Baltimore, refracted through multiple lenses

Regional Books

October 16, 2005|By CARL SCHOETTLER | CARL SCHOETTLER,SUN REPORTER

Look again in Baltimore

John Dorsey Photographs by James DuSel

The Johns Hopkins University Press / 189 pages

A few years ago the photographer James DuSel asked John Dorsey, Baltimore's premier art and architecture critic, if he would consider doing a book with him.

Dorsey recalls saying "yes" without a second's hesitation.

The result is this book, a long meditation by Dorsey on DuSel's evocative photographs and on art, architecture and life - in a volume handsomely published by the Johns Hopkins press.

The book has an elegiacal tone. DuSel is a photographer of fragments from unexpected angles: the corner of a room, the base of a column, a cluster of rooftops, empty doorways. His photographs sometimes seem like shards from civilization lost or soon to be lost. Most of the buildings he has photographed date from the 19th or early 20th century.

DuSel and Dorsey note that the haunting photographs of a long-vanished fin de siecle Paris by Eugene Atget are "the single most important model for [DuSel's] works."

The text by Dorsey has the quality of a summing up of his long career as a critic for The Sun, where he not only wrote with clarity about art and architecture, but also reviewed restaurants with the same consummate taste.

His comments are learned, witty and written with authoritative ease, short essays not only about architecture but also about what he has found meaningful in life.

In his text for the first picture in the book, the stairway that greets you when you enter the main building of the Maryland Institute College of Art, he notes its "limitless possibilities of symbolism, grandeur and drama."

In a pyrotechnic display of learning to support his judgment, he marshals the grand staircase of Antonio Rizzo at the Doge's Palace in Venice, Bernini's Scala Regia at the Vatican, Pirro Ligurio's Villa d'Este and Piranesi's prison etchings. And he swoops on from there through the rest of the book.

He's amusing, too, when he labels as "The Silly Flying Buttresses" the wooden braces in DuSel's photograph of a corner of the old church that is now The Chimes school in Mount Washington.

"But it's fun," Dorsey writes, "fun to look at fun, to write about, fun to have around. It has personality, which rescues many a gawky individual from the oblivion of social neglect, and which puts it a step ahead of all the correct but dull architecture one sees everywhere.

"And more than a little of that personality comes from the presence ... of what must be the silliest-looking flying buttresses in the history of architecture."

This is a fun book to read - and look at - and full of wisdom, too.

Underground Railroad in Delaware, Maryland and West Virginia

William J. Switala

Stackpole Books / 166 pages

Baltimore has monuments dedicated to Confederate generals Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee, Confederate soldiers and sailors and even Confederate women. But no memorial honors the heroic men and women who were "agents" and "conductors" on the Underground Railroad that transported slaves to freedom.

In this book, William J. Switala, a professor at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, says Baltimore was a major hub on the Underground Railroad network in eastern Maryland. Baltimore city and county account for the largest number of escape stories in one of his 19th-century source books.

He explains that the escape system known as the Underground Railroad was not an actual railroad but "a loosely knit network of routes and individuals who aided freedom seekers in their quest."

In the years leading up to the Civil War, the Underground Railroad was the surest route to freedom for blacks fleeing slavery. Many historians estimate that before the Emancipation Proclamation, 100,000 or more fled north via the Underground Railroad.

In Baltimore many of the people who helped slaves find freedom were free blacks. The city had the largest free black population of any U.S. city, 25,442 in 1850, nearly 10 times the number of slaves who lived here.

"Close contact with free blacks had a tremendous impact on their rate of escape," Switala says.

Frederick Douglass, the great abolitionist orator, borrowed the clothes and papers of a free black seaman to escape from slavery.

Harriet Tubman, the famous "conductor" from Dorchester County, is credited with leading 300 slaves to freedom, sometimes all the way to Canada. She often stopped at the home of Samuel Green, a free black man living in Dorchester County. Switala writes that Green was eventually arrested for his work on the Underground Railroad and sent to prison for 10 years.

The Rev. Charles Torrey, a white Congregational minister, was arrested for attempting to spirit away two children to freedom. He was sentenced to six years' hard labor in the Maryland penitentiary, where his health was broken. Thousands petitioned the Maryland governor to allow him to die at home.

"No clemency was granted," Switala says. "He died in prison at 3:00 p.m. on May 9, 1846."

No monument was built either.

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.