Curvaceous cornices and colorful crowns decorate the tops of Charleston’s iconic colonial buildings. According to local photographer Jack Alterman, the city’s most detailed architectural elements can be found high above street level, beyond the inviting doors and classy boutiques. Woven shadows from iron-laced balconies and gates display inches of depth against blush pink facades.
When Alterman wakes in the still hours of the early morning to capture Charleston’s aged beauty, these are the things he looks for: layers, light, that which is high and normally out of sight.
“I’m enchanted with architecture in a town like this,” Alterman said. “Up there is where nothing has ever changed. Down below things change constantly, the shops, the residents, all at the street level.”
Alterman is widely known for his portrait photography, but he has recently taken on a new project exploring his hometown’s heritage and character through its historic architecture. A portion of the project, called “My City,” is on display during the Piccolo Spoleto Festival in his studio gallery at 36 George St. The photographs coincide with his latest book, due in June, which includes 160 images of the Holy City.
In order to create an atmosphere of stillness and timelessness in these photographs, Alterman would wake before dawn to set up his camera and wait for the sun to rise over the Charleston skyline. He would use a bucket truck — with special permission from Mayor Joe Riley — to crank himself up to be eye-level with the tops of buildings.
With hardly anyone in sight, he’d shoot and reshoot a scene until the composition of juxtaposed architectural styles, colors and perspective was just right. In his book, he identifies these images only by their cross streets.
“I wanted to show people how you should feel when you walk through this city, without any knowledge of what these buildings are other than the address and corner they’re on, how majestic and how much personality they have on their own,” he said.
The inspiration for Alterman’s collection came from “Dusk,” DuBose Heyward’s 1922 love letter to Charleston: “They tell me she is beautiful, my city, that she is colorful and quaint: alone among the cities, but I — I would have known her tenderness, her courage, and her pity; have felt her forces mold me, mind and bone.”
Charleston has undergone many major physical changes over the last 10 years, especially with the construction of the Ravenel Bridge that connects downtown to Mount Pleasant. That piece of contemporary infrastructure quickly became a symbol of the city. Novelist and Charleston native Josephine Humphreys wrote an essay for Alterman’s book.
Upon seeing his photographs, she noticed that many of the buildings share a frame with the bridge in the background.
“It signified that this is a modern city,” she said. “It’s not a museum. It’s not the shabby, moldy old town that it used to be. It’s new and it’s part of the 21st century.”
Though much of Charleston’s appeal comes from its historic small‐town vibe, the city is developing to accommodate the increasing demands of traffic and overcrowding. Still, the 345‐year‐old city is reminiscent of decades past. Humphreys believes Alterman’s images have allowed her to regain her sense of belonging within an ever‐evolving city.
“It’s a completely different town from the one I knew,” she said. “But this book has showed me that the town is still here and it’s still, as Jack likes to say, my city.”
Sydney Franklin is a Goldring Journalist from Syracuse University.