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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Tacoma, Washington – Historic Port City

A treasure trove of 19th century architecture abounds in this
Puget Sound town

Poised on Commencement Bay which is part of the larger Puget Sound and roughly half-way between the major seaport city Seattle and the state capital of Olympia, Tacoma Washington has a rich array of historic buildings and an important seaport of its own. I’m not sure about what its major exports are or the volume of that commerce, but it looks to figure right in line with its size relative to its sister towns…which is right in the middle. There’s also a great Arts scene here, too.

The Matador
The Matador on Pacific Avenue

My interest for our purposes is the historic architecture, and there is no shortage here. In fact it’s a treasure trove. Not only is downtown chock full of 19th century buildings, but the surrounding neighborhoods are also historic. And many of these buildings are still around because of the progressive liberal atmosphere (people are probably more likely to save old buildings here on the West Coast) and the relatively young age of towns out here – there are fewer generations of buildings so it’s more likely the original ones remain. I’m speaking (you may have noticed) as a recent transplant from the East Coast, where things move fast and old buildings are demolished without much thought. In fact, I’m involved with historic preservation there, and I can tell you it’s a constatnt battle to save historic structures.

Photojournalistic Approach

Old Town Hall Building
Old Town Hall Building, Tacoma, WA

While I always try to make unique pictures that express my artisic voice, these American small town/small city photos are essentially photojournalistic. That approach allows me to become immersed in a place and connect with its character, and to tell some part of its story. I’m not sure why, but I have a fascination with the idea of the American small town and small city, and its 19th century architecture. These buildings become repurposed for new businesses and residences, which is a cool concept to consider, and it makes sense. After all, they were built to last and should be redeveloped rather than bulldozed for less ornate, inspid modern structures.

It was with these thoughts—that have guided my work on this subject for several years now—that I made my way to Pacific Avenue, to see what exactly there was in Downtown Tacoma Washington. I wasn’t let down – 19th century buildings abound on both sides of the street, all the way down to the end of Pacific, where it meets Schuster Parkway. And most of them are home to restaurants, bars, cafes and all types of funky boutique-type businesses. I think they need a photography studio and gallery there – mine!

Port of Tacoma Washington
Port of Tacoma Washington

To continue, I wanted to make a short series of photos to capture my initial impressions of this awesome Puget Sound city. These were made down at the bay end of Pacific Avenue in a neighborhood that has many of the aforementioned funky new businesses. One of the most fascinating structures there is the empty Old Town Hall building. Hopefully it will be redeveloped into something that reflects and benefits the eclectic vibe of this small city. I’ll be going back for some drinks at The Matador and to visit some of the other fine establishments there, and of course, to make a lot more pictures. In the meantime, here are a few more: