31 December 2012

A Good Insulator

These are called "glass insulators."  I recognize them because when I was a kid, we used to go down to the railroad tracks, pick up rocks, throw them at telephone poles and try to break them.  There are whole collections available, books and catalogs detailing their artful construction, and even conventions and trade shows, where glass insulator fans trade robustly, stoking the flames of the passion for mid-nineteenth century artifacts like these, stalwart loyalists of those concerned with electrical currents travel willy-nilly down a telephone, into the earth, wasting precious resources.

Mom kept this one in her kitchen window.  She picked it up at:  a yard sale; a consignment shop; a tag sale; from her mother's kitchen window.  Somewhere along the way.  Now I have it.  It's translucent blue is precious.  There's a small chip in the dimpled base, about twenty degrees east of the A in U.S.A where it was "made."

It now rests next to some plants in my kitchen.  You can see the rather hideously brown and tan brick of our 1939 pre-war coop in the background.  A few years ago, our coop board decided to paint the fire escapes the color of cat vomit.  The blue glass insulator brightens up the scene a bit.

I've looked out this window at every hour of the day.  Name the hour.  I've been there.  I often ponder its geometric proposition.  Shape and structure define reality.  Recently, I've made the acquaintance of the photographer Harry Callahan--though he's been dead for more than 13 years.  Callahan, a Detroit native and an engineer by training, picked up a camera for fun and learned that he was a actually a genius with it--though nothing in his biography reveals such an expression of self-regard.  Still, you'd have to be to see things like this:

harry callahan:  chicago 1949
I've also spent a considerable amount of time contemplating this gem from 1974, when Callahan set his sights on the Twin Towers:

harry callahan:  twin towers 1974
My friend MB, a professor of history, reminded me that Callahan was a "student" (that is to say a younger colleague) of the great Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, the Hungarian crypto-Jew who hired Callahan to  join the faculty of the Chicago Institute of Design ("I guess he knew I was a simple, deeply involved guy.")  This after a streak of meetings with Ansel Adams, Alfred Stieglitz, and then Mies van der Rohe.         By 1948, Callahan had also met Edward Steichen; and this humble man, an accountant for the Chrysler Motor Parts Corporation, was suddenly among the most gifted and talented of modern American photographers we know.

Milton Avery comes to mind here, the painterly aspect of the photographer or is it the photographer being imitated by the painter?  Janet Malcolm wonders about that.  
harry callahan:  cape cod 1974
And then finally, there is the post-modern aspect of his work, the abstraction of nature in its pure glory--a manifestation of his genius where I see Steichen's influence, particularly those efflorescent swamp-scapes of Milwaukee that remain true and timeless.  Here is Callahan's "Weeds in Snow" from Detroit in 1943, a kind of transposed negative close up of what one might see if one were given the gift of blocking out all the background noise to life and allowed a moment to meditate on what it means to be alive in winter:
harry callahan:  weeds in snow, detroit 1943
It's a miracle, really.

Makes me wonder what I do with my days.  And how it is that the artist--perhaps more than the prophet or priest, holds our imagination, lifts our sights to higher places and deeper depths than keepers of faith have the credibility to do in this skeptical age of ours.

Everyone is so connected and so charged.  Ionic energy overflowing.  Running down poles, our own temporality, rooted in hubris, seeping into an earth already over-flowing with the wasteful run-off of generations past.  

What one could do with a good insulator!  Artfully rendered, translucent and true.

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