Ours To Lose Captures West Philly Landmarks In Decline

 

Octagon, George’s Hill, 2018. | Photo: Vincent Feldman

Editor’s Note: Vincent Feldman’s photographs of neglected Philadelphia are mesmerizing and devastating. His large format prints shimmer with silvery detail. Deep tones of black and white glow with a three-dimensional quality. Feldman’s mastery of his medium transfixes the eye, while his desperate, deserted subjects reach out to grab you by the heart. These are records of loss–of architecture, of culture, of industry, of family history–and they capture a city at destructive odds with preserving the character of what it is, what it once was, and what it economically aspires to be. 

Ours to Lose, now on view at the Slought Foundation, continues with his City Abandoned series, while narrowing a focus on neighborhood landmarks in West Philadelphia. Michael Bixler caught up with Vincent Feldman to discuss Philly’s preservation crisis, large-format film photography, and his experience during the MOVE bombing as a teenage photographer at the scene. 

Michael Bixler: Across the city Philadelphia’s historic fabric and cultural character is being aggressively compromised by real estate development pressures. Nearly every week neighborhood landmarks and community anchors are destroyed and cleared for new construction. From your observation, what types of building are the most threatened in West Philadelphia? Are there any specific, under-the-radar places you’ve photographed that are the most vulnerable?

Vincent Feldman: Churches are the lowest hanging fruit for developers and are most at risk. Their vulnerabilities aren’t tax liens and mortgage defaults, which plague thousands of residential properties, but the accumulated deferred maintenance that just about every ecclesiastic property in the city exhibits. We are reflecting on that story now with Christ Memorial at 43rd and Chestnut. It’s a fortunate church that retains its steeple in Philadelphia today.

Churches help define much of the character of city neighborhoods. We love the churches in our neighborhoods even if we don’t belong to the congregations. Not just because in many cases these building are superiorly attractive, but they represent the historic roots of the community and are part of our public realm. Another sailent example from Ours To Lose is the West Philadelphia Jewish Community Center. This prominently-situated 1920s building was demolished with the type of egregious commercial malice seen all too often in Philadelphia. The developer demolished the WPJCC to build a speculative retail building that is already beginning to show age, having not found a tenant two years after completion. Additionally, as a 21st century sustainability issue, the city is shooting itself in the foot by allowing structures that have stood the test of time, some for centuries, to be replaced with structures that insurer’s have determined have a replacement date of less than 20 years.

Hawthorne Hall may not be too under the radar, but is critically in need of a tenant. The commercial strip of Market Street above 60th Street Station will soon look like the bulldozed blocks below 60th. There remains an early 20th century commercial fabric here. You can see evidence of stately and local banking institutions that remind us that there was a time before the monopolization of banking. Unfortunately, the El renovation likely snuffed the last hope out of these blocks several years ago. This was anticipated. The City will eventually step forward and condemn, demolish, and present huge tax liens to the owners. This is the closing act repeated countless times in other neighborhoods that plays right into the hands of developers.

There are plenty more urgent examples that really demonstrate the need for this city to change course and soon. Turning a blind eye towards historic infrastructure and allowing developers to have carte blanche in our neighborhoods has driven the level of disrespect to citizens and vandalism against communities to new levels. I feel it is important now to make connections between this blight of civic violence with the epidemic of violence against skin and bone that we are actively being managed into accepting. Both originate from a calcified political and business class. We may never be able to counter their money game because they have all the money. Our voices are all we have. At the local level in American politics there’s an amber of democracy that still glows. These voices are the only bellows that can rekindle civil society back to life.

Left: Provident Mutual Life Insurance, 2012. Right: George Institute, 2018. | Photos: Vincent Feldman

MB: As a collection, your photographs hypothetically serve as a relatively neutral architectural survey of buildings in various stages of neglect and abandonment. Yet, individually, they’re very emotive and emanate an almost crushing sense of loss. Some buildings almost seem to cry out for help. Do you ever feel emotionally connected to your subjects and, if so, how do you translate those feelings into your work? 

VF: That’s a good question. The foundation for my work is with the large format camera. This equipment places tremendous restrictions on a photographer’s productivity. Strict editing happens before any picture is made, meaning many pictures are contemplated, but not taken. A subject has to be strongly compelling for me to actually set up the equipment and make the photograph. This is the beginning of a dialogue that then extends into the film craft. Good photographic printing represents a marriage of a latent mental image, evolving from the time of exposure with the negative resulting in the finished print. The dialogue requires an emotive response to begin with, and I hope that the print becomes a vessel for its concentration.

MB: What are some of your favorite older buildings and infrastructure in Philly that have been demolished, and how do you feel when your subjects are destroyed? 

VF: City Abandoned chronicles that list and only becomes more so with time, meaning the percentage of subjects in that volume continue to be lost. Sad, depressed, and angry is the usually response to these losses. I just wished we lived in a place where our leadership demonstrated respect and decency for community and the infrastructure that supports it. Most places in the world demonstrate these values in their leadership, despite rampant corruption, at least when it comes to their history and identity. This might not be as vital for a city or town of lesser significance, but Philadelphia is not such a place. As a historic place it is unmatched in America. But, with each passing year that we continue to allow developers and their facilitators in government office and our city agencies to subvert our laws this historic city is reduced, shrunken.

MB: Ours To Lose is an extension of your City Abandoned project, for which you’ve had multiple exhibitions and published a book in 2014. Is the series still ongoing or is it officially over?

VF: I never really stopped after City Abandoned was published. I had pauses, but in Philadelphia the narrative that unfolds in my book continues unchanged. I’m broadening my approach and pulling back more as I become more interested in the landscape. The work I do on this city is particularly satisfying as the material I find here encapsulate a full spectrum of my most active interests. The historic correspondence between the large format camera and architecture, history, and its preservation, and the rich civic narrative that can be extolled through a building or façade, dovetails nicely with my interests in American urban history.

Left: A photograph by Vincent Feldman, then a high school student, near 62nd and Osage Avenue during the MOVE standoff and bombing on May 13th, 1985. Right: A video still from the 2013 documentary, Let the Fire Burn, shows Feldman at the scene with camera in hand.

MB: Tell me a little about your MOVE photos and what compelled you to capture the dangerous, chaotic scene. This is how you got your start as a photographer, right? 

VF: I had been shooting and developing my own photographs for about five years before that fateful day. It is pure serendipity, but I woke up that morning before dawn and traveled to Center City to make architectural photographs for a high school senior project. I was at 13th and Chestnut photographing the Delong Building, but something about the early morning light was discouraging for photography. Uninspired, I got back into my parent’s car and turning on the radio and the first thing I heard was that the anticipated assault on the MOVE house was in progress.

I had a budding interest in photojournalism, so I felt compelled to go. I guess I got there during a pause in the first fusillade of shots. The police perimeter was still about a half block from 62nd and Osage Avenue. It wasn’t long after I got there that the shooting continued and that created pandemonium amongst the press and shocked neighbors. This was not pistol crackle, but massive fire from military weapons, M-16s, and the very distinct thumping of a .50 Browning Machine Gun. It was so loud my parents were awoken by it in Overbrook nearly three miles away. It was not a crime scene, but a war zone. It wasn’t until recently that I realized I had documented, perhaps, the first battle in the national movement to militarize our police forces with the emphasis on force over dialogue and negotiation. It was very important for the authorities that no one but the victims would be punished.

I lost any interest in becoming a war photojournalist after this. One Robert Capa moment was enough for me. I hadn’t shown the photographs since they were an addendum to my senior project. I only recently have returned to these photographs because of the documentary about the MOVE Bombing, Let the Fire Burn. I was stunned to see myself in a few scenes taking pictures and running for cover. Seeing it in color was unreal since I only remembered it in black and white because of my pictures.

Father & Mother, Mount Moriah Cemetery, 2018. | Photos: Vincent Feldman

MB: What drew you into architectural photography?

VF: I didn’t determine that I was an architectural photographer until 1991 when I started using a view camera. The ability to see a building, its geometry, mass, and texture is made more cogently with this equipment. In combination with a high-resolving film making photographs of buildings is akin to embracing the structure. Perhaps we understand this human desire when it comes to the landscape. Kids act it out quite naturally in their play. They can’t just view a landscape, but seek to trace, engage, and embrace it. I think our instincts are similar with human-built forms when they are appealing. It is just not physically possible with most exteriors. View camera recording is the next best thing in my opinion, although I am keenly interested in exploring and developing VR as an evolutionary trajectory in this direction.

MB: You primarily shoot with black and white film in large format, which creates an almost painterly tonal quality to your exhibition prints. What kind of cameras do you typically use and what is your process after initially choosing a subject to shoot? Also, why not color film?

VF: Black and white directly conveys texture and form and the depth of space. It is a language of tone that allows a photographer to control the way a viewer’s eyes travel through a composition emphasizing what is important and minimizing what might distract. I always use color in toning black and white photographs, but it is often meant to register just at or below the threshold of visual sensitivity. It enhances depth in this way.

Good color photography is about using color to enhance the emotive impact of the subject. It’s a very dominant value that can easily distract attention if used improperly. I don’t see this value very often in the architectural subject matter I choose to record. There is also a legacy of documentation with black and white film that we’ve understood for generations as representing authenticity and truth. For historic documentation, this medium is still a requirement for archival purposes since color and digital are not archival and will not withstand the test of time. I do shoot color film when the subject exhibits it in an enhancing way. I just haven’t found a desire to uses these images for my work.

University City High School, 2014. | Photo: Vincent Feldman

I love the geometric compositional control that view camera’s allow. Fixed lens cameras and architecture make for a pretty stiff fit. Digital sensors look great in small format prints, but there really are no sensors made today that can achieve details that film in a large format camera can produce. Importantly, also, is the size of the film. For Ours to Lose I used both 8″x 10″ and 4″x 5″ inch formats with wide-angle lenses. I believe the relationship between lens focal length and image capture area to be important. Foreshortening and perspective distortion will become more noticeable when using wide lenses with small film or sensor sizes.

I’m a hybrid photographer. My images are made on film, but my exhibition prints are mostly digitally printed, although some of the colors and textures are derived in darkroom prints used as an intermediary in the process. Some of my gelatin silver prints are now on display at the Philadelphia Art Alliance. Besides allowing for precision in tone and color, digital allows for scaling of print size. When your film scans are 80MP to 200MP, large prints let you present the details that were recorded. Because much of my work benefits from the forensic details that can be found in my photographs, large pictures can tell a more detailed and thought provoking story.

MB: Can you tell me more about the Tokyo Mo-dan series that you are currently working on? 

VF: My wife, Kaori, is Japanese, and we have been together for 24 years. In this time I have had the good fortune to have made a dozen or so extended stays in Japan. I made some photographs in the late 90’s, but, by then, I had grown accustom to working in a tightly thematic way and lost interest in the varied things I shot. Japan is so different from the West. I can hit the ground running in Europe or even Shanghai, which was a Western city. It took me 10 years to adjust and begin making photographs in earnest in Tokyo. I began photographing the architecture of that city in 2007 focusing on Meiji and Taisho-era emulations of European and American-style building, but very quickly fell in love with the evolution of the Modernist movement as experienced by the Japanese.

My collection of photographs on Tokyo Modern architecture nearly rivals the work I’ve made on Philadelphia. This portfolio, which I hope to produce as a book soon, is the most comprehensive collection of existent Modern architectural photography made of that city. Making it into a book has been equally monumental in its challenges. Some of this work will be on display at the Kroiz Gallery at the Architectural Archives of the University of Pennsylvania in August and September. The photographs will be part of an exhibition curated by Dr. Ariel Genadt called Critical Abstractions: Modern Architecture in Japan 1868 – 2018.

**

Ours to Lose, a visual record by Vincent Feldman of abandoned and endangered places in West Philadelphiais on view at the Slought Foundation, 4017 Walnut Street, until June 5, 2018. Gallery hours are Tuesday through Friday from noon to 5:00PM. Admission is free.

For information and updates on the photography of Vincent Feldman see his website: www.vincentfeldman.com 

About the author

Michael Bixler is a writer, photographer, and managing editor of Hidden City Daily. He is a former arts and entertainment reporter with Mountain Xpress weekly in Asheville, North Carolina and a native of South Carolina. Bixler has a keen interest in adaptive reuse, underappreciated architecture, contemporary literature and art, and forward-thinking dialogue about people and place. Follow him on Instagram



5 Comments


  1. I was struck by this article- mainly for the whiny, weak attempt to stop buildings that have meaning to be demolished by superficial hungry developers, to be replaced by monolithic ugliness. If one wants to stop the rape and pillage of these plunderers, one needs to get noisy and loud. It is tragic how so much 1850-1910 Philadelphia has been replaced by green-boarded, metal clad monstrosities, inconsistent with the block or neighborhood, yet all people can do is complain about it. The only good from all of this is the long term increases of the tax base; the bad news is, well, the monolithic ugliness. Walk up South 3rd Street from Spruce; on the left are early 19th century classic three story rows; on the right are 1970’s dark brick uglies. That is 2045 Philadelphia’s Grays Ferry, Northern Liberties or Manayunk. If you want to stop this, attend City Council meetings en masse and make yourself known as formidable foes to this type of get rich quickly in an abnormally long up cycle for development. If you love it, put some skin in the game- don’t just write about it. Geez, who taught you all how to fight?

  2. What was the Octagon on Georges Hill?

    • Vincent Feldman

      The Octagon is the name I gave the George’s Hill Reservoir pump house for it’s distinct shape.
      It is still there just yards from Montgomery Drive and Belmont Avenue. Nearly impenetrable overgrowth has kept this a secret from just about everyone.

  3. I truly doubt yelling at City Council meetings will ever make a difference. Money talks. If you want more preservation and repurposing of buildings, you’ve got to get some BIG money support for it, like forming a development company that doesn’t tear anything down and can find tenants for these buildings. Sadly, many may not be able to be used without gutting them, then how great is it just to have a façade. The only thing you might get the Council to do is adopt some design standards for new buildings, but I doubt it. Being an old city, it means there are tons of old buildings, and they’ll never all be saved. Pick your battles wisely, preservationists. Decide what must be saved overall, and stop fighting over every single thing. You cannot preserve anything. Builders will build. The city cannot be frozen in its past. Many were built too small. Many were too flimsy. Some are too hard to keep clean. Forget about saving ugly old industrial buildings, and shabby old rowhouses. It’s the ones with esthetic value that mean something. Not wood-block streets. You have to show the dollars advantage. This city is not rich enough to ignore that.
    I wonder about the 20-year lifespan Feldman cites. With construction being so modular, it is much easier to renovate interiors now. Is he talking about the structural soundness? If true, at least we can look forward to these buildings being replaced soon.

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