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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New Small Town Reflections

An Introspective Perspective (in New Places)

The photograph below was made on one of my excursions to Port Townsend, Washington last summer (2016), from Olympia the state capital where I was on an extended stay with family. Port Townsend has an amazing collection of Victorian-era buildings lining its idyllic streets, so it was a haven for me and my camera and my love of 19th Century architecture. And I happened to find a few new subjects that made it into my portfolio. You can see others on my website.

The Hastings Building
The Hastings Building in Port Townsend WA

Use of reflections is one of the basic methods to draw attention to a subject in a photograph. Several years ago I began to use reflections in a different way (besides, say, a building reflected in a pool of water) to produce images that are truly unique to my style and vision. I’ve been randomly continuing work on my historic small town reflections series, “Reflections on the American Small Town,” although I’m not fully immersed in that project at the moment. It’s an ongoing work, so if I see something while in the field that resonates with my vision and concept, I’ll photograph it for possible addition to the project. An important aspect is the historic architecture; the picture must contain 19th century buildings and provide enough in the way of strong angular relationships in the lines.

I first began the project several years ago while working on my Master of Fine Arts degree in photography and my thesis. The pictures started out as portrait-oriented pictures and soon evolved into neo-urban landscape panoramas. The images are composed of reflections in storefront windows that depict abstract, often fractured scenes. They were also reversed images originally (since they are reflections), but that aspect has also evolved into right-reading images—I now flip the reflections horizontally (once they are assembled into panoramas) so they appear as if you were there looking at the scene. The picture is rendered as you would normally see it, but with unique attributes from the reflection and refraction of light that would never appear otherwise. Some right-reading elements also become reversed in the process.
 

..the subject becomes removed another level from ‘reality’…into an introspective dream-like state.
Pioneer Square
Pioneer Square Seattle, WA

As a result, the subject becomes removed another 2 levels from ‘reality’ through the reflection and then by reversing it (the first level is inherent in any photograph), into an introspective dream-like state. It’s a bit complex to describe the whole process—what the pictures mean to me and what I hope to communicate to my viewer, so I’ll offer a simpler version. It began as an exploration into my distant past through memories of several historic towns. These towns have been a part of my life over many years. In addition to visualizing feelings and memories (which have been enhanced by my imagination in the intervening years), another part of the idea is distilling a “sense of place.” Fine art photographers have been seeking to realize this in their pictures for a long time.

While I have completed the initial exploration, I now use the technique on other towns (which has always been my intent) to photograph them in my own refined personal style…and to see what lies beneath the surface. This is what I was attempting to do in Port Townsend and Seattle, and it was the first chance I had at photographing in a different part of the country.

Port Townsend, Washington Revisited

Experimenting with Film Simulation

As luck would have it, I found myself making photos in Port Townsend again recently. I hadn’t planned to really make any, since I had already photographed the town during the summer and wrote a blog post for it. I also have a backlog of photos from there to put in a photo gallery, but once on the ground walking down Water Street I couldn’t resist photographing the architecture from another aesthetic perspective. My FujiFilm X-T10 camera has several film simulation modes, so I decided to experiment with some of the Black & White modes to see what effects they would render. Unfortunately, you need to be shooting in JPEG format. I always shoot in RAW—a file that retains all of the original capture data—so the photos came into Lightroom as normal RGB images. Consequently, none of the film emulation effects were visible. I’ll have to remember to put the camera in JPEG mode next time! A good feature of the X-T10 is you can have it save both JPEG and RAW files at the same time.

Hastings Building - Port Townsend WA
The Hastings Building (left) in Port Townsend WA

Black and White Photography

Black and White is not my usual aesthetic choice for making pictures. Many photographic artists use it as part of their signature style, but I love color. Black and white is the preferred aesthetic mode of many documentary and fine art photographers, and both international luminaries and local legends have had a significant influence on my work. It just seemed the right choice at this particular moment and time. That’s what I love about creating art—you often don’t know what style or technique is right until you’re “in it.” And with photography, that means you won’t know until you’re at the location. Everything you’re feeling combined with your life experience comes into play.

Since my intent for these pictures was Black & White with a red filter and then Fujifilm Astia mode, I decided to render the images that way in post-production. The effect produced should have been black and white with dramatic detail in the sky, and a softer image with less color saturation, respectively. So, my Goal was to reproduce that aesthetic in Photoshop. I think the pictures were a success as they do look quite different from what I normally produce, and emulate the desired film types. Note that my black and white adjustments pushed beyond just mimicking film/filter type to make fine art images that represent my artistic vision.
 

Port Townsend from 'The Bluff'
Port Townsend from ‘The Bluff’

First Day of Fall

It takes many visits to those places and things that interest you to produce pictures with depth of meaning and cohesion.

The weather on the Saturday of my stay was wonderfully blustery with ocassional sun, and the temperature in the low 50’s – perfect for the first Day of October and making photographs of historic architecture. I’ve loved this kind of day since I was a kid, running through the woods or playing football in a neighbor’s yard on Saturday or after school. The love of Fall has carried through my entire life ever since. Port Townsend is an active community with lots of families and high school football games…and there was one being played on Friday night. It really added to the Fall experience, and I made some nighttime photos of the historic Bishop Victorian Hotel, which is right near the stadium. Then, Saturday morning I heard the autumn wind rushing against my hotel window overlooking the bay. I couldn’t wait to get out in it, so it was time to pack up and head own the long stairway. As I opened the door onto Water street I was greeted with a rush of blustery weather and the full feel of Autumn. I walked around the corner to the Courtyard Cafe for a home baked apple turnover and handcrafted chai tea. I highly recommend this family-run cafe, situated in a historic Dutch Colonial 2-family house.

Then it was off to make some more photos.

Mount Baker Block

My film simulation work needs many more outings, but this first foray reveals some new ways of photographing familiar subject mater. This is how ‘good’ photographs are made; it takes many visits to the places and things that interest you, photographing them over time, to produce pictures with depth of meaning and cohesion. And while you ultimately want to settle on a process that aligns with your concept and intent for the pictures, it’s good practice and also fun to try new things to produce pictures that are uniquely yours.