Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Life in the Approval Matrix?

Urban exploration photography makes an appearance in New York magazine's Approval Matrix this week. Check out the SE quadrant of the image, or visit the link to see this brief mention. Do you think it's in the correct section?)

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Passenger series. Canyon Lake, Arizona; December 20, 2006; 12:49:22 p.m.


"The most beautiful thing in the abandoned hospital was the peeling paint." This sentence starts Rebecca Solnit's "Abandon" essay in her 2005 book A Field Guide to Getting Lost.

In the early 1980's, Solnit spent six months in an abandoned hospital near San Francisco, accompanying her then-boyfriend as he shot a Super 8 film on location. She was a punk rocker then, something that she sometimes refers to in her writings. After her fascination with ruins, she returned to (a more straightforward) nature, and lately she's been more into activism and politics.

The abandoned hospital is just a tool for Solnit to make the small leap to discussing Demeter, Persephone, and Hades; she then takes a bigger leap when discussing the beauty and "abandon" of her deceased friend Marine. Solnit is one of America's preeminent contemporary nature philosophy writers, but to hear Solnit discuss abandoned ruins for just a few pages is nourishing.

"Ruins become the unconscious of a city, its memory, unknown, darkness, lost lands, in this truly bring it to life," she writes. Much later in the essay, she talks about the area of New York City (it seems that she lived in NYC for a while, or at least visits frequently) that is now the sports complex called Chelsea Piers. She briefly looks back to the years when the Chelsea Piers was a "temporary autonomous zone" at which gays cruised and groped each other. Peter Hujar and David Wojnariowicz are mentioned, and the description of the ruins of Chelsea Piers are described so beautifully that I wish I were there. ("Paper from old shipping lines scattered all around like bomb blasts among wrecked pieces of furniture"..."this kind of place, one that was ruinous, bleak, but somehow still imbued wtih a romantic outlaw sense of possibility, of freedom, even the freedom to be idealistic...") Earlier, she described the "new" Chelsea Piers, and says "although it may yet yield to ruin again". Oh, that would be great, but I hope I don't have to wait for the apolocalypse for it to happen.

Solnit seems to be a bit of a hippy, or perhaps I'm confusing the term "hippy" with "idealist." (It should be noted for the record that the word "hippy" has a personal positive connotation in my world.) I was intrigued when I stumbled upon her artistic link to Mark Klett, and it makes me warm inside to know that she's explored ruins as well, although she tends to hint at "the golden age of ruins" having passed. Also, has she wandered into ruins recently, as she has matured 20 years into her life? (I ask this somewhat rhetorically; I think I know the answer, but I'd love to hear what she has to say on the topic.)

"We are now at the beginning of an era whose constructions are far scarier than ruins. In the time of which I write, the new silicon-based life forms were sneaking into every interstice without setting off alarms that all would be utterly changed in a way far more insidious than nuclear war, that they would bring a new wealth that would erase the ruins."

To start the essay with such beauty and end it with such despair is heartbreaking. But Solnit is an idealist. But is she an optimist? I'm hoping that delving further into her work will answer my question.

Monday, January 21, 2008

a link for Martin Luther King Day

For today's Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, NPR did a piece about Camilo Jose Vergara's documentation of King murals in urban America. The interview and the slide show is available here. I've copied and pasted the text that Vergara wrote about this project, which is also available at the NPR website.

Photographing a Ubiquitous Subject

by Camilo Jose Vergara, January 19, 2008 · In the following essay for, Camilo Jose Vergara writes about the images of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. that he has photographed and how they are beginning to disappear in some places.

In America's poorest neighborhoods, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is perhaps the most popular subject of public art, along with the streets, hospitals, schools and housing projects bearing his name. Collectively these have become one of the defining elements of the American ghetto. I believe that they help us understand how people living in poor, segregated urban communities — those about whom Dr. King was most concerned — perceive him and his legacy. They show how inner-city residents use his portrait to feel proud, to sell merchandise, and to develop a sense of security, identity and belonging.

Since 1977, I have been documenting images of Dr. King that regularly appear along the commercial streets and alleys of such cities as New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit, Camden, N.J., and Baltimore. Many of the murals portraying this civil rights leader are painted on the outside walls of liquor stores, auto-repair shops, fast food restaurants, mom and pop stores, and public housing projects. The majority are the work of sign painters and amateur artists. All of the statues and many of the murals I photographed are located on streets named after him.

Over time I became interested in learning why these images are so pervasive. I feel that they reflect a significant cultural phenomenon: the rise of Dr. King as a central moral figure in poor neighborhoods, and his elevation to secular sainthood as the savior of dispossessed African Americans. His varied representations, often based on photographs taken from the national media, express poor people's perceptions.

After the South Los Angeles riots of 1992, many Latino shopkeepers had Dr. King's portrait painted on the facades of their stores in the hope of staving off the African-American rioters from robbing or vandalizing their businesses.

Wherever they are located, his portraits are usually respected, thus escaping damage and defacement. Sometimes, however, practical considerations result in electric cords emerging from his face, or a closed-circuit TV camera being attached to his ear, or security gates installed over his portrait.

But few of the sign painters hired for portraits of Dr. King have been particularly adept at getting good likenesses, with the result that he often comes out looking Mexican or even Mexican Indian. And now that Latinos in South Los Angeles have become the majority, new images of Dr. King rarely appear while the old portraits of him have been replaced by religious images and specifically Latino subjects.

The phrase "I have a dream" is often written above or below portraits of King. The dream is about justice, equality, three meals a day, housing, education, jobs and peace in the neighborhood. The many images of him in the inner city are powerful reminders to residents to keep pursuing those goals.

Camilo Jose Vergara has been documenting urban America for more than three decades. His work is included in the Berman Collection at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles and in 2002 he won a Macarthur Genius Grant for his photography. He is the author of several books, including How the Other Half Worships.

Mott Haven section of the South Bronx, 1977. Photo by Camilo Jose Vergara.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

'Echoes of Forgotten Places' DVD

As much as I love looking at urban exploration photo books, I dislike watching urban exploration videos. Or, to put it more succinctly, I anticipate disliking urban exploration videos. Often, the take that I want isn't on the video or DVD (for example, sometimes I'd like for the shot to start with the viewer approaching the building or structure, and the entrance would also be part of the segment as well) and other times, the lack of thoroughness is palpable. I don't experience these shortcomings in still photography related to urban exploration, mostly because I think of the medium as simply showing "snapshots of time".

Echoes of Forgotten Places is an intellectual love letter to urban exploration. The 43-minute DVD has none of the shortcomings listed above, because it doesn't try to recreate the joy of urban exploration firsthand. Rather, it serves as a great introduction of UE, an UE 101, if you will.

There are six chapters, each with a general-sounding title: Forgotten Places, The Record Keepers, Themes and Variations, Places of Work, To Bear Witness, and Endings and Beginnings. Footage of abandoned sites co-mingle with historical black and white film of factory work, modern color film of factory work, and interview segments with urban explorers as viewed on a television screen located in an abandoned site. Many scenes show a person walking around or taking photos as he walks from room to room. There is a lack of exploitation ("Let's talk to the oddballs who like exploring abandoned buildings!"), a rarity in most print articles written on the topic. Even the topic of ethics is addressed directly through interviews with several explorers.

There is a strong message presented, an ode to an industrial time of the past, and a respect for the abandoned sites and slap on society's wrist for not using the sites for current uses respectful of the buildings' history and aesthetics. ("We bury the evidence and build on top of it." "...saddest, most profound places I have ever explored") A historical context is provided but not really expanded upon.

I really appreciated the statement "Being undergound in a place like this tends to focus your attention rather than let your mind wander." This idea is really intriguing and important to me.

Robin Guthrie of Cocteau Twins provides the score, and Leesa Beales plays solo piano. The music is thoughtful and evocative, unlike the horror film music that could accompany the work.

The American-centric 1936 steel industry PR film Steel: A Symphony of Industry is one of the bonus features. (Note that this film is in public domain and can be accessed and viewed here via the Internet Archive.)

The second DVD extra is the "more typical" inclusion of an image gallery, this one including the work of 8 artists from around the world.

Urban explorers might find this video to be too much of a survey to be of much interest, but I highly recommend it for the UE novice or as an overall documentary. International urban explorers might get a kick out of identifying the unidentified places both in the doc and in the image gallery.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Passenger series. Chicago, Illinois; July 7, 2007; 3:02:10 p.m.

"The Passenger" lyrics from Iggy Pop

"The Passenger"
from Iggy Pop's Lust for Life album

lyrics: Pop; music, Ricky Gardiner

I am the passenger
And I ride and I ride
I ride through the citys backside
I see the stars come out of the sky
Yeah, theyre bright in a hollow sky
You know it looks so good tonight
I am the passenger
I stay under glass
I look through my window so bright
I see the stars come out tonight
I see the bright and hollow sky
Over the citys a rip in the sky
And everything looks good tonight
Singin la la la la la-la-la la
La la la la la-la-la la
La la la la la-la-la la la-la
Get into the car
Well be the passenger
Well ride through the city tonight
See the citys ripped insides
Well see the bright and hollow sky
Well see the stars that shine so bright
The sky was made for us tonight
Oh the passenger
How how he rides
Oh the passenger
He rides and he rides
He looks through his window
What does he see?
He sees the bright and hollow sky
He see the stars come out tonight
He sees the citys ripped backsides
He sees the winding ocean drive
And everything was made for you and me
All of it was made for you and me
cause it just belongs to you and me
So lets take a ride and see whats mine
Oh, the passenger
He rides and he rides
He sees things from under glass
He looks through his windows eye
He sees the things he knows are his
He sees the bright and hollow sky
He sees the city asleep at night
He sees the stars are out tonight
And all of it is yours and mine
And all of it is yours and mine
Oh, lets ride and ride and ride and ride...

Lyrics reprinted from

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Shut Down in Vienna

Last night I had dinner with a friend who is not into urban exploration. She had recently traveled to Austria and found herself at the wrong museum. (She meant to take herself and her companion to another museum.) Her mistake was furtuitous, and the travellers spent over an hour in photographer Christoph Lingg's exhibition Shut Down at the Leopold Museum.

Exhibition shots of Shut Down: Industrial Ruins in Eastern Europe and the Far East can be found here. Shut Down looks like a straightforward photo exhibition, but the last installation shot is a bit confusing out of context. Are those flyers from the sites when they were operable? Is Mr. Lingg's message political? Looking at his website, it seems that his work combines portraiture and photojournalism, so it seems likely that there is a message and that this work is not just an aesthetic study.

I love the quote from Romanian poet Mircea Cărtărescu at the end of Susanne Schaeber's exhibition essay :

My occupation: ruins builder. My mission: ruins architect. My sin: ruins voyeur. Don’t ask me about forgotten places. Gather around me, open my skull and look at my brain: before your very eyes it will crumble like plaster. And its dust will be mixed indistinguishably with the dust of the ruins among which I have lived my entire life, as a lover of a harem of ruins.

My friend apologized for being unable to carry two copies (hers and what would have been mine) of the exhibition publication back to the States; she said it was too heavy. I thought she meant that the book was thick and not that rusty metal plates served as the book's cover!

Photo above by Christoph Lingg and included in Lingg's Shut Down exhibition at the Leopold Museum.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Enjoying the Underworld on DVD

A blog about abandoned spaces and urban life doesn't necessarily scream product placement. Nonetheless, I had a few items on my holiday wish list this year, and my family gave me some cool gifts, so expect a few informal reviews in the coming weeks.

For example, one gift I received was The History Channel's DVD set Cities of the Underworld: The Complete Season One. The season's 13 episodes are on four DVDs, and so far I've watched two episodes from DVD #2, "City of Caves" and "New York."

Even though all of the locations are wonderful, I'd most like to explore Budapest's caves. (Am I partial to this fantasy because my family is part Hungarian? Yes.) In "City of Caves", geological and geographical talk of tectonic shifts and pressure per square foot leads to an exploration of a natural cave with a good looking male urban explorer ("It's like just a playground," he declares) and a visit to a WWII cave hospital 60 feet below ground, part of the natural cave system but retrofitted several times for varying purposes. A discussion on Budapest's bathing culture leads to an old tunnel below Gellert Square and the (literal) heat of the "Gate of Hell," which appealed to my sweat-loving self.

The "New York" episode is on the same disc, and although the sites have been covered in other media, it's still an interesting watch. I especially liked the point of view that ran throughout the entire episode, stated exactly as such: "New York couldn't have ever developed into the metropolis it is today without the underworld that supports it" and "The world up above couldn't exist without the one down here".

Places visited in the episode are Grand Central Terminal's M42, the Croton Aqueduct, and the World Trade Center's "bathtub", so the structural mix is diverse. As the guide and the host approach track 102, the guide "demands" (for the viewer, no doubt) that the camera be turned off, as the location is top secret. This obvious attempt at suspense worked wonders with me, as my train home from Manhattan often leaves from track 103. As I contemplated whether or not the entrance to M42 was near track 102 (my guess is that it's not), my tongue wagged like a dog with curiousity and interest.

Julia Solis leads the cameras in the Croton Aqueduct segment. (In full disclosure, Urban Landscaped has a professional and personal affiliation with Solis.) I've had the pleasure of walking in a portion of the Old Aqueduct, and the part I was in had albino bats on the walls and lacked the inner "boardwalk" entrance. In other words, it was a bit rougher and more adventurous. (Another disclosure: I was the PR person involved in a Cities of the Underworld Croton Aqueduct segment filmed at my work, located where New York City's main reservoir once was. That segment didn't make the final cut.)

The "bathtub" segment was last, and its facts and diagrams were captivating, particularly in its post-9/11 relevance. An article about the bathtub can be found here; additional information is here.

Cities of the Underground occassionally repeats on The History Channel, although recently it's the "Beneath Vesuvuis" episode that's been on repeat. The episodes I'm most likely to view next from the DVD set are "Scotland's Sin City" and "Freemason Underground". A new season starts airing on January 28 at 9 p.m. with an episode about Jerusalem's "Underground Apocalypse".