Once the biggest sugar refinery in the world, Domino shut down in 2004, after a long struggle. Most Brooklynites of my generation know it as an icon on the landscape, multiplied on t-shirts and skateboard graphics. Urban explorers sly enough to breach the gates have found a playground of sublime, post-industrial texture and nostalgia.

I’ve been attracted for a long time to these iconic and esthetic aspects of Domino. I also realized that given the chance to photograph there, I’d want to explore beyond the surfaces.

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My interests turned to the subway in the mid-2000s, when the city’s economic and cosmetic ambitions started leaching into the tunnels. Familiar graffiti and rust gave way to stainless steel and layers of reflective glass. I missed much of the character that got polished away, but felt captivated by the view. Reflections from inside the trains and out moved every direction at once, drawing passengers into a mirage of ghosts and fragments. Meanwhile, their faces suggested retreat to a privacy far from the visual chaos surrounding them.

Photographers since Walker Evans have captured private moments on crowded trains, although I’d never seen them like this—abstracted from the world, entangled with one another, merged with the surfaces of landscape and machine. Maybe more than ever, we seek privacy and autonomy in public spaces that seem designed to commodify us. The irony of solitude in a crowd, whether it feels dark or hopeful, has found a perfect frame in the subway's collage of reflections and obfuscations. It inspired me to explore...

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Abandoned, overgrown spaces lurk around every corner in Bushwick, Brooklyn. When I moved here in 2004, I missed the the grandeur of the factories and bridges from my old waterfront neighborhood. I walked past Bushwick's lots for a year before finding any inspiration. I gradually learned to look closely, sometimes through chinks in fences or at the pavement under my feet. I've since been seduced by the surprises I find here, including cast-offs of local culture and the relentless thriving of flowers and weeds.

Paradise is the Persian word for a walled enclosure. As often as not, in the city the walls are cyclone fences crowned with razorwire. Whatever they lack in charm they make up by providing a framed view from the outside. I find solace in the spontaneous gardens behind the fences. And I'm inspired by all the wild things invading them, by the relief they bring from the city's often antiseptic geometry and sheen.


These photographs explore my relationship to place—physical, cultural, metaphorical—over ten years, in generally desolate surroundings.

In the early Nineteen-nineties I lived in Providence, Rhode Island, in a landscape at turns overgrown and barren. New England row houses abutted empty lots and crumbling husks of factories, all joined in a web of trees, weeds, cyclone fences, and high tension wires. Layers of growth and decay confounded attempts at easy interpretation. The landscape, formed largely by accident and neglect, felt somehow like the work of a larger process. I saw an unconscious synergy in the work of people, plants, and erosion that had shaped these spaces over many years. When I moved and continued the project in an industrial section of Brooklyn, the mix of these elements changed, but the underlying sensibility stayed the same. There was much to explore beneath the surfaces of desolation and trash.

I titled the work Wilderness in response to these impressions. The word has held different meanings for different cultures over the years, but has usually conveyed a sense of mystery, of otherness, and of escape from the borders of the comfortable and the known. Wilderness  has named what we fear but at the same time long for, often with a sense that there, away from the comfort and attachments of our everyday lives, we might somehow find ourselves.


This work started when I was a student, grew over the years I lived in southern Colorado, and will likely continue to evolve whenever I have a chance to visit.

Can anything worthwhile be added to the ever-growing pile of pictures of the southwest? The challenge used to be finding form in the vast chaos; now it’s avoiding the picturesque clichés we’ve been looking at all our lives. I try—with mixed success I suspect—to capture reactions that are immediate and personal, and also true, in some sense that’s larger than myself. While in the Southwest, my impressions are usually some mix of awe and disappointment, serenity and anger. Conflict seems inherent to the physical landscape as well as the emotional one; the region has long been a battleground for opposing ideologies and myths. The scars from these battles are evident almost everywhere.

I’d like to make some sense, without rhetoric, of the beautiful land between these scars and of some of the scars themselves.


These pictures represent my earliest work. They were made when I was a student, revisiting and rediscovering the city where I grew up. The winter pictures were all made during a ten day period in 1989, with help from a grant from the Colorado College.
This site and all content and linked files © Paul Raphaelson 1988-2013. No part may be used without permission.
Paul Raphaelson