The great Beat poet, Gary Snyder, recently was quoted saying, “Like most writers, I don’t educate myself sequentially, but more like a hawk or eagle always circling and finding things that might have been overlooked.” It’s the perfect metaphor for my story,
“Upon Reflection: TIME AND THE HISTORY OF MY OBSESSION”
I can almost remember the sensation of my eyes enlarging at the sight. Long ago, flipping through an issue of LIFE magazine I turned to a full-page color image of some moody and mysterious New York building. It was not the Empire State which usually was what represented the metropolis back then. No story accompanied the picture. It was just the image (one of the things I loved about LIFE) and a caption. That was my introduction to the Flatiron Building. Like so many, I became its captive.
The photograph was made in 1904 by Edward Steichen, a great early pioneer of photographic art, portraying the building, which had only been completed two years prior, in anything but a documentary fashion. I ripped that page from the magazine. And I still have it. Long afterwards, I learned that the image’s color was added to a traditional B&W platinum print by Steichen via a chemical process (of which there are only two variants). His original prints remain iconic examples of the photography’s power and reside in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
When, decades later, I accidentally moved to New York I sought out The Flatiron as if on some romantic pilgrimage, or a quest to locate the holy grail. At that point in history, with the area no longer the posh corner of Manhattan that it had been during the glory days of the Progressive Era, the building was a bit dingy and in a somewhat decrepit state. Yet the architectural design still maintained its singular, grand and iconic presence.
My sense of it came of course complete with the romantic notions dispersed through decades of chamber-of-commerce-esque versions of history. That history was rose-colored to say the least. “Great men doing great things building a great country.”
The Flatiron is generally considered the first skyscraper given that it’s design and construction were made possible by the recent invention of the modern elevator. It anchored the southwest corner of Madison Square Park. (This was at first confusing to a “Memphis boy” like me as the “Madison Square Garden” I grew up with watching tv or reading the sports pages and located far uptown was but the antecedent of not one but two predecessors that had held court cater-cornered from the Flatiron on the Park.) Only a few blocks up Madison Ave had lived J.P. Morgan while a few blocks down Broadway on 20th St. had been the home where Teddy Roosevelt was born. A few blocks further still below was Union Square. The sense of historical magnificence is sustained by how so little, from an architectural standpoint, has changed around Madison Square.
Looking to inform my own developing eye for photography, where else would I go for inspiration than the scene of that Steichen “Pictorialist” image I had seen as a young man? Like many a young photographer, I was hoping to recreate an inspiring composition. But carriages with drivers in top hats having been replaced by modern buses and taxicabs didn’t quite connote the vision I was looking to define. And I also realized that the trees and the bare limbs were key elements to the photograph. I learned this upon finding that they were no longer there. And so I walked around the area “location scouting” for my own compositions which, ultimately, was my goal. This is how I discovered the juxtapositions of the flag and clock on what had once been the famous Fifth Avenue Hotel as well as “heroic” statue on the north end of the Park. That statue actually had been placed before the Flatiron was built and was executed by the famous sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens with a base created by the notorious architect Stanford White.
These discoveries of course led to other less heroic lessons about New York and its “great men.” But that’s a different story. Meanwhile, even 30 years after my first Flatiron exposure, with once again it being a major attraction and the neighborhood back to posh, it still remains for me and now seemingly everyone else, a fascination. Indeed, I still cannot pass without acknowledging it, if only for a silent reverie. I will pause to observe the goings-on that swirl around it like the hat-detaching wind vortex its construction created and which led to the expression “23 Skidoo”. I recently counted no less than 50 people on one single corner, cameras & cellphones pointed skyward clicking away as they tried to get their Flatiron.
When I made my images behind the statue of Farragut, with him seeming to gaze upon the building and realizing he had been a naval officer, I imagined the Flatiron as a great ship, sailing silkily up Broadway. With now my own gaze upon it having lasted decades, long enough to see much that has come and gone in the passage of the light hours, it seems like the Flatiron indeed is a ship of time sailing silently through the course of history. And so, as with Gary Snyder, I continue circling back, fascinated and intrigued as ever, still looking for what image(s) I may have overlooked as it skittered by me in the gusts of my awe.
If you or someone you know would like your very own copy of one of my images (hint hint-they make great gifts), you can order them by going up to the menu & looking under “Hat Tricks For Sale” or just by clicking HERE.