IT'S THE LATEST, IT'S THE GREATEST, IT'S THE LIBRARY

February 12, 2021  •  Leave a Comment

CENTRAL LIBRARY 1 (SKYLIGHT)                                                         Central Library #1 Skylight: Final Version

Today I'd like to again discuss "working the subject", in this case returning to the same location to try to gain some additional insight into your take on the subject. It helps if the location is photogenic of course, and if there are many different parts of its appeal. And if there are other compelling reasons for you to venture there besides taking photographs, so much the better, because it's likely that you will continue to end up there again and again.

The last year has been a difficult one for most people, and in some ways I've been blessed. My family and I have been well, and the safety net, though frayed, has seen me through the loss of the three ways I used to try to earn a living. I'm not complaining in the least. But I realized in thinking about this essay today that one of the most important things I've missed this year is my trips to the library. These include my branch at Belmont, the other branches I visit in different neighborhoods around the city, and especially my explorations of Portland's Central Library Downtown.

In my humble opinion the idea of the library is one of the most important ideas man has ever come up with; the institution of the "free" library ranks right up there with the free press and freedom of religion. The library predates the printing press, which seems kind of backwards except that libraries collected scrolls and tablets before there were books. I love the library so much that I frequently contemplate how the "idea of the library" could transform the rest of society, even before we finally get replicators. The more I think about the idea of the free library, the more I realize how incredibly lucky we are that they were created before the Conservatives realized how they pointed the way towards an easier system of distributing knowledge than charging for it. I don't even mind paying library fines. blaming it on my own inability to get organized rather than "the man." In fact,  the library system is about the only survivor each year at that one time of year I allow myself to turn Republican for a moment, when I open my property tax statement and try to understand what I'm paying for this year. The library is obviously not "free", but the amount I pay in taxes is an incredible bargain. As with the park system, if you don't take advantage of the library, well thanks for paying so I can use it.

The Multnomah County Library system is one of the best used libraries in the nation, always competing with Seattle (it's the weather) and New York and Washington, D.C. (college graduates) each year for library devotion. Our system has two great strengths. One is a lot of branches in a lot of neighborhoods, being almost as ubiquitous as post offices, fire stations, or Portland's specialty in neighborhood organization, primary schools.The other is the renewal system, which allows you to keep as many books as you want in your own home, as long as nobody else wants them, and you can get your act together to renew them every three weeks before the system "breaks down" and you have to pay  a quarter a day for each of the thirty books that are spread around your house. Think how brilliant this system is - I would suggest that there would have to be twice as many library buildings if we all didn't store all those books in our own homes.

The crown jewel of the system is the Central Library Downtown. The current version of the Library was built in 1911, the same year as my modest bungalow 47 blocks away. It is a giant brick pile, five stories tall, with basements of course, that takes up an entire city block. It was designed by one of the best architects in Portland's short history, A.E.Doyle, whose name you can still touch on the pedestal at the end of the right side of the entrance stair. It's style is what you might call Federal, more than one hundred years after Jefferson quoted Palladian ideas at Monticello from the fancy Classical architecture he saw in France. But in general, the idea is brick with a smattering of stone,  and lots of large windows, although they are certainly punched in the brick, not replacing it. And in lieu of actual sculpture, you get lots of carvings; the benches around the exterior give you a curated 1911 version of great authors, and of course a certain art deserves pride of place at the corner of the subject frieze shown in the detail above. You don't see Accounting or Advertising or Business Administration up there, do you? Respect must be paid!

This building was completely restored a few years after I arrived in Portland. This restoration revealed the big difference between Portland and Seattle. Seattle is the younger and now richer city, and when it needs to renew its institutions, it looks at the crap it contains and just tears it down and builds 21st Century monuments. Portland realizes that its higher quality architecture probably is better than what it can afford to build now and pays for restoration - notably the Library and City Hall, among others. It is interesting that Seattle's new main library is almost exactly the same size as ours, but resembles a glass spaceship that badly landed in Downtown. And I like it! Seattle "reinvents" the library while we spend millions to get back the one we always loved. When I showed up in Portland, a trip to the building involved jury-rigged interior scaffolding that was going to "protect" me in the event of an earthquake. When the building was evacuated for remodeling I was one of the hundreds who attended the auction of the old furnishings. I scored one of the library newspaper poles used to display today's paper, which still stands in my office today - its sister is in a local coffee house on Hawthorne. My son was really disappointed when I dropped out of the bidding on one of the return book carts after it passed the $100 mark.

CENTRAL LIBRARY 2 (STAIR) Circulating through the Library involves a pilgrimage worthy of a palace of books. This is an interlude on the main stair about when you realize that there is a mezzanine between the second and third floor, and that each floor itself is really a double-height space. While the interiors are plush, let's get real - that column is not marble, but sfagrito, an Italian painting technique to simulate stone. But the spaces are grand, so much so that my lack of a wide angle lens as usual leads me to concentrate on details.

Here you can get some appreciation for the size of the six reading rooms - you don't need to dust the top of those bookcases, which are clearly a good dozen feet below those monumental light fixtures. As you move through the building, other details stand out.

This is one of the columns in the Second floor lobby, before you confront the next stair. They surround one of the 1% for Art additions, a massive chandelier.

When you finally descend the stair with your armful of books, you can appreciate other details, like this newel post, while equivocating on the Grandma carpeting.

And even though you promised not to disturb other patrons with your camera (Don't worry, just another architect!) you can occasionally grab some of the action.


Well let's talk photography. These photos, (and there are too many more to show) were taken over a period of ten years, mostly because I happened to have my camera with me. Which is not to say that I haven't made attempts to improve them, or that these were not the result of extra attention in shooting or post processing. For example, here are three repeats which I believe are much better as Black and Whites, both due to the real paint colors and the fact that the "real" color balance in these interiors, which is a lot more cool, usually looks wrong. This is overcome in monochrome.

CENTRAL LIBRARY 2 (STAIR) B&W

I happen to like these renditions better. You lose the wood handrails, but the column looks more agreeably sterner, and the chandelier is rescued from a certain gaudiness in the color version. Now let's take a look at my favorite image, the skylight. This skylight dome is not that monumental.  It is at the top of the stairs at the third floor, where you literally get to choose between Art & Science, depending on the reading room you choose. The skylight is probably only 20-30 feet wide, and it looks smaller if you show the whole thing.

It covers the lobby that serves as the library's exhibition space, and if you look very closely in real life you will realize that it is at the bottom of a light shaft courtyard, with two more administrative floors surrounding the skylight above. Those are the4th and 5th floors on the elevator that you are not allowed to punch. Thus the frosted glass in the skylight. It also cuts down on the glare, which brings up exposure. Film or sensors, despite advances, will not allow for the dynamic range that our eyes can achieve, especially when you consider how our brains can "adjust" our perceptions way before we squint, turn away, or just accept that we can't look at the whole scene at once. The camera of course is not as smart, and we must make choices, because it does see everything at once.

CENTRAL LIBRARY 1 (SKYLIGHT) This is the color version. Yes that white surround is now on the way to a sickly grey. But even here I'm not accepting the reality of the exposure situation.

Whoa! This is "reality." That awful beige ceiling color is back. The dome is revealed as not much bigger than the reading room entrance beyond. And what are those lights surrounding our skylight? And why can't I barely look at the glass or the trim on the shaft? It is paper white, containing no detail, because the camera wanted to show us the ceiling, and it can't look at both places without losing detail in one.

Now I hope you can see why the final image is one of my personal favorites. I've shown only a portion of the skylight, which allows the viewer to imagine an enormous dome, way bigger than our modest skylight. I've  converted to black and white, removing both the hated beige and the sickly grey shaft. I have lowered the exposure a full two stops below "correct" because I couldn't care less if you see the ceiling at all - it's all about the skylight. You can now see the subject better than you can if you are actually on the third floor, because I have made my choice on whatI want to show you. Thanks for coming to visit, and I hope we can all go back to the library soon.

CENTRAL LIBRARY 1 (SKYLIGHT)


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