The Railing

Urban patina: Documenting a slow-motion palimpsest

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There is a railing in Baltimore that I walk past quite often. Skateboarders use it as a grinding-rail, leaving streaks of color behind from the graphics on their boards. I take photos whenever I notice new marks, or see that marks are getting weathered, scraped off, or overwritten (hence “palimpsest”—a manuscript that has been scraped or wiped clean to re-use, often retaining hints of what was there before).

Some skateboarders call the marks “coping trails” or “grind business”, according to answers to a question I posted on Facebook. This gallery used to be called “Coping Trails and Grind Business”, but that’s too much to explain or remember. Two local skaters who I met in September 2016 call the marks “History.”

When I started this series in the autumn of 2015, at first I was just taking pictures of pretty colors. Since then the work has evolved into a meditation on time, growth and decay, effort, cause and effect, material culture, the way new creative energy is transforming Baltimore’s industrial history, and how art happens. The railing is a constantly changing subject—it changes not just with new marks, but with weather, light, time of day, time of year. There’s something new nearly every time I look.

I very rarely give my photos titles. Viewers give me the most amazing descriptions of what they see in these images—a Viking ship in a storm-tossed sea, a seashore at low tide, a winter landscape, an aerial photo of a city, kayaking on a river in Alaska while the salmon are running. I don’t want to skew anyone’s personal experience of an image with my choice of theme.

Everything in this gallery was shot with an iPhone (4S until Sept. 1, 2016; then an SE until Dec. 2, 2021; then a 13 mini.) I have used no physical or digital filters or altered settings; images are unmodified except for cropping, rotation, and enlargement.