“Endlessly Repeating Twentieth Century Modernism,” Josiah McElheny, 2007, MFA Boston

“Crystal City” (a One-Shot Story)

Sometimes, a piece of art offers so many tempting ways to capture portions, parts and pieces! That’s how I reacted when I first encountered this stunning Josiah McElheny assemblage at Boston’s MFA in 2016. When I entered its room, it blew me away.

Titled “Endlessly Repeating Twentieth Century Modernism,” its 24x93x93-inch internal cavity seemed to float within a huge mirrored cube. The cavity was mirrored too… and presented infinite reflections of the artist’s beautiful hand-blown vases, boxes, decanters and bottles. It was almost too much to take in, and I decided to turn a tiny portion of it into a “Crystal City” image.

But which portion? I walked around, viewing it through my iPhone, until I saw that the tall “minaret building” on the right gave my “city” a nice sense of depth and scale. Most other angles looked flat, endless, and repetitive. (Note, too, the lovely way McElheny’s infinite crystal world is encapsulated again in the stopper atop the minaret!)

Reflecting on Ideas

McElheny says he created this (and other works) based on a 1929 conversation between sculptor Isamu Noguchi and designer/architect Buckminster Fuller (father of the Geodesic Dome). They “discussed a world of form without shadow; totally reflective forms inhabiting a totally reflective environment that would be totally self-enclosed– the perfect utopian environment.”

McElheny also wanted to explore “how the act of looking at a reflective object could be connected to the mental act of reflecting on an idea.” I especially got this “reflecting on an idea” part… and love the minuscule piece of McElheny’s infinite glittering world that I took home with me.

Sadly, according to the above MFA link, “Endlessly Repeating…” seems to be in storage. But maybe (like Brigadoon) it’ll someday emerge back into view. Hopefully (unlike Brigadoon) it won’t take another 100 years to reappear!


Thankfully, most museums and galleries allow photographs (as long as flash isn’t used). And when looking for “portions, parts and pieces” to shoot, I also look for interesting shadows. Museum/gallery ceilings often contain so many lights that even simple things like chair legs can cast wonderful abstract patterns on floors and walls. Art in their own right.

Or wheels! In Rockland Maine’s Farnsworth Art Museum, a security guard once saw me snapping photos of the floor. He casually sauntered over and asked why. I pointed to the floor’s multiple overlapping shadows of a spoked buggy wheel and showed him my photo of them. “That’s effing beautiful!” he said… and walked away. I couldn’t get a lovelier review!

So if you’re in a gallery or museum and looking for new angles on things, scan the shadowed floors and walls that many people never notice.

–Dave Powell is a Westford, Mass., writer and avid amateur photographer.

A little note from Hamish: If any other current contributors to the 35mmc would like to submit a post like this, then feel free. I will share these on Wednesday afternoons to begin with, more if they get popular.

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6 thoughts on ““Crystal City” (a One-Shot Story)”

  1. Brian Nicholls

    Wonderful posting Dave. Thanks. I indulge in all sorts of abstract photography with a digital camera and I suppose, am at my happiest when doing so. More please!

    1. You are welcome Brian! So glad you liked it. I too love “Everyday Abstracts”… and there will be more!

  2. A really lovely read and the reflection of the whole initiation on the stopper top is almost other worldly. I have recently been making candid images of people in galleries, but will now also turn my camera on the exhibits!

    1. I appreciate your enthusiasm Autocad India! You’re the second person to ask for more about abstract photography… and I will pump more out!

  3. HI John, I keep trying to post a reply… maybe this third attempt will take! Thanks so much… and I’m very glad you like the stopper effect! Enjoy shooting gallery exhibits… and I’ll turn MY camera toward candids of gallery visitors. It would be fun to try the technique that I described in my article on “Shooting the ‘Callahan’ Way”!

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