Wet White Paint—2 Different Applications

July 17, 2014

In photography, sometimes the shift from 'ordinary' to 'visually compelling' is achieved by finding a fresh view of the subject. (Herald File / Bob Eddy)

Summer is the season for exterior painting in Vermont. Several photographs of painters at work have graced ‘The Herald’ over the years, but two of mine bear such graphic similarity, they beg to be given a second look together.

Perhaps because these images were taken under wildly different circumstances, I never thought them similar. Seeing them together as I considered images for this column, however, I was struck by their remarkable likeness.

Fresh paint is not a news event. No one has ever come to me saying, “We need you to photograph a painter over on Main Street for this week’s paper.”

That said, there is something very appealing about seeing something get a new coat of paint. It’s a positive image; things are getting spiffed up, put to rights. A good photograph of a fresh coat of paint being applied; well, it’s not a brass band or a state championship, but it’s something to catch the eye and remind us the weather’s been pleasant on at least one day this past week.

Perhaps this is why I’ve taken many images of people painting over the years. Possibly, too, it explains why several of these images have ended up on the paper’s front page.

A Compelling View

A good photograph needs compelling graphic quality, especially if it’s black and white. Sometimes all that’s necessary is to view the subject from a fresh perspective.

In June, 1988, I spied a town worker applying paint to crosswalks in Depot Square. He was working at the head of Merchants Row. I knew if I was quick, I’d have a truly unique image. I couldn’t get out of my car fast enough.

This photograph was taken back when the entrance to the Rexall Drugstore was at the corner of the massive Dubois and Gay block, destroyed by fire in 1991. To the side of the Rexall entrance, facing the square, a wide concrete stairway permitted access to the upper stories of the block. There, between the store entrance and stairs, a tree had improbably grown through a crack in the pavement.

I’d always appreciated that delightful splash of bright green leaf in such unlikely surroundings. Hurrying by it and on up the stairs, I hoped I’d have an opportunity to incorporate it in my shot.

The barbershop and thrift store stood at the top of those stairs on the second level, but I was headed higher still, on up inside the building.

On the third floor was the old town gymnasium. It had fallen into disuse decades before and had come to be home of a racquetball court, implausibly erected right in the middle of the old basketball floor. Fortunately, I was a key carrying member for that court; that’s how I was able to get into the building so quickly.

I didn’t stop on the third floor, but pressed on and up to the top level, where mansard windows led out to a ledge running around the circumference of the building. Opening a window, I leaned out onto that ledge, and looked down on the town employee some forty feet below. There he was, beautifully framed by the leaves of the tree! I pulled out my Nikon F with a 180mm lens and trained it on the scene. Shooting almost straight down with this telephoto lens kept the grid-work of the fresh paint squared-up in my frame. As if on cue, but completely unaware of my presence high above, perhaps wondering how soon he could let traffic through, the workman stepped forward into the scene and reached out to see if the paint was dry.

Several aspects contribute to the success of this photograph. First and foremost is the perspective. Seeing this image on the page, the viewer is quickly brought up those stairs with me to this unusual vantage point. How often might one have the opportunity to view from this angle, a sidewalk being painted?

At first, the image is confusing. Then, however, the viewer is rewarded as the image discloses itself to the eye. This process of “decoding” a scene is something we have done since birth; we do it unconsciously. It’s the shift from simply ‘seeing’ to ‘understanding’ what is seen.

I take no credit for the fellow’s uniformly dark clothing, but it adds substantially to the bold graphic quality of the image.

Finally, the leaves of the tree cradle the whole scene, reminding us that we are gazing down on this worker from several stories up. They merge with the deep blacks of the shadow on dark pavement, and provide an excellent visual counterpoint to the measured precision of the white paint.

Uncanny Similarities

For many decades, Fred Streeter was a legendary RUHS ladies basketball coach. When school wasn’t in session, this teacher/coach would hire students from his squad and pay them handsomely as painters over the summer. He was a great coach and a phenomenal painter.

In August 1988, I spied Fred painting the building which houses the Randolph’s police station and historical society. He was standing high up on a ladder painting the broad white trim of the second floor windows.

This image has so much in common with that of the sidewalk painter we just considered. It’s shot with a long lens with the worker facing away from us, unaware of our presence. The elements of both scenes are squared-up in the lens. As in the first image, here, the worker is applying white paint, and in both scenes the white paint frames the painter as he works. Finally, both images are shot through the darkened leaves of a tree, creating an element of depth in the resulting photograph. The amorphous shapes of the dark leaf masses are very similar, providing strong tonal and design contrast with the linear white paint.

Painter Extraordinaire!

There is one huge difference between these two images. The town employee is standing on solid ground, unlike Fred Streeter, perched high on the penultimate rung of a ladder. We can be forgiven for not noting this obvious contrast, for Streeter looks quite comfortable. He looks so relaxed we almost forget he’s up in the air!

In fact, as I look at Fred painting in this photograph, now, nearly a quarter century later, I’m dumbfounded by the ease with which he is working up there, his lithe form arcing up across the photograph to the large brush loaded with fresh paint.

Like Fred in this image, I’m now in my sixties, and I make it a habit to avoid ladders altogether!

Take another look at him working there. Pressed up against the window, he can’t even turn his head up to see where the paint will be applied. Now, imagine him reloading the brush as he continues to paint ‘blind’ above his head.

Can you see him dipping that brush into the can down around his ankles? I think he did just that! I couldn’t have pulled that maneuver off when I was twenty, let alone today.

Fred died a few years back. Those who didn’t know him, can’t possibly see here that his left forearm and hand were withered from birth. This never seemed a handicap, however. He was a basketball star, growing up in Woodstock, Vermont, and married the prettiest gal in the class. He was a phenomenal coach.

And to this day I still can’t believe the ease with which he ascended the top of a ladder with a full bucket and a brush and worked without breaking a sweat laying down stroke after stroke of perfectly applied paint at an age when most of his friends were reading books from the comfort of an oversized armchair.

Though taken years later, this image shares remarkable similarities with the photograph to its left. Take a moment to see how many you can identify before reading the column. (Herald File / Bob Eddy)

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