At eighteen years of age and the beginning my education in photography, more than once my professors suggested that to improve my photography I should study the work of painters. And typical of an eighteen-year-old, I decided that what I really needed to do was study the work of the photographers that I admired, as I couldn’t imagine relating to painters. That is until I saw Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks.
My initial experience with Nighthawks came via posters which a number of my friends had displayed in their apartments. I was drawn to it by its “moment in time” documentary style, the use of light, and the feeling of loneliness in the city. From that point on, I wanted to make photographs that captured my feelings in my images just as Hopper was able to convey a message in his work. Forty years later I’m still in the process of achieving that goal.
I continued to research and study more of Hopper’s work, especially drawn to his use of light. The more I studied his work, the more I started looking at light and how it affected the environment in my everyday life. As I became more aware of beautiful light, I was soon using it as the subject of my photographs.
My other significant artistic influence was a commercial photographer and painter, Charles Sheeler. Sheeler is recognized as one of the founders of American modernism. In particular, he developed a style of painting known as Precisionism.
He consistently reduced his compositions to simple shapes and underlying geometrical structures, with clear outlines, minimal detail, and smooth handling of surfaces. His paintings, drawings, and prints also showed the influence of work by American photographers, such as Paul Strand, with whom Sheeler had made a movie.
I was first drawn to a body of Sheeler’s photography from the late 1920s. During that time, he was commissioned by the Ford Motor Company to photograph the new Model A automobile plant in River Rouge, Michigan as part of a promotional campaign. Sheeler’s photographs utilized sharp focus and lighting, unexpected viewpoints and cropping, and emphasis on the abstract form of the subject. But it was another ten years before I discovered his almost photographic like paintings.
Precisionism appealed to my photographic vision. After I learned of his influence as a painter, I was drawn to his “photorealistic” painting technique because it was the way I would paint if I had the skill.
Being born and raised in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, as a photography student I explored along the Milwaukee River and its industrial valley with my camera. I was drawn to the similarities between the industrial landscapes in Sheeler’s paintings and what I saw in my everyday life in Milwaukee. Little did I know then how much this work would ultimately affect my photography.
After accepting a teaching position at the State University of New York in Buffalo in 1988, the following year I began a project that would consume the next sixteen years of my photographic life.
Initially, the project centered on the Irish Old First Ward neighborhood which is bordered on one side by the Buffalo River. Adjacent to the neighborhood the river is lined by a series of grain elevators forming a canyon of concrete, commonly referred to as “elevator alley”.
As I studied and photographed the modern-day neighborhood, I eventually shifted my attention to the story of the men who worked along the river unloading the grain boats that had traveled to Buffalo via the Great Lakes.
These men, known as “grain scoopers”, were descendants of the Irishmen that hand dug the Erie canal and then settled along the Buffalo River. Even into the 1990’s modern-day scoopers continued to use the same technology developed in 1845 to manually unload the grain.
Once the St. Lawrence Seaway was expanded in 1959, the grain industry in Buffalo changed almost overnight. The St. Lawrence made it possible for large ocean-going ships from around the world to bypass Buffalo and sail directly to ports in the Midwest. When I met the scoopers in 1989, there were only 80 men still scooping in Buffalo, down from a high of 3000 scoopers in 1900.
Even as I began my project I knew it was only a matter of time before new, self-unloading grain boats would replace the scoopers and for some reason, I was chosen to tell their story. The scoopers unloaded their last boat in 1996.
I was surprised to recently discover that the very area of Buffalo that I’ve spent so many years documenting was also the subject of Sheeler and his camera. I think back to myself as that eighteen-year-old who thought I knew everything and now realize how fortunate I was that the process of two painters who went before me helped shape my photographic vision and voice.