From PDN PHOTO of the Day
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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From BEDFORD+BOWERY, 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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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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Excerpt from B&W MAGAZINE, 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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from MAGAZINET KUNST, 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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