I’ve been photographing what I call “ordinary objects” for a couple years now, featuring things like mailboxes, payphones, water fountains, trash bins and the like. I just added a Mexican mailbox to my collection over the Veterans’ Day holiday. I have objects from France, Italy, Canada, the U.S. and Mexico now.
As you may well know if you’ve followed my blog for some length of time, I like taking portraits of ordinary objects- things we see in daily life and ignore and/or take for granted, like pay phones, water fountains, traffic cones, and trash cans. I’ve photographed them in Paris, Toronto, New York, Washington DC and now Rome and Florence. They all have a common denominator of their base functionality. I think though that the Italian ones seem to have just a bit more flair and style to them – take a look and see what you think.
This fire hose connector is probably the newest thing I’ve photographed in this series – the copper connecting pipe has only just begun to oxidize!
In contrast, this trash can in Florence with cigarette butt receptacle is quite well-used, but still has style.
… as does this Roman bin across from the Capitoline hill.
The poor mailbox in Trastevere has been graffiti’d and stickered and it still soldiers on.
Don’t you wish all payphones were this glamorous (and as easy to find)? Here in DC when I went to find a payphone to photograph, it took me several days of looking before I ran into one. I saw this one on my first day in Florence.
I’ll include this because it has a very utilitarian purpose – it’s a street lamp. Granted, a 15th century street lamp attached to a palace, but a street lamp nonetheless.
A public drinking fountain. These were ubiquitous across Rome, in very much the same form, some in better and some in worse condition. But they worked, and the water was sweet and clean, always flowing, and free.
A lowly door handle – this one in particular is attached to a palace, but there were plenty to be found of similar quality on middle-class residences in both Rome and Florence.
And last but not least, a traffic cone. Well, in this case, a red granite bollard some four feet high and three-ish in diameter, in the entrance courtyard to the Palazzo Barberini.
Rome is a city known for many things – fine food, ancient architecture, more churches than you can shake a stick at, and among other things, graffiti. This poor mailbox has been heartily defaced – scribbled on, stickered, and overall abused. Yet it still soldiers on in its duty, collecting the mail. Here is my portrait of the mailbox to elevate it into the pantheon of my Ordinary Objects series:
Something I found fascinating was the degree to which English has penetrated into Italian life. In the big cities, almost everyone speaks it to some degree or other. Signage in museums is in Italian and English – no French, no German, no Spanish, no anything else. Just English and Italian. Even the graffiti is often in English, like the little mushroom to the right of the mailbox here, and some obscenities on a wall outside the Garbatella Metro station (forthcoming in a future post). I don’t know what quite to make of it – while it makes life easier for me as a visitor who is not proficient in Italian (I can fake it ’til I make it based on my fluency in Spanish), I do worry about global homogenization.
Just a quick onesie to add to the Ordinary Objects series:
A pair of CanadaPost mailboxes on a street in downtown Toronto. I would have thought they were power transformers or something if it weren’t for the wrappers that say Canada Post on them. We have weird ersatz mailboxes here in the US that are green and have no slot, and are marked US Government Use Only. I’ll have to look around for one of those – THEY’re becoming extremely rare as well.
I was out doing some more street shooting in my neighborhood and found a couple more “ordinary objects” that cried out for portraits. I’ve included some of my past ones here to provide some context for the project idea.
These were shot on a mix of films – the black and white are either Kodak Tri-X or Ilford FP4+, and the color shots were taken with Kodak Ektar 100, all using my Rolleiflex 2.8E.
This is part of a series I’ve been working on – photographing ordinary objects we pass by on the street every day but take for granted. They are things we see but don’t see, and they may well vanish, like pay phones, mailboxes, and newspaper vending machines, before we realize they’re gone. Pay phones are all but replaced by the cellphone. Newspapers as a physical object may cease to exist thanks to the internet, and along with them the newspaper box. Email has just about killed the personal letter – the only thing keeping the postal services alive these days are mass marketers with their junk mail, Ebay and Amazon with package deliveries. Not everything in the series is vanishing in a literal sense like pay phones, but some of them do vanish from our perception like the fire hydrant, the lamp post, and the traffic cone. We know they’re there because we don’t trip over them when walking on the streets, but they exist at the periphery. They each have their own beauty and form, however, and within their function there are a remarkable variety of forms – the hydrant in Chalon-sur-Saone, while as recognizable as a fire hydrant as the hydrant from Washington DC, has a very different form, as does the Siamese spigot.
I’ve been making a habit of photographing things we see every day but take for granted, like mailboxes and fire hydrants. I couldn’t pass up the bright yellow mailboxes of Paris, and especially not this one that has been so overtly decorated with graffiti. I think I got lucky that this one was on a dark blue background at least in part, to set it off and compliment it.
I know, I know, the hydrant from Chalon already made an appearance, but it was soooo long ago I figured you all had forgotten it, and it also fits the theme of “things”, especially brightly-colored things that we see but take for granted. So here it is.
I’ve also been photographing the bikeshare bikes in DC, so I had to take a crack at interpreting their French cousins. Unlike here in the US, the bikeshare bikes seem to be of a single universal design in France. In Paris and in Chalon they are the same design, with the same colors, the prime difference being in the logos on the rear wheel cover and the local advertising. Frankly I could have done an entire photo-essay on the bikeshare bikes but I had other things on my agenda.
Newsstands fall into that category as well, I think, of things we see but ignore. They’re very functional, and in places that have them, we tend to notice their presence/absence more than we do their form. This one is very Parisian, but with a modern twist – instead of having static broadsides plastered to the outside, now the ads are LED displays or at least rotating banners so in the span of a minute, you can see three to five different ads scrolling past.
Last but not least, here is a public drinking fountain. I tend to notice them because here in DC for the most part if they exist at all they don’t work. In the 1870s, Baron Haussmann installed public drinking fountains across the city as part of a sanitation campaign, bringing fresh, clean drinking water to everyone. The design of the fountains was suitably ornate, bringing beautification along with safety.