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.


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.

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:

Port Townsend, Washington – Idyllic 19th Century Town

Let your wanderings take you where they may…

A Pictorial and Well-Preserved Historic Downtown

A significant part of my photography work over the last several years has focused on 19th Century historic downtowns. And while my scope is broadening to include many other aspects of these places and the American Landscape as well, I’ve been concentrating lately on an idyllic downtown on Puget Sound. Port Townsend, discovered and so named in 1792 by Captain George Vancouver for his friend the Marquis of Townshend, is one of the best preserved 19th Century towns I’ve yet seen.

The Hastings Building
The Hastings Building (b.1889-90)

Many of these places lose their historic buildings over the years to abandonment, decay and newer development. But Port Townsend seems to retain a good amount of its architectural heritage, and there are also several side streets with beautiful buildings as well. The historic towns I’ve photographed typically have a main street with surrounding Victorian neighborhoods, but not much in the way of large buildings off of the main street. That was first thing that struck me as I drove down Water Street for the first time—there were several side streets to explore as well.

Restoration and Redevelopment

Many of the buildings have been restored or are in the process.
N.D. Hill Building
The N.D. Hill Building b.1889

A compelling aspect of the town is that many of the buildings have been restored or are in the process. Restoration and redevelopment can often mean that a significant amount of the building’s original fabric and appearance will be lost. It depends on the condition of the building and the goals for the development project. But in Port Townsend the restored buildings seem to have much of their original fabric and character; especially the beautiful window sash and ornate window casements that are a prominent element of the Italianate style. And that’s important because then you retain the building’s (and town’s) unique character. Typically, there’s a historic preservation committee that oversees restorations and changes to architectural elements to conform with a plan for keeping the town’s historic character in tact.

On a recent visit I stayed in the Waterstreet Hotel located in the historic N.D. Hill Building (b.1889), and it’s absolutely beautiful. The building was completely restored in the 1990’s and they appear to have kept all the original woodwork—moldings, doors and windows—and the interior looks much as it must have 100 years ago. There’s a huge atrium in the center of the building where you access all of the hallways and rooms. I also had to fiddle with one of the windows in my room to make it shut evenly and keep out a cool draft in the evening. Having lived in a late-Victorian house I’m familiar with old windows, and it adds to the romance for me. As does the wonderful weather, so nice and cool in the middle of July. I’m from New Jersey and grew up with hot, humid, sweltering summers; great when I was a kid and spent my days swimming, but as an adult it’s become increasingly oppressive. I love the weather here, and I think you’ll like it, too.

Pubs, Cafes and Art Galleries

enjoying the bay view at Sirens Pub
A couple enjoying the bay view at Sirens Pub

There is a lot to do and see here, like visiting the cafes, restaurants and boutique shops along Water Street and side streets. Sirens Pub (823 Water Street) is my favorite pub in town—or in the world, for that matter! It’s located upstairs in the funky and artsy C.C. Bartlett building (b.1881) and their space is stunningly original in its historic aspects. The original woodwork and large room where the bar sits are richly appointed. Tall windows look out on a vast expanse of Puget Sound and you can just imagine the 19th Century tenants working in there. There’s also an awesome deck right off of this large room where you can sit and enjoy the idyllic quiet of the bay. Port Townsend is known as a “Victorian Seaport and Arts Community” and there are many art galleries situated in the downtown area. You’ll find painting, photography and various other media in a range of galleries. I visited a few of these on my last trip and Northwind Arts Center, located on the ground floor of the historic Waterman & Katz Building (across Quincy street from the N.D. Hill Building), is a trendy contemporary gallery. The exhibit in progress had the largest collection of encaustic paintings I’ve ever seen in one place. And they were large works, too.

Port Townsend is known as a “Victorian Seaport and Arts Community.”

The stunning work by local artists working in this medium was truly inspiring, and makes me want to restart my own work with wax. While working on my graduate thesis in photography, I experimented with a partially encaustic-like process where the pictures are basically coated with wax to render an Impressionistic effect. That sort of approach appeals to me because it’s hand-applied and not a Photoshop plugin or other digital sorcery.  My goal is to evolve the process so that the effect is more subtle and in line with my reasons for not necessarily wanting to make my photographs look like painting. You can read my post on that concept here on Photopaedia. And you can see those pictures in my 19th Century House Project – Elegance and Artistry series.

A Languid Pace

Rose Theater
The Rose Theater and the B.P.O. Elks Building (1889)

The great thing about Port Townsend is that you can let your wanderings take you where they may and never be at a loss for something to do…or not do. If you want to hang at Sirens and just stare out at the water, your experience will not be diminished for it. Quite the opposite, actually. The town is so laid back; the pace is languid and you can just take your time. Take a walk and check out the historic buildings. As I mentioned before, Port Townsend has one of the finest collections of original, large scale 19th century buildings I’ve experienced…and my experience is fairly expansive. Or maybe take in a film at The Rose Theater, where you can smell the popcorn from the street.

You might also hear Phil playing his flugelhorn at the intersection of Water and Taylor streets across from the famous Hastings Building. He’s a nice guy and will play your request (if he knows it), so go over and say ‘Hi.’ Or enjoy the various vantage points to take in the waterfront. There is a lot of sailing in this town and it is my intent to do as much of that as possible. I love sailing, and if that’s all I ever did in Port Townsend that would be fine with me. I’d also love to establish a second photography studio as a satellite location to my planned studio space in Downtown Olympia. We will make this happen and you’ll be the first to know about it here on Photopaedia.

Other Buildings and Interests

Old Town Hall
Old Town Hall Building

You will probably want to take a look at the Jefferson Museum of Art & HIstory. It’s in the historic Town Hall Building (b.1892) with the Jefferson County Historical Society. I haven’t been in there yet, but it’s on the list for my next visit. I’m involved with historic preservation efforts in New Jersey and plan to continue that work here in Washington (more about that in upcoming posts). They have a staffed Research Center used for primary research and as a repository for the Society’s archives. I imagine there’s a treasure trove of information contained within on Port Townsend’s magnificent buildings. The Town Hall Building is located at the Northeast end of Water Street near the marina. Also located there is the Northwest Maritime Center across the street. They have a boatbuilding museum, event space, sailing instruction and maritime education, along with various events and programs. Their big event of the year is the Wooden Boat Festival, which sounds cool—3 days of boating, live music and fun activities for everyone.

Deck at Sirens Pub
The Deck at Sirens Pub

I’ve only covered a few of the more tangible and readily visible aspects of Port Townsend that make it a great place to visit. But there’s so much more to it in terms of feel and atmosphere, and what you’ll take away from the experience. It is far and away the most authentic historic downtown I’ve found so far. You feel like you’ve stepped back to a simpler and unhurried time—much like what most of us imagine 19th century life to have been like, I suppose. Of course, everything is relative but I have no doubt you’ll fine Port Townsend to be a great little escape.