Image Essay by Jeff and Lois Shelden
Although there are no people (living ones, anyway) visible in these images, the buildings and other objects carry the words and thoughts of those who made them and those who lived in, used, or otherwise interacted with them. When we look at these photos, we can’t hear these thoughts or words, but we have a tendency to supply them. We imagine expressions of excitement, loneliness, passion, or contentment—single voices or the cacophony of a crowd oblivious to a man-made world that is often of astounding beauty.
Those of us who grow up in the Western United States know basalt. It predominates in the ancient volcanic landscapes of the Snake and Columbia rivers. Those are harsh, hot, sharp-edged “misslandscapes.” So we were surprised to see basalt carved into graceful, inverted catenaries and polished to a high gloss by human hands—embodying the theories and the heart and soul of Antonio Gaudi.
These arches are at the Palau Guell, a Barcelona residence designed by Gaudi when he was just 36. He made models of the catenaries and then flipped them upside down to achieve a structure that almost perfectly distributes weight across the arch. Basalt is black, brittle, and very hard. It’s not an easy material to use—except in the mind of a visionary.
Like the soaring arches in “Basalt,” these hammocks at a shop in Costa Rica form catenaries—each one a gentle curve shaped by gravity. Unlike basalt, they are soft, inviting, evocative, and eminently touchable. The broad, sweeping colors lose their individuality here, and the forms take over, with no particular design in mind other than attracting buyers.
Can a man-made space capture a landscape? This courtyard in Santa Fe, New Mexico, recreates in microcosm the larger natural world surrounding it—not just the colors, but the simple, austere spirit of the landscape as well.
Outside Kutna Hora, in the Czech Republic, sits this small chapel, filled with the bones of nearly 40,000 people. Bones strung in garlands; bones piled into neat, interlocking pyramids; bones fashioned into the heralds and coats of arms of the royalty who ruled here in the late nineteenth century.
They came from victims of the plague and of the Hussite wars, as well as from citizens buried in a cemetery that subsequently became the site of a church. The ossuary was remodeled in Czech Baroque style in the early 1700s. The present arrangement of the bones, the work of a Czech woodcarver, dates from 1870. We anticipated this chapel to be a bit of a freak show but were shaken by it in an unexpected way. So many people, so anonymous, so little left. Is this immortality? Can immortality be captured in a photo?
Antigua is an ironic name for this flamboyant storefront, which was on the cutting edge of the Modernisme movement in Barcelona when it was created in 1902. Who would commission a design like this in our practical age? It would take someone with the joyous good nature to want to share it with the world.
Perhaps a better title—borrowed from Wallace Stegner, who grew up not far from this location—would be “Angle of Repose.” This shed, part of a long-vanished homestead on the central Montana prairie, was saved because it once had some utility as farms grew and consolidated. Now, as the building delicately balances on an ever-narrowing fulcrum between earth and sky, it has even lost its utility. Soon gravity will take over from the wind as the predominant force acting on this little shed.
Lois Shelden is a portrait photographer in Lewistown, Montana. Though she makes a living by capturing the unique qualities of the individual, capturing the unique qualities of nature and the man-made world is an avocation.
Jeff Shelden is an architect in Lewistown, Montana, who is always looking for inspiration and a way to record it.