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Showing the Grain

Mark Maio's photos trace the history of grain's movement from the Midwest through the Great Lakes. (photo by Mark Maio)
Christina Laing's photos explore the interiors of grain elevators, and the incursions of people and decay. (photo by Christina Laing)

At CEPA Gallery, the subject that is never exhausted: grain elevators

If there are 13 ways of looking at a blackbird, there are 113 ways (and more) of looking at a grain elevator, as attested through three separate photographic exhibits all on the same theme (of looking at Buffalo grain elevators) at the CEPA galleries in the Market Arcade Building. Note to National Trust for Historic Preservation conferees: You don’t want to miss these exhibits or the Market Arcade Building at 617 Main Street, half a block east of the Hyatt hotel.

In one exhibit, nonpareil industrial documentarian photographer Jet Lowe presents the elevators as formalist abstract art, abstract sculpture on a gargantuan scale. In another, photographer Mark Maio puts a human face on the grain elevator world, documenting the work of the Irish immigrant and progeny denizens of the First Ward who maneuvered the huge rope-and-chain mechanical shovels and manipulated scoop shovels in the back-breaking labor of off-loading the grain from the cavernous holds of lake freighters.

The third exhibit features work of various photographers and graphic artists, including Michael Horowitz’s huge-format meditations on the mammoth mechanical apparatus—ropes and pulleys, cog wheels and drive chains—used to perform the various work functions of the elevators; Christina Laing’s photos of abandoned elevator interior space as inner sanctum with subtle light and color contrasts, the product of crumbling infrastructure, rust, old and fading graffiti, and atmosphere that seems to retain a hint of the dust-laden atmosphere of the facility when it was still in use; Ed Healy’s slightly spooky nighttime available-light photos of elevators looming in a middle distance, and daylight photos from the river, from a kayak, depicting riverside vegetation, tall grasses and weeds, with elevators hovering in the backdrop; Les Krims’s jokey photos of his mom in bikini and disguise as a blind woman appealing for help, for herself, nominally, but really, the message must be, for the decaying grain elevator in the background; several of Patricia Layman Bazelon’s signature style photos of industrial architecture as aesthetic composition; architect/photographer/videographer Seth Amman’s frenetic photo montage video of a personal perilous journey through one of the abandoned elevators; and graphic design works in various styles and media employing grain elevator motifs by Allan D’Arcangelo, James Greenwald, Hero Design, Richard Kegler, and Jesse Webber.

The Jet Lowe photos are from a 1990 project of the Historic American Engineering Record (HAER), a division of the National Parks Service, to document Buffalo’s grain elevators. The photos are superbly complemented by a series of technical drawings made in conjunction with the project, based on owner-company archives and Buffalo Port Facilities and federal Board of Engineers for Rivers and Harbors records. The technical drawings feature cutaway and plan views of the elevators and illustrate the step-by-step elevator functional processes of receiving, weighing, drying, cleaning, storing, and finally re-shipping the grain.

Buffalo of course invented the grain elevator, a brainstorm of Joseph Dart, who in the year 1842 devised a mechanism and applied mechanical power via the then fairly novel steam engine technology to perform the labor, or much of it, of moving tons of Midwest grain out of lake boats and eventually into canal barges or railroad boxcars for transportation further East. And over the years was in the forefront of advances in design of the mechanism, with an eye to efficiency and permanence of the structures. The first elevators were built of wood, and so burned readily. The principal advances were in construction materials—from wood to steel, then concrete—and in the power source—from steam engine to electricity. This occurred in conjunction with the development of industrial-scale electricity at Niagara Falls, which in turn depended on Nikola Tesla’s invention of alternating current to transmit it over a distance, that is, to industrial Buffalo. Specifically, to the grain industry. The end not justifies but causes the means.

The Lowe photos depict apparatus, but his main concern is the basic volumetric forms of the architecture: cylinders, cubes, cones. The forms an artist learns to draw when he first learns to draw. Nor is there a human figure in any of the Lowe photos. Though humans are implied in an occasional oddment classical form amid the welter of huge-scale modernistic forms, harking back to earlier, more humanistic conceptions of architecture and art. A weighing scale framed within a post and lintel construction realized as Greek temple fluted pillars and entablature with cornice protrusions. Or alternatively, the weighing scale framework, positioned in front of an enormous concrete drum form and timber framing of the work space with prominent oblique-angle timbers supporting the horizontal ceiling beams (echoing the horizontal members of the weighing scale) evokes an altar and sanctuary space in some ancient Chinese temple.

Mark Maio’s photos are part of an extensive project tracing the journey of grain from Midwest farms to Minnesota and lake shipment to Buffalo for transshipment. The grain scoopers passed the jobs down from generation to generation for 150 years. There is one photo of a solitary worker in a ship hold sitting contemplating the sand dunes of grain extending across the huge hold space. Work for ever, it would seem. But the work ended in 2003, a victim of further and further mechanization, as well as the gradual demise of the transshipment function in Buffalo, following the creation of the St. Lawrence Seaway shipping connection of the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean.

Likewise with the elevators. In the Jet Lowe photos, in particular, these massive and monumental concrete and steel structures seem as permanent as the pyramids of Egypt. Of the twenty elevators Lowe documented in 1990, six have since been demolished. All the remainder are threatened and endangered.

All three of the grain elevator exhibits were curated by ubiquitous and indefatigable art impresario Gerald Mead, who incidentally has a fourth exhibit going in the Market Arcade Building, in the Buffalo Niagara Visitor’s Center, consisting of artworks from his personal collection on the subject of Buffalo architecture. Works by John Pfahl, Biff Henrich, James Vullo, Kevin B. O’Callahan, and Patricia Layman Bazelon (Bethlehem Steel Corporation this time, about a mile down the waterfront from the elevators), among others. Depictions of iconic Buffalo buildings including City Hall, the Ellicott Square Building, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Darwin Martin House, the downtown cathedrals, etc.

The Visitor’s Center is on the first floor of the Market Arcade Building. The CEPA exhibits are on three floors: the Jet Lowe photos on the main floor and second floor, the Mark Maio works on the third floor, and the multiple-artist exhibit in the basement. The CEPA shows continue through December 17. The Visitor’s Center show through October 29.

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