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Bruce Jackson’s photos of grain elevators draw out past, present, and future of the urban landscape

American Chartres, Bruce Jackson’s exhibit of grain elevator photographs, opens at UB’s Anderson Gallery with a reception on Saturday, January 22, 6-8pm.

Ever thoughtful and patient, the Grand Ladies of the Lake stood still once again for another fantastic photographic shoot. Bruce Jackson’s upcoming exhibit, American Chartres, to be held at the UB Anderson Gallery between January 22 and March 6, 2011, demonstrates once more just how photogenic the Buffalo grain elevators are.

These photographs, again, expose the flesh of concrete and steel, the immense volume, and the light play on form of these giant structures, machines really. These elevators and the marine leg invented in Buffalo by Dunbar and Dart in 1842 were designed to store and move grain. The workers, dwarfed by the silos and elevators, occupied very small spaces within the large volumes but were equipped with amazing machines and devices to constantly move tons and tons of grain in, around, through, up, over, and out. Three of the elevators are still moving grain: the Standard, the General Mills complex, and the Lake and Rail.

The elevators that are still standing tell a story about Buffalo’s past, when the city was the sixth-largest port in the world because it connected the expanding Midwest and West with the East and European markets. They tell the story of invention and pragmatism as the type evolved and changed to incorporate new technologies, to increase efficiencies, and to avoid fire, rot, and vermin—changing from a wooden, barn-like edifice into the sleek, concrete and steel structures we see today. And this transformation tells the story about the importance of the design and image of this newly invented type for the history of modern architecture, described and used by people such as Le Corbusier and Mendelsohn.

But they are not just about history. As Jackson says, “They are also magnificent pieces of Buffalo’s urban landscape…They are about the visual present, not the imagined past.” The grain elevators bound and define the lower reaches of the Buffalo River—which currently is undergoing a major cleanup effort—creating an urban landscape unlike any other in the world. And although most are not functioning for their original purpose, they stand like sentinels and oversee the kayaks, the small boats, the fisher people, and casual walkers with a grace that belies their enormous size.

The Buffalo grain elevators continue to be a source of inspiration for many. In 2007, the Urban Design Project published Reconsidering Concrete Atlantis: Buffalo Grain Elevators to record the nomination of all of them to the National Register of Historic Places as a “multiple property listing.” The book provides an overview of the Grand Ladies, offers some provocative ideas for reuse, and asks questions about how we might bring them into the culture of the city.

Since that time, there have been at least three new publications: Jackson’s American Chartres (2011), Elevator Alley by Michael Cook with photographs by Andrew Emond(2010), and the grand volume on the history of the type by William Brown), American Colossus: The Grain Elevator (2009).

When the National Register nomination was received, there were 16 elevators in Buffalo comprising a specimen of each type: the wooden, the steel bin, the ceramic tile, and the concrete and steel. Two of the elevators were placed on the National Register of Historic Places: the wooden Wollenberg and the quarter mile long Concrete Central. And since that time, we have lost two of them: the Wollenberg by arson, a not unexpected finale for a long history of demolition by neglect, and the H. O. Oats, torn down by the Seneca Nation for their new casino, representing a lack of imagination of how the silos and daylight factory buildings could contribute to development.

Many still argue that the silos are ugly and should be torn down; they represent a longing for the golden days of Buffalo and we are better off without them. This is certainly the attitude of some of the owners like ADM, who periodically come before the Preservation Board of the City of Buffalo and request to demolish the Great Northern—the last steel bin elevator in the world, as far as we know. More recently, Ontario Specialty Contracting, who bought the Agway/GLF grain elevator, has filed a request to demolish part of the complex along the Buffalo River. These types of requests are a continuation of the policy of demolition by neglect. If you don’t take care of buildings for long enough, parts of them do indeed become dangerous and a hazard, although the demolition of a concrete and steel silo is very arduous as they were built to last for centuries. An alternative is possible: Riverwright LLC has responsibly removed debris and done repairs on the Perot, American, Marine A, and the Lake and Rail. As a result of their work, the Lake and Rail, sold to Riverland Ag, is up and running and is being reused—yes, to store grain. Those of us interested in preserving these structures need to work together to provide additional safeguard if we want them to stand for another 100 years: the kind of legal protection found in a local register nomination.

It is true that the silos and elevators are difficult to reuse for purposes other than storing grain—they are idiosyncratic in the extreme. But present utility should not be the only criterion applied to these unusual edifices. Remember that many castles abandoned in Europe sat empty for centuries before being re-employed as a part of the tourist industry, and some simply sit as ruins still, defining the landscape of a particular place.

Across the world, some grain elevators have been reused for purposes such as housing, hotels and offices, most often employing only the cathedral like basements and the top of the structure for habitation. If you have never seen the city of Buffalo and Lake Erie from the top of a grain elevators, you are missing a breathtaking view.

Perhaps most important in our attitude is the issue of time. Really, these great Buffalo silos have only been empty for 50 years, a minute in time from a city-building and political economy perspective (although not for us humans). Give them some time and what is likely to happen is that they will be needed in the future for some purpose, even storing grain, as transportation systems begin to rely more on water again with the inevitable rising cost of fossil fuels.

So let’s stop a bit, and think not only of the grain elevators but of all the amazing buildings and urban fabric we have in the grand city of Buffalo, New York, and show respect for the legacy of our parents and grandparents. Certainly we are responsible for adding urban buildings and landscapes for our grandchildren, not only to preserve what went before. But with a relatively empty city, there are many places to build, many things that can be done without destroying the patrimony of our ancestors.

As a beginning, let’s celebrate the unusual and amazing Grain Elevator structures—let’s light them, put restaurants on top of them, dance in them, arrange tours of them, and have wine and cheese parties in the bowels of them. And let’s continue to photograph the Grand Ladies of the Lake to remind ourselves not only of their historic value, but to see again that they are unique and beautiful, and lend their stature and grace to Buffalo’s waterfront.

Lynda Schneekloth is professor emerita and director of landscape for the Urban Design Project, School of Architecture and Planning, University at Buffalo.

Browse a sampling of Bruce Jackson's photos from the upcoming American Chartres exhibit. Click on any image above to enlarge.

American Chartres

Bruce Jackson talks about photographing Buffalo’s grain elevators

AV: Why grain elevators? What draws an artist to a subject matter that has often been assayed before, do you think?

Jackson: I was working on a broader project, one I called Post-Industrial Buffalo. I was photographing derelict and repurposed buildings from Buffalo’s industrial age, a visual urban archaeology. I roamed all over the city and got to know Buffalo in a way I never had known it previously, even though I’ve lived here most of my life.

A project like that takes on its own identity after a while, and that sometimes isn’t close to what you’d planned. Pictures that look wonderful one day look drab after you take some others and put them next to one another. It’s a learning process, learning how to see, what to see.

More and more, the pictures I liked most were pictures of the elevators. The elevators displaced that wonderful three-story brick building on Chicago Street, the Central Terminal, the old Sattler Theater on Broadway, the old mental institution at Breckenridge and Mason.

I think I first became aware of the elevators through the photographs of my friend Pat Bazelon, who died 15 years ago. She did wonderful large format work at Bethlehem Steel and along the river. One of the things art does, I think, is it helps teach you how to see. I’d looked at the elevators for decades—anybody who has driven along I-190 has seen them—but it wasn’t until Pat singled them out that I really started seeing them. “Looking” and “seeing” aren’t close to the same thing.

Then I got involved in the downtown casino issue and did a lot of photographs during the takedown of the H-O Oats elevator on Perry Street. I wrote about that for Artvoice and you ran some of those pictures. During that, I got a sense of the astonishing strength of those elevators: Killing H-O Oats was a very tough job and took a lot of heavy machinery working a long time. It reminded me of that George Orwell essay, “Killing an Elephant.”

The fact that other artists have looked at these structures before is more an incentive than deterrent. A lot of artists have looked at calla lilies and they’re not close to being used up. If other artists have been there, you have a sense of being part of a community, of joining a conversation. At least I do. People have documented the elevators and the Buffalo waterfront since the mid-19th century. In a sidebar to the exhibit I’ve got a lithograph from the early 1870s, a photo from the 1880s, and a group of splendid photos from 1900. All of those came from Library of Congress. It’s like translating the Odyssey: It’s got to be done again in every generation because the language changes. With something like this, we see differently, our instruments of looking and technologies change, giving us different opportunities.

AV: After you’ve undertaken a project like this, and it has come to what seems like a resolution—in this case, an exhibit—are you done with it? Or do you return to the subject?

Jackson: I tend to spend a long time on projects. I spent five years visiting Texas prisons when I was working on a study of black convict worksongs. I first visited those prisons in 1964. My book on it—Wake Up Dead Man: Afro-American Worksongs from Texas Prisons—didn’t come out until 1972. I visited the Arkansas prisons eight times between 1971 and 1975, working on what became Killing Time: Life in the Arkansas Penitentiary, which came out in 1977, and I was still working with those photographs until a few years ago.

When I put this exhibit together I thought I would eventually do a book with what I’ve got—there are a lot of images I like that there wasn’t room for at Anderson—and that would be it. But then two things happened that opened it all up again.

Diane and I ran into Les Krims at JFK a few months ago and we had an hour or so before the plane, so Les and I talked about what photographic work we were doing. Les told me about some software he thought I might find useful and said that I was welcome to borrow his digital Hasselblad if I wanted to try it on the elevators. My primary camera is a Leica M9, a magnificent 35-millimeter digital equivalent. It makes very large files—18 megapixels—that can be printed very large with astonishing clarity. The Hasselblad makes a file twice as large, and, like the Leica, it has superb lenses. But they don’t “see” the same way. I borrowed the camera and five of the prints in the exhibit were done with it, and I’ve done more work with it since. Now I want to get my own digital Hasselblad and spend a lot more time with it.

The second thing is, I’ve photographed all the elevators from the water, from the bridges, and from all the surrounding city streets. But six of them have their other face on a large triangle of land that is private property. I’ve just gotten permission to work in there, which opens up a huge range of visual opportunities. The photos in the exhibit show the elevators in all the seasons: The light and vegetation are constantly changing around here, and that is part of the visual story. So I expect to visit that area on a number of occasions between now and next winter before I’m done. I’d like to do that work with both the Leica and a Hasselblad.

And then, I hope, it will become a book. Exhibits are wonderful because you get to see the pictures big in all their detail and in juxtaposition to one another. You can see them with other people and talk about what’s going on in them. But they’re transient. This one comes down March 6. Books last a long time and they’re portable. It is hard publishing a big full-color book these days, but that’s what I’m aiming toward. Usually, once I publish a book on something I feel I’m done with it and I can let it go. Otherwise, the subject stays full of possibility.

AV: I’m interested that most of these images are devoid of human form, even though there is everywhere sign of human activity (both current and, in the elevators themselves, past). Is that just the way it worked out or was it intentional?

Jackson: Most of the elevators are dormant: Little or nothing goes on in or around them. One serves only as a place small pleasure boats are warehoused in winter. One serves as a storage facility for another operation elsewhere. From what I understand, very few humans are involved in the operations that do go on in the few places still functioning. Maybe I’ll see some people doing things when I start working in the triangle, but thus far, the most dynamic moment was totally absurd: a guy going down the Buffalo River past the elevators on a paddleboard. He’s in the exhibit. That water is so polluted. I imagine him falling off the paddleboard and dissolving.

AV: If, as Dominique Fourcade said, these comprise the American Chartres, what do you suppose that says about America? (I know, that’s a Charlie Rose question, but what the hell.)

Jackson: It is, and I could riff on it a long time. Maybe the most important thing is, America’s past is, compared to Europe, very short, and the visual artifacts marking it are very few. An antique dealer told me once that architecture was one of the most destructible of the arts: People save paintings in garrets if they don’t want to look at them now, but a building that doesn’t have a current use is wiped out and replaced by a parking lot. Think about Frank Lloyd Wright’s Larkin Factory, which is now a very small broken brick column—and a parking lot.

Europe is full structures that have all kinds of artistic, political, economic, and historical resonance. Our architecture of note comes much later in time. Fourcade was reacting to what the Modernists loved about America: the utilitarian industrial architecture. Why not?

Fellini has a wonderful story in his autobiography about one time he had to work in Hollywood, a place he hated. They said they would provide him an office and asked what kind of office he’d like. “An office in an old building,” Fellini said. They asked him why. “I like old buildings,” he said. They shrugged and said okay. A few days later, they said they’d found him an office and they drove him over to a building on Wilshire Boulevard. “What’s that?” he said.

“That’s where your office is.”

“I said I wanted an office in an old building. That’s not an old building.”

“Of course it is. That building is at least 40 years old.”

At that moment, Fellini said, he understood something about the difference between Italians like himself and Americans. When he came out of his house in Rome, he said, he walked on cobblestones that were set in place at the time of the caesars, and the cracked cement on the wall down the street revealed a stone wall built even earlier. It was difficult, he said, to take yourself or your moment too seriously when you were surrounded with reminders of where you stood in the great expanse of time. Americans, he said, at least those in Los Angeles, had no such reminders.

I’d love to show Fellini our elevators. They’re not as old as his Roman cobblestones, but I bet he’d understand the story they tell in their silence and stillness.

AV: If someone deeded you a grain elevator tomorrow (up to you which complex), what would you do with it?

Jackson: I would invite my son Michael to get Ian Gillan and all his other music buddies to come and have a concert there. I would ask Rick Spaulding to light it. I would have special screenings of the Buffalo Film Seminars there and those who had boats and were so inclined could watch from their boats. I’d set up a wood-fired bread oven, which you can’t do in my neighborhood. I’d climb to the top and look far and wide with a telescope. I’d invite my solar friends to figure out a way to heat and power it with solar panels that didn’t change the way it looked and I’d invite Squeaky Wheel to have free classes there. I’d let my dog Emily Rose pursue rodents and other unwelcome inhabitants. There are some other things, but for now they must be kept secret.

AV: What other projects (photographic or otherwise) are you working on now?

Jackson: I’ve begun curating, making prints for, and developing a website connected with an exhibit that opens at the Albright-Knox on November 11 and runs through the end of February 2012, Full Color Depression. Our visual sense of Depression America comes from the great photographs done for the Farm Security Administration by Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Ben Shahn, Marion Post Walcott, and a few others. Slightly more than 171,000 of the black and white images they made are available from the Library of Congress. Kodachrome went on the market in 1937 and beginning in 1939 a few of the FSA photographers experimented with it. Only 1,615 of those 35-millimeter and medium format images survive. They were lost and forgotten until a historian chanced upon them a few years ago. Many of the color images from 1942 and 1943 are wartime propaganda, corny stuff, but the early work at the tail end of the Great Depression is stunning.

Diane Christian and I have another book on capital punishment coming out. It’s a followup to our 1979 and 1980 film and book, Death Row. This one is called “In this timeless time”: Capital Punishment in Modern America. We’re doing the final revisions now. It will be published spring 2012 by University of North Carolina Press and Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies.

I’m going to return to Post-Industrial Buffalo. With the elevators in their own place now, that project has a different clarity for me.

There are two other long-term local projects: I live near Delaware Park and I’ve long thought about documenting a year in the life of the Park. The other is the Richardson complex: I’ve wanted to photograph that in detail since I moved here. I’ve done a bit from the outside, but, as I said earlier, I like to take time with things, to let places or situations tell me what I’ve got to do. So I’d like to spend a year or so on the Richardson complex. If you know a foundation or angel that would like to underwrite a Hasselblad for all this, do let me know. In addition to doing a lot of neat work with it, I’d inscribe their names in a place of privilege inside my grain elevator where it would last forever.

I’ve also got several writing projects in various stages. I’ve been doing a series of articles for the Australian film journal Senses of Cinema which should coalesce into a book on film narrative fairly soon, a companion to the book on narrative I did two years ago, The Story is True: The Art and Meaning of Telling Stories. And I’m working on a book on torture, prison, the management of madness, and Bush’s secret prison archipelago, which doesn’t seem to have disappeared under Obama. The working title of that is Madhouse Rules.

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