Ron Kern first heard of Mayor Jim Brainard’s plan to demolish the Carmel grain elevator and replace it with a water tower this January, on the same night that he opened a show of his photography. One of his works on display that evening just so happened to be a photograph of said abandoned grain elevator, rising two hundred feet or so over the Monon Trail, on the outskirts of Carmel’s Arts & Design District.
Kern perceived a certain irony in the timing of this news.
Brainard, under the auspices of the Carmel Redevelopment Commission, has transformed Carmel over the past five years to conform to his vision. The walkable Arts & Design District, packed with art galleries and restaurants, has a decidedly European feel in terms of architecture. The new Sophia Square retail/apartment complex even uses the phrase “classic European architecture” as a selling point.
Kern isn’t necessarily against this new development, but he believes there’s still room for existing structures like the Carmel grain elevator. And so, he's fighting for its preservation.
“These things were designed with function in mind,” says Kern. “There was no specific architectural design. They were designed and built to do one thing, which was to lift the grain from the storage into the awaiting railroad car. And yet they had this incredible form because they were all designed around function… The American engineer was coming up with these amazing structures with no predication.”
The functionality of grain elevators influenced many Modernist architects, including Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright. That influence, however, extends way beyond architecture; witness one Charles Demuth, whose 1927 painting, “My Egypt,” pictures a grain elevator lit by triangular sunbeams.
“Demuth considered those grain elevators to be like the pyramids in Egypt,” says Kern.
Kern started seriously researching the influence of grain elevators on modern art and architecture — as well as on photographers — when he first began the fight to save the Carmel grain elevator. He began this fight by writing on his blog; soon enough others joined him. (The City of Carmel hasn't yet returned a request for comment regarding their plans for the grain elevator.)
There may be some self-interest involved in Kern’s drive to save the grain elevator; it is, after all, one of his favorite photographic subjects. It’s easy to see why.
His recent photos, using a Polaroid camera, are mind-blowing in their stark black and white beauty. In his process, Kern incorporates the imperfections in the medium with the same kind of glee with which, say, Jimi Hendrix incorporated feedback into his guitar solos.
“When you pull your film through, the part you usually throw away I keep,” says Kern about his process. “And then I preserve that and then there’s a bleaching process I go through to get a negative out of it. And so I take that and then I scan that negative. And then I turn that negative into a monochrome image.”
But the fight to save the Carmel grain elevator isn’t just about photography or aesthetics or architecture for Kern, who’s lived in Carmel since 1962 (the year before he entered kindergarten in Carmel Public Schools) and lives there today with his wife, Julie. He’s fighting for his community, which he not only wants to preserve, but transform into a better place.
Kern sees a future in which the grain elevator could serve as a centerpiece for a performance venue and artists’ studios.
“The irony is that the City Council has passed an historic preservation code and the mayor signed the resolution to demolish the grain elevator seven days before the historic preservation code was signed into law," says Kern. “Here we were for historic preservation and now, apparently, we aren’t.”
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