had paid it attention.

For the Colonial to be restored this entire setting would have to be destroyed. Thus, my motivation was doubled, not just to harvest the great photographs visible in all directions, but also to honor this time capsule by preserving it in photographs. I could have been content with the images I had made in this place and been done with my photography at the Colonial. Despite the many subsequent photographs I have made, none interest me as much as this earlier series.

There are different reasons, however, for making photographs, and to have knowingly turned my back without following through and recording what was to come would have been improper.

From 1978 to 1986 I was curator of photography at the New Bedford Whaling Museum and Old Dartmouth Historical Society. I had charge of thousands of prints and negatives from the past in an area with some of the richest, oldest history in America. And yet we were often appalled at the gaps. People, places, and buildings had disappeared without leaving a record. In the present we do not think that soon this will be the past and what is around us now will change and disappear. Of course, it all cannot be systematically recorded, but sometimes it is obvious that a subject is special and that it will be changing form – for better or worse. Future generations – even we ourselves will wonder what it was like. The Colonial struck me as just such a place. It isn’t the first. I recorded the Sprague Electric Plant and its transformation into Mass MoCA. I have recorded other buildings as well. Some have had futures, and some, such as the Waterman and Moore Opera House in Williamstown, were on a fast track to oblivion. Even when it appears that salvation is at hand, you never know. And so I was committed to recording the restoration of the Colonial Theatre.

In the century of the Colonial’s existence many theaters had come and gone. It looked as though the Colonial was going to beat the odds. The number of near misses became evident during the renovation and made its survival seem all the more miraculous. Damage from fires was revealed within the walls in several locations. In the attic, ancient knob and tube wiring had recently carried current. Despite George and Steve’s heroic efforts, water had made its way into the building and flowed down the inside of the walls leeching away the plaster and mortar. Potentially explosive cans of decaying film were stored in the projection room. Fundraising was, as always, a challenge. Construction activity carried its own risks. I often wondered, was I making a final record of a doomed building or documenting a building at its low ebb just on the verge of renewal?

And so I set to work. Several distinctive and very different series resulted. I worked in both color and black and white. For more detailed views, I used medium format film in cameras that made square images. With a panorama camera, I made wide views to record the sweep of the space. The form of the original design was respected, but renovation dictated modernization. This occurred in many forms, most of which are invisible in the finished theater. Modern systems were integrated throughout. To that end, the theater was opened up like a patient on the operating table. For a time, one could stand on the dirt floor and see blue sky above. The progression of disassembly and then reassembly was recorded in the panoramic views from several vantage points.

During the years over which this project unfolded the digital revolution swept through the field of photography. The new technology made fieldwork easier and also allowed for much improved interpretations of existing film negatives.

In all views I worked with the available light. It would have been impractical to light such a vast and changing scene. I prefer available light photography because the light is part of the subject. It was especially interesting to work in a space that when functioning properly is defined and controlled by light. Initially, the audience chamber was lit exclusively with incandescent light. Images from this time are bathed in yellow. With the opening of doors and windows, daylight much brighter than the inside light blasted through these orifices. Construction crews hung sodium vapor lights, (similar to streetlights,) which proved challenging to work around. No matter what combination of lighting was in play the levels were low. This necessitated exposure times so protracted that moving people became blurs. In effect, this method recorded activity over a period of time. With the conclusion of the restoration, the house lights could be adjusted to perfection and the theater look as it was intended in photographs.

Over a period of years I spent many hours in the space. A few observations should be noted. I recorded graffiti in restrooms, backstage and in the hinterlands of the catwalks. There was no profanity or meanness. Sometimes performers signed their names. The set painters in the catwalks, equipped with paint, brushes and skill, signed their names with flair. Small details can speak volumes. Names carved into the wooden bench backs of the second balcony were carefully retained in the restoration, thus acknowledging the personal, individual histories of the patrons from a half-century or more in the past.

When the major structural renewal was finished, the fussy work of restoring the ornate plaster, and painted walls and ceilings commenced. When this work concluded new seats were installed and the building was almost ready to begin a new chapter. The doors opened on schedule on August 29, 2006. The final views in this series show the opening-night audience from the stage just before the curtain went up for the first time in over 50 years.

 

New Mexico

New Mexico is a meca for photographers.

In the west there is an appreciation for the classic view camera approach to photography. Grand subjects bathed in fantastic light just demand the quality of large format. There is also the tradition. Timothy O’Sullivan, Paul Strand, Edward Weston, and Ansel Adams all did great work here. One is in very good company photographing in New Mexico.

Northern New Mexico’s elevation of a mile plus above sea level makes for a thin, clear atmosphere.  The climate is arid. At midday the sun is strong, the shadows black. Sunrise and sunsets are dramatic.  The geology is varied and frequently down right surreal.  There are few trees to block the view.

Taken together these pieces truly add up to an extraordinary place.  In fact “Land of Enchantment” is stamped on the license plate!

 

Sparkly Snow

 

Pure Landscape

 

Landscape Photographs by Nicholas Whitman

Catalog Discount Coupons

This series documents the interactions between forces of nature and the aftermath. These images are at once a literal representation and also evoke the emotional feeling of a scene.

A body of work is defined by its limits. This series is of pure landscape with no discernible human activity and no human-made objects in any form.

I find that this border is critical.  If there is even the smallest hint of humanity the scene becomes about man’s relation to nature. Human-made objects are easily comprehensible.  We know what they mean and their function and judge the scene by the object and its relationship to the surroundings. The scene becomes a setting for a human endeavor.

With pure landscape, the interplay of natural objects is the subject.  But even the purest landscape photograph involves at least two people: the photographer and the viewer.  Natural objects will be interpreted in a way which makes sense to us.

Sometimes it is not literal and is defined by the imagination.  For example, looking at a pattern and finding familiar shapes. Or, more simply put – “hey look at that, looks like …” you fill in the blank.  This is a projection rather than an analytical interpretation.  It indulges our human nature of arbitrary association. It is possible to concoct images that are literal, sharp and articulate yet meaningless, save our imagination. This is a core riddle of the work.  It engages logic and emotion; contemporary knowledge collides with the long-guiding influences of superstition and intuition.

There are times in the field when all the pieces come together – a place that is an amalgam of light, subject, and emotional connection. This is what beckons me into nature to create photographs.

The resulting images are a confirmation of the chase.  Can they represent that initial electricity of seeing and feeling?  And I do mean, “represent” in the purest form – as in “to present again”.

Can viewing an image evoke the original feeling of wonder?

 

This collection was exhibited in spring 2014 at Umbrella Arts and Metro Curates 2015, NYC.

 

 

Lincoln Park Ruins

Lincoln Park Ruins Essay


Lincoln Park Ruins

Lincoln Park
 was an amusement park situated between New Bedford and Fall River in North Dartmouth, Massachusetts.  It was built in 1894 and ran continuously until closing in 1987.  There is a rich history associated with the park but I’ll leave it to the reader to search it out on other sites.  These photographs documents the parks very end.  A dozen years after the gates were locked, after everything of value had been hauled away and the major buildings burned, I jumped the fence to make this series.

Circus Posters

Circus Poster Story


Circus Posters Story

 

In June of 1972 when I was just out of high school I was intrigued by a couple of buildings near the intersection of Routes 346 and 20 in Hoosac, NY. I came to calling this area the land that time forgot. There was a closed general store richly adorned with vintage advertising. That was good, but it got better. Next to the store was a barn with a shallow open bay that fronted the road. As one slowed to stop at the intersection you could glimpse some captivating graphics. Investigation revealed a floor to ceiling wall of 3” flat boards that had served as the base for vintage circus posters. Most dramatic was the crumbling remains of The Lion Poster. In some spots the posters were glued one atop the other. In one small corner the posters were many layers deep. I photographed this in black and white and from time to time made an occasional print. And I wondered just what had gone on here and how much had I missed?

Time passed. One day the building was stripped of its advertising art and made new with a fresh coat of paint. Around 2000 the open bay of the barn was enclosed and made into an antique shop. I stopped in and saw a few scraps of the old posters still clinging to the wall, but all seemed lost.

Speaking to the store’s proprietor I was told that yes, posters had been on that wall. Circus posters advertising shows in Bennington, VT and North Adams, MA had been glued one atop the other in this protected spot for years. A couple of pieces had been pulled off and were up in the loft. I wondered if I might have a look so up the stairs to the former hayloft we went. The light was low, just a small window at each end. The floor was completely covered in bat shit which crunched underfoot. On a sidewall were colorless lumps of posters nailed to the wall. They were an armful measuring 3’x5’. A deal was struck and I flopped them into the back of my Volvo wagon, in which my family had been waiting. I was overcome with euphoria. An inquiry over some obscure history had revealed a treasure.

Once home, as I examined the find my euphoria was tempered with the reality that I taken ownership of a conservation nightmare. These were large pieces cut from still larger posters. Each group was about 20 layers thick in spots. Experiments showed the glue, likely wheat paste, was soluble in water. At room temperature it took days to soften but by that time the paper was too weak to be worked on. Conservation is possible, but will be a formidable challenge.

The coming of the circus was announced by posters, hung by an advance team a week or two before the arrival of the circus. These could be displayed on any good-sized surface with public exposure. Barn and shed walls were typically pressed into service. But these walls were not smooth and were exposed to the elements. The lithographed paper posters deteriorated quickly. Once glued to an irregular clapboard wall, there was no salvation.

Circus posters were plentiful but ephemeral. Which is why these examples were special. These posters were hung in a mostly protected space. Then, fortuitously, even if roughly removed, they were put aside.

We have two multi-layered fragments of circus posters dating to the first quarter of the 20th century. They are sections cut from a billboard-sized wall onto which they were pasted, one atop the other. The number of layers varies from 12-20. The top dozen or so layers are complete. That is, a fragment torn and or cut from a complete larger whole. The size of the overall original from which sections were removed is unknown. Posters were delivered in sections and hung like wallpaper in vertical strips. There is overlap where the strips intersect. In some instances the registration is off, illustrating the slap dash attitude of the paperhangers. Paste was brushed on liberally and unevenly. As the layers accumulated wrinkles were papered over and became amplified, thus adding topography to what was intended to be a flat surface. As more and more posters were added to the wall the layers became unstable. Tacks and nails were driven through the pile to hold them to the wall. It appears that unstable sections were torn off and discarded to stabilize the base for the next layer. This could explain the variability in the number of layers at any point in each fragment. In addition to the multitude of paper layers there are also at least two layers of linen fabric, one of which is painted white with navy blue lettering. Sprinkled throughout the layers, glued to a current poster front were eleven-inch square advertising panels for chewing tobacco. Small showbills heralding the date, time and location of an upcoming circus was pasted atop the illustrated poster.

These two poster fragments henceforth referred to as “Parade Poster” and “Acrobat Poster” appear to have been adjacent and not one atop the other. Their experience was similar but not identical.

To date no other examples of these particular posters have come to my attention.

The Acrobat poster showbill pasted atop it announces: “Sig Sautelle will exhibit at Ben’gton Thursday, Two Performances Daily, Afternoon a …, Rain or …”

Sig Sautelle (1848-1928) was a master showman whose life story is simply larger than life. If you’d like a glorious diversion, check out some of these links. Circuses under his imprint date from 1882 to his death date. However by 1919 he had combined his circus with Demarest Bros. Wild West. We can assign a date range of 1900-1920 for the acrobat poster.

The Parade poster has no identifying showbill so we can only speculate as to weather or not it too was a Sautelle poster. There are some tantalizing clues. Elephants, camels, horses, tents and the bandwagon depicted on the poster all appear in this Sautelle manifest (scroll down to 1904, try not to get distracted).

Sautelle’s bandwagon survives at the Circus Hall of Fame.  This from the Sarasota Herald-Tribune-April1, 1960 ” The recently acquired pony bandwagon was presented to the circus Hall of Fame by W. Harold Curtis of Pataskala, Ohio. The bandwagon had been kept in his barn since1914 when the Sig Sautelle Circus went off the road. It was built by Sullivan and Eagle in Peru, Indiana about 1900.”

This is very similar to the one depicted on the poster.

The Parade Poster’s top layer is filthy. In addition to the exposure it endured when hung it was laid flat in storage after removal from the wall. Fine dirt has accumulated to the point of obscuring most color and much detail. Exacerbating this, water dripped on the poster as it sat face up in the attic. Water added it’s own marks and helped drive the soil into the paper. This dirt does not respond to dry cleaning with eraser, brush or vacuum. The soil will need to be flushed out the paper by full immersion in warm water.

The Acrobat Poster is brighter and less soiled. It does have mold and mildew working it’s way up from the bottom. More dramatic still, while both posters shed dirt and soil this one was riddled with shotgun pellets. Someone took potshots at the high-wire act!

These are just the top two posters of dozens in the bundles. Showbill fragments are visible in lower layers from the edge but at present are tantalizingly out of reach and illegible.

If conservation and disassembly is accomplished we will learn much more.

Kory Rogers, Curator at the Shelburne Museum has acknowledged these unusual objects. The Sautelle Acrobat Poster and some of these photographs are on exhibit in Papering the Town: Circus Posters in America. Which will run from July 9 until January 22, 2017.

Berkshire Woods

Sea Shore Sky

Sea Shore Sky

I find the waterfront endlessly fascinating. Ocean, stream, lake or puddle there is always something of interest at the interaction of water and earth. At the ocean the intertidal zone is twice daily revealed and covered by the tides’ ebb and flow. Up shore, the bedrock is exposed and weathered. The water’s action peels back the skin of soil to expose and polish the bedrock. It is within this interplay of water, earth, sky and occasionally ice that I do a lot of my looking and then photography.

Time is a principal ingredient in every photograph. Working backwards in time, first we have the duration of the exposure. With the view camera this is often a full second or more. At this slow rate, surf for example, is flat ethereal and misty. To record any wave features at all the exposure must be above a thirtieth of a second. And to stop the action of a breaking wave it must be a hundredth of a second or shorter. It is human nature to mark time from the perspective of a lifetime. But in the geological timeframe a lifetime is barely the blink of an eye. Many geological effects are so ubiquitous they go unnoticed while others occur so slowly we tend not to see them.

A body of work is defined by its limits. This collection is of pure landscape. My working definition of pure landscape is simply a scene with no discernible human activity. So there are no human-made objects in any form.

I find this border is critical. If there is even hint of humanity in a photograph the scene becomes about man’s relation to nature. Human made objects are easily comprehensible. We know their meaning and function and judge the scene by the object and its relationship to the surroundings. The scene becomes about human endeavor.

With pure landscape, the interplay of natural objects is the only subject. But even the purest landscape photograph involves at least two people. The photographer presents an image to a viewer.

Natural objects will be interpreted in a manner that makes sense to us. Sometimes a rather literal rendering of the scene is called for.

Often a subject triggers the imagination. Looking at a rock and seeing a face, simply put – “hey look at that, it looks like … “ you fill in the blank. This is a metaphoric interpretation. It accommodates our human nature and is a pleasurable indulgence.

That it is possible to concoct images, which are so literal, sharp and articulate – yet are meaningless, save the imagination, is a core riddle of this series. It engages the dichotomy between logic and emotion. Modern scientific understanding has only been with us for a few generations while superstition and intuition remain guiding influences. My photographs embrace these polarities of perception and understanding.

After many years of engagement the mystery persists and the pursuit continues.

Olana

Frederic Edwin Church and Olana Essay


Frederic Edwin Church and Olana
Frederic Edwin Church and Olana

Frederic Edwin Church was one of America’s most popular 19th century painters.

As a major figure of the Hudson River School he painted realistic, if somewhat fanciful landscapes. As the name implies he painted the Hudson River and it’s environs. His great success and fame also allowed him to travel to exotic lands, including South America, the Middle East and of special interest to me, the waters off Labrador with their icebergs.

On his voyage of 1859, Rev. Louis L. Noble accompanied him and wrote of the adventure in, After Icebergs with a Painter. The book is revealing not only for its description of the voyage, but also for the romantic interpretation of nature in the nineteenth century.

Begun in the1870s, and continuing for the next quarter century, Church poured his energy into what some have called his final masterpiece. It was, rather than a painting, a house. On a high hill in Hudson NY, looking south down the River and west toward the Catskill Mountains, Church built a grand, Persian-style mansion. He named it Olana.

In his castle he incorporated many design elements from his travels in the Middle East including; tiles, minarets, arched doors and windows, screens and leaded glass. The interior featured patterns and designs of eastern influence, but painted by Church in the pallet of the nature just out side.

It has been my good fortune to work on a series of books about Church and Olana. In doing so I documented many features of the house. Photographing the interaction between the house and its surrounding landscape was the challenge. Over many visits, in different seasons it was a delight to observe the interchange between the house and surrounding nature. Church’s last masterpiece dealt with the subjects he had always painted. Man’s relationship to landscape, color, emotion, light on the mountains and the Hudson River. But where before he was constrained by a static, two-dimensional canvas, in Olana he created an ever changing, multifaceted, three-dimensional construct that works magnificently to this day.

Olana is well preserved, in caring hands and open to the public.

www.olana.org

 

Mass MoCA

MASS MoCA Essay


MASS MoCA
I began photographing the abandoned Sprague Electric plant in 1988.  The seemingly random collection of brick buildings was built as a textile mill during the 1800s at the confluence of the two branched of the Hoosac River.  Sprague Electric began a new chapter to the mills’ history in 1942 with the emerging field of electronics components.  My Dad worked for Sprague for 26 years.  I did too, on the graveyard shift in the summer of ’74.

Sprague closed in 1985.  By the late 1980s the plant was rotting and it’s future looked ominous.  Where once over 4000 thousand people had come to work, now only a couple of men tended watch.

Trips to photograph the plant were an expedition. I worked with a 4”x5” field camera and carried everything in order to be self contained and mobile.  The buildings are mostly interconnected, so once you were inside you could go anywhere.  Many areas were quite dark which made photography difficult because I only used available light.  The light is part of the place and the place is what I was documenting.  The early work was all in black and white, which seemed most appropriate, but as the space opened up more was revealed.  Color offered a more complete record.

Sprague Electric Company had broken the vast mill spaces into smaller work areas.  The grandeur of the place was obscured.  Chipping paint, broken glass, buckled floorboards were everywhere.  Most compelling was evidence of the individuals who had spent so much of their lives within these walls.  It manifested itself in different, sometimes unexpected ways. There were discarded identification badges and personal effects like coffee cups and well-worn chairs. There was scrawl on the walls, numbers by the phone, and conversions from minutes to tenths of an hour by the punch clocks.  The humanity of this place of industry was revealed in these details.

I collected these vignettes, fully expecting the buildings to not survive.

But people of vision stepped in.  They reconfigured, repaired, and renovated. I documented this evolution.  Especially exciting was the emergence of the grand open mill spaces.  The wholesale removal of entire floors redoubled the effect.  Reclaimed windows brought light back to what had become a very dark place.  Where darkness and decay had once dominated, now light and space became the subjects of my photographs.

After the emergence of the gallery spaces came the installation of artwork, followed by the opening in May of 1999.

More of this series can be seen in:  MASS MoCA: From Mill to Museum  but it is out of print , so find a used one.

See the plant before MoCA in this book: After Sprague Electric / Before MASS MoCA