Parisians have their cafes, Baltimoreans have their ballparks. There's something about the strong smells of summer, the way the light casts its net, the sense of losing yourself in a spectacle that's claiming the attention of thousands of others.
The ballpark may be one of the last great places in which Americans who lead increasingly insular lives feel comfortable sharing their emotions -- or spending an evening together in the city.
"I think sports have a huge importance in our society in that they actually present a solvable problem. Somebody wins, somebody loses," says Boston photographer Jim Dow, whose photographs of stadiums are on display through May 31 at the Albin O. Kuhn Library and Gallery of the University of Maryland Baltimore County.
"We don't understand our cars, we don't understand our relationships, we don't understand nuclear fission, we don't understand each other. A sports game is perfectly understandable and I think that is why it has become so important."
During the past dozen years, Mr. Dow has devoted himself to exploring the essence of stadiums much as Ansel Adams dedicated himself to Western landscapes. His 33 color photographs of major and minor league ballparks around the country -- many now abandoned -- reflect the sensations of majestic tradition and spiritual need that the artist finds in ballparks.
Mr. Dow photographed Memorial Stadium last year and will photograph Oriole Park next week. "Memorial Stadium is wonderful. I can feel Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry and the '50s, the whole feeling of the gargantuan latter-day Mussolini structures. I'm sorry it's not going to be a ballpark any longer."
To the photographer, collecting images of sports is a way for Americans to preserve experiences that have become sacred to them. "Everyone comes away from a game with some sense of satisfaction because it represents the potential for resolving questions," he says.
From this viewpoint, the stadium becomes a sort of cathedral -- or hall of justice. A temple with regional variations.
Or maybe a theatrical palace, says William Dunlop, curator of Mr. Dow's show at UMBC and coordinator of the gallery's exhibitions.
"A field is a field is a field, yet each stadium is different," he says. "The field itself becomes a setting [for drama] but it's also very affected by the interior architecture, the trusses and beams and internal makeup. These stadiums go from very simple to very elaborate. Each takes on an eerie and strange architectural feeling of its own."
But, says Mr. Dow, "the beauty of anything is in its irregularity and its somewhat less than perfect quality.
Many of the Major League ballparks now are like somebody's corporate headquarters along Perimeter highway."
Local artists are also mining the memories of 33rd Street and the dreams of Camden Yards. Timonium artist Jeff Wilkinson has created a limited edition series of lithographs of Oriole Park -- as well as various reproductions -- to greet Opening Day fans.
The panoramic portraits of Memorial Stadium by Baltimore photographer David Orbock decorate 33 sky boxes and four VIP suites at the new stadium.
Brooklyn Park artist Tim Kelly, a senior at the Maryland Institute, College of Art, has begun his commercial career with a limited edition series of lithographs of Memorial and RFK stadiums.
Realizing many Baltimoreans identify with their stadiums more than with their alma maters, Towson artist Martin Barry plans to decorate tops of wall mirrors with images from his stadium lithographs.