Abandoned buildings are often synonymous with blight, but they can elicit very different reactions depending on who you ask. The historian sees a structure full of links to the past; the scrapper sees a treasure trove of copper to loot. The homeless person sees a free place to live and bored local kids see a rule free place to play. Developers see a waste of space that could be turned into income, and local neighbors see an eyesore bringing down property values, inviting crime and vandalism to their block.
Local photographer Sarah Bloom looks at these same buildings and sees a perfect setting for shooting nude self portraits. I recently met up with her in an abandoned Philly factory to discuss her work, the buildings where she shoots and what it’s like being naked in places that most people would never enter.
Ethan Wallace: What was the first building you shot in?
Sarah Bloom: Well the first was in a park, in Ridley Creek State Park, that was like a spur of the moment thing. I had been already taking daily self-portraits and I had gone to an abandoned building in Pittsburgh. A house. And so I had already caught the bug but had not figured out how to enter that whole scene. They have all these crumbling buildings [in the park] and they say don’t go near them and my friends were like “we’ll keep watch” so I just ran in there. And a vulture scared the hell out of me. It was up on the roof but the stairs were missing in the building and I could not figure out how someone was upstairs. But it was just a bird. [laughs]
EW: As a woman going into these places, especially as a woman who is going in and getting nude have you had any bad encounters?
SB: I never go alone for one. Sometimes I’m just with another woman. That’s just sometimes how it works out. But I would not go alone even if I wasn’t getting nude because what if I got hurt. People say “well you have a cell phone,” but if you are unconscious you can’t use your cell phone.
EW: I’ve shot in plenty of these places where with all the steel and concrete you can’t get any cell signal.
SB: Yeah, I was taught to use the buddy system in kindergarten I guess and it stuck. But all of my run-ins, even ones that started out scary, have ended up okay (knock on wood), but yeah, in Edison http://hiddencityphila.org/2013/02/final-curtain-for-the-former-edison-high/ I had some kids walk in the auditorium. They were walking across the stage and I was up in the balcony and I had been sprawled out on the seats but at that point I was crouched by my tripod. But I was totally naked and they just looked up and saw me and burst out laughing, and just kept walking, so that was kind of funny. And the other times I’ve known people were coming in time to quickly put my coveralls on.
EW: The last series you were doing where you are under a plastic bag in each shot, was that to show the disposable nature of how we treat people?
SB: Yeah, the whole start of the series, of shooting the nudes in abandoned buildings was always about my kinship with the building. I started when I was about to turn forty—now I’m in my mid-forties—and I was feeling like my body was starting to change. It wasn’t healing as quickly. Things weren’t working quite the same as had been in my thirties and twenties. Figuring that all out and thinking, as a woman especially, the older we get, we just have less and less of a place in society. And are less valued. You know, we’re not that valued to begin with. [laughs] And so with the buildings that are left to rot and the things that are left in here that are just traipsed over, I felt that kinship. But when I was just doing nudes I also struggled I think with the vanity issue. I was feeling that kinship but I definitely struggled with still wanting to look nice. So that was a constant battle for me because that wasn’t really the point. Adding the plastic bag was sort of trying to embrace that theme more and make it more clear to the viewer that I’m not trying to show the contrast between a pretty naked woman and the abandoned building. Because a lot of people shoot models in these scenes and they are all about the contrast.
EW: Like where the model is in a formal gown or wedding dress in in the midst of all that ruin and decay…
SB: Yeah, and that’s cool too, but people were thinking that’s what I was doing and I really didn’t want to be doing that so using the plastic sort of made that more clear and brought it to a darker, more psychological level which is what I meant with it.
EW: I think the plastic worked well showing this is not about contrast, but the rather the subject is part of that abandoned environment.
SB: Yeah, for me I want to blend in to the buildings that I shoot in. I’m looking for scenes where I can fit in and be a part of the scenery. And show the sadness and a sense of abandonment—literal and figurative abandonment of youth, of something that was once new and now is old, and it’s me and the building.
EW: I came from a love of abandoned places and brought photography to that, whereas you came from photography and it lead you to these abandoned places. Since the buildings were not your original focus, what have you found since you started going in them? Has that changed your appreciation of them? Are you more aware of the architectural environment of the buildings around you?
SB: Oh, yeah. It’s taught me a lot. Definitely. I think it’s human nature, but I’ve always wanted to look in on what people are doing like at night when houses are lit up I always want to look in the window. I always thought that was just me but I’ve talked to a lot of people and it seems to be actually a kind of common thing. So now, ever since going into abandoned buildings I look at them the same way. It becomes like an obsession kind of, or a compulsion. Whenever you are anywhere you start noticing them, you might not have noticed them before. Your eyes scan the horizon and you’re like, “Oh there’s one and there’s one. I wonder how to get in there.” And then I started noticing an appreciation for architecture that I might not have had before. Where you start seeing the similarities in the architecture of certain types of buildings, like these columns. And then what gets left behind—in factories it’s harder because things get taken out so quickly. But in places like houses, that is really compelling, to see little pieces of the history of a place. But even in the factories or offices, like an office where even just a calendar is left it’s like this little glimpse of humanity.
EW: What’s the oddest thing you’ve ever come across?
SB: Relatively recently, this was in the last year in a Philly building, that was an industrial building that was used for manufacturing, but in this room in the basement, almost like a storage closet, there was all this school stuff. Like art stuff for kids, as if there had been a classroom in there. And there were all kinds of notebooks with art and all kinds of projects in there. And photos and things like that. And there were two old overhead projectors. I have no idea why they were there. Pretty strange.
EW: Do you have a particular location in Philly that’s a favorite?
SB: Yeah, um, am I allowed to name locations? Getting into a local power plant was like the holy grail for me. I could spend many, many more times in there. The only problem with it was when it was open everybody was in there and it was hard to do what I really wanted to do uninhibited. I did anyway. [Laughs] I did get walked in on but I was like whatever. I was setting up a shot and totally naked and all these people… I looked up and there were like five photographers looking down at me. But I was not going to miss that opportunity. That was one that lived up to my expectations and places don’t always do that. I had really high expectations for that and I had been trying for so long, and word got out it was open and we went. And it was like this long quest to get to the middle part which is where you want to be and we couldn’t find it and couldn’t find it and once we finally came in there… I’m not religious but it was like this must be what it’s like when you see god. [Laughs]
EW: I remember when I went to the Grand Canyon as a little kid and my mother who had been there kept saying “I can’t wait until you get your first look at the canyon.”
SB: Yeah, it’s very much like that.
EW: I’ve seen pictures. I know what it looks like. It’s a big deal. And then you get your first look, and the turbine hall [at the power plant] is the same way. You walk and there is this vast space with these gigantic machines. This huge open canyon.
SB: It actually felt exactly like the first time I saw the Grand Canyon. That is a perfect analogy. It was spiritual.
EW: Are there any buildings that you want to get into but have not been able to?
SB: There are a few. Some I’ve seen pictures of, but I don’t know where they are. I’m not that good a sleuth. [Laughs] And the scene, the urbex scene is very strange to me sometimes. I understand because of the nature of it there is going to be some level of secrecy. And also people get protective because these places get trashed very quickly.
EW: So what are some of the reactions you’ve gotten so far on the work you’ve done?
SB: Mostly positive. I mean no one has really said anything directly negative to me. [Laughs] But the number one question I get as soon as people see my work is “Have you had your tetanus shot?” That’s what everybody likes to ask. And the answer is no. I’m out of date and I figure if I get injured I’ll go get one. [Laughs] My understanding is it’s easier to get tetanus from gardening or something like that. It’s more from dirt than rust. I’ve only gotten minor scratches and scrapes in these places so far, knock on wood. But mostly people like it. I mean some people get different things from it and that’s totally fine. Even though say what I’m trying to do with it, it’s ok if people don’t exactly get that. Sometimes women get weird about that. But they’ve been really supportive. And occasionally guys take it as an erotic or sexual thing when it’s not, and I can’t really control that. It doesn’t bother me except that they’re kind of missing out.
EW: I was wondering about that because I have seen people who do erotic photography in the same settings, especially a lot of fetish stuff.
SB: And I like that stuff too, but I’m not doing that.
EW: Your work looks distinctly different from work that’s intended to look very sexual in nature.
SB: Sometimes people are very shortsighted as soon as there’s nudity involved. It’s like they see tits and can’t think anything but sex. Which is why people have a problem with breastfeeding I guess. It’s like they can’t separate the two. But my family has been incredibly supportive. My daughter has seen it since she’s been little and she’s been great. She’s come with me sometimes.
EW: There are so many risks coming into and photographing these places, and on top of that you’re adding your own image to your pictures. Most abandonment photographers seem to go out of their way to conceal themselves and not be shown whereas you’re revealing everything…
SB: A lot of times I don’t show my face, more because I want it to be a more universal image and I had a show of this kind of work, the abandoned self-portrait work, um two years ago right, and it was a self-portrait show. But people were coming to that show and didn’t know it was me in the pictures. People who didn’t know me already. It was really strange, because I thought it was so obvious. Then I realized it’s not actually that obvious. People say I’m brave all the time, that’s probably second after have you had your tetanus shot. And that feels uncomfortable because I don’t think of it as brave, because I’m so comfortable with the nudity at this point. Like, it’s just a body. It’s just my body. We all have bodies. So it doesn’t feel like a brave thing just to show it. It’s just a vehicle to the art. So it just feels uncomfortable because I don’t feel like I’m doing something particularly brave.
EW: That’s interesting…
SB: I guess it’s brave to make art, in general. For anybody to make art is some level of bravery.
EW: In art in general you are showing a piece of yourself and opening that up to potential criticism or dislike…
SB: Sure. I think the act of making art is brave but when people say I’m brave because I’m nude, I don’t feel like that part’s right. But I think anybody make art is an act of bravery. I never really thought of that until right now so… yeah, I’m brave. [laughs] I should be having a show in July because I’m involved with White Pines Artist Exchange. I’m a sponsored artist for White Pines Production Company which is out of Elkins Park. They just opened a new space in Elkins Park. They were out of the Elkins Estate for a while. And they do plays, they do music, they do art—produce different things, and they get grants. It’s awesome. I’m going to be a sponsored artist of the month in July so I’ll have a show in that space.
EW: Do they have the space already?
SB: Yeah, they just opened it. They’re going to have a big opening party at the end of this month. On the 30th I think. I’ll probably have some stuff hanging there for that. It’s going to be what they call a “happening” so there will be different things going on that represent different things that White Pines does. In the space they are offering classes and all kinds of stuff. So there’s my plug for White Pines. [laughs]
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For more information on White Pines Productions check out their web site HERE.
About the author
Ethan Wallace attended Temple University, where he received a BA in Communications. He has always been interested in the forgotten, unknown, or unseen parts of the city and has spent the last several years photographing Philly’s hidden and vanishing locations. He is also involved with the National Museum of Industrial History in Bethlehem, Pa. More of Ethan's photography can be seen HERE
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