A man in khaki trousers and a blue coat leaves a government building on a Friday afternoon. He crosses Lake Street, in Elmira, stepping into the raking winter light. Under his arm he carries manila folders. In his left hand he holds a pen, his thumb on the clicker pushing it open and shut. The building behind him is nicely painted and looks like it has been repurposed. The scene suggests a narrative, but is open to interpretation; there’s no beginning or end, just the moment, like countless other everyday moments that pass by unseen.
My joy as a photographer is to get better at seeing these moments. I’ve lived in upstate New York (Alfred, Rochester, Ithaca) most of my life, and I’ve become accustomed to my surroundings. The past few years I’ve been trying to pay more attention, especially to the built environment, which I see as a reflection of who we are today and who we were in the past.
This work began during a 2017 sabbatical leave, when I joined friend and writer Ron Ostman on regular field trips to the towns and cities of upstate New York. Places include Lisle, Covert, Hornell, Bath, Groton, Elmira, Auburn, Binghamton, and dozens more. We took time to stop, walk around, speak with people, and make photographs. I’m interested in architecture, businesses and industry, window displays, construction sites, and the people who inhabit our region. In these cultural landscapes I find specific and collective examples of our history, aspirations, foibles, aesthetic choices, and struggles, all wrapped up in an endlessly fascinating mixture of materials. Ron has written a text for a self-published book of my photographs, Divine Metaphysical Research (appropriated from a sign in an Elmira street scene).
Looking at the photographs now, in light of the 2020 pandemic, it appears that I was in a social distancing mindset well before Covid-19 arrived. There are solitary figures in many photos. There is also a contrast between places bustling with new construction and economic activity, and places that are suffering and struggling to hold on. The pandemic will probably accentuate those extremes. Ron writes in the afterword, “This book’s photographs possess not only a strong sense of place, people, and time, but also reveal a divine beauty that is often fun and exhilarating, but also disturbing and sad.”
Many thanks to Ron for his help and encouragement, and also to Gary Hodges and Roger Freeman who accompanied me on field trips and provided critical feedback on the photographs.
— Harry Littell, 2020
Harry Littell Photography
902 Giles Street
Ithaca, NY 14850