Reflections on Asbury Park – The Steinbach Building

Through The Past, Maybe a Little Darkly

On a bright spring day in the mid-1960s, my mother, along with a couple of neighbors, rounded up all us kids and made an outing en masse to Steinbach’s Department Store in Downtown Asbury Park. I remember traveling down the Garden State Parkway; and then the distinct memory of walking up to that entrance…and into an interior that has been lost to my memory and the ocean of Time ever since. Why is that experience burned so strongly into my imagination and subconscious? Why do our minds remember certain experiences and not others? Those are questions for another discussion, but when I think of that day it looks a lot like the picture below, maybe not as dark, but the bright sunlight is the primary element of the memory. The dark shadows and reflected nature of the image are important and fortuitous additions, as well, as they accentuate the daydream-like rendering of a long-ago memory deepened by my imagination.

The former main entrance to the John Steinbach Building on Cookman Avenue in Downtown Asbury Park, NJ

Over all, that was my intent in attempting to visualize the memory of that day through my pictures. So, for my professional purposes it is a successful picture…and I simply “like” it, besides. A lot of work goes into it—I made several photographs of that entrance over the course of a year and while I would exhibit any one of them this one represents the expression of that memory best.

The photograph depicts the scene of that childhood memory so well along with others that I was compelled to photograph the building specifically for its own sub-series. It has always been a fascinating historic landmark and it makes for an engaging subject; so I’ve been working on photographing it over the long term. Last January (2016), having worked in the downtown area for the past several years on my Reflections on The American Small Town project, and increasingly focusing my picture-making there, I realized that a dedicated sequence on the building was needed.
 

Since these pictures are of a building in Asbury Park you might think the title of this post should be Reflections of Asbury Park. But the title aligns with my concept for the project as a whole: the thoughts, memories and reveries—my reflections—on the town and the building. And that is exactly what this series is about—memories effected and processed by the imagination, transforming them into something more. So, this mini-series is centered around a single childhood memory that has somehow managed to stay intact across the years.

Steinbach Building - rear
Side of the Steinbach Building along Emory Street in Asbury Park

Imagined Recollections

…the real images we have seen in the past are engraved in memory by the imagination…

In his critically acclaimed book, “The Poetics of Space,” French philosopher Gaston Bachelard elucidates on how the mind creates poetic images, which are essentially what these pictures are. (A photographer friend has called them “visual poetry,” which I think is both a flattering and appropriate description.) Bachelard’s book is a rather thick read, but what he says essentially is that the real images we have seen in the past are engraved in memory by the imagination. The engravings replace the originals and deepen them, so that they become imagined recollections.  So what we’re seeing are really reveries or daydreams, wisps of fantastical visions and yearnings. Some are not unlike scenes from a fantasy movie…that’s what my Reflections pictures are like to me.
 

Amoskeag Mills No. 2
Amoskeag Mills No. 2 by Charles Sheeler 1948

The Modernist photographer and painter Charles Sheeler had a similar explanation for imagined recollections. In a statement describing his acclaimed paintings of textile mills in New England, Sheeler said his pictures were the result of “images of the present layered with overtones of the past.” He remembered these factories from years earlier, and the memories heavily influenced his work later in the 1940s, when he and photographer Paul Strand undertook a photographic study of the New England mills and towns. The photographs, using an overlay of multiple negatives, then became the studies for his paintings. Amoskeag Mills #2 is a very notable example, and one of Sheeler’s archetypal Precisionist abstract works.

My Reflections photographs are a bit different, in that I use reflection to render everything—all the layered and fractured effects—and compose the image right in the viewfinder; there is no layering done in Photoshop or with negatives. When I started my the series I wasn’t sure where the pictures were coming from, but I felt a deep emotional connection to the work. In the course of several years of making the photographs, my research brought me across Bachelard’s and Sheeler’s concepts. These insights brought my work to its own resolution, as I realized that the same process was producing these dream-like images in my own mind and pictures.

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Photographs That Look Like Paintings

The Pictorialists – Raising Photography to a Fine Art

An historic aesthetic effect used in creating photographic images has made me take issue more recently with my own work regarding photographs that look like paintings, or those that try to emulate a painterly aesthetic.

Several years ago while working on my graduate degree in photography I discovered the work of the Pictorialists. Naturally, the history of photography will lead every student of the medium to study this movement. It became a compelling influence and I wanted every picture I made to have that moody atmospheric effect. It’s a great aesthetic to employ in visualizing one’s concept, and the masters like Stieglitz, Steichen, Coburn and others (not to forget the many other brilliant photographers of the movement) achieved a high level of artistry with their work. What’s important to me is that they never lost sight of the fact that they were photographers. Even though their images were dismissed as “fuzzy pictures” by some, they succeeded in their goal—to raise photography to the realm of Fine Art.

Flemington Unity Bank Station in Flemington , New Jersey
Flemington-Unity Bank Station, Flemington, New Jersey 2012 – James T Callahan

Knowing Your Intent

Steiglitz photo
Alfred Steiglitz – New York City

Study of this part of the History of Photography may lead us to ask the question: should photographs look like paintings? This is a purely subjective question, and it’s completely up to the artist creating the image. How one decides to render a subject depends on what the picture or series it belongs to is about; how they want to interpret the subject and what sort of emotional connection or response they want the viewer to take away. In short, know your intent. If you know the history of photography, a very complex subject despite the medium’s relatively young age, you could arguably say that the Pictorialist movement sought to imbue their photographs with a kind of painterly aesthetic. Maybe Impressionistic is a better term. What’s important about that work, though, is that they are still photographs, and you can see that readily. And that probably has a lot to do with how they were produced, which is by the process of photogravure, which involves etching metal plates with chemicals to enable contact printing of the images.

The Pictorialists were concerned primarily with achieving the objective of the movement, to make photography a ‘fine art.’ We artists today can use that concept and its processes for a deeper exploration of our own individual interests. My hope is to bring this process to bear on my own photography and create an expansive print collection of my historic downtown and Victorian house pictures. I’m told there is now a water-based photogravure process available that doesn’t involve the toxic chemicals that Alfred Stieglitz and his contemporaries used, so I’m eager to try it.

“I don’t want to apologize for photography.” – Steven Klein, photographer, NYC

Making ‘Photographs’

Flatiron Building
The Flatiron Building – Edward Steichen 1904

The Pictorialists’ work is what I was trying to emulate with my process. I feel it was a successful quest for me, to impart the texture and atmospheric mood to my images and I did it by using a transfer process. My photograph of Flemington Unity Bank Station at the top of the post is one of a series and emulates a Pictorialist photograph, yet it retains the sharp definition that’s important to me in the architectural details. But it’s all subjective; sharpness is expected of photography by many people and it’s good to have it in the details of my pictures, but it’s certainly not a requirement. It just depends on how the overall image looks to my eye and what my intent for the picture is; the details may even be softer, depending on various factors. There’s an intangible aspect about this, but one or two of the photographs in the short series I made—Elegance and Artistry—look more painterly to me; and that’s what I would like to avoid, as nice as it looks. For the most part the series achieved the aesthetic I was going for; so, I just need to make some more. I will certainly make the painterly pictures for anyone who wants them but for my own work I adhere to the belief of photographer Steven Klein that he doesn’t want to “apologize for photography.” And neither do I. What ‘not apologizing for photography’ means to me, among other things, is making pictures that look like painting, especially for the sake of it. As those who have studied photography in depth know, the medium has always been compared to painting, the high art of the fine art world. It has had to compete with it, even now in terms of what galleries will show and patrons will buy. That’s what the Photo-Secessionists (Pictorialists) sought to (and did) overcome. Yet the stigma remains among some art purists that photography doesn’t take any real talent because you’re just pushing a button.

Edward Steichen photo
E Gordon Craig by
Edward Steichen 1913

Mr. Klein started as a painter interestingly, and his statement has stayed with me since my first semester of graduate school, when I discovered his work. A photograph can have an atmospheric aesthetic and still not look like it was made with a brush. You can see this in the examples of Pictorialist work posted here. (NOTE: Steven Klein’s website appears to be no longer available to the public. I tried to include a link here, but it’s not accessible. My suggestion is to Google his name and you’ll get a ton of sites and info, including his Tumblr and Instagram.) Rather, the look of these photographs was achieved through chemical processes and hand printing. Thus, each hand-made print is totally unique…same as a painting, but that aspect is good. You’d need a professionally trained eye and even then it might be hard to see, but the subtle differences would be inherent in each print, thereby increasing the value and uniqueness. And, the work still retains its photographic basis and characteristics. This is what I want to achieve in my art prints.

Hopewell Station in Hopewell, New Jersey
Hopewell Station, Hopewell, New Jersey, July 2012 – James T Callahan

Aligning Concept, Intent and Process

The thing I like about the wax process I developed is that there is a good amount of hand manipulation. In my quest to get the look I wanted, it was important to me for it come from working with my hands—not digital effects. In fact, most of the process is done by hand, with some digital steps in facilitating the original image and final output. The finished wax piece is scanned and printed digitally on fine art cotton rag paper. The visual effect is stunning and supports my concept for the series, which is to impart a hand-worked historic look to photographs of historic buildings. There is an alignment of concept, intent and process, and that is what’s important with any visual art. Something should be communicated, whether a tangible idea or a feeling, through your choice of medium and the application of it.  I think the relationship of my two pieces here to the Stieglitz and Steichen photos is evident, and that is the basis for my work in this series.

At some point I will make more of these but when that time comes, it won’t be to apologize for photography’s unique properties…it will be to embrace and accentuate them.

Photographing The Brewer House (Sunny Gables) in Lawrence Township, NJ

A landmark house has been altered from its original form

There’s another house on my front burner as of last week—a beautiful and very unique gothic revival Victorian in Lawrence Township near Princeton. I actually discovered it last year at this time on my trips to The Gulick House, which is nearby. It sits alone on a rather large tract of land and is both enchanting and impressive. One can only imagine the 12-foot ceilings and tall arched doorways within. I was there two days in a row last week but only got some cursory pictures pending speaking with the owner. I’ve posted one of one here. I needed to get up a bit closer than the road to get the tree branches up and out of the way and frame a good composition. This required standing on the edge of property at the end of the driveway, so I wanted to get the owner’s permission.

However, it appeared they didn’t want to talk to me, and I guess I can’t blame them. If I had strangers walking up my drive I think I would prefer not to talk to them…but if you own a landmark historic house I guess it should be expected to some degree. In one of the photos I hastily made (I felt out in the open and like a thousand neighbors’ eyes were on me) there appears to be a historic registers plaque next to the front door. Anyway, I always respect the owner’s right to privacy, so I’ll try and shoot it from the road.

brewer house in lawrence, NJ
The Brewer House in Lawrence, NJ 2014

The house appears in a book of historic Lawrence houses, which states that it was built in the 1870s and renovated in the 1990s. I’m still hopeful I may yet be able to photograph the interior…I’ve written a professional letter introducing myself and describing my project which I’ll leave in the mailbox of each house I need closer access to. The owner can then choose to contact me or not.

UPDATE – November 2019

This house has since been sold to a new owner who has made some dramatic alterations and additions to the house. A new wing has been added on the left side, thereby negating the original historic plan and possibly affecting its historic registers status…I’m not sure about the latter but I was shocked to see what was done. The beautiful windows and the fenestration on that side of the house (and possibly the dormer windows? I don’t remember…) have been lost forever as a result. It’s really a shame to alter a house like this from its original form if it’s not necessary for preservation. The addition, in my opinion, is just ostentatious and unnecessary. If you’re going to purchase a house like this then it should be preserved as is. The house has been well cared for and its condition as of 2014 when I photographed it looked to be in fine order.

Unfortunately, this means that Lawrence has lost one of its very notable historic houses. I’m surprised the Historic Preservation Advisory Committee (HPAC) allowed the changes, but I think their concern and oversight is with the Route 206 corridor, the historic preservation zone. And legally, you can’t tell an owner what to do with their property.

I will drive by there and get a new photo of the alteration.