Pages 334-337 of American Colossus concerning Figure 7, taken in 1919, and depicting the Concrete-Central Elevator, built in Buffalo, New York, in three stages, between 1914 and 1917. (Note: this image, reproduced here courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Detroit Publishing Company, was originally intended to be the book's cover, wrapped front to back.)
What’s striking about Taut’s uncredited photo of the Concrete-Central (not reprinted in A Concrete Atlantis for some reason) isn’t so much the grain elevator itself, but the fact that the entire, thousand-foot-long complex – everything from the freestanding transfer tower on the far right to the last of the three “loose legs” on the far left – was captured by it. No “fish eye” or other specialized lenses were apparently used. The photographer had to be positioned in just the right place for such a shot to be taken. It is telling that Patricia Bazelon, who provided excellent “present condition” photographs for Reyner Banham, wasn’t able to find such a position for her photograph of the Concrete Central, in which everything except for the transfer tower is captured.
The problem of properly positioning yourself with respect to a colossal building was familiar to the German philosopher Immanuel Kant. Calling upon Claude-Etienne Savary’s Lettres sur l’Égypte, first published in 1785, Kant notes:
We must keep from going very near the Pyramids just as much as we keep from going too far from them, in order to get the full emotional effect from their size. For if we are too far away, the parts to be apprehended (the stones lying one over the other) are only obscurely represented, and the representation of them produces no effect upon the aesthetical judgment of the subject. But if we are very near, the eye requires some time to complete the apprehension of the tiers from the bottom up to the apex; and then the first tiers are always partly forgotten before the Imagination has taken in the last, and so the comprehension of them is never complete.
But this section of the Critique, entitled “The estimation of the magnitude of natural things requisite for the idea of the sublime,” wasn’t intended as practical advice to aspiring photographers, whom of course did not yet exist. It was in fact intended to illustrate the difference between the two different forms of human imagination: intellectual apprehension (Auffassung) and aesthetic comprehension (Zusammenfassung). Jacques Derrida writes: “The former can go to infinity, the latter has difficulty following and becomes harder and harder according as the apprehension progresses. It quickly attains its maximum: the fundamental aesthetic measure for the evaluation of magnitudes […] The mathematical evaluation of size never reaches its maximum. The aesthetic evaluation, the primary and fundamental one, does reach it; and this subjective maximum constitutes the absolute reference which arouses the feeling of the sublime.”
And so, unlike the beautiful, the sublime arouses what Kant calls the “negative pleasure” of feeling oneself overwhelmed or being “too close” to the colossal (Section I, Book II, SS 23). It calls for a step backwards. In Derrida’s words: “So one has to find a middle place, a correct distance for uniting the maximum of comprehension to the maximum of apprehension, to take sight of the maximum of what one cannot take and to imagine the maximum of what one cannot see. And when the imagination attains its maximum and experiences the feeling of its impotence, its inadequacy to present the idea of the whole, it falls back, it sinks; it founders into itself.” But this fall from the elevated heights of the sublime is not without its own pleasure: it “does not leave [the imagination] without a certain positive emotion: a certain transference gives it the wherewithal to feel pleased at this collapse which makes it come back to itself.”
Should one fear stepping back too quickly or not quickly enough, one can simply let one’s foot on the accelerator set the pace. Frank Gohlke, a photographer of grain elevators, writes,
For me, the essential grain elevator view is obtained through the windshield of a car or truck while traveling on a highway in Kansas or Oklahoma or the Texas Panhandle. It is not a static view, but one that begins just as the elevator becomes visible above the center line, above five miles out of town, and continues until it disappears in the vibration in the rearview mirror. In the minutes that pass as the speck grows to colossal size and then shrinks to rejoin the horizon, many contradictory messages are created: we are powerful, we build for centuries, our monuments rival those of other heroic ages; we are insignificant, our hold on this landscape is tenuous, nature and time erode our greatest creations as if they were dust. What lingers is the memory, though, is the image of a solitary, upright form in the middle distance of an endless plain.