Domino Sugar Factory: A Portrait

January 19, 2014 | 6 minute read | By Kevin Read

Anyone watching would have been suspicious of me, stood at the far corner of an office parking lot, setting up a camera and scanning the ground carefully as if there was something I had dropped. Sometimes I’d be there in the afternoon; other times early in the morning, just as people were arriving to work. Occasionally I would show up in the middle of the night, studying my patch of earth with a flashlight. No-one ever approached me, but I caught people staring as I tried my best to appear normal.

On the ground were three crosses I had added by scraping a rock against the concrete. On every visit, I’d place each leg of my tripod on to one of these markers, lock my camera to it, adjust the settings, take a series of images. In ten minutes, I’d complete my task and leave. I wouldn’t take my camera anywhere else or look for new photographs. I’d go home, only to return at a different time of day, in different weather, in different light.

I went through this process sporadically over the months between November 2011 and February 2012. My subtle markers sat at the edge of Fell’s Point in Baltimore, and looked across at one of the most recognizable and iconic building in the city: the Domino Sugar Factory.

The first time I did it, it was because I had been asked to create a photograph of the factory’s sign: a giant icon recognizable to anyone who knows the city. I’d heard it compared in size to a basketball court, but in fact it’s much bigger: 70 feet high and almost twice as long. It lights up a warm red at night and is something of a symbol for Baltimore, watching over the inner harbor and visible from seemingly everywhere in the city.

Every position and angle that could be used to stage a photograph of the factory seemed to have been used. If you see a rack of postcards in Baltimore, half of them will feature the glowing red sign nestled in the skyline or peeking between buildings. I wandered the city for weeks looking for a position for my camera which might not have been found before, trying out piers in the harbor and whatever lookouts I could find in Baltimore’s downtown neighborhoods.

Eventually I found inspiration not from the city, but through the discovery of Steven Wilkes and his expertly crafted day-to-night shots from around the world. Using dozens of photographs taken from the same place over the course of a day, Steven Wilkes creates mesmerizing composite images showing the same scene in a whole range of light. He spends hours committed to getting an image: firstly by fixing himself in a spot to take the series of photographs, and then with weeks of work combining them to create something unique and original.

I didn’t hope to achieve the same quality result but, by looking for a simple composition of the factory, I hoped I could create something which captured it both during the day and the night in one image. A vantage point from the edge of Fell’s Point looks straight across the water to the factory’s windows lined up flat against the building, the contours of the roof set against the sky and the red light of the sign offset by the ships frequently moored to the left of it. One evening in November, the sky was lit purple as the sun set and I took my camera to the location I had discovered, took a series of images and then marked the ground precisely where I had placed my camera.

I returned the next morning at dawn when the sky turned yellow, with the sun masked behind a low line of cloud. It was early, and a cold breeze was coming off the water to my location at its edge as I looked for my crosses from the evening before. Once they were found, it was a simple task to set up my tripod in the correct place, align my camera on the factory as I had 12 hours before, and take a few photographs. It felt wrong not to consider the shot more, but everything had been decided by my photograph the previous evening, and the only thing to do was repeat the process. I had no idea at the time whether or not it would work.

Using a variety of techniques I managed to combine the images of dusk and dawn together. It was a manual process, taking hours of attempts to line them up perfectly using tiny adjustments of size and orientation, but I was pleased with the way the day blended gradually into the night from one end of the factory to the other. It showed how important light is to a photograph, and how finding a good composition is only the first step.

From then on, each time I looked at the factory it appeared to be different. I had been there at dusk and dawn, but what about in the full darkness, or in the middle of the day? Sunsets always seemed to be a different color, and the daylight changed with the weather and the season. Over the next few months, I started to collect images of the factory from my new favorite location; the composition always the same, but the photographs always different. Combining pairs of them would show in one image just what a difference light can make and I wanted to gather as many as possible, returning again and again to my three markers at the end of the parking lot. It became something of a habit, checking the light and sky outside to see if there was a new version of my image to be captured.

I left Baltimore in 2012 on a long journey through South America and Asia, taking thousands of other photographs until eventually my sessions of photographing the Domino Sugar Factory were forgotten. Since then, I’ve never been in a place where the same idea would work again, or I’ve never had the dedication to make it work, spending the time to focus on one location, and the project has always felt unfinished. A lot of my projects get left unfinished, and I’m not the only photographer that finds the work after the image has been taken a lot less interesting than that leading up to it.

I returned to my collection several weeks ago and, for the first time, began the work of pairing one light with another: night with day; sunrise with sunset; clear skies with the textures of clouds. 2 years on, the image of the Domino Sugar Factory is as clear as on the days I spent watching it across Baltimore’s inner harbor, looking for the sky to change around it. These are the results: 15 of the same image, each one completely different to the others; my evidence that sometimes you have to search for a new perspective, and others you have to stay in the same place, and wait.

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2 responses to “Domino Sugar Factory: A Portrait”

  1. Sue says:

    Wow! I love your factory photos and the way you’ve combined them to create the day/night effectg. I have this strong attraction to photographing factories with lots of chimneys – there’s something about the smoke, the towers and the occasional lights that draws me in. You’ve captured it beautifully

    • kevinaread says:

      Thanks Sue, and thanks for reading. If you like industrial photography you should check out George Barr; although his stuff is often more close up he does have a good eye for the shapes you get around factories and junk yards.

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