Exploring the Post-Industrial Landscapes of the Northeast
By Hannah Gadbois
I graduated from the Art History Department in May 2016. I am from Seekonk, Massachusetts and became interested in art history while attending high school there. As a native of New England, I was always intrigued by the post-industrial landscapes of this region. However, this post-industrial landscape became even more interesting to me when I took Architecture & Sustainability in the American Post-Industrial City, a course offered by Professor Pamela Karimi. The body of literature we covered in this class introduced me to the very many ways of looking at America’s post-industrial environments.
Gadbois and her classmates taking a tour of abandoned zones and vacant lots in the city of New Bedford, 2015.
Since the closing of American factories in the late 1970s, post-industrial ruins have appeared in many parts of the UNited States. Whether left abandoned or transformed into new uses, the post-industrial building is a prevalent force on the Northeastern American setting. Accordingly, these buildings (especially their ruinous shells), have been popular subjects of both art and art historical research and are particularly of interest to photographers. Having read a vast body of literature on the American post-industrial city, I quickly learned that, unfortunately, many of these urban contexts end up remaining in ruins, a problem particularly common in Detroit. Foreign tourists come to see the abandoned factories, forcing the city to remain in disrepair with low quality of life for its citizens. What is the history of the fetishization or the neglect of the industrial ruin in the New England region? How far back does this history go? What can we learn from this history? How can this historical knowledge allow us to come up with better ways of representing these cities and even providing remedies for them?
In fall 2015 I received a grant from the OUR to further investigate the ways in which the post-industrial landscapes of the Northeast were depicted in the work of late-twentieth century artists. My OUR funded research analyzed Northeastern American post-industrial ruins in the work of six artists from four perspectives: ruins as prophetic, ruins as nostalgic, ruins as disappointment, and ruins as problematic. The ambiguity of the ruin allows these vastly different lenses to color the interpretations of ruins photography. Their complex character in photography is also directly tied to their complicated relationship to American history. The post-industrial factory and its corresponding neighborhood was at once a symbol for American power and wealth as well as a reflection of the flawed class system that forced many into difficult labor. The period of prosperity in which factories were prominent was also a time of intense race and gender boundaries and reflections on the post-industrial building are innately tied to the society created by powerful class borders. The American’s relationship to the post-industrial ruin is inherently entwined with our complicated feelings about our difficult past. However, ruins are fundamentally ambiguous; the empty spaces can be nostalgic, prophetic, or escapist so meaning heavily relies on artists’ intentions and viewer expectations.
Bernd and Hilla Becher, Coal Tipple, Goodspring, Pennsylvania,1975. Screenshot from the Museum of Modern Art website. Available at http://www.moma.org/collection/works/109523?locale=en. © Museum of Modern Art, New York City.
The first, and possibly most instinctive, way to analyze photography of the post-industrial ruin is from the perspective of memory and nostalgia. In describing the famous photographs of abandoned factories taken by her and her husband, Hilla Becher says, “the olden days will never come back… there is nothing left of the facilities but memories.”[i] In that same interview, Becher discussed how her husband began to photograph factory ruins as a method of preserving them and the memories they held.[ii] The post-industrial ruin, from the moment of the industry’s closing in America, was doomed to crumble. Although the factory-workers were not living incredibly prosperous lives, the buildings still represented the American Dream. The time of the American factory was a time of self-made men and affordable goals. The factory was a way to set out on the path to prosperity, a fair-paying job that paved the road to success. The Bechers’ photographs reflect the sudden loss of a pervasive dream. The world rapidly changed, leaving many without steady jobs and a predictable role in society. With the economic downturn and outsourcing came turmoil. Bechers’ abandoned coal tipple reminds the viewer of the coal workers who had built lives around the industry, lives that were made suddenly transient.
Joachim Koester, Boarded Up House, Philadelphia, 2011. Screenshot from Galleri Nicolai Wallner, Copenhagen. Available at http://www.nicolaiwallner.com/artists.php?action=details&id=3. © Galleri Nicolai Wallner.
The reminiscence surrounding ruins is not entirely innocent. Looking nostalgically back can inspire, “ideological phantasms,”[iii] where we imagine better, more simple pasts and void this period of American history of its underpinnings of racism, sexism, and classism. Many argue for a return to the factory period and neglect to acknowledge the negative basis of the era. Art historians, Magali Arriola and Andreas Huyssen, both warn against this possible role of ruins, cautioning against the destructiveness of the “picturesque ruin”[iv] on accurate historical memory. From this perspective, the ruin can serve to delude recollections into overly sentimental and optimistic views of a deeply flawed past. However, the ruin can also act to reignite memory. Rebecca Solnit argued that our memory is incomplete and ruins are, “our guides to situating ourselves in a landscape of time.”[v] Artist Joachim Koester shares this appreciation for ruins as providing an awareness of our place in history, allowing us to shape our future in, “better and surprising ways.”[vi] Of course, the difficultly here lies in the ambiguity of the ruin. The same building can be analyzed by one as a call to action and by another as a call to return to the past. Koester speaks passionately about his photographs of ruined buildings as liminal spaces that incite change, but their ambiguity lends itself to a multitude of interpretations, often reflecting what the viewer wishes to see.
Another prominent perspective in the realm of ruins photography is the ruin as prophetic. This lens stretches back to the beginning of ruins scholarship and specifically the popularity of Roman ruins in art. Denis Diderot analyzed the interest in ruins in the quote, “We contemplate the ravages of time, and in our imagination we scatter the rubble of the very buildings in which we live over the ground; in that moment solitude and silence prevail around us, we are the sole survivors of an entire nation that is no more. Such is the first tenet of the poetics of ruin.”[vii] The destruction of powerful buildings of the past inspires the viewer to look prophetically forward and predict the end of their own civilization, reminded of the ephemerality of society. This perspective is reflected in the work of Walker Evans who encouraged artists to, “Photograph the present as it would be seen in the past.”[viii]
This sense of a forewarned future is very present in Walker Evan’s cityscapes with their absence of human presence and partly destroyed facades. The city objectively existed during the period of factory-closings in the 60s and 70s but it looks as if it foretells a distant future, the future fall of our own civilization. This element of the foreseen destruction of a building is also a focus in the scholarship of Robert Smithson who describes the phenomena of the “ruins in reverse,” that, “rise into ruin before they are built.”[ix] Often, these reverse ruins are in construction sites, projects begun during periods of economic wealth and abandoned during slower economic times. Inherent to Smithson’s ruins in reverse is the concept of entropy, or that all things increase towards chaos.[x] Even in the process of building, the ruins are prophesized and subsequently inevitable. A similar analysis to Walker Evan’s work can be made of Stephen Shore’s. Shore photographed the American Northeast during the same period of the factory closings. His works share that prophetic emptiness, of a city vacant before its time. The closing of factories did not just produce abandoned factories, it created abandoned cities, empty of people and past prosperity. With that incredibly permeable barrenness came mixed feelings about the events that brought the cities to their current state.
Stephen Shore. Holden St, North Adams, Massachusetts, 1974. © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City. Screenshot taken from the personal website of the artist. Available at http://stephenshore.net/photographs/six/index.php?page=8&menu=photographs.
Reflecting on the situation of many Northeastern cities after the closing of major businesses, a good deal of artists and art historians turned to the ruin as a sign of their disappointment. Edgar Martins, the photographer of photo series ‘Ruins of the Second Gilded Age’ (later called ‘This Is Not A House’) described his photographed ruins in the statement, “They deploy the metaphor of struggle between poetic failures and the promise of success to suggest a place uncertain of its future.”[xi] Martins’ photographs reference the concept of ‘failure’ as he creates spaces that are almost ghost towns stuck in a “capitalist limbo” between “boomtown prosperity and quiet devastation.”[xii] While analyzing Martins’ work, art historian Gilda Williams wrote, “So much human failure from the recent past is tied up with ruins.”[xiii] She further argued that artists turned to ruins to lament the collapse of modernist ideas.[xiv] The hopeful and booming future that modernism had ceaselessly moved towards had suddenly collapsed. With the disappearance of the promised future came a reversal to the concept of progress. No longer was life getting increasingly better and many people now found themselves questioning the future they had always been certain of. Martins’ haunting photographs of buildings are interestingly timeless; they could have been abandoned minutes ago or decades. This immutability embodies the other perspectives, whether these ruins project our future or capture our past; they address a disappointment with our place in history.
Edgar Martins, Untitled, Connecticut. From This is Not a House Series, 2008. Screenshot taken from Purdy Hicks Gallery’s website. Available at http://www.purdyhicks.com/display.php?aID=243#2. © Purdy Hicks Gallery, London.
The final, and oft forgotten, perspective on photographic ruins is their problematic nature. Scholarship on the abstract nature of the ruin regularly neglects the fact that people still live in these areas. Though many fled to suburbia during the factories’ prosperity, the areas surrounding the industrial buildings still held a large population. Camilo Jose Vergara addresses that in his photo series, “Fern St., Camden” and “5th Ave at 7th Street” in which he photographed several streets in industrial areas of Camden and Newark, New Jersey from 1979, the time of many factory closings, until 2014. Vergara describes his images as, “bricks that when placed next to each other reveal shapes and meanings of neglected urban communities.”[xv] His buildings are not ruins, they are homes. Of all the meanings that the ruin can hold to a removed observer, they cannot be more powerful than the understanding of the ruin as part of your home environment. Even if artists photograph with this in mind, these images of, “gutted buildings can never adequately describe the longstanding causes of urban poverty.”[xvi] The reflective nature of photograph allows for meditation on the subject but without hearing from the people who are living amongst ruins, one cannot truly understand the basis of the ruin. Furthermore, this reflection does not improve the neighborhood. Fetishizing ruins does nothing for the efforts to revitalize urban areas. Although the goal of this paper is to understand artistic intentions and the discourse surrounding the ruin, it is still entirely necessary to address the abstracted nature of ruin photography.
Camilo Jose Vergara, 15th Ave at 7th Street, Newark. NJ, 1980. Screenshot taken from the artist’s website. Available at http://www.camilojosevergara.com/Camden/Former-Camden-Free-Public-Library/1. © Camilo Jose Vergara.
American perspective on post-industrial ruins is above all else, temporal. The ruin is at once analyzed as nostalgic, prophetic, and a timeless symbol of failure. Tied up into our understanding of ruins are our feelings about our American past, our understandings of our flawed history and our shared hopes for what the future holds. Among all these hypotheticals, however, is the fact that the ruin exists in the hometowns of real people. As art historian Lucy Lippard once remarked, “Poverty is a great preserver of history.”[xvii] It is vastly important that we understand the complexities of our own place in history without romanticizing the past but it is exceedingly important to address the ruin not as a hypothetical but as a real issue. The photographed post-industrial ruin points to the American past of prosperity and unequal wealth while also gesturing towards our increasingly ambiguous future. The building itself cannot stand as a reminder to this, it is not “liminal,” or “marginal,” it is real and it must be addressed as such.
While conducting my research on the portrayal of post-industrial cities in the Northeast, I worked on several off-campus research projects including one concerning the work of the renowned American landscape painter, Albert Bierstadt, for an exhibition at the New Bedford Art Museum.
Snapshot of Gadbois’s article for RISD Museum’s Manual journal.
Upon graduation I received a Mellon Summer Internship grant from the RISD Museum. There I worked with Emily Peters at the Department of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs. My contributions involved cataloguing Flemish prints in the extensive RISD archives as well as publishing an essay in RISD Museum’s online journal, Manual.
Gadbois exploring New Bedford’s abolitionist homes at the New Bedford Registry of Deeds, 2016.
I am now continuing my research on the architecture of the city of New Bedford’s Abolitionist neighborhood. The project, called The Aesthetics and Architectonics of an Abolitionist Neighborhood is led by Professor Karimi and is funded by a Creative Economy Grant. So far, in my capacity as a research assistant to the project, I have conducted research at the archives of the Whaling Museum, The New Bedford Registry of Deeds, and the New Bedford Public Library. These research projects have prepared me well for graduate school. I am currently applying to several graduate programs in Art History and I hope to be a professor of Art History, training the future generation of Americans.
[i] “Hilla Becher Interviewed at Paris Photo,” Phaidon, November 12, 2012, accessed March 29, 2016, http://www.phaidon.com/agenda/photography/articles/2012/november/21/hilla-becher-interviewed-at-paris-photo/.
[iii] Andreas Huyssen, “Authentic Ruins,” in Ruins, ed. Brian Dillon (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2011), 53.
[iv] Magali Arriola, “A Victim and a Viewer: Some Thoughts on Anticipated Ruins,” in Ruins, ed. Brian Dillon (Cambridge, MIT Press, 2011), 174.
[v] Rebecca Solnit, Storming the Gates of Paradise (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2007), 354-355.
[vi] “Questionnaire: Joachim Koester,” Frieze, November 1, 2010, accessed March 30, 2016, https://frieze.com/article/questionnaire-joachim-koester/.
[vii] Denis Diderot, “Le Salon de 1767,” trans. John Goodman (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1995), 196-197.
[viii] Department of Photographs. “Walker Evans (1903–1975).” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/evan/hd_evan.htm (October 2004).
[ix] Robert Smithson, “A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey,” in Robert Smithson: The Collected Writing, ed. Jack Flam (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1996), 68-74.
[xi] David W. Dunlap, “Behind the Scenes: Edgar Martins Speaks,” New York Times, July 31, 2009, accessed April 2, 2016, http://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/07/31/behind-10/?_r=0.
[xii] Gilda Williams, “It Was What it Was: Modern Ruins,” in Ruins, ed. Brian Dillon (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2011), 96.
[xiii] Ibid, 97.
[xiv] Ibid, 96-99.
[xv] Camilo Jose Vergara, “From the Inner Cities to the White House,” Time, July 9, 2013, accessed April 1, 2016, http://time.com/3800841/from-the-inner-cities-to-the-white-house-photographs-by-camilo-jose-vergara/.
[xvi] Richard B. Woodward, “Disaster Photography: When is Documentary Exploitation?” ArtNews, February 6, 2013, accessed April 1, 2016, http://www.artnews.com/2013/02/06/the-debate-over-ruin-porn/.
[xvii] Rebecca Solnit, Storming the Gates, 355.