It is a Friday afternoon and photographer CJ Harker is pushing against a deadline. He needs to develop and prepare the 20 palladium prints that make up his new Artworks exhibition “Trenton Blacksmith.” It opens Saturday, December 5, 6 to 8 p.m.
The show’s short title does not carry the full impact of a subject with a long history: Alexander Parubchenko. In addition to being the only blacksmith in Trenton, the 72-year-old Sasha (short for Alexander) is also the only full-time blacksmith in New Jersey and one on a small list of blacksmiths who still work full-time in the United States. Add to all this the reality that his shop at 334 North Olden Avenue in Trenton has been the home for the same business since 1823 and this smithy quickly slips into the realm of living legends.
And while Harker, a 32-year-old Trenton native, is aware of all of this, right now his mind is hot on completing the series of one-of-a-kind prints in this windowless photo studio at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, where Harker serves as a technical assistant.
“The digital images are printed onto clear film, like overhead transparencies, and made into large digital negatives,” he says quickly as he lifts and studies one of the calendar-sized squares. “From there I coat each paper and mark out my image. I then use a solution of palladium salts and ferric oxide, just enough solution to cover the image area. It’s applied by brush. Once it’s applied I use UV light.”
Harker then flips the switch on a dishwasher-sized Flip Top platemaker and unleashes a star-like blast of light to fix the image to the paper. Then removing the sheet, he drops it into a tray in a nearby sink, smiles, and says wryly about the unglamorous act of developing photos, “Then I basically stand here between these two sinks.”
Since — despite the looming deadline — he cannot hurry a slow process, Harker has time to answer questions about his development, approach, and the upcoming exhibition.
“I was born in Trenton but grew up in West Trenton and moved to Ewing,” he says. “I was brought up by my mother and her parents, and her sister. She and her friends owned a business, carpet installation, a contractor type of thing. I didn’t see much of my father.”
Harker now focuses on the tray where the paper slowly yields the image of a black and white arrangement of old fashioned tools used for shaping metal over fire in a 200-year-old building — a stark counterpoint to the austere space and digital tools surrounding him.
The photographer gives a tentative nod as he clips the print on a drying line, then — as he moves about the workroom — says that his way into art was through other interests: skateboarding and cars.
“I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” he says about the days after Ewing High School. “But my mom ended up getting a job with the Rider (University) grounds crew, so I could attend school free. The only thing I could think of was to get a business degree. I did three semesters. Then I had a political science class and macroeconomics at the same time, and I said, ‘No, Thanks. It’s not for me.’ So I stopped going and had to figure something out.”
A solution was in his own front yard. “I had been working on my car — driveway stuff like (installing) speakers. So I went to Best Buy in Nassau Park and smoothed-talked my way into a job in their installation department. It was a lot of basic stuff: replacing radios and fixing speakers. It was fine. It kept my hands busy.”
Harker says while he enjoyed his years at Best Buy he realized he wanted to advance but was uninterested in moving up in the Best Buy management system. Meanwhile he continued skateboarding and started taking photographs of his fellow skaters.
It was when a high school friend and fellow boarder ended up studying photography at the University of the Arts that things began to develop. “He was coming back to Trenton to see his girlfriend, and I’d help him with his class work. It opened my eyes to what photography could do as a vocation. So I said maybe I’ll move into that direction. I got a decent camera from the Best Buy employee discount.”
Harker says he soon enrolled at Mercer County Community College and took photography classes at night. He smiles approvingly as he lists the faculty with whom he studied: Michael Dalton, John Monahan, Sandra Davis, and Mel Leipzig. He becomes more introspective: “I was taking class for a certificate, but I realized it didn’t make a difference. In the real world it doesn’t matter. It kept me in the darkroom.”
After nine years at Best Buy and taking classes on the weekend, Harker says he decided “to bite the bullet,” “get serious,” and go to the University of the Arts — where he strengthened his ties to both photography and skateboarding.
Then, Harker says, the two seemingly different communities came together: A fellow student and skateboarding friend from Hopewell decided to create a skateboarding magazine for a class assignment. “When the photography subject came up, he asked if I wanted to shoot photos. His answer: “Absolutely.”
The effort focused Harker’s interest and approach that he has been using over the past several years to establish himself as an exhibiting and working photographer — providing services to the university and magazines, assisting other photographers, and finding a niche studio trade. “It goes back to skateboards,” he says about his artistic approach. “I like to work with some artificial light even if it is outside. Using additional light freezes the action, captures someone flying in the air. It gives me some control. I can set the mood a lot easier.”
A quick survey of Harker’s work shows an interest in capturing clear, almost stark images of candid moments, found still lifes, and staged placements of people and objects. While most subjects are contemporary — bands, skaters, buildings — the compositions are classical and sharp. His work is perhaps linked to his appreciation of master photographers, like Irving Penn.
Harker says his own images work when they “feel right” and “have a spark.” Folding his arms and leaning back on a counter, he adds, “I can find the right light to make something work, I’ll stay with it until I feel like I’ve got it. I’m not editing my shot while I’m doing it. I like to get a general feel about how I’m moving around an image. Once I feel that is done, I’ll go home and work on it later.”
After a quick pause, he smiles and says, “I have to thank Best Buy. They wanted to make equipment available so employees knew how to work it. If they didn’t, I would have been using the cheapest camera. Over a fairly short amount of time I was able to amass a good number of lights and get into it.”
Harker’s website sums up his general orientation with the phrase “Photographer: Modern and Historic Processes.” There are examples of his skate “jawn” (a Philadelphia term for an ongoing interest) as well as the other work that emerged from his interaction with University of the Arts instructors who steered him toward employment and workshops. That includes his growing expertise in the contemporary practice of tintypes — a mid-19th century technique that forges an image on a thin metal sheet.
“I loved the way tintypes come out: a tangible real thing you could hold in your hand. An instructor recommended a student assistance program at Peter’s Valley (School of Crafts in Layton, New Jersey) and their tintype workshop. Craig Barger was the instructor. He’s got his own tintype set-up in the back of this pickup. It’s the same (process) they used in the Civil War. The recipes were the same. I was hooked as soon as I saw it.”
The same may be said about his involvement with the blacksmith photographs — a pursuit that blends his use of lighting, interest in traditional techniques, and his Trenton background — still active through his involvement with local artists, family, and working on friends’ cars.
“I had always seen the shop when I drove up and down Olden Avenue. But I’d never give it another thought. I never had a reason to go in there. Then I was thinking I am not really working on a project, so I decided to stop in one day without any specific goal, thinking there’s probably something cool going on here. I popped my head in, met Sasha, and asked if I could hang out and take some photos. And he said, ‘Of course.’ He’s very welcoming.”
Parubchenko came to Trenton in a circuitous way. He was born in Germany to Ukrainian parents who fled Europe after World War II. After living in a variety of countries they landed in Toronto. “My parents wanted me to be a pianist,” he says at the entrance of his shop on a recent Saturday morning. “One day on my way to (music) school I heard a ‘click, click, click.’ It was a Russian blacksmith. I went in and found my love, my niche. I worked with the smith for three years. I didn’t tell my parents. When I’d come home they would asked how I got so dirty; I’d say, ‘The school hasn’t been cleaned.’”
In 1958 the family came to Trenton when his tool and die working father landed a job at General Motors in Ewing. His mother was a seamstress at Switlik, the parachute company. It was in his new home that Parubchenko married his first wife and began working with his father-in-law, Fedor Sirchuk, a master blacksmith from Ukraine. “My father-in-law was working as a blacksmith here, so I retrained under him,” he says.
As the Ukrainian Weekly newspaper reports: “Parubchenko and Sirchuk bought the shop, a one-story brick structure connected to several more buildings, when the former blacksmith and owner, Edward Grindeslade, died in 1974. Recently designated a landmark, the shop is one of the few blacksmith shops remaining in the northeast, and one of only a few hundred still existing in the country.”
Parubchenko’s blacksmithing services have shifted over the years from forging columns for Mack Truck and manhole-covers for Public Service Electric & Gas to Revolutionary to Civil War reenactors, historic centers needing cast iron wagon wheels, and other specialty jobs: iron work for the Trenton City Museum, Trinity Church in Princeton, and clients interested in hand forged garden trellises.
“I would just pop in on a Saturday and hang out,” says Harker about creating the series — that accidentally launched the current exhibition.
Harker says he was asked by one of his MCCC instructors to participate in a previous Artworks exhibition. Thinking he may not have enough work for the allotted wall space in a group show, he arrived with the uncompleted blacksmith series as backup. The images caught the attention of Artworks exhibition committee chair, Addison Vincent, who became intrigued and encouraged Harker to submit the series for a potential show.
“It made sense. I’m from Trenton. It’s of a Trenton blacksmith. And it’s in a Trenton community gallery,” says Harker. “I was beyond exited when Addison suggested a show. I probably wouldn’t have done it. I didn’t have it on my radar to approach them with a solo show. I was still working on (the series).”
Harker suddenly says, “Give me one second,” and focuses his attention to another blacksmith image appearing at the bottom of the tray. Satisfied, he looks up and says, “Skating and blacksmithing are the same: There’s sharing knowledge, techniques, and ways of working — how to make a tool to do work. It’s not stuff you learn by going to the library. It comes from the previous generation. It’s hands-on.”
“Trenton Blacksmith” by CJ Harker, Artworks, 19 Everett Alley, Trenton. Opens with a reception, Saturday, December 5, 6 to 8 p.m., and remains on view in the Community Gallery through January 23. Also on view: the annual “10X10 Red Dot” exhibition and benefit sale, featuring $100 works by area artists, and “Chaos and Calm,” Lawrence-based Ruee Gawarikar’s examination of the conflicts between the “outer active” and “inner contemplative” self. Regular gallery hours are Wednesday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. call 609-394-9436 or go to www.artworkstrenton.org. www.cjhphotography.net.