From the Ambassador apartments.
Last Sunday’s excursion had a slow start, with our first two destinations proving inaccessible. It’s hard to spend a day in Gary, though, without running across something to shoot sooner or later.
From today’s outing.
Burned out primary school, Gary, Indiana.
Gary Light & Gas building, photographed 3/13.
I love my new 10-20mm lens. Getting to fit more in a shot has been a revelation, especially in urbex, where I try to frame as much of a space as possible. At 10mm, you do get some distortion, which I’ve been trying to get better at correcting. Here, the shot has been stretched and pulled until I got the pesky walls straight(ish).
Life and Thought have gone away
Side by side,
Leaving door and windows wide.
Careless tenants they!
All within is dark as night:
In the windows is no light;
And no murmur at the door,
So frequent on its hinge before.
Close the door; the shutters close;
Or through the windows we shall see
The nakedness and vacancy
Of the dark deserted house.
Come away: no more of mirth
Is here or merry-making sound.
The house was builded of the earth,
And shall fall again to ground.
Come away: for Life and Thought
Here no longer dwell;
But in a city glorious –
A great and distant city -have bought
A mansion incorruptible.
Would they could have stayed with us!
–The Deserted House by Alfred Lord Tennyson
In this particular corner of the Methodist church, debris has been accumulating. Some objects have clearly been dragged here, for what purpose is anyone’s guess. Mine is not to ask why, but to take pictures, and the scene that presented itself I found compelling. Here is the result, after a bit of HDR magic.
The most recent vintage of the shuttered schools we’ve visited, Beckson appears to have been built in the late 60’s or early 70’s, and abandoned a quarter century later (the AOL domain email address listed for the principal on his door provides a clue). The building itself doesn’t have the stone-and-mortar majesty of Gary’s earlier schools, but a quirky layout and numerous leftover relics made it a great find. Besides a chair orgy happening in the main gymnasium, there are shelves of books left in the library, record players in the auditorium, and other detritus. These two shots are not covering new ground, as the Idiot Photographer has presented her take on their subject matter in previous posts, but I’ll throw my two cents in (photographically speaking) as well.
The ruins of the Methodist church are what every urban explorer sees when they come to Gary, often to the exclusion of all else. And it’s easy to see why: it is readily accessible and packs a visual wollup. The Idiot Photographer and I have been coming here for years, and it’s hard not to sneer when a fresh-faced thing hanging out by the church one Sunday morning asks you, “are you here for the photogroup meetup?” No, I want to say, I could be the Goddamned curator here. But my hipster is showing. Every time I think I’ve done all I can do at this location, I find myself surprised. When we took The Spaniard here a weekend ago, I saw what my new 10mm lens could do from the floor of the nave. Oh, Methodist church, I will never doubt you again!
As documented in the previous post by the Idiot Photographer, abandoned chairs inhabit a twilight world at the former Beckson Middle School. They rot in piles in the gymnasium, hoping for but a taste of freedom outside. Some have managed to flee into the courtyard. but these are few. Sadly, some of these chairs are broken and worn. Some have had only the strength to drag themselves to the edge of freedom, and can only stand by impotently, hobbled while freedom beckons mere steps away. Is such proximity to the final reward comforting solace or a hell of temptations?
Indecision’s called a mild form of vice,
one whose wages are time and choices lost
but who can calculate compounding cost
when choices bifurcate not once, but twice?
Grapevines are the new door, didn’t you hear?
An interesting thing about grape vines, they grow to fit the area they are in and when they run out growing space they’ll settle down and start making grapes. When I first saw these wild fox grape vines I was hoping for a tart treat, but alas, they still have a lot of growing to do.
Welcome to Beckman School, a little blue school complex down on Gary’s south side. I found it on google maps around the same time I found Grief Brothers, but this was the first opportunity we had to wander over and take a look. I have to say, it was the oddest building I’ve ever been in. The construction is fairly modern, I’d put it somewhere around the 19070’s, and all of the windows are gone. There is some evidence that Gary once tried to keep it sealed, such as welding the doors shut, but since all of the windows are gone (and part of one wall) this doesn’t matter.
There is very little trash around, and even less graffiti. The lockers are all intact and there is a wide selection of desks and chairs to choose from but other than that there is nothing left inside. Even the hanging ceiling tiles are gone, and the braces that they hung from. The one thing that got left behind at this location was something that broke my heart a little. The books.
You may notice the other oddity about this building. That is not an electric light shining there. That is a skylight designed for hanging ceilings which provides no view but offers a fair amount of natural light to the room. All of the second floor halls and most of the rooms on this end of the building had them. Personally I think this is an excellent idea and all schools should have them where possible. Natural light is more likely to keep people engaged than florescent light, though the unnatural florescent lights do prepare a person for toiling hours upon end in a windowless office with no hope.
Beckman Middle school, Gary, Indiana. A lone chair desperately fends off the encroaching fronds of ivy.
I heard another photographer of ruin/decay/abandonment interviewed on the local NPR affiliate this morning. The term “ruinporn” came up quickly in a question from the host. The guest (I believe he goes by Stormdog on Flickr), was thoughtful in responding, but it was a variant of the same argument I’ve heard urbexers use many times now. It goes something like this: urban photography can be distinguished from ruinporn by its ultimate aim. Is the photographer being merely exploitative, or is he or she trying to bring attention to and start a discussion about the buildings being photographed? Is accessing a site just another notch in the belt, or does it serve some larger purpose? If the ultimate aim is to fetishize destruction, then the work is ruinporn.
This line of reasoning is misleading at best, and a mealy mouthed self-deception at worst. Though I’m not a fan of the term, the reaction of photographers to “ruinporn” is dishonest, and needn’t be. And since everyone loves a good manifesto, here goes mine.
“Ruinporn” is a pejorative given to the type of photography you will find often on this blog. It is pictures of buildings and objects in various states of decay. This is, certainly, a narrow niche of aesthetics. It is, however, a direct descendant of romanticism. At first blush, this seems absurd: romantics were reacting against industrialization by attempting to return to a state of nature, one in which man’s raw emotions would be paramount. But what is ruinporn? It is a turning away from the malls, the artifice, the Disneyfication of modern America. In a country where many municipalities have ordinances on how often homeowners must cut their lawns and what type of car may be parked in the driveway, the places are off the grid. They are returning to nature. In their decay, they show us truths: mighty edifices of man crumble and turn feral within less than a generation’s span, and our pretty plastic facades are dust in the waiting.
But a yet stronger link to romanticism can be found on the emotional palette. It is melancholia that drove Chopin to write his haunting nocturnes and Caspar David Friedrich to paint his grim landscapes. Ruinporn inherits those traits. It wears that mantle because its subject matter is raw and beautiful. It is a raw emotionality that we are unaccustomed to, leaving its practice to Goth kids and other outcasts. But perhaps here we come to the problem. Urban explorers take great pains in finding and accessing their chosen sites; attempt to set up a shot in near darkness, in mud, muck and mold; and for what? Are we ashamed to say that it is for the beauty we see? Do we feel that puts us in league with stoners and emos, not “serious” artists?
What I see when I’m taking pictures is the shafts of light, the textures of rusting iron and walls peeling so much as to appear like fractured glass. I see the lines composed of fallen walls and piled up bricks. I see the curious juxtapostions of old material and new trash, the jarring colors of grafitti, and nature inexorably coming to reclaim what was hers all along. In all these things, I see beauty, and I need not justify it further by “starting discussions” or “raisning awareness.” What these buildings are, most often, are dangerous. They can and should be torn down. There is no saving the many buildings in Gary; all I can do is document their magnificent demise.
So lastly, I’ll return to the term in question. Let me be clear that I’m not a fan of the term; it is clearly derogatory as it attempts to position this kind of photography in relation to art in the same one dimensional way that porn relates to sexuality. I hope I’ve made the case that that analogy doesn’t hold. I would suggest “postmodern romanticist photography,” as we are documenting our ever changing urban landscapes as opposed to out relatively eternal natural surroundings, while redefining them after they’ve outlived their proscribed usefulness. Failing that, I’ll settle for “RuinErotica.”
Sometimes I feel a little like this.
These past two weeks I’ve been worn down by work and I haven’t taken a vacation in over a year. Hell, I haven’t even taken a single day off. I’m so tired that I am at the point where on my days off I have to make a check list of tasks to complete just so I can get my laundry done and have clean clothes for work the next day.
What little photography I’ve gotten up to since summer started hasn’t been enough, and more importantly I haven’t done as much exploring as I would like. We’ve run dry of locations that are easy access (Gary has been good to us in that regard), I’m not in good enough shape to be jumping fences and running from security and don’t really want to run afoul with the law, so I’m a little stuck on finding new places.
This weekend we’re going to run around the Gary Post Office a bit, and check out a couple of other locations in Miller Beach that I’ve heard about, but I don’t have high hopes for them. But then, I rarely have high hopes for a new location until I’ve been there for myself.
During our most recent trip to Gary, we covered mostly old ground. This was mostly in deference to a new friend we’ll call “The Spaniard.” He’s new to Gary’s, um, charms, and eager to see what there is to see. In return we hope to plumb his knowledge of some of Chicago’s urbex landmarks. Thus we found ourselves in Edison Elementary again, where again I found myself in the Skylit Room. The Idiot Photographer and I have both shot this corner of the school previously; she’s got a beautiful HDR shot to show for it. As for myself, I remained unsatisfied with my former efforts. So, this time I opted for the low angle and a bit of vignetting, and I’m a bit more pleased. A fair criticism would be that it’s too dark a shot, but I’ve been digging that aesthetic lately, and I hope it works here.
I’m not sure which I find more entertaining, the use of inverted commas or the deliberate jumble appearance of the word “profusely”.
I’m also even more curious as to what was kept in the giant vats by this sign.
Simple geometries of symmetry and shadow to provide the receptive reader with a not-unpleasant sense of melancholia.