July 11, 2009
Britta Gustafson, “Learning to see wooden poles”:
When Iím not in a rush to get somewhere, I look up at the tops of telephone poles. I donít know anything about electricity, but I find myself reading glossaries of linemenís slang and technical definitions, learning how to refer to the grey buckets that transform electricity for home use (cans, bugs, distribution transformers) and how to identify several other pole features, especially different varieties of shiny ceramic insulators.
It’s a really nice photo-essay, with little detours about the pleasures of walking, childhood memories of the Mister Rogers crayon factory documentary, and generally finding joy in “functional and authentic technical equipment, the more elaborate and less appreciated the better.”
My grandfather was (and my uncle is) a lineman for Detroit Edison, so like Britta, I find power lines really fascinating. The general tendency of this century has been to make our infrastructure and industrial more invisible and remote, even as it becomes more individualized and less communal. (Think about riding a train versus driving a car.) Utility lines, when you notice them, spell out the lie in all that. Of course, they’re most conspicuous when they stop working. (Actually, they’re really conspicuous when they’re knocked over in a shower of sparks and flame, but that’s a special case.)
One of my favorite parts in Terry Zwigoff’s documentary Crumb is when R. Crumb explains how he takes photographs of ordinary buildings and street corners - apartments, gas stations, strip malls - so he can use them as reference for adding details like telephone and electrical poles, junction boxes, gutter grates. Otherwise, he says, you forget about these things; it’s as if they were never there.