We describe meaning as a tiger. We regard it always from a distance. Its stripes, we explain, are at once familiar, attractive, suggestive of danger, and inscrutable. For these reasons they blend with the world. It has been said that by some measures each tiger’s stripes are unique. Yet it is debated if these measures are of consequence. It is debated by others if there is one tiger or many, or if there is even a tiger at all. One property of tigers, if they may have properties (and not only prey), is to be evasive of questions. Some say that if a question returns to you, it will have taken a new form. And you will become the tiger.
Once the largest sugar refinery in the world, Domino shut down in 2004 after a decades-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. But what was Domino? What stories were we missing?
In 2013, the owner of the site, Two Trees, generously agreed to let me in. I proposed an expansive—even messy—fusion of art, document, and industrial history. I wanted to show the ruin as its majestic self, and also as a lens through which to explore the history of the place and its people.
My interests turned to the subway in the mid-2000s, when New York’s economic and cosmetic ambitions seemed to leach into the tunnels. With the arrival of new trains, 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 around them.
LOST SPACES / FOUND GARDENS 2005–2009
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.
In the early 1990s 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 imagined an unconscious synergy between the work of people, plants, and erosion, shaping 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 felt familiar. There was much to explore amid the detritus and weeds.
A question blows between these images like a tumbleweed: 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.
These pictures represent my earliest work. I made them as a student, when visiting and rediscovering the city where I grew up. The winter pictures are from a ten-day stretch in 1988, with help from a grant from the Colorado College.
LIVING, LOOKING, MAKING IN POST-INDUSTRIAL AMERICA 2016 [ESSAY FROM BROOKLYN’S SWEET RUIN]
I moved to Brooklyn in 1995, joining artists who had built a community in the shells of Victorian factories. We were drawn by economics (lofts meant cheap space back then) and maybe a bit by fashion (New Yorkers from the Abstract Expressionists to the Talking Heads helped romanticize industrial living). But I felt subtler motivations as well, including ones that might share roots with the world’s recent attraction to ruin photographs.
At the end of the 20th century, streets down by the Manhattan Bridge were quiet, having mostly been deserted by industry, and more recently, by packs of feral dogs. Brick mill buildings crowded the skyline, casting deep shadows across cobblestones and freight tracks. High on the walls, logos from long-defunct manufacturers faded alongside spraypainted street art. Both were obscured by tangles of wire that climbed like kudzu from door buzzers to windows of uncountable studios.
These buildings struck me as totems to possibility. Their freight elevators led to mazes of hallways and improvised lofts where, it seemed, you could reinvent yourself and make anything. I would have been tempted to call these buildings blank slates, but their battered surfaces offered something rather unlike blankness. Even when renovated to fluorescent-lit sheetrock boxes, their spaces felt alive with the vestiges of past inhabitants and industries—maybe even past versions of the world.