The Miller Bell Tower is an Icon at the Chautauqua Institution. Yes, that’s Icon with a capital I–check out the header graphic in the CI web site. It is that important to the identity of this place. Its Westminster bells toll every quarter hour from 8AM to 10PM, and the bell-master, Carolyn, plays 14 minutes of music on the bells at least three times a day. The bells mark the beginning and ending of programs, and can be heard throughout the grounds. I believe EVERYONE who visits must take at least one picture of the tower. I’ve probably taken dozens every year (like these from 2008, 2006, and 2003), trying to come up with an angle or perspective or other combination that hasn’t already been done a thousand times before.
With my “Backstage” project this year, I figured I’d use my wide-angle lens to take pictures of Carolyn playing the bells, which is open to the public, but not many people seem to know about.
Carolyn especially loves her job, and isn’t afraid to tell you about it, multiple times if you hang around for the full 14 minute performance. She also likes pointing out that there are 10,000 pounds of bells over your head at that very moment. And if kids show up, she’ll let them play the last note in one of her songs.
In the background of the image above, you can see a rickety wooden stair leading up to the bells. The stairs were dusty from lack of use, and roped off to prevent visitors from casually venturing up.
Hrm, access restricted? Bells way up high? 10,000 pounds? So I asked the obvious (for me) question: who would I need to talk to in order to get permission to go up to the bells? Carolyn told me the name of the program director and said he would have to make that call. I asked (more on that in another blog post), and was climbing up to the bells at 6:16PM that very same day.
Above, the “clock” room. That’s the clock in the box in the center, with long arms going out to each clock face. The ladder in the center shocked me in its flimsiness. I did a major double-take when I got to this part–surely there was some other way up. Nope, that ladder led to my goal, and the hole at the top could not have been more than two feet wide. I almost turned around at the point, without taking pictures of the bells. I did, however, gird my loins, and climbed up the final ladder.
When I emerged amongst the bells, I just about shit myself.
I tried to take some deep breaths and get the lay of the situation, and to see what kinds of images I could make, but literally everywhere I turned my head was a bell (I only hit one of them with my head). And the biggest bell, weighing 3300 pounds was directly overhead.
I had been warned that there were no security precautions up with the bells and that it was like sitting on a roof. And this was absolutely true. I couldn’t see a way out of the bells, and if I did, I’d be right on the edge, between the white columns. And then there was the wind. Howling. I tried to make a few interesting images, despite my near panic, and knowing that I had a grand total of 15 minutes before I might go deaf or get smacked by a hammer.
Alas, I think the most interesting one was a “holy crap I’m scared” self portrait with my iPhone.
Yeah, bells everywhere.
I was on the ground before the 6:30 chimes, and was none too glad for it. Would I do it again? Probably not without a safety harness, and not without more time, i.e. quarter hour chimes disabled. But oh what an opportunity I was given.
The next day, I found the program director and thanked him. I told him that I didn’t really make any interesting images because it was so tightly packed, but I definitely appreciated the opportunity.