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Gene Witkowski's photographs at the Buffalo Niagara Visitors Center

Gene Witkowski's waterfront photographs are on exhibit through February 29.


Photographer Gene Witkowski’s ongoing series on the Buffalo River waterfront highlight the grain mills both in current use and abandoned. Presented in the Buffalo Niagara Visitor Center Gallery, his color photographs, primarily detailing the working environment of the ship canal, cast a sharp focused telescopic eye on self-unloading grain ships and the men that man them. Theirs is a visibly patriotic workplace. Flags are prominent on rigging and bridgeworks. The freighter American Fortitude is paired with the tugboat Washington in a duet of mass and agility. The tug crew, hatless in casual work clothes, completely absorbed in their labor, adjusts thick braided hawsers as the tug captain maneuvers in the constricted width of the canal. The lakeboat crewmen are seen in the middle distance against abstracted fields of the ship’s brightly painted superstructure.

Witkowski frames his scene like the artist Charles Sheeler, known for his cropped, intensely geometric portrayals of early-20th-century industrial landscapes. Men of the hardhat fraternity, moving about their solitary duties with purposeful strides in all weather, appear like human punctuation to the visually out-massing weight of the freighters, silos, grain shoots, and gaping cargo holds. There is a reverential quality to these works, a sense of mute purpose viewed from a respectful distance.

Witkowski’s use of color creates vibrant works with a strong interplay of light and shadow thrown against the vertical walls of the ageing silos, and articulating every deck mount, coupling, port and vent in fascinating detail. Yet, though there are instances of almost poetic moment, these scenes are largely an exhibition of technical prowess. A viewer looks for clues to intention taking in each image in a search for something that anchors familiarity; the text on a worker’s T-shirt, the quality of work clothes, an energy drink, a common straw broom.

An abiding issue concerning Buffalo’s industrial past from a visual arts perspective is the sense that unless a person is, or was, a working member of that environment, the routine processes involved seem remote and obscure. Unless the Western New York community has a particularly knowledgeable relationship with the intricacies of steel fabrication, grain storage, or any other of the myriad mysterious industries to which Buffalo was once home office, the idea of archiving the region’s industrial heritage is a pernicious opportunity for corporate actors to bury the attendant heritage of manufacturing pollution and toxic after-effects under a gloss of public-funded displays.

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