Photographic projects dedicated to urban ruin and dereliction have become quite common, and offer timely metaphors for America’s current difficulties. Yet photographers who use their craft can still attempt nuanced articulations by entering into sustained dialogues with the worlds they encounter. Presented here are two such books that speak to Brooklyn’s industrial present and offer distinct readings of their respective spaces.
The Brooklyn Navy Yard consists of 80 richly printed, black-and-white images portraying Brooklyn’s famous waterfront complex. Each image is beautifully prepared: The highlights are delicate and controlled, midtones luminous, shadows deep and sensual. Photographic craft dominates the publication.
The 250-acre yard is compressed into sensibly conceived chapters of industrial buildings, docks, infrastructure, the hospital, and officers’ housing. In each section of the book, Bartelstone capitalizes on the site’s dramatic potential: Images of electronic testing facilities evince fallen modern industry, while empty dry docks persist as hollow monuments to an “industrial sublime.” Throughout, images exploit the descriptive ability of the large-format camera—its sheer power to carry detail—and fill every square inch with handsomely toned, seductive texture. Indeed, the relentlessly formal intensity of Bartelstone’s images is overwhelming, and nearly buries the living dockyard.
The author’s aesthetic—in choosing what to represent as much as how to represent it—seems to suggest that this is a project about a space in use. Bartelstone takes care to point out in the introduction and captions that the docks are not abandoned, noting that the yard now employs 5,000 people (up from 3,500 in 1994, when he began the project), and mentioning its increasing use by the Steiner film studio and others. But even as the photographs draw our attention to the occasional worker or ship under repair, the predominance of the ruinous misdirects us. Photogenic decay, pathos, and nostalgia trump change or reuse. The present yard is seen almost in spite of the photographs, and the project’s confusion undermines the care that has been paid to the individual images.
It is against this at times beautiful but stifling project that the quiet poetry of a seemingly more prosaic book deserves attention. Anthony Hamboussi’s Newtown Creek presents a six-year survey of the waterway and environs that function, in part, to separate Queens from Brooklyn, but mostly serves as “New York’s backyard.” Like The Brooklyn Navy Yard, the book considers the changing industrial landscape of New York, but reserves more empathy for its subject.
Hamboussi approaches Newtown Creek through a number of restricted decisions that inform the book’s aesthetic. His ostensible subject, the industrial landscape from Hunter’s Point to Greenpoint along and around the creek, is always viewed from afar and from outside. This constancy creates a sober objectivity reminiscent of Berlin photographer Michael Schmidt. Like Schmidt, most of his images are shot under overcast skies. Hamboussi’s leaden light may be less striking than that of The Brooklyn Navy Yard’s, but it fascinates. Alluring grays glance off tarmac and concrete, and the warm whites of warehouse roofs resonate against cream skies. Accented with the occasional blue tarp or red container, Hamboussi’s surveyor’s vision finds an understated aesthetic path.
Organized chronologically, Newtown Creek patiently circles the waterway, beginning with the razed Maspeth Gas Holders and the foundations for the Greenpoint Water Pollution Control Plant. These opening images signal the theme of change and perseverance that runs through the book, as it sustains a sophisticated commentary on the landscape in flux, its dereliction, temporary occupation, destruction, and renewal. Across hundreds of images, the camera repeatedly observes the elements of the landscape as they develop or fade, in a kind of urbanist’s fugue. Some aspects remain consistent, such as the Kosciuszko Bridge, as others develop into counterpoints. The destruction of the Norvel Concrete Silos constitutes a short but notable motif in the middle of the book, contrasting with the slow construction of the water treatment plant, which provides an overarching image that reveals the life of the creek over time. As the book reaches its later stages, several sequences amount to a recapitulation. The last of these offers a sweeping panoramic gesture, uniquely viewed from high up, before returning to ground level and the nearly completed treatment plant, the Kosciuszko Bridge, and Hunter’s Point.
It is because of such relatively modest aesthetic decisions that Newtown Creek stands out as a thoughtful meditation upon the complex identity of the industrial landscape, particularly as opposed to the populism of more sensationalist approaches, and will provide a useful and engaging document for some time to come.