I went back to Buffalo NY, for a second time in October of this year to the Silo City photographic workshop, a chance to get access to and shoot old abandoned grain silos & elevators, mills and warehouses. I wrote about it briefly after my first trip in June, but really felt like I wanted to write more in depth about the whole experiance this time. Silo city was of all places, just a strange place to go to a photo workshop, at least that was my first thought. That said, it turned out to be a really intriguing adventure, enough so that I’d actually would like to go back again. The 2 themes I keep coming back to are the people I was able to meet and work with as well as being able to see first hand such a slice of Americana and what a city of Buffalo might have looked like in the thriving industrial age: both were a real opportunity.
Silo City is the name given to a 6 acre complex that sits 0n a point where the buffalo river weaves through old structures right off of Lake Erie. There are 3 actual grain elevators and a couple of Silo complexes, all owned by a guy named Rick Smith. We met Rick a few times, he wears a big white cowboy hat and boots, and when I met him the first time, he was driving a vintage like 1970’s Oldsmobile convertible, and there’s a good story about how he acquired this property and what he plans to do with it (there are a lot of back stories to all this, and you’ll have to follow the links sometimes, only because I can’t cover it all). From what I could tell, most of this complex was shuttered in the 60’s & 70’s, if not earlier. By the way, this whole lake front of Buffalo landscape is old silos, elevators and the such. Some are still in operation today, but a lot are closed or running much less capacity than they did in the day. I’m pretty sure that as the lake freighters got bigger, they just were not able to negotiate the winding turns of the Buffalo River and that was the death of a lot of these elevators.
One of the people I got to meet was Mark Maio who put the work shop together and was in essence our leader. When you read a little about Mark, his technical photographic training, mixed with his medical training and his passion to tell the story and the history of the “grain scoopers” and the whole lost industry associated with these old buildings, you start to see a real depth there. I was lucky enough to get to know Mark a little, he was very assessable and we’d all go out to dinner, talk and drink some wine. Those discussions are where you gain more knowledge than you’d ever think. Mark hosts a little get together the first evening there where he covers information about the buildings we’ll be shooting in, (sign a liability wavier of course) as well as showing a little of everybody’s work as they introduce themselves. We did this on both trips and it was a great way to launch the workshop.
On the first day of both trips, we would get up an hour before sunrise (that was 4:30 am in June) and go to the corner of South and Hamburg streets in the first ward. There across the river you could see the back of the Lake and Rail Elevator. In June, we had spectacular reflections in the water, which I don’t think happens very often.
After we crossed the river and entered the complex, the first person we meet was the care taker of Silo City “Swannie Jim” Watkins. Jim has this dog that looks like a really mean junk yard dog, but is actually very friendly. Jim himself is is one of these incredibly authentic guys who lives right there on the grounds and is very knowledgeable about the area, the buildings as well as the industry that used to be there. Jim usually starts the workshop with a tour just to get your bearings right. Jim was also kind enough to offer a glass of Wild Turkey to Bill Welsh and myself after a 12 hour day of climbing and shooting…what a guy.
I think the best part of going to this workshop (in both June and October), was the great mix of people. Some were professional photographers and architectural photographers who had their own mission, There were some eye doctors and surgeons (friends of Mark) who were just passionate about photography as a hobby, there were just some passionate photographers (not professionals in the sense thats their living, but incredibly skilled) while others just wanted to check it out. Chris Snipes was there from Capture Integration and brought some Phase One and Leica cameras we could try out if we wanted. These are both very high end cameras worth lots and lots of $’s….I shot a Leica “M” Monochrome camera later at the Ward Pumping Station which was really cool. I was not really familiar with Leica’s prior to the workshop, but now know better…it was kind of like driving a Porsche. I liked Chris and he is an incredibly talented photographer. In June, on the photographs below, I have to thank Alicia Wittman for talking me into climbing an old rusted staircase/elevator thingy that I probably had no business climbing, but being on top was well worth it. Totally cool.
We’d break off into smaller groups (or sometimes just go alone), and seemed like we climbed and climbed. These old places are huge, and you’d stumble into old rooms and places that looked like nobody had been there since they closed the places down. Old shuttered equipment, peeling paint, and oh yea, you’d better have a head lamp or a flash light because it was really dark in a lot of the places. One of the guys who helped Mark with the workshop, Randy Van Duinen (a professional architecteral photographer from Florida) , was really into light painting and before you know it, we were all filling in shadows and adding depth with our flashlights. He was a huge help in demonstrating some new techniques in shooting as well as Photoshop and Lightroom.
On Saturday afternoon, Mark arranged a tour of the Francis Ward Pumping Station (A relatively impossible thing to do..but he did it). This place had huge old water pumps that supplied Buffalo with all their water from Lake Erie for somewhere close to 100 years. The pumps have been shut down and replaced by modern efficient pumps. I’m so glad we got a chance to go there, these big old things were something else to see (very hard to photograph, but cool).
The next phase of the adventure was to go see a huge old silo/elevator names Concrete Central. This place was just huge and abandoned. This place was rather remote, and it was also a no trespassing, but there were signs that paint ballers and free climbers still made their mark. This place was just big and close to being creepy, it just kind of set out there on a point on the river as a monument to the industrial era. To me, this was a spectacular part of the workshop.
This was not a workshop like most photographic workshops, but it was great. I want to go back again (maybe) next year with Bill Welsh, take 2 solo canoes with us and paddle the river early in the morning when everybody is shooting across the river. For more pictures from both trips, see my Silo City Gallery (I’m still working on).