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Former Sharp Shop Building – 128 South Lucile Street – Seattle WA

A core component of what I choose to photograph and write about are topics that hide in plain sight – the small details that define a place and are rather temporal since these details are plowed under by the blade of change pulled along by endless time. In the rich dirt, I find examples of how my city lives and on occasion places that define Seattle.

One of the enduring things I learned over the years in trying to get good at what I do is that successful output comes after much failure caused by simply not having a deep understanding of the subject at hand. Some artists are so utterly gifted that raw talent is all that is needed to produce masterwork after masterwork, a condition nature did not bake into my DNA. To compensate for that shortfall I revisit places and ideas again and again until I am, in a sense, able to rub the potatoes and carrots pulled out that rich dirt clean.

Of late, I have been spending a fair amount of time in the industrial parts of Seattle where people rarely would choose to spend their free time. My initial attraction to all this was quite sophomoric and was no different from the kind of stuff that shows up on social media sites in infinite quantity such as images of random graffiti or the general grit and grime found there.

As the days and weeks went by I was finally able to put this place into a larger context and adopted the perspective that to really understand a city one needs to be familiar with where the heavy and hard labor is accomplished.

In Seattle’s case, this region is to the south of downtown and to the west of Interstate 5. There one finds our gateway to the world, the Port of Seattle, and the railroad yards that take a substantial amount of those goods to the rest of America.

There one finds a city bus terminal, a cement factory, steel fabricators, scrap yards, the cutting edge technology of Boeing, lumber yards, the central postal center, commercial bakeries, trash haulers, recycle centers, barge companies, anonymous warehouses and office buildings housing enterprises that might as well be anonymous.

There too is found places to buy work clothing make in the same place and in the same manner for the last 100 years and next door a sporting goods store that sells guns, insulated rubber boots, and camping gear that gets hauled around in the back of a pickup.

There one finds all manner of businesses we treat as if they were a relative that had one to many drunken driving arrests and did time in prison. Of course, the ugly fact is such people are family, you are stuck with them for life, and for whom you always save a place at the Thanksgiving dinner table.

This is where you find the outlet stores that have limited hours and sell factory seconds at bargain prices, industrial suppliers that sell chemicals, plastics and screws in bulk, stores that deal in discarded doors and windows, tire stores, towing companies, glass companies, breweries, diesel engine shops, restaurant suppliers, and furniture stores selling cheap sofas that have pop out footrests.

There one finds people living in neighborhoods like Georgetown or South Park that never stood a chance of having a day in the future when people could talk about the glory days. Scattered around in odd places are the cheap motels with illuminated signs proclaiming their name, the price, HBO, and on occasion, with an implied guarantee that everything is now better, that the place is under new management. There is even a rogue skate park located under a bridge that the city, after years and years of effort, just gave up trying to shut down.

There one finds small restaurants specializing in such delicacies as teriyaki, chili dogs, burgers, or thick deli sandwiches that come with a pickle. Most of them seem to struggle to stay alive and are often open long after the workers in the area have left for the day. I sometimes drop into them at these times and I get the impression that the people behind the counter are the owners who more or less live at work or use it as a refuge from an uncomfortable home life.

They rhythm of this region is stark. By day it is full on activity with the sights and sounds of America at work buying and selling, repairing, fabricating, transporting and accounting for the million and one details that make our uptown, downtown lives possible. By night, the place goes quiet and it is left to be watched over by security guards wearing official looking badges and driving cars with vaguely official looking decals on the side with amber-colored light bars on the roof.

When we think of major cities we get tangled up by the glamour of famous things like the Space Needle the Pike Place Market, Elliot Bay, Safeco Field, the Paramount Theater, or Alki Beach. For us that have been here for a time we focus on the places where we touch and taste the city on a daily basis, our neighborhoods like Lower Queen Anne, Capitol Hill, Ballard, Wallingford, Madison Park, Mt. Baker, Rainer Beach, Leschi, or Green Lake.

But it wasn’t until I embarked on spending time down by the Duwamish River that I began to understand where Seattle’s heart located and why. And by heart I don’t mean some meta physical state, instead I mean a physical place that supplies all that life-sustaining stuff we use all the time without a thought or a care.

Now I need to wash my hands and scrape some of that soil out from under my fingernails.

Copyright 2013 By Katherine Johnson – All Rights Reserved