Posted by: groundsforsculpture | January 20, 2011

Eye on Photography – Flight of Angels by Richard Trenner

Richard Trenner, Dreaming in Stone, 2009. Inkjet Print. Photo courtesy the artist.

Any place where people take off and land, or make beer, or bury the dead or are buried, is, if nothing else, a place of beginnings and endings.  Such a place is certain to be rich in signs and symbols: flags and crosses, angel’s wings and eagle’s wings, smoke and shadows, even advertisements and admonitions.  And such a place is certain to be packed with “stuff”—towers, tanks, sod, stones—the objects and materials that people need to fly, to brew, and to bury or be buried.

If signs, symbols, and objects like these could talk, what remarkable answers they would give us through the stories they might tell.  How much ambition, boredom, irritation, and joy have millions of passengers felt as they have passed through Newark Airport (or, more “symbolically,” Newark Liberty International Airport)?  How much money, folly, alcohol, and oblivion have Anheuser-Busch workers brewed in the 60 years since the vast red-brick plant opened and the first 200-trucks a day headed off in search of thirsty drinkers?  And how much despair, relief, hope, and delusion have generations of survivors known as they have buried loved ones at Mt. Olivet Roman Catholic Cemetery?

We can never know the answers to such questions.  Even if these physical/magical things—the flags, wings, shadows and stones—could talk, they would talk in a wild polyglot of sign languages; at most we would catch only bits of their frantic, nonstop conversations.  It is inevitable that we cannot understand most of the language of the cultural signs that crowd places like airports, factories, and cemeteries.  It is inevitable because, most of the time, we do not even try to listen.  We do not try to listen because we want to shield ourselves from too much reality.  As the poet T. S. Eliot wrote in his profound masterpiece, Four Quartets: “Humankind cannot bear very much reality.”  And as the novelist George Eliot wrote in her profound masterpiece, Middlemarch: “If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.”

So I do not have cultural conversations to report fully and clearly.  Instead, all I have is a photograph to show: “Flights of Angels.”  I made this picture in December 2009, on one of several image-hunting trips I have made in recent years to an area of New Jersey that tourists fly over in planes or race by in trains but rarely visit: the urban and industrial landscapes of Newark, Elizabeth, Bayonne and neighboring cities.  These landscapes often have a broken and abandoned feel, like trash dumped by a road, albeit on an immense scale.  The landscapes look spent and sad because we have been abusing the land for two centuries now.  Yet, in the vivifying light of certain mornings and afternoons, these landscapes can yield “negative beauty”: the beauty of old age and hard use—beauty rendered in eroded textures and colors, phantom gleams and shadows, and jumbled lines and shapes.  Call it the visual language of the wreckage that time and people leave behind.  If you, like me, are drawn to aspects of modern culture that are complex, unnerving and dissonant but indisputably real, then a place where three physical/magical human experiences—flying, drinking, and dying—meet and make signs and symbols is worth a detour at Exit 13A of the New Jersey Turnpike.

© Copyright 2011 by Richard Trenner

The Focus on Sculpture exhibition is an annual Grounds For Sculpture exhibition of amateur photography.  Selected works are on display in the Education Gallery in the Visitor’s Center from January 22 through March 20, 2011.



  1. Richard,
    So very well done. Picturesque and philosophical, I am haunted by image and words.
    Thank you,

    • Dear Jody,

      You were very nice to take time to write and post your generous and encouraging words on my photograph and blog, both related to the Focus on Sculpture show at that playground for art-lovers, Grounds for Sculpture.

      Best wishes,


  2. Way to go, Richard! It is nice to know someone who is fluent in the languages of words and images.


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