Exploring urban fire escapes as expressions of culture
GLOBE WEST ARTS
May 26, 2011|By Nancy Shohet West, Globe Correspondent
photo - Carol Greenfield
In search of a topic for an assignment in his evening photojournalism class at Massachusetts College of Art and Design, Newton resident David Greenfield — a periodontist by day — thought of his enduring attraction to fire escapes.
Ever since he was a boy growing up in New York City in the 1950s, Greenfield said, he has been intrigued by “the wonderful contrasts and images you see on fire escapes in city buildings. They cast shadows that show the amazing play of light early in the morning or just before dusk.’’
Photographing the iconic metal structures would be interesting artistically, he believed. But the project turned out to go much farther than a simple portrayal of lines and shadows. Greenfield began doing some basic research into the fire escapes he was shooting around Boston and New York, and discovered that they are more than just a necessary component of commercial construction. They are a critical symbol of urban development.
“I learned that around the mid-19th century, when cities were burgeoning around the US, fire escapes were first patented and came into widespread use. To build a building of more than one story, you needed a fire escape. So the ability to construct wrought-iron staircases onto the outsides of buildings was crucial to the vertical development of city buildings,’’ he said. Being able to build taller buildings meant that cities could accommodate more people, businesses, offices, and industry.
Greenfield took his camera with him as he explored a variety of fire escapes. About two dozen of his photos are on exhibit at the Wellesley Free Library, each picture augmented with a brief narrative.
As he shot photos and contemplated the meaning of fire escapes to the growth of cities, he began thinking about the cultural implications as well: the way that fire escapes became settings for human interactions.
“The play ‘Romeo and Juliet’ has the balcony scene, but the equivalent encounter in ‘West Side Story’ takes place on a fire escape,’’ Greenfield pointed out. “Fire escapes play a key role in Hitchcock’s film ‘Rear Window’ also. And when I was growing up in New York City, fire escapes on apartment buildings were part of people’s daily lives. Before there was air conditioning, you’d sit out on the fire escape to keep cool. Neighbors would talk from one fire escape to the next. A fire escape gave you a front-seat view of the unfolding street life.’’
Greenfield’s fascination with fire escapes was further piqued, he said, by a Pulitzer Prize-winning photo taken in 1975 of a fire escape collapsing as a woman and child were being evacuated from a burning building, an event that led to stricter safety regulations governing such structures.
Moreover, Greenfield suspects that photographers won’t have access to shots like the ones he took for the library’s “Escape Art’’ exhibition much longer.
“Soon, fire escapes will be something you no longer see in cities, because technology has evolved beyond their use. New buildings have indoor fire evacuation methods instead,’’ he said, and predicts that fire escapes will be like telephone booths, “something that was once ubiquitous but has now vanished from the urban landscape.’’
Greenfield maintains a practice in Stoughton and also teaches dentistry. He says his professional field and his avocation are not as far apart as they might appear.
“Periodontics happens to be a discipline in which your work creates dramatic changes in visuals, so producing images of what I’ve done has always been a vital component of my professional life,’’ he said. “Furthermore, one of the important aspects of teaching is that you document what you do, not just the before-and-after but all the steps in between. Using a camera to do this has been part of my dental profession from day one.
“Hardly a day goes by that I’m not handling a camera either for personal use or professional use.’’
Greenfield’s exhibition, “Escape Art,’’ is on display at the Wellesley Free Library, 530 Washington St., through Tuesday. For library hours and other information, call 781-235-1610 or go online to http://www.wellesleyfreelibrary.org.