Cornices and Cupolas: Rescuing Architectural Images

We are often presented with classic, quaint, or colourful buildings that would make striking images – then we grind our teeth when we can’t use them because there is a power line, a curb full of parked cars, or a dumpster destroying an otherwise  wonderful image.  In these cases, one can often rescue the scene – and sometimes create a more powerful image – by focusing on details of the building, and extracting an abstract image derived more from shape, lines, and colours than the overall building and its surroundings.   Sometimes, one can do both:  create an overall, “postcard” view of the building and its setting, and then focus in to obtain “arty” images of architectural details or lines and shapes.  For example, consider the following image extracted from a view of the Cape Bonavista light in eastern Newfoundland:

Detail, Cape Bonavista Lighthouse.  Voigtlander Bessa, Kodak VP-160

The original image was pleasant but not dramatic:

Similarly, consider this image of the houses of Jelly Bean Row, the historic district of St. John’s, Newfoundland:

Jelly Beam Row. Note parked cars and power lines.

The line of parked cars precludes any artistic image, and the angle of the street makes it impossible to crop the cars out of the image.  Consequently, the best option is to close in and take images of doors and flowerboxes, extracting pictures  that are as well composed as possible and interesting for their lines and combinations of doors, trim, and flower boxes:

Jelly Bean Row 01, Voigtlander Bessa, Kodak VP-160

Here the violet rails lead the eye into the door and create a sense of movement in this otherwise static image.  Even if they do not create an image that will necessarily win first place at an exhibit, colourful doors are always a an object that invites us in and makes us feel good, especially if combined with bright house colours:

Jelly Bean Row 02, Voigtlander Bessa, Kodak VP-160

Windows with flower boxes are another attractive image, and can often be shot when there is considerable clutter, construction, and wiring outside the frame:

Balloon and Headstones

Balloon and Headstones

This is another in my series on cemeteries.  Once again, the little balloon stands out against the solemn columns of tombstones as a single, disparate element in the regimented rows of stones.  Perhaps it is telling us we need to laugh in the face of all that is stark and routine and dull in life?  This image may say vastly different things to different people.  Some may see it as an image of loneliness, isolation, and hopelessness.  Personally, it tells me that in a regimented, brand-homogenized world, you can still be quirky if you really decide not to fit in.

As a photograph, this is a good example of what can be drawn out of a relatively mediocre image if you look hard enough.  The original image was a modestly interesting picture of rows of tombstones and a little balloon, with trees and some sky and a car in the background.   In other words, some interesting shapes and lines surrounded by lots of clutter.

One of the reasons that I like cemetery images is that they are places where you can play with brightness and contrast with a heavy and adventurous hand.  I cropped out the sky, trees and cars, cutting down the image to the contrasting elements of balloon and curving lines of stones.  I then cranked up the contrast and cut the brightness severely, making a forboding, dark image emphasizing the highlights of the arcing stones around the little round balloon on its stick.  The resulting image pulls the strong curves and the contrasting shape out of the clutter, forming an image with strong visual impact and a story to tell.

Original Image

Camera:  Ross Xpres lens on Ensign 820, Ilford XP-2 at about f/22.

The Hyndmans – Together Forever

The Hyndmans

I like cemeteries.  Normally, I am found lurking in them at night, particularly those that have lights that create interesting patterns with benches and tombstones (see Lurking In The Churchyard).

One of the most interesting daytime cemeteries is Denver’s Fairmount Cemetery.  Constructed in 1890, its grounds contain the mortal remains of a wide variety of scoundrels and famous American citizens, including Lou Blonger (1849–1924), saloonkeeper, gambling house owner and kingpin of the Denver underworld, Junius Flagg Brown (1827–1908), founder of Denver Museum of Natural History, and Mattie Silks (1846–1929), famous madam.  A number of structures on the grounds are designated as National Historic Landmarks.  Of these, one of the most unique is the Little Ivy Chapel, constructed in 1890 and designed by architect Henry Ten Eyck Wendell.

Little Ivy Chapel, Fairmount Cemetery, Denver (From Wikipedia).

Wandering the grounds, I was struck by one pair of headstones belonging to Ruth and Joseph Hyndman.  Both tilted together as if they were sharing some secret or reclining affectionately together in the afterlife.  Touched, I read the inscriptions and learned that they were born within a year of each other and died, both relatively early in life, to be buried together with their headstones nearly touching.  I wonder- did they want to be buried that way, or did some lingering magnetism draw them together in the afterlife?

A little blue balloon, some child’s forgotten toy, was blowing nearby.  I rescued it and planted it between them, my gift to their party in the hereafter.

From a photographic standpoint, getting images with impact is all about picking out details, lines, and patterns.  Walking through a forest with a camera can be an overwhelming experience until you see one trillium, a unique group of skunk cabbage, or a flowing pattern of roots on a stump.  In this case, I noted a detail that stood out among the forest of headstones and seemed to tell a story.  The next step is putting the elements into the camera and onto paper in such a way that the story tells itself without words.  First you have to see the story, and then you have to figure out how to tell it by the way you balance the elements of the image.

XP-2 film, Ross Xpres lens on Ensign 820, about f/11.


Wikipedia. “Fairmount Cemetery.”,_Colorado)

The Moldering Ford

I found this old Ford decaying beside another wreck near Victoria, B.C., both in the tall grass in a vacant field next to a gravel pit.  The adjoining wreck, which was ratty, modern, and distinctly un-photogenic, was so close that I could not keep it entirely out of the picture.  I finally made the best image possible by cropping the radiator tightly, eliminating the bits of the second car, and bringing together the decaying front of the Ford in contrast with the the tall grass around it, as the plants of the field exuberantly attempt to return it to the earth.  In the end, I came to prefer this closely focused view of the contrasting grasses and wrecked car.

Camera:  Ensign 820 medium format camera with Ross Xpres 105mm lens and Epsilon shutter, around f/22.

Film:  XP-2


The Old Make and Break

The Old Make and Break Engine, St. Brendan’s Island, Newfoundland

Once the bays of Newfoundland and Labrador echoed with the chug-chug of these trusty little engines as they patiently pushed dories out to the fishing grounds each morning.  Now they are largely silent, consigned to the garages of engine enthusiasts  and the flower plots of retired fishermen.

Built in the 1920s and 1930s, these simple “one-lungers” worked without spark plugs or high voltage, and could stand a soaking on a stormy day without stalling.  Firing at the top of the piston travel, they were the only gasoline engines that could run equally well forward or in reverse, and needed no fancy transmissions or gear systems.

This little engine carried a boat from Maine to St. Brendan’s Island, and came to rest on this bluff within sight of the Gooseberry Islands.  Perhaps it even carried some islanders to and from the tickle between the islands – we know nothing else of its story.

If you would like to see these engines in action, see these YouTube videos:

or listen to “Make and Break Harbour” by Stan Rogers:

“Make and Break Harbour”

How still lies the bay in the light western airs,
Which blow from the crimson horizon;
Once more we tack home with a dry empty hold,
Saving gas with the breezes so fair.
She’s a kindly Cape Islander, old but still sound,
But so lost in the longliner’s shadow;
Make and break and make do, but the fish are so few,
That she won’t be replaced should she flounder.

Now it’s so hard to not think of before the big war,
When the cod went so cheap, but so plenty;
Foreign trawlers go by now with long seeking eyes,
Taking all where we seldom take any.
And the young folk don’t stay with the fisherman’s ways,
Long ago they all moved to the cities;
And the ones left behind, old and tired and blind,
Won’t work for a pound, for a penny.

In Make And Break Harbour the boats are so few,
Too many are pulled up and rotten;
Most houses stand empty, old nets hung to dry
Are blown away, lost and forgotten.

Now I can see the big draggers have stirred up the bay,
Leaving lobster traps smashed on the bottom;
Can they think it don’t pay to respect the old ways,
That Make And Break men have not forgotten.
For we still keep our time to the turn of the tide,
In this boat that I built with my father;
Still lifts to the sky, the one-lunger and I,
Still talk like old friends on the water.

In Make And Break Harbour the boats are so few,
Too many are pulled up and rotten;
Most houses stand empty, old nets hung to dry
Are blown away, lost and forgotten.

In Make And Break Harbour the boats are so few,
Too many are pulled up and rotten;
Most houses stand empty, old nets hung to dry
Are blown away, lost and forgotten.

Taken on Ilford XP-2 with a 1950 British Ensign820 folding camera using its superb Ross Xpres lens.

This photo is an excellent example of rescuing a quality image from an otherwise uninspiring shot by means of creative, and sometimes drastic, cropping.  The original image, which included a busy upper background, perplexed me, and this picture sat in my files for two years until I re-discovered it and attempted to emphasize the critical elements.  The resulting image represents only a small portion of the original scene, and is thus of relatively small file size, but it captures the relationship of the engine to the nearby rocks and field in an interesting composition.