Editor’s Note: Vincent Feldman’s new book, City Abandoned: Charting the Loss of Civic Institutions in Philadelphia, to be published by Paul Dry Books in March, has been a long time coming. Feldman started photographing Philadelphia back in the early 1990s, when large swathes of the once-mighty Workshop of the World had fallen into decay. His images of the city’s crumbling Neoclassical and Victorian architecture recall Piranesi’s 18th century etchings of the ruins of ancient Rome, as Kenneth Finkel points out in his introductory essay, which does a superb job of contextualizing Feldman’s work. Yet the contemplative mood and formal rigor of the photographs is not an end in itself; there is emotional power in seeing what has been lost both architecturally and in the civic life of the city, especially for those of us who lived in Philadelphia during this period.
Peter Woodall: When did you get started with photography?
Vincent Feldman: I recall being really interested in the Parkside homes. At that point some of them were really magnificently collapsed ruins and I remember photographing a friend’s pictures for his senior yearbook with those as a backdrop. That would have been in 84-85. At that same time I was also photographing architecture. I had gone downtown for my senior project but the light was too glaring so I got back in my car and put on KYW–it might have been about 6:30 in the morning–and I heard the business about MOVE and zoomed right up there and was able to get in under the tape before they closed off the area.
PW: We lived at 48th and Pine so we could actually see the smoke. That was one of my earliest Philadelphia memories…
VF: I was interested in becoming a combat or a war photographer and there was something about that experience that gave me enough of that experience that I was no longer interested. There was something about the pounding of that .50 caliber machine gun that moved you to the center of your being. It just scared the hell out of me, really.
PW: MOVE really colored that era, like the blackouts in New York City in 1977…
VF: So that starts to be a veil of darkness that’s falling on the city at that time. I went away to college for four or five years and I think it was that period of separation that made my eyes open up. That and going to Europe for about six months at the end of my time away and coming back into the city, the jading that I’d had, I was reexamining it in a new way.
PW: Fresh eyes…
VF: Yeah, tremendous. There’s nothing like going away, the culture shock, coming in and feeling like people sometimes do who come from out of the country or out of state and they go through North Philly on the train and they’re really filled with wonderment about what’s going on here. So that was the atmosphere that this book, or the photography that I was creating at that time, came out of. It was around 1990, 91 and I was just starting to use the large format camera then.
PW: You use a 4×5 view camera. Were you attracted to the level of detail and the level of enlargement that was possible?
VF: I was interested in the 19th century details, this sort of baroque detail. I was working with a camera that renders detail better than you can see it and I was making large prints. I was pretty influenced by Abstract Expressionist painters and at that time I was really interested in the gesture and that contemplative aspect of those paintings and I was working, photographing buildings in a similar way, kind of like Aaron Siskind. So I was interested in the surface, and the subtleties of history and the layers of history but not nearly in the broader fashion that came about later. I guess as the years went by I was stepping further and further back to get a sense of the city as a whole and get an idea of what happened here.
PW: Why did you choose to shoot in black and white?
VF: I’m a black and white photographer. I’m an artist who works in black and white. And some people really can see well in color. We have two ways of seeing with our own eyes. We have rods and cones and one sees in color and one sees in black and white. I think that forms the basis for how we appreciate photography on two levels like that, on two distinct modes.
PW: Architecture in particular maybe?
VF: Color is an emotional, distracting thing, so when I look at a lot of contemporary photography of images similar to what I’m doing, I’m usually distracted by the color right away and I feel sometimes like I’m getting a little too much sugar in that color if that saturation is strong. I think vision is clearer in black and white for me. For what I’m interested in looking at, for what I’m interested in feeling the color is just a distraction.
PW: In terms of the style in which you’ve shot most of these buildings, I would say a) there’s no people, and usually b) it’s a little bit cloudy, with tones that are muted or darker. Those are choices of course. Were you aware of making them or was that something you naturally gravitated towards?
VF: I’ve always for the most part used a Kodak emulsion that is high contrast. It’s Kodak technical film and that film is very difficult to shoot on a sunny day. I think that does add up in a mood that infects the whole book for the most part although there are some sunny pictures in there. The lack of people–I didn’t think about it much in the beginning. Perhaps I did–the contemplative aspect, people form a distraction. It would be about the person. And typically my shutter speeds are rarely faster than a quarter second so people would not be rendered anyway, and then if there were people going by I would make a longer exposure and they would disappear into the ether.
PW: Looking at the image on the cover, Germantown Town Hall. It is a copy of a Neoclassical building, William Strickland’s Merchant’s Exchange on Dock Street. Early Philadelphia architects consciously harkened back to classical sources, Rome and Greece. It seems like your photography has a classicism which reflects the subject matter. It’s cool, it’s stately. There’s a sympathy between subject and technique.
VF: Outside of Europe, this Neoclassical architecture started here–Benjamin Latrobe introduced it, and he introduced it specifically to highlight the values of the new republic. It was a symbolic gesture and it was meant to be a bold statement. And I think Stephen Girard was also responsible, as a patron of Latrobe, in influencing that because he had gone to Greece as a young man and was blown away by the ruins of Greek Civilization and the values of democracy. (Editor’s Note: It was Nicolas Biddle, not Girard, who had gone to Greece.)
PW: When you’re talking about the loss of civic institutions, when the buildings reflect the aspirations of a society by physically manifesting them in this classical way, it heightens the sense of loss when you photograph them in a state of decay.
VF: That was exactly what drove this. I wanted to put into pictures and make tangible that loss. That was important to me. I think everyone feels that loss to some degree even if they can’t put their finger on it. We know we’re leaving behind a period of not perfect virtue, but in a way the democracy was broader. I was just taking my son down to the Sixers game the other night and I’m like, that’s Citizens Bank Park, oh, it’s Wells Fargo Center, and that’s right before Lincoln Financial. When I was a kid it was Veterans Stadium, the Spectrum, and John F. Kennedy Stadium. It was all reflecting either the variety of use—the Spectrum–or memorializing some idea or great figure that we wanted to hold up high.
PW: Right, it’s not just a branding opportunity which caused that, it’s a larger shift in the culture…
VF: Yes, it’s representational of a much larger shift that we’ve had in my lifetime. To see it in crumbled ruins, it’s a symbolic gesture. Maybe it’s an obvious one, but I think when it’s collected…I think I got to a point where I was making pictures about the surface of things and people liked them a lot, and I felt like I was connecting with people with my photography. I felt a little bit vacant about that, just connecting on an art level. I felt like if I’ve been given a gift and I can connect with people with my image making then I need to at least be helpful with it or contribute in a way that might increase people’s awareness of things. Or help them make the connections they might not have made.
PW: Making things visible to people–giving them fresh eyes…
VF: Some of the images, like the collapsed churches, Our Lady of Mercy combined with a building like Christ Memorial Church, they go together to explain the sort of “de-steeple-ization” of the city. We have a lot of churches, instead of paying to have their church repaired have had L&I just tell them to take the steeple or tower down. So you see these stumps. Where once churches were reaching to the sky, as a symbol of joy and religion and heaven, now we have them sort of decapitated.
PW: A building like the Victory Building, say, when that was vacant and in danger of being torn down, a lot of people in the city were fairly obsessed with it.
VF: That’s true. I think a lot of people would credit that with reviving the interest in historic preservation, rallying around that building against Mayor Rendell, who was perfectly fine if it became a surface lot.
PW: That was a rallying point. And yet no one talks about the Victory Building anymore.
VF: It was a more popular landmark when it was in jeopardy. And I think that’s a good point. These buildings become of concern and interest to us in their plight.
PW: But then there’s something inherent in a building that’s in a decayed state or a ruin, that captures people’s imaginations.
VF: Right, because of the questions. That’s why I say as subjects for art ruins are terrific. I tell my students, ‘you want to make an interesting, engaging image, you gotta have a question in there.’ That is the ticket to join the imagination of your viewer and that’s the point of being an artist. It’s not just about your imagination. It’s making your imagination meld with a lot of different people. Ruins in particular do that. They’re attractive in that way. Maybe exactly the way elephants are found in their boneyards handling and caressing the bones of their elders. It’s gotta be a similar reaction. We have a hard time keeping people away from ruins. Whether they’re dangerous or not there’s no stopping people.
VF: I remember photographing Bannerman’s Island arsenal on the Hudson River. I would have swam the treacherous currents of the Hudson to be with that building, with that castle. I was for hours contemplating how to I get over there, and it was that magnetism. To have and to hold these objects is another reason I photograph them this way. It’s pretty difficult to do that digitally, to grab the texture and the actual physicality of the building.
PW: They get the bug. I would say that the current fascination with taking pictures of ruins is an internet-driven phenomenon primarily. Yet it’s tapped into something a lot of people felt and their enthusiasm is genuine.
VF: I wouldn’t have thought there would be that much enthusiasm across a broad spectrum of people.
PW: Your work predated the current interest in photographing urban decay, and yet there seems to be some overlap. What is the difference between your work and what’s come to be known as “ruin porn”?
VF: The first thing I think of with ruin porn is perhaps the voyeuristic aspect of it. The other thing is the tendency to not include location or to give an arty title to it as opposed to answering some of the questions the pictures obviously beg. To do something fantastic with Holmesburg Prison, the rotunda of that, and not say what country that is, what state, what city, that bothers me a bit when you’re dealing with historical subject matter.
PW: But also, 50 years from now, 100 years from now, the aesthetic merits–the formal rigor–of these types of photos may be what makes them of enduring interest. That’s one of the reasons why people are still looking at Walker Evans’s work.
VF: What I find interesting is that I have trouble telling the photographers apart. If you downloaded, say, 100 images, would it seem like it was one portfolio? There’s a homogeneity and that may not be something you can peg on ruin porn. I think it’s something that comes across from the democratic nature of digital photography.
PW: Did you search for subjects in a systematic way or was it more haphazard than that?
VF: The city is so vast. You know I started this before Google Maps. I originally found most of these buildings just by rounding a corner in my little Honda Civic and being like, ‘wow.’ Going on a rumor I’d heard that someone would tell me. Or the 26th District Police Station–I was just going through that part of Kensington, Trenton Avenue. And that is the best way to find these buildings.
PW: A little bit of the magic is gone when you can see them ahead of time…
VF: You’re looking at Streetview and you’ve already made your assumptions. It’s like going to a movie you hadn’t heard anything about.
PW: The fate of a lot of the buildings in your book have been decided one way or another. Are you still photographing these types of subjects?
VF: This project, I’ll probably want to talk about it for the rest of my life. At least as long as live in Philadelphia I’ll be engrossed in it. Because there’s no other project I can imagine photographically that would cover so many of my interests in one subject. There’s still a lot to shoot in the city. My interests change. I find I’m interested in more Mid-century modern buildings or even buildings like the At&T building on the South Street Bridge are intriguing. That’s a mysterious building.
PW: The brutalist stuff…
VF: Those still intrigue me, like the Lutheran Center on Lehigh Avenue, some of the buildings built in the 80s with the very defended facades, no windows on the first level or just slots that made them look more like bunkers. It must have been built in the late 60s early 70s but it was built with torches and pitchforks I think in mind. I’m interested in how buildings communicate what they are or what they want to be seen as.