Seeing Stairs

A Google world is a humbling world. One of the consolations, I suppose, is that the humbling can be nearly instantaneous, and after your conceit that you may be having something vaguely resembling an original thought is quickly dispatched (in 0.16 seconds!), you can get back to your dullard’s life of cliched thinking and self-delusion, no delay involved.

This line of thought (no doubt unoriginal, but I’m going to be defiant and not even Google it) occurred to me recently when staring again at the ever-intriguing “stairs photography” of Larry Rose (self-portrait to the left). “Stairs!” I found myself thinking. “I’ll never look at them the same way again. I wonder how much has been written about them.” Turns out, quite a lot.

One could start with The Staircase: History and Theories, by John Templer, Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1992. “Theories” of stairs—who knew?

What else might we be missing in this spin cycle of a life? The question haunts.

And go on and on from there, with various learned tomes detailing stairs as a fundamental outgrowth of our evolution as survivalists in a dangerous world wherein higher ground is safer ground, and the quickest way to scamper to and defend higher ground is to build yourself some stairs.

Stairs: so very, primitively, utilitarian.

And yet: Caught, in a vortex of composition, angle, light, perspective, and the photographer’s preternatural eye, we get Stairs: another window into the ineffable, the super-reality of any given moment in time, revealed only to those willing to pause, and linger, and look. I invite you to take a look at some now, and linger over any you like by pausing your cursor over the photo. We’ll resume the conversation below.



I daresay you can walk up and down the stairs you see here perhaps every day of your working life (from the parking lot to your second floor office?) and never “see” them in the way that Larry’s images afford us here.

When we go to the Grand Canyon we know exactly what the main attraction is as we pour out of our cars or tour buses to blend the machinations of our own Nikon or Minolta with the grand chorus of clicks taking place all day long on the canyon rim. But the stairs we’re climbing in the mall parking lot? Those, too, are beautiful enough to have us reach for our camera? Usually not.

But then most of us don’t see with a photographer’s eye. Heads down, attacking the stairs with purpose, lost in plans for what awaits us at the top, we miss the play of light, the perfect, sharp-edged geometry of stairs and rails. We miss the reality, the depth of detail, the suggestions of infinity in endlessly cascading stairs (not unlike the seemingly endless whorl of a rose in close-up). We have to be invited, coaxed, by a photographer who has traversed those same stairs, saw what he saw, and then presents it to us for a second look, though it is truly only now that we see it for the first time. “So that’s what I missed…”

What else might we be missing in this spin cycle of a life? The question haunts.

Let us decide, though, to interpret the question as a prompting rather than haunting. Like all the arts, photography calls us not so much to a new way of seeing as to a reclamation of seeing, with the wide open eyes of a child, drinking in and trying to absorb every last nuance of the scene unfolding before us, minute by minute, stair by stair.

So we shall leave off now with a few observations and reflections on stairs, some factual, others poetic. Time for me to descend from this high ground, this luxury of reflection, into the hurly burly of the world below. Saturday tasks await.

I won’t be sliding downhill or taking the elevator, though. I’m a stairs man, always have been. I just regard them more fondly now than ever before.

You shall find out how salt is the taste of another man’s bread, and how hard is the way up and down another man’s stairs.

Never look backwards or you’ll fall down the stairs.

A man’s health can be judged by which he takes two at a time—pills or stairs.
—Joan Welsh

There’s a lady who’s sure all that glitters is gold
And she’s buying a stairway to heaven.
When she gets there she knows, if the stores are all closed
With a word she can get what she came for.
Ooh, ooh, and she’s buying a stairway to heaven.
—Led Zeppelin

God can be realized through all paths. All religions are true. The important thing is to reach the roof. You can reach it by stone stairs or by wooden stairs or by bamboo steps or by a rope. You can also climb up by a bamboo pole.

The tread depth and riser height are the two most important variables in determining the space required for stairs. In designing a stairway, the first task is to select a trial riser height and divide it into the total floor-to-floor distance. This number is usually rounded up to the next whole number and then divided into the total floor-to-floor distance to obtain the actual uniform riser height. The number of treads is based on the number of risers. Any tread depth can be selected as long as it meets the minimum code requirement….For 1990, the estimated total number of stair-related injuries requiring emergency room treatment based on the NEISS data was 998,871. However, this number should be regarded as highly suspect if it is either presented as an estimate of falls caused by stairs or used as a basis for computation of the number of preventable accidents. The exact proportions of injuries that can be causally attributed to stairs is unknown.”
—From Stair Safety: A Review of the Literature Concerning Stair Geometry and Other Characteristics, U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development

Stairs are climbed step by step.
—Turkish proverb


All stairs photography and books photo at top of page © Larry Rose, all rights reserved. For reproduction in any medium, contact:

Rotating banner photos top of page (except for books) courtesy of Elizabeth Haslam, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at:

5 comments to Seeing Stairs

  • Layne  says:

    What a great topic. One of my first paintings was a watercolor of stairs. Great quotes!

  • Dennis Ahern  says:

    One of my favorite phrases: L'esprit de l'escalier, Ah, those pithy comebacks when it's too late to parry.

  • Dennis Ahern  says:

    ….and… did you get through all that and nary a mention of Marcel Duchamp?

  • ahidas  says:

    Easy, Dennis: I wasn't aware of Duchamp and his intriguing use of stairs; many thanks for the tip! I also said nary a word about the function of stairs in religious symbology (aside from the Led Zeppelin excerpt, which doesn't actually count…). Maybe next time—and I can include ladders!

  • Bethann  says:

    Larry Rose! OMG, that name takes me back, way back to the grand time we all shared at the U or R as head residents! How delightful to not only read your stairs blog post, but also discover that Larry Rose is quite the photographer! Thanks, Drew.

Leave a Reply