Bruce Jackson (b. 1936), Movable Marine Tower on Standard Elevator, 2010; color photograph, 24 x 35 inches; Courtesy of the Artist
Totems at the Western Terminus
at M & T Center One Fountain Plaza Buffalo, NY 14203
On View Friday, December 21, 2012–Sunday, June 23, 2013
These images of Buffalo’s grain elevators grew out of broader project I started in 2009 called “Post-Industrial Buffalo.” It was my notion to photograph repurposed and derelict sites from Buffalo’s great industrial age.
I did that for about a year, then realized the images I liked the most, and the sites I was more and more drawn to, were the grain elevators.
I had, by that time, lived in Buffalo 43 years, but the elevators had been nothing more than large structures at the periphery of my field of vision when I was driving along I-190. Now I couldn’t stop looking at them.
Through much of 2010, I photographed them from the periphery: from large and small boats on the Buffalo River and Ship Canal, and from surrounding roads. Then Rick Smith gave me total access to the group of elevators he owns on Childs Street: American, Perot, Perot Malting, and Marine A, as well as the American Flour Mill. His main man on the ground there, Jim Watkins, guided me through those spaces. I was able to work inside and outside, from the work floors and from the roof. Later, Carl Paladino gave me access to Cargill Electric, which sits on the same piece of land.
Buffalo is known for its architectural masterpieces: parks and roadways by Frederick Law Olmsted, buildings by H.H. Richardson, Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Sullivan, E.B. Green and others. Almost all that work was done by those artists in their maturity, when their styles already had influence elsewhere. The elevators were designed and built by people whose names are known only to architectural historians. They are the Buffalo structures that had a profound influence on international architecture. The Bauhaus artists drew heavily from the simplicity and pure functionality of their design. Like the great cathedrals of Europe, they are huge machines with a single function. The cathedrals were machines designed to put the individual in closer context with divinity; the elevators were machines designed to move grain from one transportation mode to another.
Little wonder that the French poet Dominique Fourcade, visiting Buffalo several years ago, said to his host, the poet Susan Howe, “These are the American Chartres.” They are also what made 19th century Buffalo rich and, indirectly, created the Port of New York.
I’ve taken well over 12,000 photos of the elevators now. They’re not repetitive, because they change as the sun moves across the sky and through the seasons. The light there is never the same, so the geometrical configurations, the shadows, and the colors are always changing.
Six of the photos in this exhibit (1-5 and 15) were in a group of 35 I showed in an exhibit called “American Chartres” at the UB Anderson Gallery in 2011; they were done before I got access to Child Street. I feel any exhibit without them would be incomplete. The other 18 images in this exhibit appear here for the first time.
I would like to thank architect Kerry Traynor, who accompanied me on most of my Childs Street visits, for patiently explaining to me what I was looking at and why it had been built that way, and for, time and again, telling me not to put my foot on something that would possibly have given way had I done so. The elevators are century-old structures, in most regards astonishingly strong and solid. But not always.
My thanks also to the Burchfield Penney Art Center, University at Buffalo, the Oishei Foundation and the Margaret L. Wendt Foundation for their support.
Bruce Jackson is author or editor of 33 books. The Burchfield Penney Art Center will host a retrospective exhibition of his work: Being There: Bruce Jackson Photographs 1962-2012, February 10—June 16, 2013. He is presently SUNY Distinguished Professor and James Agee Professor of American Culture at UB. In 2002, the French government named him chevalier in the Ordre national des Arts et des Letters; in 2012, French president François Hollande named him chevalier in the Ordre national du Mérite.