Rust Belt Raw is about photos, but the more I shoot, the more I ask myself what I’m looking for. In trying to articulate my reasons I keep rejecting explanations that sound like I’m quoting Kerouac or some obscure French philosophy in an effort to mask the fact that I have no real clue. The good news is that I think I finally know, but the bad news is that this is probably going to sound rather artsy-fartsy. So read on, but for the love of anything holy, don’t take me (or yourself) too seriously.
Ruin porn is probably my least favorite photography genre. Skinny-jeaned, pointy-shoed artistes with ten-thousand-dollar cameras and missions to “document the collapse of great American cities” do not amuse me. I maintain that if you walk into old places with thoughts of decay, desaturation, and grainy sepia filters in mind, you are not sufficiently aware of the place. When you step into a location, you are only the latest and, as a documentarian, probably the least useful person ever to be there.
If the walls could talk, their voices would shatter your eardrums. These buildings, no matter how far from pristine, are the settings for countless events, each one minor by itself, but inalienable portions of tens of thousands of lives. Their stories do not end until the last brick is tossed into a truck. Even then, the bricks and steel, glass and concrete will probably be reused for a new site, forming new walls to witness new stories.
I realize that it is silly to bequeath bricks with senses. But if we look in awe at a petrified Tyrannosaur bone, why don’t the silent participants in our current history deserve at least a measure of similar reverence?
So if it’s not ruin porn, what am I looking for?
Several things. One, I enjoy imagining all the details of a place during its heyday. Everything from identifying old machines to discovering little clues about the lives of the workers, visitors, and tenants. I once found a card in a doctor’s office, written in crayon by his young daughter, addressed to “the best Dad in the world,” enough for a broad smile and few happy tears. I stand in the halls of old machine shops and imagine the smell of oil and hot metal as ship engines were bored, honed, and finished by mighty machinery. Even something as simple as clover growing in rotted floorboards on the 16th floor of an old train depot can make you stand in awe at how tenacious life is. Old urban sites can evoke every emotion from terror to passion and wonder to joy. So why capture only the negatives?
I look for beauty in unlikely places. Some of the best street artists in the world do their work deep inside buildings, where they have time to delicately place every line, let layers dry, and move slowly enough to give their vibrant medium the full benefit of their skill. Legal or illegal, graffiti, stencils, and aerosol art are no more intrusive than advertisements, and as far as I’m concerned, much more welcome. I would much rather see energetic splashes of chaotic, yet coherent color than placards beseeching me to buy Big Macs and Dolce. At least the former has local flavor.
Finally, I look for life. A vine crawling up rusted conduit, squirrels nesting in gantry cranes, painters making their pilgrimages to seldom-seen canvases of brick and mortar to rattle the cans that bear the fruits of their minds and hands… These old places may no longer serve their original purposes, but their stories aren’t over. And if you, as an artist, go to them to show the dry bones of a long-dead giant, you have marginalized history and missed a chance to show the world something beautiful. Isn’t that a better reason to press the shutter?