Dana Shulz, January 12, 2018

The term “ruin porn” was born out of generations of street photographers venturing into neglected, decaying, and off-limits spaces, but today it’s become more of a mainstream trend to fluff one’s Instagram feed. So when Brooklyn-based artist Paul Raphaelson received the chance in 2013 to be the last photographer allowed into the then-abandoned Domino Sugar Factory, he knew he didn’t want his project to simply “estheticize surfaces while ignoring the underlying history.”

His stunning photos of the 135-year-old structure still “capture the sublime sense of spectacle,” but they also accompany archival maps, newspaper clippings, corporate documents, and even interviews with former Domino Sugar Factory employees, all of which come together in his new book “Brooklyn’s Sweet Ruin: Relics and Stories of the Domino Sugar Refinery.” Raphaelson shared his stunning images with us and also shared his thoughts on “urban exploration,” his process in compiling a comprehensive history of Domino, and his thoughts on the recently approved plans for the site.

How did you get into photographing abandoned spaces?

I’ve photographed desolate places, but this is my only real abandoned space project. It came about because for me, living in New York has been closely connected to old factory buildings. When I moved here in 1995, I joined friends living on the Brooklyn waterfront in repurposed victorian millhouses. I loved the architecture, the rawness, the sense of history, the sense of possibility … that you could do anything you dreamed of in these big old spaces.

Several years ago I started photographing spaces like the ones I’d turned into studios. But they weren’t abandoned spaces in the way you’re probably thinking. And they weren’t dramatic—they felt more like painted-over canvasses, waiting for their next incarnation.

Had you always been interested in Domino? How did you gain access?

When I was in the middle of my empty industrial space project, I read that Domino was going to be demolshed. Domino had been in my peripheral vision, but I hadn’t thought about photographing it. It then seemed like maybe it would fit my project—and that it would definitely be gone soon. So I started writing emails, asking for access.

I considered sneaking in, but those days seemed over—the refinery was humming 24/7 with asbestos abatement crews and demolition engineers. And it’s hard to do a serious project when you’re looking over your shoulder the whole time.

After around 6 months of emailing back and forth, the developers agreed to let me in. I was in for some surprises. The insides of the refinery were nothing like the empty industrial spaces I’d been photographing. It was a whole different experience, and quickly became its own project.

At first the developers gave me one day’s access. They said they’d been flooded with requests, and narrowed it down to five photographers. They gave us each a day in August 2013. That day I worked harder than I’d ever worked, but I barely scratched the surface.

I knew the developers wouldn’t want to give me more time—they had little incentive to take on the liability or to delay their development plans. So I had the idea of proposing a book. I used the pictures from that first day, did research, and put a team together with a well-known photography editor and an architectural historian. The developers said yes to my proposal. Which was amazing—I’d have a full week in October to photograph. But it also meant I had to do the book! So that little gambit ended up rewriting the next four years of my life.

Would you consider yourself an “urban explorer?”

I have friends who do this, including ones who wrote a book on the topic (Invisible Frontier). I admire their adventures, but think that they’re doing something rather different from what I do.

Urban exploration photography seems to be about documenting the adventure itself, as much as it’s about anything else. I think it has a connection to street art, and also to the survey photography of the American west (the expeditions used the photographs to publicize themselves and to raise funds). Like street art, urbex photos often have an element of performance, and of showing that “I was here.”

My work isn’t about that, although sometimes we share subject matter, and I’ve done my share of tresspassing and wandering into precarious places. My work is more about the thing photographed. It’s also about broader ideas beyond the photograph, and about problems in formal picture-making.

Your book is more than just photos; you worked with architectural historian Matt Postal to provide a comprehensive, historic overview of the factory, including archival maps, newspaper clippings, and corporate documents. Why was it important to you to include these materials, rather than just presenting a “ruin porn” photo series?

Well, the phrase “rather than just presenting a ‘ruin porn’ photo series” hints at the answer. As I researched the project, I discovered just how much contemporary ruin photography there was. It’s practically ubiquitous. I’m not used to working in a genre that’s trendy, and this one might be trendy to the point of being overdone.

Beyond that, it’s come under sharp criticism from many groups. People in Detroit, especially, call it out for being a kind of hipster imperialism. They see wealthy, mostly white, tourists with expensive cameras stomp across their lawns and gleefully photograph fossils of their former homes and livelihoods. Photographers often do this without a hint of serious interest in what their looking at. They estheticize surfaces while ignoring the underlying history and suffereing.

So here I was, taking on this huge new project, discovering that I was walking into a thicket of clichés and exploitation. How to make it more than just a ruin porn photo series became the central problem I had to solve.

I was able to address some of this problem through the photography and the photo editing, but much of my solution came with the supporting materials and the overall structure of the book. I still wanted the photographs to be beautiful and evocative—to capture the sublime sense of spectacle I experienced while inside Domino. But I wanted to to place the pictures in the context of history and personal stories, so viewers could get a sense of the richness and weight of what they were seeing.

There’s also an essay where I look my own connections to these old spaces. And I address some of the more philosophical and art-historical questions about our attraction to contemporary ruins. I think this attraction is symptomatic of some interesting and troubling elements in our culture.

It was necessary, in my view, to make the book this expansive and complex. It’s a testament to Christopher Truch’s art direction that it holds together at all.

You also included interviews with former factory employees. How did you track them down?

Facebook! At first I looked for names in newspaper articles about the strike in 1999/2000, but didn’t get anywhere. Then I discovered the workers had a thriving Facebook community. So finding them got easy. But finding ones who wanted to talk was hard. Most just had no interest. I was surprised, because journalists had almost all taken their side and treated them fairly during the labor disputes. But for whatever reason, I only found a handful who wanted to be in the project.

That said, I was lucky—the ones who talked with me were awesome. They could have talked for days. And they remembered everything.

I also talked to a bunch of current workers at the Domino Yonkers refinery, who had previously worked at the Brooklyn refinery. I learned tons from these guys about the technical side. But since they still worked for for the company, and had been in management back in Brooklyn, they were not as forthcoming with interesting stories as the other guys.

What was the most surprising thing you learned from the interviews?

That for most of their careers, the workers loved their jobs. More than I’ve ever loved a job. The place was their life and their community. The history shows that for most of Domino’s existence, particularly the 19th and early 20th centuries, it was an industrial hell hole. But the workers I talked to came from a golden era, when union contracts were strong and management was benevolent—up until the last few years, when new owners brought back Industrial Revolution attitudes toward management.

I learned some other things that are so surprising I can’t repeat them. About connections between Domino’s parent union (the Longshoremen) and several of the NYC crime families. One reason the union was able to negotiate such great contracts is that everyone was terrified of it. This gave the workers leverage, but also led to some some Tarantino-esq drama for workers who unwittingly wandered into the middle of union business.

How do you feel about the recently approved plans for the site?

In my personal utopia, the site would be left alone, like a Roman ruin, for people like me to run around in and make art of all different kinds. But this is just a selfish delusion. My number 2 fantasy would be some kind of public space that preserves much of the site, with buildings converted to museums, galleries, libraries, and other kinds of public spaces, parks, and possibly also live / work studios and commercial space for non-profits and carefully curated businesses. But with the value of the waterfront, this wasn’t going to happen either.

Considering that high-end architecture was inevitable, I think that the current plans (designed by SHoP architects) are pretty nice. Way better than the horror shows you see elsewhere on the Williamsburg and Greenpoint waterfront. And better than the plans proposed by the previous developer (CPC). I especially like the new plan for the glass-domed interior of the main refinery building. I’d probably like towers more if they were more in scale with the refinery and the bridge.

Any other projects you’re working on that you can tell us about?

I have a couple of ongoing experiments, and one completed project that I’d like to get out into the world. The completed one came right before Domino—it’s a series of photographs made on the subway, using windows and reflections. They’re unlike any subway photographs I’ve seen. I think it’s the most interesting project I’ve done, and also the one that’s most relevant to what’s going on in contemporary art. I’d like to do a book of this work.

The experiments are in early stages, so I’m not ready to talk about them yet. They’re quite different from anything else I’ve done.

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Anna Diamond, December 19, 2017

A new photography book uncovers the last days (and lasting legacy) of a New York institution

For 150 years, a massive building and its annexes loomed over the East River and Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood. Inside its humid and sticky walls, workers spent long days laboring over machines refining raw sugar from Caribbean plantations. But in 2004, the machines stopped and workers were laid off. For the next decade, the buildings sat still, quiet and empty—falling into disrepair, awaiting destruction.

A year before demolition began clearing the way for new developments along the waterfront, photographer Paul Raphaelson documented the refinery’s remnants. Long fascinated by old factories and urban landscapes, he found in the buildings an intriguing subject: a type of Rorschach test because, he said in an interview, the factory “represents different things to so many different groups of people.” Raphaelson’s desire to explore how cities and societies relate to their symbols of modernity and progress—and what happens when they are outgrown and abandoned—drives his new photo book, Brooklyn’s Sweet Ruin: Relics and Stories of the Domino Sugary Refinery. Photographs from the book are also on display at New York’s Front Room Gallery until January 14.

First built in 1855 by the Havemeyers, a wealthy, industrialist family, the refinery survived a fire in 1882, endured a couple changes in ownership, and underwent a rapid expansion, becoming the largest such complex in the world. Only 25 years after it opened, the factory refined more than half of the nation’s sugar. In 1900, the refinery was bought by Domino, a company whose iconic illuminated sign would later light up the Brooklyn skyline with a star dotting its “i.” The complex grew to occupy more than a quarter mile of Williamsburg’s waterfront and at its peak in the 1920s, the factory had the capacity to refine 4 million pounds of sugar daily and employed 4,500 workers. The thousands of employees, who made their living at the factory and lived in the areas surrounding it, cultivated the neighborhood’s early development and became an integral part of Williamsburg’s history.

Devoid of human figures, many of Raphaelson’s photos examine the once powerful, now dormant, machines used to refine the sugar. The processes ceased long ago but they scarred the building; walls are stained by rust and oxidized sugar, and the bottoms of massive bone char filters are streaked where the sugary syrup had dripped. From afar, some of the images become almost abstract and geometric: a bin distributor is reminiscent of a pipe organ; a view of staircases and railings blend together in an M.C. Escher-esque fashion.

But up close, Raphaelson reminds us that these objects once required knowledge—once specialized and useful—now irrelevant. “A thought lingered in the shadows between the machines: someone, not long ago, knew how to work these things,” he writes. Even though the factory is abandoned and those “someones” are long gone, details of former workers remain throughout: lockers plastered with 9/11 commemorative and American flag stickers and the occasional pin-up poster, a supervisor’s abandoned office strewn with paperwork and files, a machine with writing etched into its metal exterior.

By the time the factory shuttered in 2004, production and employee rolls had been falling for decades, as the company traded hands between various conglomerates and food producers’ increasing relied on cheaper corn sweeteners. Only a few years prior, refinery workers had staged the longest strike in New York City’s history: for more than 600 days, from 1999 to 2001, they protested treatment by Domino’s new parent company, Amstar. Despite the labor unrest, Domino had “became a kind of time capsule,” says Raphaelson. “The workers were in a place that was, for someone who had an industrial job, a utopian situation. They had, over the course of the 20th century, negotiated better and better worker contracts in terms of conditions and compensation.” But when the closure came, the workers, with so much specialized knowledge and no plans in place to be retrained, were abandoned like the factory itself.

One of the workers who was struggling to re-enter the workforce told The New York Times, “’I learned this past week that I’m a dinosaur… Having a job for a long time in one place is not necessarily a good thing. It used to mean I was reliable.” A decade later, another former employee shared with The Atlantic the pain he’d witnessed since the factory shut: “when the refinery closed some men lost their jobs, they had a pension but they became alcoholics because their wives left them, their kids had to drop out of college. If you’ve never been down and have to scuffle and scrape you don’t know how to survive.”

Artists have drawn on ruins for their work for centuries. As Raphaelson explains, the Renaissance movement used ruins to symbolize the conquest of Christianity over paganism,  while Neoclassicsts found inspiration in Roman ruins and Romanticists focused on what happens when nature overtakes architecture.

More recently, the genre gained renewed attention, as well as criticism and the derogatory label “ruin porn” when photographers starting flocking to post industrial cities, most notably Detroit, to document urban decay. The artists, many of whom were privileged outsiders, received criticism for “aestheticizing suffering, while keeping aloof from the ruins’ history and the people directly affected,” says Raphaelson. “The work ends up devoid of any sense of what it all meant to the people who were there; what the history was and how much suffering it all represented.”

There is danger in the intoxicating nostalgia that ignores or lessens the history surrounding decay, and it’s something that ruin artists must grapple with. The solution, Raphaelson argues, is contextualizing and working through the history. Alongside his 50-odd photographs of Domino’s ruins are an essay, an historical overview, and a smattering of interviews with former workers. That way, he says, “we can see beauty and historical horror; we can see timeless symbol and allegorical decay, all at once.”

Ruin photography often relies, to varying degrees of success, on emptiness to tell the story of a place and people. In 2014, months after Raphaelson photographed the buildings and before they were torn down, African-American artist Kara Walker challenged this vacuum, by bringing the history of the sugar industry and the human cost of capitalism into the Domino refinery.

Her piece, “A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby,” was a massive installation: a 35-foot tall, sensualized Sphinx-like black woman sculpted out of white sugar and placed in the former raw sugar warehouse of the refinery, surrounded by small statues of serving boys coated in molasses. Nato Thompson of Creative Time, the arts organization that presented the project, wrote, “Walker’s gigantic temporary sugar-sculpture speaks of power, race, bodies, women, sexuality, slavery, sugar refining, sugar consumption, wealth inequity, and industrial might that uses the human body to get what it needs no matter the cost to life and limb. Looming over a plant whose entire history was one of sweetening tastes and aggregating wealth, of refining sweetness from dark to white, she stands mute, a riddle so wrapped up in the history of power and its sensual appeal that one can only stare stupefied, unable to answer.”

All of the Domino complex buildings, save for the main refinery which is slated to become office space, were demolished in 2014 by Two Trees Management, a real estate development firm. Designated a landmark in 2007, the sole-surviving building, which used to dwarf all the others, will soon find itself in the shadows of new high-rises, some towering 400 feet tall.

The Domino factory itself is just one part of the larger battle for development: building and demolition permits were issued so rapidly that in 2007, the National Trust for Historic Preservation named the East River waterfront to its “Endangered” list. And as the long-term residents have been pushed out over the past decade, Williamsburg and its neighboring Greenpoint have almost become metonyms for gentrification: the area saw the highest increase in rent average from 1990 to 2014 in all of New York.

Wary of waxing nostalgic, Raphaelson isn’t mourning the refinery per se, but he does reflect on what opportunities have been lost in its destruction. “I don’t necessarily think we need to have refineries on the waterfront, but I do think it’s a healthier city when people, like [former] refinery employees can live in that neighborhood if they want to, or not too far away,” he explains.

Because of the unionized wages, many Domino workers were able to afford housing in the surrounding neighborhoods but, since the refinery’s closing, they’ve been pushed out by rising rents. While the developers have agreed to provide some low-income housing in the new development, a lottery for the first redeveloped building had 87,000 applicants for the 104 affordable units. These fractions of availability offer little relief to the growing number of New Yorkers who, after being priced out of apartments, have been pushed to the city’s far edges.

More than a decade after the last workers left the refinery, hundreds of new residents and employees will flock to a commercial and residential complex (one building is open so far and the others are slated over the next few years). On the same waterfront, where a monument to both modernity and obsolescence once stood, a monument to gentrification rises in its place. At the top, the famous Domino sign, a relic of its past life and a continuing cultural marker, will light again.

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December 17, 2017

New York, NY— Brooklyn’s Domino Sugar Refinery, once the largest in the world, shut down in 2004 after a long struggle. Most New Yorkers know this 135-year-old industrial relic only as an icon on the skyline, multiplied on T-shirts and skateboard graphics. In 2013, Paul Raphaelson, known for his formally intricate urban landscape photographs, looked past the facade. He received permission from the developers of the Domino site to explore every square foot of the refinery just weeks before its gutting and demolition. Raphaelson is the last photographer given access to the factory.

Large scale prints of Raphaelson’s stunning photographs are currently on view at the Front Room Gallery (48 Hester Street, New York, NY 10002) through January 14, 2018.

Brooklyn’s Sweet Ruin includes an essay by the photographer on living and photographing in post-industrial America, and a historical text compiled by Raphaelson in collaboration with architectural historian Matthew Postal, PhD. The text draws from historic images and maps, newspaper and magazine articles, corporate documents, unpublished manuscripts, and interviews with former refinery employees.

The History of Domino and its Workers
Inside the cavernous buildings, the punishing noise levels and tropical heat of the industrial revolution had been replaced by eerie silence and cold. Here, Raphaelson felt surrounded by specters of both the refinery’s history and its looming destruction. However, he writes in his essay in the book, “I felt the strongest haunting in the machinery itself, in the human interfaces comprised of valves, gauges, switches and panels, together representing technologies of two centuries, merged in a collage that looked part science fiction, part ancient shipwreck …”

Raphaelson mused on the fates of the workers trained to operate one-of-a-kind machinery now obsolete. “Of the workers I spoke with, most had been old enough to retire. One had formal education and had been young enough to move on. Then there were the rest, who faced chronic unemployment.” The workers he interviewed talk about the harsh, often hazardous working conditions, but also the camaraderie and great pride they took in the products they made.

Brooklyn’s Sweet Ruin‘s historical text takes us through the refinery’s early years, including the story of the Havemeyer family who passed company leadership between sons, grandsons and extended family members for over 100 years. It recounts the devastating fire of 1882 and reconstruction; the boom years and the birth of the famous Domino Brand; the monopolistic trust (and anti-trust suits) as Domino expanded; the company’s fraught relationship with plantation slavery and indentured servitude; the process of refining sugar “Brooklyn Style;” and the factory’s ultimate closure under pressure of economic circumstances and a protracted war between labor and management.

Brooklyn’s Sweet Ruin is a thrilling mashup of art, document, industrial history and Brooklyn visual culture. Together with the exhibition at Front Room Gallery, Raphaelson hopes his project will speak to a wide audience, including lovers of contemporary art and photography, art curators and historians, fans of urban exploration and all-things-Brooklyn, and former Domino Refinery workers and their families, to whom he dedicates his book.

Raphaelson’s world-class team of contributors to Brooklyn’s Sweet Ruin includes Pulitzer Prize-winning photography editor Stella Kramer and art director Christopher Truch.

“I wanted to show the ruin as its majestic self, and also as a lens through which to see the history of the place and its people … I found myself working in the abstract, seeing how much chaos I could allow into the frame, while still making a coherent picture. The visual density and confusion of the place invited this kind of formal experiment.”— Paul Raphaelson (from his introduction)

Paul Raphaelson is a Brookly-based artist known for urban landscape photographs, mostly made in liminal spaces between the residential and industrial, occupied and abandoned, domesticated and feral. He has also photographed fragmented and disorienting views offered by the New York City Subway, and experimented with images and text (and text without images). His work has been exhibited and collected internationally.

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Natasha Soto, December 14, 2017

When it was rebuilt in 1883, the Domino Sugar Refinery was the largest in the world. That year, the Brooklyn Eagle described the new facility as “colossal.” At its peak, the factory processed one-third of the sugar consumed in a year in the U.S., and one-eighth of all the sugar consumed in the world.

Since then, the 135-year-old industrial relic has become something of an icon on the skyline.  After a long struggle, the Domino Sugar factory shut down in 2004. In 2013, urban landscape photographer Paul Raphaelson was granted access to the facility just weeks before its gutting and demolition. The photographs he captured during his exploration are gathered in the book Brooklyn’s Sweet Ruin: Relics and Stories of the Domino Sugar Refinery.

For Raphaelson, the space was the perfect laboratory for photographic study. “Domino’s spectacle offered an exaggerated version of the kinds of challenges I’ve often been drawn to — like how to invite as much chaos into the photographic frame without losing coherence, or how best to compress disorienting geometries and spaces into two dimensions,” he writes in a personal essay featured in the book.

The book not only showcases how an industrial space can be used for experiments in formal picture making, but also focuses on a human element of the defunct factory. “I felt the strongest haunting in the machinery itself,” Raphaelson writes, “in the human interfaces comprised of valves, gauges, switches, and panels.”

“Sweet Ruin” includes interviews with the workers of the Domino Sugar factory, who endured punishing levels of noise and heat, as well as generally hazardous conditions. Some of those workers were interviewed for the book and spoke about the camaraderie they found on the job and the pride they took in their work. Architectural historian Dr. Matthew Postal provided a detailed history of the factory for the book.

In his personal essay, Raphaelson speaks about the rapidly growing yet abundantly criticized genre of “ruin art.”

“Contemporary ruin art criticizes modernity itself,” he writes. “At their occasional best, ruin photographs build bridges, between past and future, nostalgia and cynicism, esthetic and ethics, history and fantasy. We may need such a capacity for ambiguity — and complication — if we hope to take on the present.”

Other contributors to “Brooklyn’s Sweet Ruin” include Pulitzer Prize-winning photography editor Stella Kramer and art director Christopher Truch.

The photographs will be displayed at an accompanying exhibition for the publication at the Front Room Gallery, 48 Hester St. in Manhattan until Jan. 14. The opening reception with the artist will take place on Friday, Dec. 15 from 7 to 9 p.m. 

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Photo District News, November 14, 2017

In 2013, Paul Raphaelson read about the planned demolition and renovation of Domino’s Brooklyn Sugar Refinery, a massive complex on the East River that at one time processed more than half the sugar used in the United States. As a photographer with an interest in the urban landscape, Raphaelson felt a particular urgency about the buildings. As he writes in his new book Brooklyn’s Sweet Ruin: Relics and Stories of the Domino Sugar Refinery, published by Schiffer, photographing the refinery, “seemed like an opportunity—of what kind I didn’t know—about to slip away,” as the buildings were taken down and refurbished for a new life as luxury residential housing. After six months of negotiating, the building’s developers offered Raphaelson a day of access to photograph in August, which led to a book proposal and a week of access the following October.

Inside, Raphaelson found a “labyrinth of architecture and machines,” he writes, including complex systems of pipes, conveyor bridges, control panels and boilers, along with empty locker rooms and a supervisor’s office filled with open filing cabinets, all coated in peeling paint and layers of dust and sugar. Working with the vast geometries of the spaces “felt like a playground for…experiments in formal picture making,” he writes. His photographs record vast empty spaces and soaring views. But beyond the visual appeal of the place, “my stronger impression was of Domino’s haunting, both by shadows of its working days and by its looming erasure. These specters and I occupied a strange present, suspended between a coal-fired industrial past and a glass-walled residential future promised by the developers.” In an extensive essay by Matthew Postal, the book makes a concerted effort to present the long and sometimes troubled history of the refinery, as an industrial center, as part of the exploitative sugar trade with roots in slavery and colonialism, and later, at the turn of the last century, as the site of a 600 day strike, longest labor battle in New York’s history, which ended in a defeat for the union a few years before the plant closed in 2004.

In the book, Raphaelson also addresses photography and art’s longstanding interest in ruins. He writes that at least since Robert Smithson’s seminal 1967 essay “A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey,” ruins have been a popular subject for photographers. Over time, “The scope of ruin photography has expanded, spawning sub-genres such as war and disaster aftermath, urban blight, hospitals and asylums, amusement parks, ghost towns, and of course, factories,” he writes. The practice has also drawn criticism, especially from the people who live with ruins. By paying attention to the history of the Domino refinery and the stories of the people it was important to, Raphaelson hopes to avoid the pitfalls of portraying the place simply as relics to be esthetically enjoyed. He writes, “A question looms over the whole enterprise: Is there a clear path by which photographers of fresh ruins can avoid exploitation, or confront it, rather than serving as its agent? I’m in no position to answer authoritatively, but I’ll suggest that simply asking could be a welcome first step.”

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February 2016

The iconic Domino Sugar refinery graced the Williamsburg waterfront for decades, and when much of it was demolished in 2014, many felt that a quintessential part of the neighborhood had vanished. Paul Raphaelson, a photographer who specializes in urban and industrial landscapes, felt a similar sense of loss, and decided to capture the abandoned factory’s eerie beauty before it disappeared. However, what started out as a simple desire to photograph the building’s cavernous spaces became an in-depth exploration into the human and historical context that surrounded them. The endeavor would eventually result in a crowdfunded book as well as a set of photos currently on display at The Front Room gallery, not far from the site of the refinery.

“I was working with pictures of empty industrial spaces, but I wasn’t specifically thinking about Domino until I heard it was being knocked down,” he said. In 2013, after insistently asking the property owners for permission to enter the factory and take photos, Raphaelson was granted access for one day, after which he was hooked. “It defied my expectations,” he said. “It was more interesting and remarkable inside than I thought. I did some good work, and I wanted to do more.”

While putting together a proposal for a more extensive project on the refinery, Raphaelson decided that he wanted to create a project that placed his images within the factory’s greater cultural and historical context.

“Originally, it was interesting to me because it was this iconic Brooklyn thing that was so visually compelling because of its size and its complexity,” he said. “But as I was researching it and learning more about what I was looking at, I got a sense of the historical side and that led me to the human stories behind it.”

Raphaelson wanted to address the sometimes de-contextualized nature that defines the usual “ruin porn” of abandoned buildings, and ensure that his images stayed grounded in the factory’s history. “Instead of being ripped out of a historical context, I wanted to put [the photos] back in the historical context and the human context,” he said.

To that end, Raphaelson spoke to about ten former workers, who he managed to track down via the Domino Sugar Refinery Facebook group, where many former employees still keep in touch. “After talking to people for many hours, I’d get a couple of short anecdotes that were personal and fun and illuminated the experience of being there,” Raphaelson said. He added that many workers expressed their appreciation for the factory through a “sense of ownership over their jobs and the machines they worked with.”

One story was particularly memorable: “One guy worked for years on a machine that produced sugar cubes, and he intuitively knew what was wrong with it whenever it stopped working,” he said. “Most of the foremen and supervisors respected [the workers], but occasionally there would be a foreman who would try to micromanage everything, and the workers would use their intimate knowledge of the machines to sabotage them,” he said with a laugh. When the presumptuous foreman would attempt to fix the machine and invariably fail, the workers would play dumb until the supervisor removed the meddling foreman. “The minute the guy was out of the room, the machine would be fixed in two minutes and was up and running again.”

According to Raphaelson, the workers also praised the diversity and sense of community that was fostered among the factory employees. For him, all these personalized stories give his vast photos a sense of grounding and meaning.
While Raphaelson is still searching for a publisher for Sweet Ruin: The Brooklyn Domino Sugar Refinery and working on final edits, three of his photos can be viewed at The Front Room gallery in Williamsburg as part of a group exhibition titled, aptly enough, “Beyond Ruin Porn.”

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Annette Weintraub, in Media Art and the Urban Environment, 2015

Isolated islands of the past, the residual monumental remnants of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century industrial architecture stand in stark contrast to the more conventional contemporary landscape. These plants were built on an imposing scale; they were visual confirmation of a dominant and vibrant industrial machine. Designed to convey optimism, boundless confidence, and the ascendency of capitalistic culture, their design in scale and materials harks back to the public works of ancient times: they were functional and unadorned, yet magnificent as works of engineered space. Photographer Paul Raphaelson’s images of the deserted Domino Sugar Refinery convey this duality of former grandeur and current desolation.

At its peak, Domino refined more than half the sugar used in the United States. Now, although partially landmarked, the site has been purchased by a developer. Plans for development include a large residential tower described by the Municipal Art Society as likely to overwhelm the historic parts of the refinery that will escape outright demolition. Raphaelson’s interior images capture both the immense halls and intricate mechanical workings of the plant. The austere open spaces read as an elevation of the utilitarian, while the complex machinery with patinated surfaces of corroded metal, flaking rust, and peeling paint reminds us of the temporality of even the most ambitious undertakings. The Domino photographs have the linearity of drawings and convey the intricacy of complex mechanicals that might appear simply sculptural to us now, but which would have been entirely comprehensible and ordinary to the workers that formerly inhabited the space. Raphaelson’s interior photographs emphasize materiality of surface and intricacy of structure in a way that conveys the epic drama of the plant’s intended purpose and underlines the poignancy of its current diminished state.

Images that aestheticize decay and destruction and record the ravages of time create a visual language that is in dramatic opposition to the polished visual language of commercial architectural photography and computer rendering. This attraction to ruin was described as a “mediating power, between the old and the new, and between nature and culture” by the nineteenth-century art critic John Ruskin. Images of destruction provide a counter narrative to the seduction of real estate development; idealized utopia and its mirror image of urban devastation both contain similar elements of nostalgia, longing, and anxiety about time. Writing about how architecture transmits the illusions of the current dominant ideology, Augé describes a utopian dimension that might be attainable, but which is always slightly out of reach and that “reproduces in reverse the relation with time expressed by the spectacle of ruins.” Time thus expressed through the ruins of the past or the barely glimpsed utopias of the future is a way to “grasp in the present a lack that structures the present moment by orienting towards the past or the future” (Augé 2008).

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July 2015


July 2015

Long synonymous with the Williamsburg waterfront, the Domino Sugar Factory is now but a relic of the neighborhood’s industrial past. For Ditmas Park artist Paul Raphaelson, however, the building has long held a mystique as an alluring artistic playground. That’s why in 2013, he decided to venture inside Domino’s decaying factory floor to shoot photos of its looming ceilings and rusted metal catwalks.

“Domino had been in the back of my mind,” he says, but notes that the factory conjures up many different feelings for different people. He thinks Domino is a symbol imbued with a distinct meaning for older generations who grew up in an America teeming with manufacturing businesses.

“When they see an abandoned factory, they see absence, they see loss, but we were never really familiar with their sense of industrial greatness,” he says, invoking the days of the Domino’s prominence, a time period spanning both the 19th and 20th centuries.

The greatness that Raphaelson talks about is manifested in the factory’s sheer vastness and sprawling metallic infrastructure, which wove and bent toward Domino’s ceiling and plentiful windows.

“The spaces are enormous, humbling in their scale. There’s the loftiness of a cathedral in parts of the refinery,” he says.

And Raphaelson’s photos do justice to his sentiment. His images, which will all be compiled into a forthcoming photo-book called Sweet Ruin that he’s trying to fund via Kickstarter, speak of a certain atypical order among the abandoned metal tubes and grimy wires. The photos manage to contain all the blighted concrete, gauges, buttons, pipes and knobs in one chaotic setting, while at the same time incorporating abundant sunlight or careful editing to convey calm.

Gaining access to Domino in order to shoot his photos was an ordeal, Raphaelson admits, and something that took him over a year to accomplish. He first contacted Two Trees Management, the Brooklyn real estate firm that acquired Domino in 2012, asking if he could take his camera into the abandoned factory that year. He continued to email them for another year before he got a response, and eventually convinced them that his book idea was worthwhile. Two Trees granted Raphaelson just five days for his project–barely enough time to explore the factory on a cohesive scale.

What he came away with is quite impressive, though. Each photo, which range from desolate locker rooms scenes to expansive shots of the airplane hanger-sized refinery, shows the factory in a state of neglect and gradual erosion. Everything from Domino’s file cabinets to its two-story sized refining machines had gone basically untouched for over a decade when Raphaelson took his photos.

But the decay isn’t necessarily the point of Raphaelson’s work. He wants to shy away from the pejorative “ruin porn” term that gets heaped on docu-photography taken in the American rustbelt, especially in Detroit. “This work has been characterized as dancing on graves, almost a kind of schadenfreude,” he says, explaining how fetishizing chaos is something he’d like to avoid.

Rather, his focus is the history of Domino, and what it meant–and still does mean–to those who earned their livelihood there.

“I look around and I think that not many years ago, someone knew what all this stuff did–all these buttons and gauges and bells and machines–there were people running this stuff. This is real knowledge and people’s livelihoods. Now [walking through Domino], it’s like being on an archaeological site on another planet,” he says.

Raphaelson wants to add historical color to his project, and has been seeking out former Domino employees to glean a sense of what working life was like there. While many workers have been reticent or at least a little skeptical of his intentions, Raphaelson has learned that Domino employees “were from all over the world… people from an incredible number of countries, people from every ethnicity and from every account that I’ve heard, people got along really well,” he says.

When asked what Domino represents in a general sense, Raphaelson admits that the factory has maintained a wealth of various meanings, many of which continue to morph and change over time.
“I think if you talk to people in their sixties it represents loss, if you talk to young people in Brooklyn, they see it more as a visual icon, and it’s going to represent a different kind of nostalgia for them,” he says.

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May 2013


June 2012


Issue 83, June 2011

Brooklyn-based photographer Paul Raphaelson has the rare gift of being able to find in nondescript, commonplace terrain what Robert Adams has described as the verities of geography, autobiography, and metaphor. In the process he poses intriguing questions about what might be termed a “new urban wilderness”—the often-overlooked spaces where flora and fauna interact on uneasy terms with steel and concrete.

Raphaelson’s enigmatic images conflate the process of urban decay and nature’s efforts at reclaiming a measure of physical space within the modern metropolis. The resulting visual tension produces a complex emotional resonance as well as an ironic sense of balance, with mankind and nature alternately in ascendance.

Raphaelson began finding himself drawn to the run-down and overgrown places in his immediate surroundings. These sites resonated with visual correlatives to the personal depression and professional frustrations he was undergoing at the time. The fit between his inner and outer worlds was, he says, too hard to ignore.

The pictures he began taking at this time eventually comprised the Wilderness series, which first brought him to critical attention. No less an authority than former Museum of Modern Art curator John Szarkowski recognized the originality of Raphaelson’s conception and the formal elegance of its execution.

Most of the photographs were made within walking distance of where he lived, first in Providence, and later in Brooklyn. The sense of familiarity intensified his photographic curiosity as his ideas for the series matured and expanded. It soon acquired a complexity that could not be distilled into a single, concrete interpretation. Raphaelson has never cared to address the question of whether this work is about urban decay or the resilience of nature. “There were always so many examples of both qualities in the places I photographed. Sometimes one or the other would dominate, but the complex relationships between the living and crumbling things—physical or visual or metaphorical—were usually the interesting part.”

The implications of a life force also draw attention to the city as habitat, which is by turns presented as vital and barren. The photographer’s stance in this regard is decidedly neutral; he neither criticizes nor embraces the conceptual dichotomy that informs the images. Raphaelson doesn’t impose his presence upon the urban topography, but lets himself be guided by the mood of each particular site in a kind of unconscious collaboration. He engages in a subliminal dialog with viewers, drawing attention to everyday views that go unnoticed.

“Europeans once thought mountains were hideous! They were examples of God’s wrath, and didn’t show up in pretty pictures. Just as empty lots aren’t scenery for most of us today. We’re in the habit of tuning them out on the assumption that they’re ugly or uninteresting. I want to show that they can be beautiful—if you stop and really look. I try to encourage this through all the formal tricks of picture making, but really the most basic role of a photographer is pointing. By putting a picture on the wall, you’re saying, ‘look at this. ‘ That’s not much of a superpower, but it can be an effective one if you wield it carefully. Now, obviously, I’m not the first person to find this stuff interesting or to point to it. The deeper questions are about how and why it’s interesting. What, specifically, is being explored by a particular picture or sequence of pictures.”

Raphaelson has another body of work, on the American Southwest, that complements the Wildernessseries while achieving a kind of subtle inversion: instead of nature gamely poking its head out here and there in our cities, the focus is on man’s intrusion into the wide-open desert spaces by means of fences, roadways, commercial structures, and refuse.

In some ways, this work is even more poignant than the city pictures. It’s not enough that the urban environment tends toward inhospitability and sterility; we also have to leave our imprint on the pristine spaces between our cities. But Raphaelson acknowledges that photographers like Robert Adams and Lewis Baltz mined this territory decades ago; he naturally feels an imperative to bring a fresh articulation to this subject matter.

Perhaps his contribution lies in a visual spatial density that borders on the abstract. Raphaelson merges pictorial elements toward a non-figurative state, fully engaging the viewer’s interpretive skills while still allowing for an aesthetic response. Such tableaux typically mix perceptual pleasure and disorientation, with no clear demarcation between the two. The conflicting intimations of dead ends and new beginnings gives rise to a living presence that places these photographs in the realm of metaphysical poetry.

Raphaelson has for the past few years been working on a followup series titled Lost Spaces, Found Gardens. Although thematically akin to his black and white work, it’s photographed in color, which inherently alters the visual relationships and emotional tonalities within the frame. “I hoped to explore those color relationships I’d been noticing. And I wanted to do something different from my old work—anything. I’d worked on the Wilderness pictures for so long, I was afraid I’d never be able to do anything else. When it felt like time to pick up a camera again, I needed to prove I could learn new tricks. Color was one. So was the square format, and so was doing some of the work handheld. I don’t mean that I thought of the project as an exercise, but it served that purpose at a time when I needed it.”

An even newer project combines images and text in aways that are both harmonious and discordant. The seeming incongruity reflects Raphaelson’s tendency to make things difficult on himself, the hallmark of an artist who would rather risk failure than endlessly repeat past success. It’s an affinity he shares with the photographers who have influenced him most—early American modernists like Edward Weston, Paul Strand, and Alfred Stieglitz, late modernists like William Eggleston and Stephen Shore, and 19th Century survey photography Timothy O’Sullivan.

The visual ethos O’Sullivan applied to his views of the American West (when it was still truly wild) corresponds to the approach of his 21st-century spiritual heir. As Raphaelson observes, “he figured out how to turn empty space into magic, and did it decades before anyone even noticed.”

Dean Brierly

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February 2007


March 2006

Every town has areas that lie on the outskirts of the town’s consciousness. Framed by rusty chainlink fencing and crowned by piercing barbed wire garlands, can be found what the American photographic artist Paul Raphaelson calls found gardens.

Raphaelson finds inspiration in the wild vegetation that invade the town’s blind corners behind broken padlocks and warning signs from long-defunct security firms.

Raphaelson’s photographs are typically taken in Brooklyn and Manhattan, and elegantly show what happens there when suddenly the asphalt splits and plants start to push their way out. Nature declines to give way to the town and with time invades all the abandond spaces of the city.

This is a liberating sign for Raphaelson, who delights in the uninvited plant community’s contrasts with the town’s often antiseptic geometry and sheen.

Even the most dreary regions of New York appear elegant and charming though Raphaelson’s framing and lens. Go exploring in Raphaelson’s New York and see the crumbling walls, the rusty fences, the cracked asphalt and the green flora in these boxed-in city oases. Have fun!

Michel Henri

Translated from Danish by Struan Gray

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