Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Lonesome endeavor

Wonder if other photographers have had this experience?

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Exile, and the railroad yards

In 1976 when I was studying photography at Metro State, the prevailing custom in the field was to work on a "series," photographs that detailed a particular subject. One of my teachers chose to document gardens in Maine, focusing on hydrangeas, which she hand-colored on black and white prints. My series would be the railroad series.

I've long been interested in the places around people, the background, the contexts we move in and live in. The built environment, if you will. Denver was a place of exile for me, and as a Jew, exile is a common life theme. At Passover we say these final words: "Next year in Jerusalem." (However you define Jerusalem).

The problem with exile is that you always want to be someplace else: home, a most elusive concept. But one has to make do, wherever. Initially disliking Denver, a city with no apparent center, I chose to work in a place that was essentially an exile from "normal" Denver. Here I would wander with the camera and plant my flag.

In Neal Cassady's day, people lived in the yards, businesses operated there. By '76 the area was desolate, rather unsafe and even hostile. Yet I learned that this was an important place. Freight cars were sorted, separated here, reconnected; trains were created, dissolved, then newly created. I was careful to stay out of the way.

This was the time when coal from the Northern Plains, mostly the Powder River Basin in Wyoming, began to supersede other freight on the Western railroads. Much of it rolled through Denver. And you can bet that the computer you're using right now is probably powered by coal, carried by rail to the huge coal-burning plants around the United States.

Two years later, because of coal, I would be working on the railroad myself, as a locomotive fireman on the old Rio Grande, in Minturn and Pueblo, another exile. A story for another time.

Friday, August 21, 2009

A quote from Susan Sontag

"People robbed of their past seem to make the most fervent picture takers, at home and abroad."

Wednesday, August 19, 2009


I'm glad to be writing again!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Back to Denver

I was quite militant about the changes in downtown Denver starting in the late 70's, namely the destruction of buildings in "upper" downtown (Glenarm to Arapahoe) to make way for the glass towers of the oil boom. When I worked at the Historical Society overseeing the photographic collection in the early 80's, I regularly called the guy in Denver's city bureaucracy who issued demolition permits. He would advise me about the buildings slated for the wrecking ball that week; often, as soon as a permit was granted, the wreckers went to work. I would grab our photographer, Myron Tannenbaum, and we would rush to the affected site, shlepping a 4x5 on a large tripod. It was a fruitless gesture, but it made me feel better. I don't know what happened to the negatives ultimately.

I was influenced by Danny Lyon's beautiful book, "The Destruction of Lower Manhattan." Many of the buildings in this part of the New York City had been constructed in the 19th century and were used during the Civil War. In the thirties, my father used to shop for electronics along "Radio Row"on the Lower West Side.

Eventually the World Trade Center would arise on this site. Lyon's book was re-published after 2001.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Deep history - Brooklyn, 1953

I never knew my great-grandfather, Morris Rabinowitz (Rabinovich in the old country). He died a few years before I was born, but his son, my Uncle Gus, told me that his father had written stories in Yiddish in those old composition books with the black-speckled covers (you can still buy them at King Sooper's, now in a choice of colors). This sparked an intense interest in Yiddish for me in the early 1990's, when I joined the Boulder Yiddish Vinkl, but never seemed to master the language...or find out where those composition books are...

In 1953, and for many many years thereafter, I thought Yiddish was pretty disgusting. A real Americanized kid, second generation. I was born in '48, the start of the Cold War. In 1952-53, when I was in kindergarten and first grade in Brooklyn, we wore dogtags to school. I was very proud of them. Just like my father's Army dogtags. Had my father's name, our address on Richmond Street, and the phone number. Theoretically the Russians would bomb New York, and the bodies of the kids at PS 65 could be identified. Amazing plan, eh? I've since heard that kids on Long Island, the Bronx, even Flagstaff, AZ, wore dogtags to school.

Other memories of Brooklyn:

-Curtsying to our teacher at the end of the schoolday (boys would bow)
-My grandfather's collection of blue seltzer bottles in the cellar, along with the surplus wire he was unable to sell during the war
-The hucksters and knife sharpeners who would come down our street with their horses
-Sparkling anthracite coal we burned for heat
-Church bells late in the afternoon on Crescent Street
-The TV set with the round screen
-Sitting on my grandmother's lap while she read paperbacks
-My mother's Merle Norman rouge
-The photo chemicals from my father's darkroom
-Fighting with my sister
-The Mickey Mouse chair (now in Baltimore)
-Taking out the trains (Lionel) on Sundays (trains now in Baltimore)
-My mother playing "Orche Chornye" [Dark Eyes] on the accordion
-Being burned by a curling iron at Macy's
-Lifebuoy soap, and the finecomb
-Wondering why you couldn't just eat dirt off the street if you were hungry
-Wondering what it meant to be Jewish and starting to divide up the world into Jewish and not-Jewish
-Learning from my mother about Buchenwald
-Fighting with my friend Eleanor Miller in the middle of the street over a book (yes, a book)
-Playing "Tubby the Tuba" on our Victrola
-Watching "City Beneath the Sea" at the Embassy
-Encountering a mouse in the attic, and screaming, "It's a ghost!"
-The smell of the baby carriage
-Breakstone's whipped butter in a ceramic container
-Somersaulting with Michael
-My grandfather smoking Camels
-Dr. Duckman's green Studebaker (he made housecalls)
-Visiting Aunt Mary, Aunt Lily, Aunt Sylvie and all our cousins
-The fighting about who was better, the Dodgers or the Yankees
-My grandfather's Pinochle games and the men drinking shnaps
-Pippy, Wee-Wee and Shnoz [beloved stuffed animals and still have Pippy]
-Afraid Nazis were going to come and get us
-Going to "New York" [what Brooklynites called Manhattan] on the train
-Eating cherry pie at the Automat
-Reading the funnies with my father
-Preferring vanilla ice cream to chocolate
-Dixie cups, malteds, Drake's cupcakes (predecssor to Devil Dogs)
-Mashed potatoes mixed with sour cream and spinach (very Eastern European and still a comfort food)

-Not wanting to leave Brooklyn for Rochester, leave my grandparents behind, leave Michael behind, leave my New York accent behind, and move to a cold, cold, dark place...

And then...

...I read a book by Neal Cassady, Kerouac's buddy. "The First Third" is a story of his youth growing up in a skid row hotel on Market Street (now a vacant lot across from the RTD station) and Curtis Park. Many wanderings in the railroad yards. I was intrigued, thrilled actually to discover more history about the part of Denver that was important to me.

The songs of Tom Waits, too. (So-o-o 70's!!)

Finally, I loved photographing a place that no one else was photographing ( as far as I know)...at least until the early-mid 80's when Kim came upon the scene...

I hope I can display some of those images sometime...

A change of thread coming...

Deep History

OK, so why did I do this project in the first place?

I had already been photographing the railroad yards in Denver, 1976-78. Yes, the "Central Platte Valley," the current location of Elitch's, the Pepsi Center, Confluence Park, etc. Once called "Rice Yard," owned by the Colorado and Southern Railroad (taken over by the Burlington Northern), and even had a roundhouse down there.

When I first came to Denver in 1974, I hated the place. It felt soul-less. Much of downtown was sorry, seedy, and abandoned. Too many blocks were urban-renewed for parking lots. Well, what do you expect from someone who landed there from Boston?!

I've always had a soft spot for trains. Two uncles were conductors on the New York Central, a strange job for Jewish men perhaps, but they were working class Jews. (I still have some New York Central pudding dishes.) In Brooklyn (Paradise lost), we lived very close to the el on Fulton Street. As I went to sleep at night I heard the clatter of the wheels of the BMT trains...and loved it. And my father sang me to sleep with "I've been workin' on the railroad..." So it was a natural. [I did actually get to work on the railroad later on. Story for another time.]

Influenced by my friend, Dan Furey, from Metro State, I soon found my way down to the railroad yards of Denver. The yards and Lower Downtown were a revelation and I began to photograph like mad. You may ask, a skid row and an industrial zone? Those places felt authentic to me--maybe this was the "real Denver," the historic Denver. If nothing else, they looked like New York to me, like Brooklyn, Paradise lost.

I also discovered Denver's special light. In spring and fall, the sun's rays lengthen and buildings and trains glow. I would get up at 5 am and head down to the yards to meet the rays of dawn. The splendor of photographing in that light was, well, splendid! Infrared film captured it even more beautifully. (I only see that light occasionally in Boulder, but I saw it in Pueblo).

Then in 1978...

Rephotographing Denver

I have just embarked on a project to rephotograph downtown Denver, block by block, an area bounded by Arapahoe Street, Wynkoop Street, 19th Street to Cherry Creek. Thirty years ago, I documented these same street corners as a volunteer for the Colorado Historical Society. That project in turn was based on work done by a WPA photographer named Cyril Norred, who worked for the Society in 1937.

This time, I'm proud to say, that my son, Sam Fairchild, is my colleague on this project. He will do the photography on the streets and has already entered all my data linking the original accession numbers of the images with my 1978-79 images. Bravo!

The first time we ventured out, some weeks ago, we tried to find locations on Arapahoe St. Needless to say nothing was familiar from 1978 (let alone 1937). A hailstorm quickly overtook us so we spent the rest of the afternoon at Zaidy's downtown restaurant. Eating hummus was fun, but not the intended mission of the day...hopefully the afternoon storms of Denver will be over soon.

Lower Downtown (LoDo) was a skid row when I photographed in the 70's, one of many skid rows in Denver (South Broadway was another one.) The closer I got to Union Station, the seedier the streets and of course, the closer I got to Arapahoe, the more parking lots I encountered.

Why did I do this project in the first place? Stay tuned...