This book has been in my mind ever since I started taking photographs in the '70s. It seemed to be the perfect visual exercise — seeing the everyday environment in a whole new, albeit detailed, way. Though it took me a while to finally approach this particular project, the experience has been tremendously gratifying, but even more importantly, a whimsical new adventure. The potential was there; it was just a matter of opening up to the discovery.
As a professional architectural photographer in New York since the publication of my book American Diner in 1980, I have trained my eye to be acutely aware how the built environment affects our daily lives. I have photographed everything from tall skyscrapers to small houses, each having a very different story to tell. It is with this kind of documentary attitude that I approached Alphabet Everywhere. Here, though, the twist was that I was looking for these elements that were not so obvious, so I could, in my own way, bring them to the foreground of people's awareness. So, instead of telling it like it is, I was telling it like I wanted others to see it.
The first letter I found, naturally, was an A. It was formed by the intersecting shadow lines of a glass bus shelter on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. From that point on, the world of found letters started coming into my view all the time. And, from that point on, I was never without my camera. Scaffolding forming a K, railings from a certain angle forming a B, cracks in the rocks of Central Park, benches, building details, door knobs: the alphabet was everywhere! A walk in the woods after a storm where a tree limb had broken suddenly formed a perfect V; a visit to a farm yielded a Z on the silo's door; a construction site gave me a wonderful E formed by the pallets used to hold materials.
My experience with teaching as an adjunct professor in a few of the colleges in New York contributed to my thinking in very small but effective learning steps. Every time I discovered a letter, I heard myself narrating the experience to a young audience. What it was, how I came upon it, and how I imagined it in the book. It is really a story of how to see and learn.
Visual and observational learning is so important to education on any level, be it first-graders or adults. Especially in this generation of youngsters who have been brought up in such an image-based world, we need to pay attention to the basics of simple and direct learning. No moving parts, no thumbs, just one's eyes and mind trained to a particular goal. My goal is to make children more aware of their environment and how much there is to learn from it. Maybe it was a bit of a fantasized Pied Piper-of-photography routine that I was having in those refined moments, imagining a group of kids crying, "Oh, now I get it!" Having learned the alphabet from the stenciled wallpaper of upper- and lowercase letters around the room in the A. B. Day School in Philadelphia, this was quite a refreshing thought.
Doing this book was like being a hunter with a camera. I would go out to shoot with only the letters of the alphabet in mind and be constantly reciting in my head whether something was an R or a B, a T or an I. I could not really do anything else during this time. Psychologists call it cognitive perception; I call it crazy-making.
Especially in a rapid, constant city like New York, everything can change from what they are to what they were in the process of becoming. These sudden transformations are all very exciting and speak to the value of this photography series. When I looked at other books about the visual alphabet, I saw a few that simply depicted the actual letter. The B train, C for coffee house, D for dry cleaners, etc. I always felt that this diminished the basic intelligence of kids and the power of the imagination. I wanted to use my strengths as a visual communicator to educate and enliven, rather than simply dictate by the way of the stencils on the wall.
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Elliott Kaufman is an architectural photographer whose work has been displayed in venues such as the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Light Gallery in New York City. He currently teaches at Queens College and the International Center for Photography. Alphabet Everywhere is his latest book.
Books mentioned in this post